Aleko Sardanashvili Wine Cellar in Racha - Culinary Backstreets | Culinary Backstreets
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“Lobio saved Georgia in the nineties,” quips Aleko Sardanashvili as he plonks a round clay pot of the simmering red bean stew in the middle of a loaded table of food. It groans under the weight of an assortment of Georgian feasting staples – khachapuri, lobiani, tomato and cucumber salad, sauteed potatoes garnished with greens, jonjoli salad, pickled chilies, fried chicken, tkemali plum sauce and more.

We’re at Aleko’s marani (or wine cellar) in Racha – one of Georgia’s most sparsely populated regions, located in its northwestern frontier. It used to be a six-hour long circuitous route by car to get here from Tbilisi until a spanking new road launched last year cut travel time to Racha by 1.5 hours. Since then, visitor numbers have sharply increased to Georgia’s smallest wine region, a place that offers the ability to dip into family wineries in vineyards slung along the slopes of its lower valleys and drive up to high ridges for magnificent views of the snowcapped peaks of the Greater Caucasus massif, all in one afternoon – although the reverse order is more advisable, for obvious reasons.

“It was lobio [spiced red bean stew] and mchadi [a cornbread] that kept people from starving when there was nothing else,” continued Aleko, before ducking out again to fetch a selection of his wines to accompany the meal that we had called in ahead to request for our group, a service offered at most family wineries across the country.

Every Georgian of cognizant age during the nineties has a story to share of the economic and social devastation that followed the chaotic breakdown of the Soviet Union and bloody civil wars that followed.

For Aleko, the only slivers of fond memories from those dark times were of the beans and cornmeal packages his grandparents would send through connections traveling to Tbilisi, where his parents lived in an old Soviet blockhouse. To survive the relentless power outages and dismantled gas supply, neighbors would gather around a makeshift communal stove in one of the apartments to cook together and stay warm. Back when people would queue for hours for bread rations, the regional rustic daily fare of lobio and mchadi was elevated to that of a feast when a package would survive the long arduous journey to the city.

Fast-forward to better times, where lobio is just one of the dozen items vying for our tastebuds on the loaded table, whose centerpiece was another regional specialty – the garlic bomb chicken dish called skhmeruli, named after the village in Racha where it was supposedly created.

Aleko popped back in with a few bottles to continue the story of his return to his native village and his foray in winemaking as he opens his first bottle for us – a 2021 vintage Tetra that he fermented in a steel tank with ten days of skin contact. It’s a young, easy wine, with hints of apple cider and a light, refreshing acidity. The first toast is to our meeting in his new tasting room, where a cheerful fire crackles away in the brick fireplace. We soon drink to the summer that has just past by as autumn colors take over and stoves are fired up to beat the chilly nip of the changing season.

Aleko was one of an estimated million Georgians who left the country once old enough to escape the chaos as the country struggled to rebuild itself. Long interested in the tumultuous history that shaped his country, he studied Oriental history and Arabic in college. In 2001, he left for Damascus on a yearlong scholarship, following it up with a stint in Egypt the year after. Back in Tbilisi, he continued his academic trajectory as a PhD candidate before finally confronting the fact that the pitiful 18 gel a month stipend he was receiving from the state – “all of which was regularly spent on a meal of khinkali and chacha with friends,” he admits – was going to take him nowhere, especially with aging parents and grandparents to support. He left for Malta in 2005 seeking itinerant work, which he found as a maintenance staff at a waterpark. A fastidious worker, he was soon promoted to a supervisor’s role, eventually working up to a manager’s position by the time he left his job in 2013 and returned to Georgia, homesick and weary after his long sojourn abroad.

Aleko never set out to be winemaker when he decided to move back to his ancestral village of Khvanchkhara. But the transformation Georgia underwent during his absence was instrumental in his decision to remain and start a guesthouse in an old traditional wooden house that he transplanted from a nearby village and rebuilt in his yard – “I was very surprised at the new roads. Ambrolauri [the regional capital] used to look like it was bombed, and now it actually looked clean and nice. I realized Georgia was becoming OK to live in,” he recounts.

He soon started receiving guests with whom he freely shared his family’s homemade wine. But very soon, with Georgia’s growing reputation as a wine destination, he took over the family’s cellar and vineyards and tried to improve the quality and variety of wines on offer.

Until recently, the only wine that Georgia’s smallest viticultural region was known for was its semi-sweet red Khvanchkhara, rumored to be Stalin’s wine of choice – a dubious legacy that made it a coveted export item across the former Soviet bloc. The sweet blend of the local Aleksandrouli and Mujuretuli grapes put Aleko’s home village of Khvanchkara on the map, but its popularity and mass production by the Soviets also lead to countless adulterated versions often cut with sugar.

Aleko never set out to be winemaker when he decided to move back to his ancestral village of Khvanchkhara.

While efforts are on to turn Khvanchkara honest, Aleko – who also makes the semi-sweet blend – believes the undue attention to the region’s brand wine and state subsidies to encourage farmers to grow the two varieties used to make it has limited the potential to revive other forgotten grape varietals to make dry wines that appeal more to western palates and markets.

By this point in our conversation, we’ve gone through the crisp, acidic Tsolikauri grown in the limestone heavy terroir of his home turf and are trying out the Aleksandrouli he’s pouring into our glasses.

The dry red made from one half of the grapes used for Khvanchkara that Aleko serves us is a recent effort to move beyond the sweet wine adored by Russians and east Europeans. The 40-year-old Aleko is among a handful of winemakers in Racha helping to revive old western grape varieties like tetra, dzelshavi, and local cultivars of tsolikauri and mtsvane. Other more prolific winemakers in the same area are also bringing back more indigenous rare varieties like kabistoni and sakpiano.

But it’s an uphill battle, as most vineyards still prefer to grow the state-subsidized grapes for Khvanchkahara that are bought up by industrial wine companies and trucked across the country to factories in Kakheti, where they’ll be churned into export wine. “It’s ironic that most Khvanchkhara is not even made here…the wine that put us on the map is killing the industry here,” remarks Aleko, adding that despite growing appreciation for his tetra, he can’t increase production as grapes are in short supply. He hopes to soon able to buy more land to expand his one hectare vineyard to grow more of the lesser known grapes.

With an annual production of 3,000 bottles, Aleko is still a small winemaker, and a very modest one at that. “I’m still learning and trying to improve with every harvest,” he states. By this time, we’ve polished off what we could of the spread on the table and are swirling the semi-sweet wine that has earned his village the prestigious Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) certification. While the signature flush of ripe cherries is pleasing to the nose, most in our company are more partial to dry wines we’ve tasted before. But with full bellies and flushed faces, we drink to the Racha, it famous wine, and to the young winemakers like Aleko who’re helping to put Racha back on the map for exciting wines beyond Khvanchkhara.

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Published on November 10, 2022

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