Since arriving in Georgia in September, I had heard excited talk about Rtveli and Tbilisoba. Rtveli is the name for harvest celebrations held throughout Georgia in September and October. It’s a time for family and friends to spend time together, enjoy food and wine-making, and help with the enormous task of harvesting grapes. As wine tourism is growing ever-popular in Georgia, it’s become more common for vineyards to open their Rtveli gatherings to guests. Tbilisoba is a birthday celebration for the capital city held in October.
Some of us Fulbrighters were lucky enough to get in on the fun the last weekend of September. We met in Tbilisi on Friday night and departed early the next morning on another tour with the Georgia Expats Traveling Crew. Our guide, Gurleen, arranged a driver and passenger van for a group of 12. Our full-day tour took us to the easternmost region of Georgia, Kakheti, famous for its wine.
On the way to Kvareli, we stopped in a village called Badiauri to break bread with the experts at a traditional bakery. Georgia is known not only for wine but also for its cuisine, and bread is an important part of the national culinary tradition. There are several types of bread (puri) in Georgia, for example, khachapuri and its regional variations, lobiani, kvzeli, and the classic shotis puri that we made on our excursion. At this bakery, over 1,000 pieces of shotis puri are baked and sold every day. We watched the bakers separate the dough, roll it out, and shape each into a crescent before leaning head-first with bare hands into the fiery tandoor to slap the dough to the side of the oven’s wall.
After the first batch was completed, it was our turn! One by one, we tried our hand at rolling the dough into perfect crescents before the ladies (kindly, but somewhat in exasperation) took our hands in theirs to guide us. After being instructed to take sunglasses off the top of our heads, we were steered to the scorching oven to stick in our heads and quickly find an open space for the dough before our eyebrows were singed off. We were happy to see that the bread was extracted from the oven with large tongs once it was baked rather than with bare hands. Naturally, our bread was poorly shaped and not suitable for sale. So, we had a picnic with tomatoes and Imeruli cheese and discovered that despite not being perfect crescents, the bread still tasted delicious.
We continued down the road until we reached Kvareli, a town in the Alazani Valley. The vineyard that hosted us was Berika’s Winery, founded in 1996. The grape vines stretched in every direction around us were contrasted by the peaks of the Caucasus towering in the distance. We were ushered to a long table on a balcony bathed in sunshine to begin our wine tasting. There was a generous pour of four different wines: two ambers (white grape called kisi), a red (saperavi grape), and a light red (a unique blend of 30% saperavi and 70% kisi grapes). In Georgia, amber wine most commonly accompanies meals. These wines can also be referred to as “orange” wines, but amber is the preferred term.
Founder and winemaker, Ana, explained the winery’s history to us as we sipped its creations. The vineyards are owned by Ana’s family who had traditionally sold their grapes to other wineries. After completing university in Tbilisi, Ana took the initiative to begin wine production at the vineyards, making Ana one of the few women winemakers in Georgia. The winery made a recent foray into honey production as well!
By the time we had our second pour, an incredible selection of Georgian dishes were brought to the table. We had the essential cucumber tomato salad, khachapuri, lobio (bean stew), nigvziani badrijani (eggplant rolls stuffed with walnuts), ajapsandali (eggplant potato stew), lobiani, cheese, watermelon, dried fruit, bread, cold salads, and potato wedges. After the third pour, we began to realize how full we’d become as the food, wine, and conversation flowed so freely.
After finishing the fourth pour we were handed utility knives and sent away from the table to the vines to actually participate in the harvest. We filled several buckets with bunches of ripe white grapes and found out it was time for us to make khinkali! Our hosts had already prepared the dough and spiced-meat filling, so we were only responsible for twisting the dumplings closed. According to tradition, each khinkali dumpling should have 19 folds, which is more difficult than it sounds! Like the bread earlier in the day, our khinkali couldn’t compare to those made by more experienced hands, but none fell apart as they were cooked.
We returned to our table and found even more food waiting for us. Piping hot skewers of mtsvadi (shish kebab) were passed around. Wine glasses were refilled at the insistence of our hosts. Eventually, our khinkali was served. Although lopsided and weirdly shaped, they were delicious. It was a great opportunity for us foreigners to show off our Georgian table manners, as there is a correct way to eat khinkali. The meat filling of khinkali is uncooked, meaning that the broth becomes contained inside the dumpling as it cooks. The broth is an important component of khinkali – it’s erroneous to eat the dumplings with anything but your hands. Cutting into khinkali with either a fork or knife will cause the broth to spill. If you can bite into your khinkali, slurp the broth, and keep your plate dry by the time you are finished eating, Georgians will be quite impressed.
Imagine how full we were at this point! I’ve discovered that living in Georgia requires you to methodologically delegate your stomach real estate, especially when at a supra. Just when you think you’ve satisfied your host by trying everything at the table despite being ready to burst, more food will be brought out and suddenly your wine glass is full again.
Our final activity was making churchkhela, or what a taxi driver in Tbilisi enthusiastically told me is called “Georgian Sneekers”. A string of walnuts (or hazelnuts) dipped into sugary, concentrated grape juice, churchkhela is somewhat like a Snickers bar. We were handed strings of walnuts to dip into the goopy grape concentrate in a metal pot over a fire. Typically the concentrate is dry by the time it’s sold, but we had it fresh! We had more time for tipsy, happy chattering and buying bottles of the wine and jars of honey we sampled.
On our return to Tbilisi, we stopped at the Monastery of St. Nino at Bodbe, near Sighnaghi in Kakheti. Bodbe Monastery is a major pilgrammage site founded in the 9th century with a church, gardens, and a holy spring surrounded by lush cypress trees.
After all the food and wine consumed that afternoon, the two-hour drive back to Tbilisi was bumpy and collectively, a miserable experience. (It actually made me feel sicker than the road to Tusheti!) Just about everyone fell asleep as we were jostled around on the rough road and we all stumbled off the bus drowsy, hungover, and slightly nauseous. We scrapped our plans to hit the bars and had an early night in.
Tbilisoba (a kind of anniversary celebration for the city of Tbilisi) was celebrated that weekend, so we ventured out to participate in the festivities. There were handcraft markets to browse, food stands to sample, and musical performances to listen to. I planned to meet Nino, a SUSI Educator that spent a month in Missoula as part of a Mansfield Center program I helped coordinate. She and her friend traveled from Pankisi for Tbilisioba as well. It was so special to see her after spending time together in Montana! We took the cable car to Narikala, the ancient fortress that overlooks the city. After admiring the views and enjoying a coffee together, we parted ways with the promise of meeting again soon.
It was such a lovely weekend filled with good company and more than my fair share of wine and delicious food. Thanks to the Georgia Expat Traveling Crew for making it happen!