Visiting Georgia (Wine Trip)

I’ve been thinking a bit over this year about going to Georgia on a wine trip at some point. What I can’t really work out is how easy that would be if I organised it myself, or if not then what would be the best way of doing it (assuming I’m not going to get invited on some press trip)?

David Pope hit the nail on the head in recognising that access to exactly the people one would like to meet isn’t always easily gained. In some regions where I’m known (Jura, Burgenland, for example) I feel lucky to spend time with Winemakers. If I go to somewhere like Mornington Peninsula, then these days it will just be a cellar door employee.

I know at least three winepagers (Simon Woolf, Steve Slatcher and Russell Faulkner) have been to the country. A close friend of my wife’s has also been (and is even planning to go back next year, they loved it so much), and whilst she promisingly made some day trips out of Tbilisi, none were wine related.

I know it is quite niche, but to be fair Georgia is becoming a bit of a tourist destination generally (I’ve read that walking is becoming a thing there). So if anyone has any thoughts or their own experiences it would be nice to share them.
 
My recommendation would be to get a personal guide and driver. It seems to be a common thing to do in Georgia, and is surprisingly inexpensive. Use a company or individual that understands wine.

Some of the places I'm guessing you want to visit are a lot more remote than you might think, and you will definitely need someone to interpret. Others you could certainly visit privately. Access to the owner/winemaker might be difficult either way unless you very carefully make it clear you would like that.

If you still fancy going solo, you can get by in English in the more touristy spots, and Russian would be useful more generally, but othwise the script and language would make getting around tricky. And you would have to contend with Georgian driving and variable (OK to appalling) road quality. The Bradt Guide is very good, especially if you still feel up to travelling unguided.
 
We spent 4-5 nights in Tbilisi and had a wonderful time, but it wasn't very wine focussed. That said we drank very well.

The only winery we went to was to Nika Vacheishvili for a very good lunch as part of a full day tour to Mtkheta, Uplistsikhe and Ateni Sioni.

We stayed at Rooms Tbilisi, which we enjoyed, the sister hotel next door was a bit fancier. We ate there once, it was ok. We liked eating at Lolita across the road, very nice feel, modern Georgian food but plenty of 'international' stuff which kept the children happy. No wine list there, only one litre carafes foe around £4-5 a go, decent wine.

I'd be concious of the political situation though, which has taken a turn for the worse since we were there, we could see the Russian base in 'South Ossetia' on our return from the day trip.
 
I'd be concious of the political situation though, which has taken a turn for the worse since we were there, we could see the Russian base in 'South Ossetia' on our return from the day trip.
Always worth being aware of it, but so far the recent demonstrations, with limited police violence, have been restricted to Rustaveli - the street in Tbilisi with the parliament building.

Russia has stopped all flights to Georgia, using the anti-Russia demos as the pretext, effectively stopping Russian tourists from visiting and hitting tourism income. So Georgia will be particularly welcoming to tourists from other countries at the moment. Just make sure you don't say anything positive about Russian "involvement" in Georgia!

(There was also talk of Russia reinstating the ban on Georgian wine, but I don't think that has happened yet.)
 
We spent 4-5 nights in Tbilisi and had a wonderful time, but it wasn't very wine focussed. That said we drank very well.

The only winery we went to was to Nika Vacheishvili for a very good lunch as part of a full day tour to Mtkheta, Uplistsikhe and Ateni Sioni.

We stayed at Rooms Tbilisi, which we enjoyed, the sister hotel next door was a bit fancier. We ate there once, it was ok. We liked eating at Lolita across the road, very nice feel, modern Georgian food but plenty of 'international' stuff which kept the children happy. No wine list there, only one litre carafes foe around £4-5 a go, decent wine.

I'd be concious of the political situation though, which has taken a turn for the worse since we were there, we could see the Russian base in 'South Ossetia' on our return from the day trip.

I'm interested in your trip, Russel, because it wasn't wine focused. My wife won't enjoy a purely wine-centred holiday, and I think our adult son fancies coming too. So I reckon a week's holiday would, after travel, give us five full days. In that time I'd like a couple of "day trips", one taking in wine producers. I'd also love to visit Alaverdi Monastery. I know that it's in the East, and on the edge of Kakheti, where some of the producers I'd love to visit are based, but I'm not sure of distances. Antadze looks only 25-or-so miles from Alaverdi Monastery, but perhaps at least three times that by road.

I'd also love to visit Ramaz Nikoladze, but I've no idea where abouts he's based (ie where Nakhshirgele is).

I understand Ramaz is co-owner of a famous wine bar in Tblisi which has a lot of qvevri wines (???). Is there a guidebook that has an especially good and up-to-date section on food and wine in Tblisi?

Another day trip would focus on "wild nature" if possible.

Of course, I know Kartli is closer to Tblisi. Not really qvevri territory but if it's easy to get to we might fit that in as well. That's probably where Steve's expertise might come in useful.

I'm also fascinated as to why you went and whether you used a tour company, Russell? It may just be coincidence, but I mentioned before that K's good friend who works in Kuwait also went there last year (and loved it...they want to go back). Is it a "thing" to go there from the Middle East right now?

I'm massively encouraged by the increase in tourism in Georgia, but I'm also very nervous of the situation, which appears to me to have come into the news only very recently (I've only read things in the past couple of weeks). I know we get a one-sided view of these things, but I'm very wary of Putin generally. Obviously we will monitor the situation.
 
Georgia is quite attractive from the ME because it’s a lot cooler in the summer and only a 3 hour flight, it’s also pretty cheap and serviced by the low cost gulf airlines. The only western families we met lived in the Gulf. Lots of older groups of Europeans.

We didn’t use a tour company. Just booked the hotel and used their tour for the one day we left town. I’m sure it cost way more that way but wasn’t a big deal on the scheme of things. We had both a driver and guide. Make sure you start early. We left each destination just as the buses pulled up.

I know people who stayed at the other Rooms Hotel in the north and spoke highly of it as a base for hiking etc. Even those who traveled independently from Armenia up to Georgia.

I’d say 2-3 days is plenty for the city itself, our boys enjoyed visiting the sulphur baths (including being scrubbed down). Private rooms of various degrees of luxury available. Nudity not compulsory.

Lots of wine shops aimed at tourists. 8000 Vintages is a short taxi ride to the suburbs. There’s a local version of Uber that works very well, not much English spoken.

Vegetarian options are widespread, vegan wouldn’t be too challenging but would perhaps require a lot of salads. ‘Georgian Salad’ is ubiquitous and delicious.

The city has a nice feel, people have a little soviet coldness but not to the extent I saw in Moscow. No scams and rip offs aimed at tourists that we came across.

I’m sure you will love it!
 
Georgia is quite attractive from the ME because it’s a lot cooler in the summer and only a 3 hour flight, it’s also pretty cheap and serviced by the low cost gulf airlines. The only western families we met lived in the Gulf. Lots of older groups of Europeans.

We didn’t use a tour company. Just booked the hotel and used their tour for the one day we left town. I’m sure it cost way more that way but wasn’t a big deal on the scheme of things. We had both a driver and guide. Make sure you start early. We left each destination just as the buses pulled up.

I know people who stayed at the other Rooms Hotel in the north and spoke highly of it as a base for hiking etc. Even those who traveled independently from Armenia up to Georgia.

I’d say 2-3 days is plenty for the city itself, our boys enjoyed visiting the sulphur baths (including being scrubbed down). Private rooms of various degrees of luxury available. Nudity not compulsory.

Lots of wine shops aimed at tourists. 8000 Vintages is a short taxi ride to the suburbs. There’s a local version of Uber that works very well, not much English spoken.

Vegetarian options are widespread, vegan wouldn’t be too challenging but would perhaps require a lot of salads. ‘Georgian Salad’ is ubiquitous and delicious.

The city has a nice feel, people have a little soviet coldness but not to the extent I saw in Moscow. No scams and rip offs aimed at tourists that we came across.

I’m sure you will love it!
Thanks Russell
 
David, here are a few opinions/ideas, in no particular order

I would recommend you take a look at the twitter account of @paulrimple and consider following him. He writes for Culinary Backstreets, and does foodie tours in Tbilisi. I cannot recommend the tours from personal experience, but he does seems to have an excellent understanding of Georgian culture, including food and wine. But more than that, he also takes an interest in Georgian politics, mainly from a human rights angle - so if you are concerned about possible political instability I think you will find his tweets insightful and (so far) reassuring.

Qvevri are used all over Georgia. Winemaking practice varies, and there are different local names for the vessels, but large buried clay pots feature wherever wine is made in Georgia - also over the border in Armenia. A visit to Iago for lunch would be within easy reach of Tbilisi - in Kartli - and would be very enjoyable. But Iago is rather isolated, so your wine trip of the week would be only one producer. The same applies to Gotsa - easy to reach from Tbilisi and worthwhile, but rather isolated. Nika Vacheishvili (mentioned by Russell) is another nicely located producer within easy striking distance of Tbilisi, who gave us a good lunch (but does not use qvevri - or at least didn't a couple of years ago). I did not rate his wines particularly, but it was still a very pleasant place to visit. Perhaps one of these could be combined with your NWR trip out of Tbilisi - you would have to eat somewhere after all ;)

To fit in more than one natural qvevri producer in a day, I think you would have to head due East from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi. From memory that road is relatively good, and any other roads that may look convenient in the area are not as handy as they may seem.

Antadze is about half way to Sighnaghi so you could stop off on the way there or back. However, I have not been there, and I am not sure how well he is set up to receive visitors. You would have to check.

Sighnaghi is relatively touristy, but in truth it is still very low-level, and if you are travelling independently you are likely to find the presence of other tourists reassuring. There you will find Pheasants Tears. At the very least you can eat at their restaurant and try their wines. Okro Wines is also based in the town, and also has a good restaurant - some of my favourite wines are from Okro. And there are one or two other places, I have not tried. On a good day there are fantastic views from Sighnaghi, across the Alazani valley and towards the Causasus mountains.

Alaverdi is a fair distance up the valley from Sighnaghi, and I doubt if it would be possible to fit into the same day trip as Sighnaghi, but it might be worth checking. It is a very atmospheric location, but in my opinion other places are more rewarding from a wine angle. If you want to visit a nice monastery in a rural setting (though not as large and impressive as Alaverdi) you could stop off at Bodbe, just above Sighnaghi.

Forget about Ramaz - he is in west Georgia, close to Kutaisi, which is not feasible as a day trip from Tbilisi. Edit: Sorry, that sounds more dismissive than intended. Do visit if you get a chance on another occasion. Ramaz himself was busy mending his spayer when we were there, as his vines needed spraying Bx mixture, but his wife gave us a lovely welcome and meal.

In Tbilisi you should go to Ghvino Underground (various spellings, but not to be confused with G.vino, which is also good). This is the place set up by natural qvevri wine producers, and they tend to hang out there if they are in town. It might even be possible to arrange to meet up with some there for a chat and a tasting. I have only been there once, and that was for a tasting with a larger group. Actually we have spent relatively little time in Tbilisi altogether - mainly just the odd night before and after flights.

Initially when I recommended a guide with driver I thought you would be travelling round the country, but it is still worth considering. Or you could just hire a driver, who would probably speak little English, or a guide who also drives if you can find one. The streets of central Tbilisi will be full of drivers and guides touting for business, or I am sure your hotel could find a trusted one. I think I would research in advance to find a guide who specialises in wine and food. I could make a few suggestions. Or just take a taxi. I am pretty sure you can also get to Sighnaghi by "public transport" - privately run minibuses that run in a loosely organised and unregulated way - they are called marshrutka. I wouldn't hire a car, unless you feel very confident about the idea.

For spectacular scenery, you should head north from Tbilisi, to the Greater Caucasus mountains. That is something I have not yet done, but I am pretty sure it is feasible as a day trip from Tbilisi. But if walking in nice countryside is more appealing than hammering along dodgy roads to get to the most impressive mountains, I am sure that is possible a lot closer to Tbilisi - Georgia is full of unspoiled countryside, but I do not know about specifics. I am sure guides could help you out on that score.

I could also say a little about hotels, restaurants and bars in Tbilisi we tried if you like, but I always feel such small snapshots are of relatively little value, and you would probably do as well googling for reviews on the internet.
 
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That sounds really useful, Steve.

I met Iago at Real Wine and visiting him would be perfect. Also know Okro’s Wines and that with Bobde near Sighnaghi sounds excellent. As does Ghvino in Tblisi.

I shall follow Paul Rimple.

Thank you.
 
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