REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA - I'm perched on the middle seat of a Lada taxicab, careening seatbeltless through the sunflower-tinted valleys of eastern Georgia. A roadside pedestal bearing an homage to the almighty tractor reminds passers-by that the Soviet Union was here, but most travelers on this route today come in search of a deeper past or a brighter future. This is wine country, and the harvest looks promising.
The Georgian winemaking tradition is among the oldest on Earth -- going back about 7,000 years. After Russia's 2006 embargo cut off the primary market for Georgian wine exports, wineries across the country began actively pursuing opportunities to sell their product farther afield.
A few friends and I have come to visit one of the only wineries in the country now using traditional Georgian methods to produce the beverage on a commercial scale. We've timed our trip to coincide with the rtveli, or grape harvest, to get a firsthand look at how the fruits of the vine are transformed into this nation's most treasured elixir.
As our taxi rounds a curve to begin its descent into the Alazani Valley, the ancient walled city of Sighnaghi comes into view with a lush, quieting beauty. Mist licks the town's cobbled streets and delicately wrought balconies, nestled among cypresses and careful rows of grapevines stretching far into the distance. On clear days, the jagged peaks of the high Caucasus rise to the north. Pheasant's Tears Winery welcomes guests here, in a sun-warmed stone courtyard just off steeply sloping Baratashvili Street. (Named, like an inordinate number of streets in this country of would-be romantics, for a poet.)
An artistic winery
The awe-inspiring setting is no coincidence: The winery opened in 2007 as the result of a collaboration between eighth-generation Georgian winemaker Gela Patalishvili and American artist John Wurdeman, who met one evening while the former was cultivating the vines and Wurdeman painting them.
Though it's only 10 a.m. by the time we arrive in the fields, the sun is already beating down fiercely. Rows of head-high vines hang heavy with midnight purple fruit. Pheasant's Tears cultivates its saperavi grapes using organic methods. (The winery is on track to receive international organic certification this year.) Saperavi is Georgia's most widely grown wine grape and it enjoys the most popularity in Western markets of any native Georgian variety. The juice of these fruits also runs purple -- not clear, like most grapes -- and produces a wine so dark the Georgians call it "black wine."
Partly because of an exceptionally hot summer, the harvest has come early this year, and a group of hired locals has been working since dawn to bring in the grapes. Equipped with folding knives, we join a merry group of ample women tossing bunches of the marble-sized berries into buckets and then onto a trailer that will take them up the hill for destemming.
The women's brightly patterned skirts and straw hats bob as they chit-chat while fending off mock cajoleries of the sun-burnished, mustachioed men who handle the truck. Its trailer already contains a mountain of luscious-looking fruit. I pop a few grapes into my mouth for a taste: Warm, deeply sweet juice erupts on my tongue and runs down my throat without a hint of bitterness. No wonder the grape has been venerated here for thousands of years.
An unusual technique
So what makes Georgian wine different? Whereas European vintners traditionally discarded the grape stems when making red wine and fermented the juice (or "must") in wooden barrels, the unique character of Georgian wine derives from its fermentation along with the stems, seeds and skins in huge clay vessels lined with beeswax, called qvevri. These jars are buried up to their necks in the earth, where the temperature naturally stays cool and constant.
The grape stems present in the qvevri lend pronounced tannins to many Georgian wines and can create light vegetal flavors. Prolonged contact with the skins during fermentation intensifies coloration: Some Georgian whites are dark as amber or straw.
Savoring the sips
Back in Sighnaghi, Wurdeman leads a tasting of nine of the winery's varietals, from the subtle and refreshing white chinuri (reportedly the favorite sushi pairing of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev) to the smoldering, viscous 2007 Saperavi, which was fermented with 100 percent of the stems left in the qvevri (as opposed to 40 percent in the 2008 vintage). Notes of prunes, honey and bark emerge from this complex quaff.
As the Lada sways rhythmically along the gently curving roads leading back to the hustle and bustle of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, I feel like I've acquired a new perspective on the idea of terroir. Certainly the soil makeup, climate conditions and other geographic characteristics of the Alazani Valley contribute chemical properties that differentiate the wine produced here from any other. But having gained a more visceral sense of the place itself -- the hot, dry breath of its autumn breeze, the crunch of spent leaves fallen from its vines, the brassy rat-a-tat of its laborers' chatter -- I know that these qualities, too, are present in every sip.
The next time I open a bottle of saperavi, this is what I hope to taste.
Jenny Holm, a Minnetonka native, is a freelance writer and English teacher currently based in Batumi, in the republic of Georgia. Her food blog is at gustofood.wordpress.com.