"Georgia reminded me of Southern Italy," Larissa Graf, Swiss wine and gastronomy specialist tells me as we meet-up in Zurich early February 2020. We started to chat about her first trip to Georgia with a glass of Georgian wine in our hands: "I liked the fact that you can serve your food, which in theory means that you can eat less. But there is always so much delicious stuff that you end up overeating anyway."
In Georgian, there is even a word describing what Larissa has experienced with eating, and it's called შემომეჭამა (Shemomechama). The term means: I did not intend to, but I accidentally ate the whole thing because it was so delicious, and thereby you should not blame me for that. Yes, in Georgia, we don't take any blame for eating your food. We appreciate how delicious it was.
Larissa is probably, not the only one who cannot be blamed for eating more than intended. In 2019 more than 9 million international travelers visited Georgia, which has a population of less than 4 million. We can safely assume, with a high degree of certainty, that quite a large number of those travelers have experienced "accidental overeating" in Georgia. I am sure you can attest that if you have already been to Georgia.
What inspired you to visit Georgia?
When I was a child, I once read the story about a Georgian family in a children's magazine, and it sounded so great that ever since then, I wanted to go there. Later in 2014, while I was studying Gastronomic Science in Italy, I became friends with a Georgian Chef, Zuka, who always talked to me about Georgia. During my Master's studies in Food, Wine, and Tourism, I met with two more Georgians, and finally, in the fall of 2019, I traveled to Georgia.
What was your first impression of Georgia?
First, I arrived and spent a few days in the capital city of Tbilisi. I was surprised by the mix of old and modern architecture in Tbilisi, which was unique and impressive. You could see an exciting mix of different things: very tiny old buildings, in the middle of soviet-style and glass architecture. It felt a little chaotic, especially driving, but I enjoyed it.
Then I joined a group of young Israelis to travel around the Kakheti region, where we visited different wineries, local markets, and did a lot of wine and food tasting.
I liked that the people were very friendly. Even if they had no idea or spoke no English, and I speak no Georgian, they tried very hard to understand and be helpful. Everywhere I went, I felt very welcomed, very at home.
I assume you had some wine as well, was this the first time you tried Georgian wine?
No, I had some Georgian wine before. But it was the first time that I understood and liked it. It started making a lot more sense for me once I saw where the wines come from, who made them, and how they served them.
What does Georgian wine taste like?
I tasted mostly natural wines and they were pretty wild. I found them very different from everything else I knew before: Even orange wines from other countries taste very different from Georgian amber wines. They were very rough in tannins, especially for someone who is not used to it.
Also, the flavor profiles were quite different from what I was used to. It was something entirely new for me, very strange and hard to kind of open up a new wine category in my head. So, it was a bit odd at the beginning, but then I got used to it, and the more I drank, the more I liked it.
I was surprised that we drank so much wine every day, but I never felt bad except for this one time when I had a lot of Chacha. But never from the wine. The wine never gave me the hangover: every day, I woke up feeling good.
What do you think makes Georgian wines worthwhile?
I think everyone interested in wine should explore Georgia's wines. They are unique in character. The very long winemaking history makes Georgian wine even more exciting and must-try.
I would recommend trying them with food. I think Georgian Qvevri wines work very well with surprisingly many types of cuisines: starting from middle eastern to Asian food, which is often hard to pair with wine.
What are some of your favorite wine and grapes from Georgia?
In reds, I especially enjoyed the lighter grapes. I had a few wines made from Tavkveri grape that I liked: Super fresh red grape variety. Also, some Shavkapito and a rose made from Mgaloblishvili, which is very rare.
I also had a nice Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli. Also, some lighter ambers or whites made from Chinuri or Krakhuna from Kartli or Imereti regions. Generally, I cannot say that I did not like any of the native grape varieties that I tried.
From some of the most exciting wines that I have tried, only around 500 bottles were left available. The producer makes just about 3000 bottles of this wine in total. The volume is, of course, a challenge, but on the other hand, that is part of the charm, Georgian wines are so personal so family-oriented.
Do you plan to go back to Georgia?
Yes, I hope I can go back soon. I wanted to go to Zero Compromise, a natural wine fair in Tbilisi in May. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely now. There's another wine fair in Kutaisi in December, Amerimeri, maybe I'll manage to go for that. If not, then definitely Zero Compromise 2021!