Sure, Tbilsi’s cool bohemian side and rising techno scene are drawing tourists like never before, but no trip to Georgia is complete without tasting some of the country’s famous wine. And there’s plenty to try: 500 of the world’s 4,000 grape varieties are native to Georgia, with 30 major types grown for wine production.
Georgia can proudly boast that it’s the birthplace of wine—the latest evidence dates it back 8,000 years—but for people outside of the wine world and living far away from the Caucuses, it can still be a bit of a novelty. And while you can expect both Georgian and European grapes to be grown here, resulting in reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines, Georgian wine is famous for being able to offer something quite different to the wine world: Amber wine (you might also hear it referred to as “orange wine”). It’s a white wine, but it’s fermented on the skins of the grapes like a red wine is. This is traditionally done in "qvevri," amphorae that are placed below the ground to rest, a process so special it’s on UNESCO’s list for intangible cultural heritage. What you get is a rustic wine with a distinct clay and cave-y taste on the palette, but it’s solid enough that you can pair it with heartier food like khachapuri and grilled meats. The amber wine also has gorgeous coloration that runs from an almost rosé-like blush to a stronger golden sunset color, and you can expect it to change over a day or two of having it open in both color and taste.
Georgians are rightfully fiercely proud of their wine (and can drink an astonishing amount of it). Wine is drunk only after toasts, which are taken seriously enough to be an art form (but with plenty of good humor). The flatlands of Kakheti, where the grapes are grown, are also where some of Georgia’s biggest battles once took place. The country has been invaded over the centuries by the Mongols, Byzantines, and Persians (the latter quite a few times). During times of drought, the vines planted there will dig deep into the soil for water—so far, it's said, that when you drink Georgian wine, you drink the blood of the ancestors.
How to Visit
A trip to Georgia is the perfect time to try the wide range of wines made in the country, and the best way to do that is on a tour of the main wine region of Kakheti, where 70 percent of Georgian wine is produced. There are buses to and from Tbilisi and around the region, or it’s about an hour-and-20-minute drive east of Tbilisi if you rent a car, the better if you want to go at your own pace or wander a bit.
But with a tour, you don’t have to worry about getting there and back after a few drinks or getting lost, homemade meals are taken care of, and it gives you a great opportunity to talk shop or learn more about wine with the winemakers. (A lot of the wine production in Georgia is small-scale, so winery visits tend to feel a bit more intimate than they might with trips to larger vineyards.) If a private tour isn’t your thing, group tours are also widely available. Or if you’re staying in Tbilisi, there are a ton of great tours, both private and group, that depart from city center. Get Your Guide, for instance, partners with local operators to deliver a really great private full-day tour of Kakheti.
There aren’t a lot of bad times to visit the wineries, but if you want to see the vines in full glory, head there just before harvest season, which runs roughly mid-September through mid-October, sometimes earlier or later depending on when the grapes are ready. Or, better yet, come for harvest season itself, or "rtveli," the harvest holiday—it’s definitely a festive time of year.
Wineries to Visit
Khereba: This large winery, which grows both Georgian and European grapes to make up to 50 different wines, is one of the most popular spots for tourists to stop. It offers a unique twist on the regular tour at its site in Kvareli. Visitors are taken into a mountain via part of an almost 5-mile long series of tunnels, built for the World Congress of Vine and Wine in 1962, to learn about the wine produced there and taste it for themselves. The tunnel, with a temperature of 53.6 to 57.2 degrees F and 70 percent humidity, makes it ideal for preserving wine—25,000 bottles of which are stored there. The restaurant on-site has a gorgeous view, too.
Shumi: Come for the garden where wine tastings take place, stay for the museum featuring almost 300 kinds of Gerogian grapes and very, very old winemaking ephemera, letting you chart a course through the history of this rich tradition. The wines they produce are excellent, too: "Shumi," the company says, is a word used to describe the best wine. It’s partly attributable to the company overseeing each and every part of the winemaking process themselves. Like other places, don’t expect to spend a fortune on a tasting: Prices start at 8 euros. Don’t go without trying the brandy or chacha, a grappa-like drink (traditionally brewed at home) distilled from the residue left over after wine-making, either.
Teliani Valley: For something a little different, head to Teliani Valley, a popular winery that makes wines per the European style. The hour-long tours, which take guests through each step of the wine-making process, are available year-round, and guests are invited to join the winery for the annual rtveli during harvest time.
Where to Stay
The two main towns in the region are Sighnaghi, a popular base for tourists in the region, and Telavi, the capital. The former is a little more photogenic, thanks to its red rooftops among trees that foreground snow-capped mountains. Hotel Kabadoni is a modern four-star hotel and widely regarded as the best stay in town, with the added bonus of an excellent spa.
While there are plenty of wineries around this town, some of Kakheti’s other famous ones are further afield. But you’re not stranded if you venture that far—some of the most beautiful places to stay in the region are at the wineries themselves. Many offer great restaurants with menus that pair to the bottles, and the rooms are clean and traditional. And, after going on a tour or two, it’s nice to just collapse into your pillow and not have to worry about getting back to town.
Twins Hotel: The small hotel at the excellent Twins Wine Cellar is located in the small town of Napareuli, a short drive away from Telavi, Kakheti’s capital. Its 17 rooms are simply furnished but comfortable and clean, and the on-site restaurant serves great Georgian food. Hiking is also nearby if you want to stretch your legs after a tasting.
Chateau Mere: Located in the Telavi municipality, the chateau offers a luxury hotel next to its vineyards. The winery produces Winiveria wines, which are widely sold in Georgia. It’s a great place for foodies to make a weekend of, too. Guests can also learn how to make traditional candy, distill chacha, and bake traditional bread here.