In March, as the teasing wafts of spring begin to fill the air, local farmers converge at the entrance of the Sunday bazaar in Garikula where they lean against their old jalopies with bundled fruit tree saplings and grapevine seedlings for sale. For someone who wants to start a little backyard vineyard with a handful of vines, the bazaar is a fine place to shop. More ambitious wine growers, however, need to go to a grafting nursery and place an order. In Shida Kartli, one of the largest is run by a family who has been nursing grapevines for generations.
Kobe Cherqezishvili, his wife, Maia Dalakishvili, and their sons, Beso and Gio, tend to over 500 varieties at their seven-hectare nursery in Mukhrani, which they opened in 2004. Kobe, a soft-spoken man, says with a wave of his hand, “my family worked around here, before.”
We are here with winemaker Gio Malatsidze to place an order for 500 shavkapito, which will be ready to plant at the end of June; a precarious time to start planting, but doable provided they are well watered.
There are many family-run nurseries in villages all over the country, but Kobe’s has such a large volume he can afford to charge much less than his competitors. His average price is 3.50 lari ($1) for a grafted seedling, while smaller farmers might charge a lari or two more. A hectare of land typically accommodates around 4,000 vines, so the savings are considerable.
Georgia exults in having over 525 varieties of grapes, yet only a couple of dozen are commonly used for wine. While the state has a grapevine repository, it does not sell its seedlings commercially. So it is thanks to nurseries like the Cherqezishvili’s that wine growers can re-cultivate long-forgotten varieties like buza, or try their luck at raising French vines like pinot noir.
It is thanks to nurseries like the Cherqezishvili’s that wine growers can re-cultivate long-forgotten varieties like buza, or try their luck at raising French vines like pinot noir.
In one room at the Mukhrani nursery about ten people were busy grafting shavkapito, kakhuri mtsvane and chardonnay canes onto rootstock ordered from France. These so-called “wild roots” make the vine less susceptible to pests and disease. While the nursery has a grafting machine to help speed the process, the men in this room are grafting by hand, an arduous, callus-building task. “We do about 2,000 a day, but can do 4,000,” one of the gentlemen says.
Outside, ten women are sitting, clipping and bundling seedlings, while Maia is everywhere we turn our heads: directing tasks, checking the water where seedlings are soaking, going over orders in her ledger, wet-sweeping a work area. She is short and strong, her auburn hair neatly tied back, and has kind but firm brown eyes.
We are here at the peak of grafting season, which begins in March and lasts until the end of April, explains Igor Kozmidis, a foreman at the Mukhrani nursery. After the vines are grafted together, they are dipped into red paraffin for protection, stored in wet sawdust for two weeks, then moved to a wood-heated storage room, where they are kept at a temperature between 25 and 27 degrees Celsius for two weeks – enough time to begin sprouting.
“It is extremely important to maintain a constant temperature. Below 25 or above 27 can kill the vine,” Kobe says.
The seedlings are then placed in plastic bags of earth and put in a greenhouse for 45 days before they are ready to be sold. We ask Igor why someone from Kakheti would buy a saperavi grapevine here, in Shida Kartli, when it is native to Kakheti, and he replies that people are guaranteed the real deal at the Mukhrani nursery.
“We go to Kakheti in the summer and check to see how the grapes – not just leaves – are growing and we make notes. It’s normal that people will come here, buy vines and take them back to Kakheti to plant,” he explains.
Demand has grown over the years, a sign of Georgia’s evolving wine culture, but instead of expanding, Kobe and his family maintain a consistent capacity of about one million seedlings a year, with a local staff numbering around 45 people.
Kobe kneels down to show us a vine in one of his greenhouses where several women are sitting snipping the ends off rootstock. The cracks of his bark-like hands are filled with earth. “I don’t have a vineyard, I have this. This is my vineyard,” he says, nodding at hundreds of seedlings with a sunbaked smile.
As we head back to the car, Gio tells us Kobe and his family are not “typical” business owners who drive a Mercedes and pay people to order employees around: “I respect these people because they are there every day, working hard with their own hands. This is a good business but you would never know it by looking at them.”
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