Our first day in Georgia started very, very early, after a night flight that landed in the Tbilisi Airport somewhere around 4 AM. We picked our car, got a Georgian SIM card and officially started our one week road trip with a proper sunrise.
First day’s final destination would be Sighnaghi, a small and lovely village in the Kakheti region, in the eastern part of Georgia. Driving time from Tbilisi is about 2 hours and a half, so short enough even for a day trip for those who have their base in the capital city. The road from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi is truly beautiful, the scenery makes you want to stop every 10 meters and blend in. Wineries, castles, mountains, green hills and some proper rural life – this was our first encounter with the country and it was an incredibly pleasant surprise.
Georgia is all about the wine
If it’s something that Georgians brag about, it’s wine and wine making. The country has a strong and very old wine making tradition, that is very promoted among tourists. Kakheti is one of the most important wine producing regions of the country which is why we also added this area on our map and offered wine tasting a day. It offers about 90% of the wine of the country and with good reason, anywhere you drive in this area you will see vineyards enjoying the sun.
Wine making in Georgia is considered to be a 8000 years old tradition and has become a true national identity. It is also considered the region in the world where wine was first produced using wild grapes. A very ancient method of wine making is the one using the Qvevri. These are homemade big clay jars (arriving sometimes at a volume of 2000 liters) that are buried in the ground for several years and where the wine is kept. When filled with the fermented juice of the harvest, the qvevris are topped with a wooden lid and then covered and sealed with earth. Some may remain entombed for up to 50 years.
The cool part about this qvevris buried in the ground is that the wine can be served at the ground temperature, which is quite low and makes wine tasting a true pleasure, especially on a hot day. The taste is a bit different from the wine we are used to in Europe, for example. It’s a bit more acid, let’s say, but it’s definitely worth a try. Some people will not get used to the taste and say they don’t like it, but for us the experience was quite enjoyable, especially considering that tasting wine comes along with a nice lunch or dinner, and wine combined with tasty food is always a success.
For us, getting acquainted with this wine was an experience by itself. In the end it’s more than the taste that convinced us that we like it. It’s the stories behind every bottle, the people working with the grapes, the vineyards carefully being taken care of, the old wine making process that is still being used without being altered, the food that accompanied it – it’s all about the fact that this is an original, untouched and with personality wine.
There are hundreds of wine varieties in Georgia and everywhere you go, especially in small villages, each house produces its own variety based on what grapes they have available. The one variety that is somehow the superstar of the country, mainly because you don’t find it in any other parts of the world, is the amber (or orange) wine. Amber wine is produced using an 100% natural fermentation process, without adding any preservatives. Producing this wine means that the juice obtained from the harvested grapes is not filtered, but actually left to ferment together with the grapes skin and the grape seeds. By including so much of the grape plant in the process, Georgians have found that the wine remains more stable for a longer period of time.
Here‘s a more detailed article on the wines in Georgia, including their extended list of wine varieties.
Walking around Signaghi
Sighnaghi is probably one of the most known villages in Georgia when it comes to wine and wine tasting, also maybe because a couple of years ago it went through a serious reconstruction and was officially added on the wine route map. The capital town of the region is Telavi, which seemed also very appealing for exploring and wine tasting, but we decided to chose a more rural experience, and leave the town (which is also quite small, about 20 000 people living in it) for another visit.
Summertime, from what people in the village told us, the village can be packed with tourists, especially during weekends, so it seems that the time we chose for coming here (end of April, beginning of May) was just perfect, as there weren’t too many people around and we could enjoy a quiet, sunny and relaxed day wondering around the streets of the village. Also they told us that July and August are really really hot, around 40°C, so I’m glad we didn’t choose that period.
The road getting to the village offers a beautiful panoramic view just before going down in the valley where it is located, with the Caucasus mountains in the horizon and green forests surrounding the colorful houses. The architecture is typical traditional Georgian, with one or two stories houses and with colorful wooden balconies, carved in such detail that will keep you busy trying to follow and understand the patterns.
One day is probably enough to explore the village, but if you want to explore more the region, Sighnaghi is a good starting point for other day trips in Kakheti.
Wine Tasting in Sighnaghi
To be honest, our whole trip in Georgia was a wine tasting experience, as anywhere we went someone had some wine to share with us. Still, as we wanted to have a full wine tasting experience, we booked in advance our lunch and dinner in Sighanghi, including wine tasting. This after we already tasted some (some more, actually) wine at the guesthouse we were staying where the owner was so friendly and nice and introduced us to his own wine production.
Lunch at Pheasant’s Tears
About Pheasant’s Tears I had previously heard a few things from other bloggers traveling to Georgia. They seem to be one of the most known wineries in Georgia, still making wine the traditional way, using Qvevris. They don’t produce a big quantity, mostly because they want to stick to the high quality they offer for their wines.
In Sighnaghi they have a very nice restaurant, with a very talented chef. Using mostly seasonal and local products, the menu they have is fresh, tasty and brings a modern touch to the traditional Kakhetian cuisine. As we got to Sighnaghi during the Ortodox Easter that they also celebrate, we also got to taste their homemade Chakapuli, a delicious lamb recipe slowly cooked with all sorts of spices and with plenty of fresh tarragon and coriander.
Being a larger group (5 people) gave us the chance to actually try most of the dishes they had on the menu. The waiter serving us also made some recommendations that we followed without hesitation and so we got to try some of the local cheese assortments, a delicious wild mushrooms salad and one of the most amazing eggplant dishes I have ever had – made with tomato sauce and garlic and lots of fresh coriander (yes, coriander the Georgian national herb, anywhere you go, you will have it in your plate).
As for the wine tasting (which was actually the main reason we were there), we got to try a bit of everything. White, red, rose and of course amber. Each of the varieties was introduced to us in detail and it was perfectly paired with the food we had on the table. Like they say on their website: “Since all of our wines are aged exclusively in qvevri, no flavors are imparted from oak barrels. What some might consider a lack of oak we view as an opportunity to let the quality of the grapes and the resulting wine shine through.”
Dinner at The Cradle of Wine Marani
To be honest we weren’t expecting much from dinner mostly because we were extremely tired after the night flight and the driving in the morning and everything we had done during the day. We were mostly thinking we’re just going to go have something to eat, taste some wine and finally go to bed.
But Paul, the owner of The Cradle of Wine Marani got into our way and managed to change our plans a bit. It was an amazing evening we spent in his house, everything was perfect, we had so much fun that in the end we had some difficult times deciding to finally go back to our guesthouse.
Not sure I can say what exactly impressed us the most. Could have been the way Paul made us feel so comfortable, the passion he talked about his wines, the stories he told us about the village, the winery and the region, the delicious food he prepared, the wine we tried (from the glass, or from a small clay pot that changed a bit the original taste), the view we had from his terrace (with a beautiful double rainbow just showing up) or the two musicians he invited that offered us an insight into the traditional Georgian music. One of them was also such a good speaker. It seems in Georgia it’s a big tradition with having toasts during meals. So our speaker held great toasts – about family, friends, valuable principles in life, legends about the region and jokes about some of the Georgian traditions. It was also maybe the chacha (traditional drink make from the grapes extracted from the wine, which is quite strong and similar to schnapps, rakia, țuica, vodka and everything in between) we had during and at the end of the dinner. Everything combined made this first night one of the best of our trip, in all aspects.
For our night in Sighnaghi we chose Guest House Pirosmani, a nice 3 rooms guesthouse, very clean, with a nice view over the valley and with a very friendly owner. Who was always bringing us wine from his own production and was always available for a short conversation.