What does kvevri, the Georgian method of making wine inside large clay vessels buried in the ground, have in common with the traditional Chinese use of the abacus and an Indian style of singing and dancing known as sankirtana? Until recently nothing. But on December 4 all three (plus several other traditions from around the world) were added to UNESCO's list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding."
From UNESCO's description of the kvevri (or "qvevri," as it is sometimes spelled) tradition (which also includes a slideshow worth looking at):
Qvevri wine-making is practised throughout Georgia, particularly in village communities where unique varieties of grapes are grown. The Qvevri is an egg-shaped earthenware vessel used for making, ageing and storing the wine. Knowledge and experience of Qvevri manufacture and wine-making are passed down by families, neighbours, friends and relatives, all of whom join in communal harvesting and wine-making activities....Wine plays a vital role in everyday life and in the celebration of secular and religious events and rituals. Wine cellars are still considered the holiest place in the family home. The tradition of Qvevri wine-making defines the lifestyle of local communities and forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs.
After centuries of being looked down on as wine’s poor moonshine cousin, Georgian chacha is finally getting the chance to unveil its smoother, more urbane self.
Created by distilling the waste left over from making wine, chacha is better known for its powerful punch and “medicinal” value than its taste – making it an odd choice to showcase at the rebirth of the Mtatsminda restaurant, a former icon of Tbilisi culinary life that reopened this summer for the first time in nearly two decades.
But its legacy as a purely Georgian beverage tempted a team of consulting drinkmasters from the United Kingdom, brought in by the GMT Group to create a tableau of Georgian cocktails for Mtatsminda’s new Funicular Lounge.
A grappa-like drink made from the grape skins and pulp left over from wine production, chacha normally clocks in at around 60 proof and is consumed neat, in 100 ml shots to fight off colds and/or catch a fast buzz by Georgians of nearly every age, sex, and economic class. Those who are too young to drink it are, in western Georgia at least, forced to rub it on their arms and legs to fight off the sting of mosquitos in the summer.
The clear, sweet smelling liquor is so popular the Saakashvili administration decided to build a tower in its honor in a bid to attract tourists to Batumi. That, and use its waste material to feed cows in hopes of producing more milk.
The GMT Group spent $20 million and six years to renovate the crumbling Mtatsminda restaurant and funicular station, originally commissioned by Lavrentiy Beria in the 1930s, when he was the head of the Communist Party in the Caucasus before he moved on to lead the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.
While the recent lifting of the Russian embargo on Georgian wine was a cause for celebration -- both for Russian consumers, who had to go without their favorite bottles of Saperavi for some seven years, and for Georgian winemakers, who had to make due after losing access to a large market with a less-than-discerning wine palette -- questions are being about just how much of an impact this development will have on the Georgian economy.
From a report in the Financial, a Georgian economic news website:
"We do not expect these developments to have a tangible bearing on Georgia's creditworthiness in the near term," said Standard & Poor's credit analyst Ana Jelenkovic. "But they could lead to improvements in key economic and external indicators over the medium to longer term."
As recently noted on Eurasianet, Georgian wines are slowly returning to the Russian market, after a seven-year ban. What this all means for the Georgian wine industry is still unclear and is one of the issues discussed in an interesting recent piece produced by Al Jazeera English, which took a good look at how the Georgian wine has fared over the last seven years. The video can be viewed below:
EurasiaNet's photoessay from the other day about how the supra -- the traditional eating and drinking feast that is a bedrock of social life in Georgia -- is evolving and modernizing is highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand how Georgian society itself is changing.
Interested in getting more details about the story and the evolution of the supra, I sent several questions to its author, the Tbilsi-based Molly Corso, an American married to a Georgian. Our exchange is below:
1. What gave you the idea for this story?
I first started wondering about changes to the supra after I read a blog post on changing views toward the funeral feast on ISET.ge, the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. After I read it, I started noticing that, fairly often, when my husband and I met up with friends, there would be an argument about who should be tamada (the toast master) since no one wanted to be saddled with the role of drinking so much. Sometimes there would be little disputes over whether or not it is necessary to say all of the traditional toasts. I started to wonder if it was something isolated, just among my husband's circle of friends and relations, or if it was a wider trend.
2. Based on your own experience, how would you describe the role of the supra in Georgian life?
The indispensable Hvino News website has just released a superb resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the rapidly improving Georgian wine scene, a detailed "appellations" map for Georgia's wine-growing regions. Mapping out eighteen distinct regions, from Akhasheni to Vazisubani, the map also provides detailed notes on each region's geographical characteristics and descriptions of the types of grapes grown there. Curious to know more about the Goruli Mtsvane white wine grown in the Ateni region near Gori? Check out Hvino's map, here.
The title of being the birthplace of wine is a contested one, with Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and even Azerbaijan all vying for it. But now Georgia can at least claim that it is officially the "cradle of wine."
As the all-things-Georgian-wine blog Hvino News reports, the European Union has just awarded Georgia the exclusive right to sell wine within its territory with the tagline "Georgia - the Cradle of Wine." From Hvino's dispatch:
According to "Sakstat" (Georgia's statistical institution), until 2011 this brand has belonged to a British company. The new registration allows Georgia to ban any other company using the name without permission. Use of the brand "Cradle of Wine" is supposed to help promote Georgia as the oldest wine-producing country.
But even before Georgians had a chance to raise a celebratory glass, the Financial Times weighed in on the question of Tbilisi's plan to label every bottle of wine with the now exclusive slogan, calling the victory in Brussels a "mixed blessing":
Emphasising its rich heritage is the obvious way for Georgian wine to make its mark in a highly competitive global market. But some consumers may more readily associate cradles with babies or bottle racks than the history of the Alazani Valley.
Perhaps aware of Hillary Clinton's fondness for cutting loose with a bottle of brew in hand, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hosted the visiting American Secretary of State at a wine-filled dinner at restaurant in the Black Sea resort town of Batumi. Reports the, ahem, Daily Mail (in a photo-filled dispatch):
Hillary Clinton made sure to have a little fun on her latest official trip by taking some time out to taste the best wine that Georgia had to offer.
The Secretary of State seemed to be in high spirits as she chatted with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and surveyed a variety of wine at the Adjarian Wine House in Batumi, a beach town decidedly off the beaten path of high-level political conferences.
She was pictured trying at least three different variations of the restaurant’s vintages, and laughing with the President and First Lady over champagne when they first sat down to dinner.
Culinary connoisseurs around the world, have we got news for you. A brandy-like drink will soon cascade from a fountain in the city of Batumi, Georgia's up-and-coming party town on the Black Sea coast.
And we are not talking about just any kind of booze here. No less than Georgia's national hard liquor chacha -- sometimes defined as grape brandy or grappa, sometimes as grape vodka, but always no less than chacha -- will gush once a week from a tower in the central part of town. "Once a week, for 10 to 15 minutes, chacha will flow from this fountain instead of water. Tourists will have an opportunity to taste the traditional drink," Mayor of Batumi Robert Chkhaidze told Georgian television.
Georgia has been going out of its way to attract tourists and Batumi, its star tourist project, now offers wonderfully tacky attractions ranging from wedding-cake buildings to Dubai-style glass towers and an upcoming aerial tramway.
The price tag for this latest addition -- described, with a straight face, as "Georgia's first chacha tower" -- has not been released, but the city government hopes that the fountain will attract an ever larger crowd of visitors.
As previously reported on this blog, the ancient Georgian tradition of making wine in clay jars (known as kvevri) has not only been making a comeback in its birthplace but has started to gain a strong reputation globally. So can the kvevri craze help turn things around in Georgia, especially in terms of developing both the country's wine and tourism industries? The BBC, in a recent report, tries to answer that question by taking a look at the trials and tribulations of a set of twin brothers who are trying to revive their family's kvevri-centric 200-year-old winery. The report can be found here.