We used to spend a lot of time in western Georgia’s Samegrelo region when breakaway Abkhazia was our beat. Zugdidi, the regional capital, was our overnight stop coming and going across the river to the disputed land in the north. Our local friends would welcome us with Megrelian hospitality, decorating their tables with hearty and spicy local fare that made us purr. The wine, however, with its sweet barnyard vinegary tang, was a different story.
We assumed that this subtropic-like land, with its year-round lushness and mandarin, hazelnut and overgrown tea fields, was hostile to good wine grapes. We didn’t realize back then that the practice of making sugar-wine was not exclusively a Megrelian thing, but a Communist legacy practiced throughout the country. In fact, the Soviets had a wine factory in Samegrelo that cranked out lousy semi-sweet wine from otherwise divine local grapes. There was a lot we didn’t know.
More recently, while at Tbilisi’s natural wine heaven, Vino Underground, we sipped an eye-popping light-bodied dry red from Samegrelo, made by Zaza Gagua using a grape variety called ojaleshi. Some time later, we had another lovely ojaleshi, made by his wife, Keto Ninidze. The couple had moved from Tbilisi to Martvili, Zaza’s ancestral homeland, with their children to reestablish their lives in 2016.
Located where Samegrelo bleeds into Imereti, Martvili could be “Anytown” Georgia, if other provincial towns weren’t so run down. Homes, regardless of their condition, exult in neat yards garnished with technicolor perennials. The local school has been freshly renovated, and the main drag is litter-free and lined with businesses that emanate optimism, including a bank with an ATM machine. Martvili, a nice place to live.
We are sitting at one of several picnic tables on an open patio, shaded from a harsh afternoon summer sun. This is Keto and Zaza’s front yard and restaurant, Oda Family Winery. We have heard stories about how Tbilisians will impulsively jump in their cars and make the five-hour drive just for dinner. And we will soon discover why.
Zaza used to come here to help his late grandfather, a master vigneron, care for his ojaleshi vines. In 2012, he ventured into the wine cellar and began bottling his own wine, Vino Martville, made from ojaleshi grapes bought from local organic growers (another family member inherited his grandfather’s vines). When Zaza landed a job with the administration of the Martvili National Monument in 2016, Keto, a linguist and researcher, jumped at the chance to decamp to the country. They moved into Zaza’s great-grandparents house, a traditional Megrelian wooden two-storey, called an oda, which was built in 1933.
“I have always wanted to live here,” Keto says with a balmy smile. “And we always wanted our kids to be close to the earth, not to gadgets,” she adds.
After settling in, Zaza suggested that Keto buy some “wonderful ojaleshi” from a local organic farmer and make her own wine. Other than writing articles for the Georgian Wine Club, she had no practical experience with winemaking. Her first investment was a 300-liter stainless steel tank for 500 kilos of ojaleshi, which she fermented with no skin contact, breaking with the traditional method – and flirting with disaster. Skin contact gives wine more structure and works as a natural preservative.
“It was a big risk, all our friends said I was crazy, that I would spoil [the wine],” she says. But Keto’s pink “Naked Ojaleshi” smoothed out after a couple of months in the bottle to become fruity vivacity in a glass. Her label is Oda Family Wine and is, appropriately, made at the family’s oda (Zaza still makes wine under his own label, Vino Martville, at a cellar in Targameuli, a nearby village).
“It was a big risk, all our friends said I was crazy, that I would spoil [the wine].”
Another gamble was the belief that people might come to Samegrelo for gastro-tourism, which basically does not exist in the region. But then there is no other place in Georgia like this either. Since its opening two years ago, hundreds of guests from some 30 countries have discovered the artistry that is Oda Family Winery.
Together with her local cooks, Keto devised a menu of home-cooked regional fare with an emphasis on old Megrelian recipes like chemkva (similar to the cheesy polenta) elargi, but with the addition of cow’s milk, which makes it more luscious. Between the dining patio and the kitchen is a patskha, a traditional smokehouse, where the head cook’s creamy homemade sulguni cheese is smoked for three to four months.
Keto lays the table with a simple salad of organic tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs from their garden next to us. Then comes a fluffy Megrelian khachapuri with oozy sulguni inside and on top. The veal kharcho (stew) is heroic in size and texture, with nothing but ground walnuts to thicken the soulful sauce up to the consistency of whipped potatoes (most people add flour for thickening).
Zaza fills our glasses with his splendid tsolikouri, made from a white grape that grows throughout western Georgia, including Imereti, Racha and Guria. A whiff and light drag of his juice brings to mind snappy green apples, pears and honeysuckle. While most of the couple’s grapes come from trusted organic growers, which provides the opportunity to study different local terroirs, the pair are also cultivating their own vineyards.
Immediately after Communism, people needed cash crops. In Samegrelo, this meant many vineyards were plowed over for hazelnuts. Zaza and Keto uprooted the hazelnut trees behind their house and planted ojaleshi and the uncommon tchvitiluri in 2016. In the front, by the entrance, Keto is cultivating rare endemic varietals: koloshi, dudghushi, lakaiazh and ashugazh, which should be ready in a few years.
Because of west Georgia’s mild, wet climate, rtveli, or grape harvest, has always been in November for most vines. Keto says in the past three years, however, it has been arriving weeks earlier. But regardless of when, exactly, the harvest lands in 2019, we are certain that this intrepid winemaking power couple will work their vines to make gorgeous wine. Together with the delicious food made from their organic garden, this vino is an integral part of their dream: offering guests a taste of the Samegrelo good life.
Editor’s note: To celebrate the start of fall, we’re running a series focused on the grape harvest and winemaking.
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