We have each got a couple of buckets and a pair of gardening clips and we are standing in a dewy vineyard in the middle of the majestic Alazani Valley. The autumn air is brisk, fresh with the fruity smell of grapes and the sun is warm, clouds permitting. Looming northward like some godly guardian of this huge, precious grape basket is the awe-inspiring Greater Caucasus range.
It is rtveli, the harvest, and here in Kakheti, families across Georgia’s chief winemaking region are busy making wine much like their ancestors have done for centuries. They pick, crush and ferment wine in kvevri, enormous ceramic urns buried into the ground, or in oak barrels. They add nothing to enhance the fermentation process, the crushed grapes are stirred several times daily until they feel the maceration process is completed. The chacha, fermented skins, seeds and stems, is separated and set aside for distillation later, while the wine is left to age until the New Year feast season.
A wet season has ruined much of the crop across the country, but somehow Temur Zaalishvili’s rkhatsiteli grapes have mostly escaped misfortune and the greenish fruits are bursting at the skins, begging to be picked and made into wine.
“No, we don’t want this,” Temur commands, taking a bunch out of our bucket, picking off a group of withered grapes and flinging them to the ground. His eighty year-old mother, Kristina, is a few meters away, silently snipping and collecting with the deft hands of an expert.
“Most women her age need people to take of them. But my mother lives alone, works hard and takes care of herself,” Temur brags.
This is the land that gave birth to wine making 8,000 years ago. Viniculture is in the Georgian DNA.
This vineyard has been in Temur’s family for some forty-five years. It is a plot surrounded by hundreds of others that are delineated with trees and other natural landmarks. There are no fences here. You pull a bunch of grapes, clip and drop them in your bucket, buzzing the whole time with the awareness of how deeply noble winemaking is. In Georgia, no animal, vegetable or mineral is more entwined into the national psyche than the vine. Medieval Georgian warriors would go to battle with vines tied around their waists so that their bodies would seed the grape plant, should they fall. St. Nino’s cross, a grapevine crucifix, is the symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Many old churches have grapes sculpted into the walls. But this is the land that gave birth to wine making 8,000 years ago. Viniculture is in the Georgian DNA.
In addition to making his own wine, Temur is the chief winemaker at Villa Alazani, an exceptionally homey guesthouse in Kisiskhevi, which sits on a rise above the valley. The Villa is surrounded by its own vineyard of Saparavi, Georgia’s famed deep red grape, which will contribute to the 500 expected liters of total Saparavi. This year, Temur and the Villa have about two tons of rkatsiteli they will macerate in its skins until January to get a fuller body. The color will be that deep amber classically associated to Kakheti wines. Like the vast majority of Georgia’s wine,Villa Alazani’s vintages are made for home consumption. “Bottling” for most people here means washing out a used two-liter Coke bottle and filling it with wine.
We had hoped to be picking the previous day, but rains kept us in the Villa beating back harvest anxiety with glasses of Temur’s wine. Then he burst through the door. “Come on, let’s get some meat,” he ordered. “We’re going to barbecue!”
The size of an industrial refrigerator with a booming voice that echoes across the valley, Temur would be a force to be reckoned with if he wasn’t so cuddlesome. We speeded through the village’s muddy streets honking and waving at everybody we passed while looking for homegrown produce and the butcher, whose shop was the back of a van, a tree stump, an axe and a hand scale. Temur flipped through sides of pork and snatched up a hunk of shoulder and the axe and chopped away. “We’re not going to pay for that,” he mumbled, cutting a thick slab of fat off the flesh. The butcher and his loitering friends stood by smiling as if their mouths were full of canker sores.
Later at the Villa, Temur lit a chest high pile of dried grape vines as we held umbrellas to protect the enterprise from the rain. When the vines burned down to red embers, he placed the skewered chunks of pork on the fire. Several minutes later, he flipped them once with the quick touch of a man who has done this thousands of times. And then they were done. “Perfect!” Temur exclaimed. And they were.
Editor’s note: It’s Harvest Week at Culinary Backstreets, and we’re sharing some of our favorite stories, past and present, about the harvest. This piece on the grape harvest in Kakheti was originally published on October 14, 2016.
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