Georgia had planned to open its borders to tourists on July 1, and we had intended to do some wine tasting in Kakheti about the same time – two plans that failed utterly. While no one is really sure why Georgia spent weeks preparing us for an open border only to snuff the plan at the last minute, our plan fizzled because we could not find a designated driver. But we still had a holiday.
We stayed at Vazisubani Estate, a 19th-century palace that belonged to Sulkhan Chavchavadze, a nobleman with a penchant for winemaking and 20 hectares of vineyards, which became victims of a history that included the Romanovs, as well as the Soviets. Several years ago, a group of Georgian investors replanted the vineyards (adding an extra 15 hectares) and recently finished renovating the palace into an aristocratic-like boutique hotel that opened only a few weeks ago. This is the place for people who want to spend the day hanging out by the pool, above a vineyard with a transcendent vista of the Caucasus that you can’t peel your eyes from. Sparrows dart down to sip from the pool, as if they were hired to do so.
Our refreshments amounted to the Vazisubani Estate wine. Lado Uzunashvili is a prominent winemaker who oversees a production of some 50,000 bottles of this kvevri wine along with the more mass market-oriented Georgian Sun label. The adjoining restaurant is a project-in-the-making. The consulting chef, Keti Bakradze, has been stuck in Uruguay for months because of Covid-19 travel restrictions, and the cooks are doing their best without her guiding palate and discipline. Her menu lightly riffs off traditional Kakhetian fare, with straight-forward mtsvadi (pork, veal, lamb), chashushuli (veal stew) and khashlama (boiled beef), but gets more exciting with buffalo meatballs and white bean lobiani with tarragon.
This was our first “tourism in the time of pandemic” experience, which was something like Twilight Zone Lite.
This was our first “tourism in the time of pandemic” experience, which was something like Twilight Zone Lite. Granted, we were there on a weekday, when the hotel is mostly vacant, and we spent much of our time in the pool with the view and the sparrows, so social distancing was not an issue. But on weekends, they say the palace’s 19 rooms are fully booked. The dining room is large and uncluttered and was mostly empty. We sat at a long, wide single plank table, with each seat three meters apart from the next. I had to shout at my kid to pass the khachapuri.
The rest of Kakheti had a rather laissez-faire attitude towards the pandemic, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with the place. But then the virus was a no-show in the region: Locals reported that no one in Kakheti contracted Covid-19, although we could not independently confirm this. Some people were actually wearing masks, but mostly as chin handles and bad breath protectors. Most shops took proper social distancing precautions but the further we got from the main road the less people were bothered to be careful.
We drove out to Ruispiri, a village down in the Alazani Valley, to see about a possible story on a biodynamic farm there, called coincidentally Ruispiri Biodynamic Farm. Among the many things grown there is an endemic wheat called tsiteli doli, “red wheat,” a highly endangered variety that is slowly being commercially re-cultivated. The farm is also where winemaker Giorgi Aladashvili conjures his vinous magic. Like the rest of the region, the pandemic had little effect on Ruispiri Biodynamic Wine, as it is made primarily for export and can only be purchased domestically at the farm. The more we chatted, the clearer it became that we needed to spend more time here, perhaps even staying the night in their lofty guesthouse, built on stilts above the vineyard. It is a divine location, a place to melt into with a cool bottle of Giorgi’s wine at your fingertips.
A chance encounter led to a series of events that put us around a table at Chateau Mere, a curious collage of a hotel with a Disneyland-like castle turret, wall and gate, and interior walls covered in framed pictures of classic Hollywood stars and paintings of horses. There is a wine cellar, of course, producing very respectable bottles under the Winiveria label, and a kitchen with a proper pizza oven and an Italian chef making pizza, pasta and chocolate khinkali. Stuffed with nadugi and walnuts, the latter balance the kind of sublime that will silence a cackle of gossiping nuns. You will never find owner Gia Piradashvili lounging at the pool, as he is too busy personally overseeing his never-ending hotel project. Every time we visit there is a new extension, or building, restaurant, parking lot. The only nod to the global pandemic is the strategically mounted chacha-based hand sanitizers and masked staff. Like Vazisubani Estate, Mere is booked on weekends and was doing pretty good business on the weekday we were there.
Since the whole pandemic thing started, we have gotten into the habit of not lingering between points A and B, and so we only stopped in Telavi, the regional capital, to buy a couple of old ceramic vases from a gentleman selling antiques and a chacha still on the side of the street. We were the only people wearing facemasks. City slickers from Tbilisi. Tourists.
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