From the glove compartment, the taxi driver produces a liter of homemade red wine in a used water bottle. He fills his khantsi to the rim and hands it to me.
I’ve seen these drinking horns in almost every gift shop in Tbilisi. I didn’t think Georgians actually still used them but rather only sold them to tourists like me, a relic of their past. He invites me to try the wine, which I do, but he’s displeased with my delicate sip. He holds an imaginary khantsi, brings the rim to his mouth, and throws his head back. Clearly, I’m supposed to enjoy his wine like one enjoys a shot of tequila.
I shoot it back. It’s full-bodied and a little sweet and, from what my taste buds can gather before it quickly disappears down my throat, it’s pretty good. I tell him so in Russian and he smiles. He gets out of his cab and goes to the trunk, where he stores numerous varieties of his homemade blends, and chooses another for our side-of-the-road wine tasting.
Here in Tbilisi, and throughout Georgia, wine is a cultural touchstone. Wine shops and tasting rooms line the cobblestone streets of the old city, and souvenir shops sell all kinds of wine paraphernalia, from khantsi of various sizes to wine jugs painted with the smiling, albeit wine-dazed, faces of Georgian men.
Wine plays a key role in everyday life here and is especially present in the extension of hospitality. Even leftovers from its production are put to good use: Midday, it’s not uncommon to enjoy a glass of chacha—a high-volume alcohol similar to grappa and produced by distilling the skin, seeds, pulp, and stems that remain after pressing the grapes for wine.
While my experience drinking homemade wine in Georgia was a first, it wasn’t my first experience with Georgian wine. Months earlier, while living in Washington, D.C., I tasted a lovely Georgian orange wine (recently declared the new rosé by the New York Post) at concept restaurant Compass Rose, accompanied by an order of Georgian specialty khachapuri, boat-shaped bread filled here with melted cheese, butter, and an egg (here’s a recipe and video). The wine itself, also called amber wine, was different from what I’d expected: Although refreshing like a white, it was bolder, possessing similar characteristics to a red. It pairs beautifully with the salty cheese in the khachapuri.
Georgian wine has been slowly gaining in popularity in the U.S., but Georgia has a long history with the vine—an 8,000-year-old history. Evidence strongly suggests that the earliest form of winemaking occurred in Georgia and the surrounding Trans-Caucasian region. Georgia has the ideal climate, humidity, and soil for growing grapes and is home to over 500 varieties of native wine grapes.
During Soviet times, Georgia was the main producer of wine, and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia continued to purchase 80 percent of Georgia’s wine exports. Things took a turn in 2006, when Russian President Vladimir Putin established an embargo on Georgian wine as, coincidentally enough, the Georgian government moved closer to the European Union. Needless to say, wine producers were sent scrambling to find new markets, and while the Russian embargo was lifted in 2013, Georgia had and continues to expand its exports to Europe, America, and Asia.
Georgian wines have an appeal for adventurous foodies and history geeks alike, not only with their lineage to the birthplace of fermented grape juice but also with their modern-day connection to the ancient world. Many wineries in Georgia, such as Pheasant’s Tears, still opt for producing wine the traditional way—in large clay pots called kvevri. Lined with beeswax, the kvevri are buried underground for half a year while the wine ferments. It’s an ancient craft that’s been passed down through generations. UNESCO has even included the tradition on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list and features a video of the entire process—from kvevri-making to wine tasting—on its website.
Similarly, the method for producing orange wine is one of the oldest wine production techniques in the world. Most white wines are separated from their skins immediately after the grapes are pressed; orange wines, like reds, are left in contact with their skins. It’s this contact that gives the wine its color. I can’t say that I detected notes of history in my glass of orange at Compass Rose, but I can say that knowing that piece of information has made every subsequent glass that much more appealing.
Georgian wines bring something old, and new, to the table. After trying many, from white to red to orange, I found that each glass offered something different from the last. Unfamiliar flavors and unexpected, hard-to-describe notes lingered on my tongue throughout my trip to Tbilisi. As someone who repeatedly requests “a clean, crisp, minerally Chardonnay,” I was challenged and pleasantly surprised time and again.
Jenna Fite is a freelance writer and photo editor based in Baku, Azerbaijan. She is a former assistant photo editor at National Geographic Magazine. She loves all things visual and is fascinated by world cultures and their cuisines. Follow her on Instagram @jennafite.