Wine expedition across the South Caucasus
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The South Caucasus is the oldest of the world’s known winemaking regions. Even though vine cultivation in this part of the world didn’t become a formidable and technologically advanced industry like it did in Europe, the region has preserved its indigenous grape varieties and unique methods of winemaking that have been passed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years. Today, Caucasian winemaking is experiencing a true renaissance, as traditional methods are reimagined with modern technologies, new wineries and enotecas open their doors every week, and hundreds of hectares of grapes are cultivated in beautiful mountain terroirs. Come join us and see the incredible revolution with your own eyes.
After many years of traveling across the region and thousands of emptied wine glasses, we’ve created a tour that should satisfy both the experienced wine connoisseur and aspiring oenophile, as well as anyone else who wants to spend two weeks in the Caucasus, regularly tasting the best local wines.
Our expedition will begin in Georgia, where we’ll visit two principal winemaking regions, Kakheti and Imereti. We’ll spend two days in each, then visit neighbouring Abkhazia and head back to Tbilisi. The second week of the trip we will spend visiting Armenian winemakers and wineries of four regions: Ararat, Aragatsotn, Vayots Dzor, and Artsakh. The first days we will be based in Yerevan, but we will also spend several nights close to the vineyards of Areni and Stepanakert.
During the trip we will visit historic locations associated with the planet’s oldest winemaking culture, and will be constantly meeting winemakers, historians and other specialists who will help us understand the nuances of local wines. This is also a gastronomic tour as it includes homemade feasts, picnics at picturesque locations and dinners in restaurants headed by outstanding chefs.
Day 1. Arrival to Georgia
Arrival to Georgia. We will meet at the airport in Tbilisi and then drive to Kakheti, the principal winemaking region of Georgia. After crossing a wooded ridge, we’ll find ourselves on the slopes of the expansive Alazani Valley. Each of the banks of the Alazani River has a different climate and is further subdivided into dozens of smaller terroirs. We will stay near the town of Telavi, in the Schuchmann Boutique Hotel which was opened by a German who moved to Georgia and opened a small winery after being inspired by Kakheti wines. In the evening, we’ll rest and dine at the hotel, tasting some Schuchmann wines. Wine-infused spa treatments are also available at the hotel.
Day 2. Alazani Valley
Our eventful day in Kakheti will begin with a visit to the estate of Alexander Chachavadze, a Georgian prince who established a European-style winery after returning home from the war of 1812. One could say that modern Georgian winemaking began at this very spot. We will visit the old cellar with its giant collection of vintage wine, taste the local wine and rest in a nearby park. Our next stop will be the family winery of Temuri Dakishvili, where we’ll taste wines made from kisi and saperavi grapes, and enjoy an open-air lunch. During the second half of the day we’ll visit two monasteries: Ikalto, with its marani wine cellars that were built in the 11th and 13th centuries, and Alaverdi, which also has ancient cellars, and which recently resumed production of wine using kvevri vessels. We’ll stroll around the monastery property and taste wine made by the monks in cooperation with the Bagadoni Concern.
Afterward, we will drive to Gremi, the medieval capital of the Kakheti kingdom, of which only a fortress on the hill remains. It’s a great place to enjoy the view of the whole valley. Afterwards, we’ll have to rush to Kvareli, before the cellars of Kindzmarauli Corporation close their doors for the day. In the long mountain tunnel we’ll taste the winery’s best selection of wines. In the evening we’ll reach Signakhi, a small fortified town on the slopes of the Alazani Valley. We’ll have dinner at a restaurant called Tears of the Pheasant. There, we’ll taste wines of the same name, which are produced by John Wunderman, an American artist who moved to Georgia. We’ll spend the night at the Kabadoni Hotel.
Day 3. Road to Tbilisi
After a lazy breakfast we’ll stop by the Bodbe Monastery with its tomb of Saint Nino, who brought Christianity to Georgia. We’ll take one last look at the Alazani Valley—and then be off to the capital, where we’ll spend the next two nights. First, we’ll rest and then stroll around the Old City, later meeting with Georgy Dartsimelia, one of Georgia’s leading sommeliers. In the evening we’ll attend a wine tasting where we’ll learn all about Georgia’s winemaking map and the features of local grape varieties. The evening will end with a dinner at the Tears of Metekhi restaurant.
Day 4. To Imeretia via Kartli
After breakfast, we’ll drive to the ancient capital of Georgia, Mtskheta, and climb up to Jvari Monastery where we can see the beautiful confluence of the Aragvi and Kura rivers. The main adventure of this day, however, is a visit to Chateau Mukhrani, a winery that was established at the end of the 19th century by Prince Ivan Bagration-Mukhransky, a member of the royal Georgian dynasty. Bagration’s wines were historically supplied to the Emperor of Russia, and to this day are considered among Georgia’s finest. At the chateau we will have a tasting, enjoy lunch and then walk around the vineyards and take a look at the beautiful estate. Afterwards we will continue to drive west of Georgia, and eventually dive deeply into the traditions of Imereti winemaking. During the second part of the day we will visit the winery of Ramaz Nikoladze, the head of the kvevri wine association. In the evening we’ll reach the capital of Imereti, Kutaisi, where we’ll dine at a local trendy restaurant and spend the night.
Day 5. A Day in Imereti
We’ll start the day with a walk around Kutaisi center and a visit to the local market where we will buy food for a picnic. Next, we’ll go to the medieval Gelati Monastery, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and then together with Ramaz Nikoladze we’ll visit two of Imereti’s most exciting wineries that work with two local indigenous grape varieties tsitska and tsolokuri. There will enjoy some wine tasting, and then sit down for an obligatory feast in a wondrously picturesque location. In the evening, we’ll return to Kutaisi.
Day 6. From Kutaisi to Sukhum
In the early morning we’ll travel through Mingrelia. After crossing the border river Gali, we’ll find ourselves in Eastern Abkhazia, which rarely sees any tourists. Here you can still feel the primordial spirit and rhythm of Abkhaz village life. We’ll make a couple stops on the way—at the medieval monastery in Bedia, and for a dip in thermal springs in the village of Kindgi. By lunchtime we’ll reach the capital of Abkhazia, Sukhumi, where we’ll take a break at the seaside pier restaurant and taste local wine. After lunch, we’ll drive to the estuary of the Galidzgi river, where one of Abkhazia’s most interesting terroirs is located. Once in that area we’ll visit the headquarters of the Halo Trust organization, which is engaged in mine clearing in the region. The mission’s head will tell us about the 1992 hostilities that took place on the land which is now covered with vineyards. Then we’ll go to a neighbouring lot, which is owned by the large Wines and Waters factory of Abkhazia to study the grapevines of rare indigenous grape varieties and taste the local wines accompanied by the winery’s leading wine technologist. In the evening, we’ll return to Sukhumi for a stroll along the embankment, dinner and to check into a boutique hotel.
Day 7. Russian Riviera
We’ll spend the morning in New Athos. First, we’ll visit the New Athos Monastery, the spiritual center of Orthodox Christian Abkhazia. After the monastery, we’ll drive to Achandara, an old Abkhaz village and center of traditional winemaking. This is a place with the most kachich grapevines, which is the principal indigenous grape variety of the region. We’ll visit a farmstead located at the foothills of the mountains, which still uses archaic methods of Abkhaz winemaking, and cultivates an ancient vineyard with grapevines that creep up the trunks of bordering trees. If we visit in season, we can take part in the harvest and processing of grapes. Of course, expect a traditional feast served with genuine Abkhaz hospitality. In the afternoon we’ll see the traditional making of adjika sauce—with a pestle and stone mortar. Our day will end at Old Gagra, a seaside resort established in 1903 by the Duke of Oldenburg. We’ll spend the night at the historic Abaata Hotel.
Day 8. From Abkhazia to Tbilisi
We’ll start the day by visiting the winery of Wines of Abkhazia and Co. This impressive facility produces common and sparkling wines from Caucasus grape varieties, but also experiments with international varieties. We’ll see their state-of-the-art facilities and taste the best limited edition wines from the cellars. Next we’ll drive to Pitsunda, a monument to Soviet resort life, to breathe in the balmy sea air and take a walk through the age-old pine grove at Pitsunda Cape. After lunch on the rooftop of a skyscraper sanatorium, we’ll drive to the town of Gudauta, where we’ll visit Argun Ashta winery. Its founder, Alkhas Argun, came to winemaking from big business, and today he cultivates his small vineyards with both indigenous and European grape varieties; his kachich and cabernet blends are especially interesting. We’ll have lunch at Guada, a restaurant which successfully combines Italian and Abkhaz recipes. In the restaurant’s cellar, we’ll have the chance to taste wines produced by the owner of Guada, as well as local fruit distillates like tangerine liqueur. After a hearty lunch, we’ll start moving towards the Georgian border. In the evening we’ll drive to Zugdidi, and from there take the night train to Tbilisi. Once in Tbilisi you will have the chance to purchase any of the wines that you enjoyed during your travels across Georgia.
Day 9. From Georgia to Armenia
This day we will turn another page of our wine odyssey. During the first part of the day we will drive to the Armenian capital – Yerevan. Once at our destination, we’ll check into the hotel and have some rest. Next we’ll head straight for Semina Wine Lab, a wondrous hub where a team of experts have triggered the winemaking boom of Armenia. Everything that is related to wine, from the quest for endangered autochthonous species to the creation of new blends, takes place here. Semina also shares its manufacturing facilities with local winemakers, so we will have the opportunity to taste many unique experimental wines. In the evening we will visit an enoteca called Invino, the place where wine-bar fashion first started in the Armenian capital. After enjoying Invino’s rich collection, we will have dinner at The Club, one of Yerevan’s finest restaurants.
Day 10. Journey to Aragatsotn
After a leisurely breakfast, we’ll head towards Van Ardi, a small winery located on the slopes of the extinct volcano Mt. Aragats (hence the name of the nearby region, Aragats-otn). This winery was established by Varuzhan Muradian, a former California resident who returned to his ancestral homeland only a few years ago. Upon moving to Armenia, Varuzhan brought back with him all of the knowledge and training which he received in California, now utilizing those techniques to produce six wonderful varieties of Armenian wine—yes, we will have the opportunity to taste all of them! After Van Ardi, we will stop by the ruins of the ancient Agarak settlement, where people have lived since the early Bronze Age (more than four millennia ago). Over the years, many rock-hewn wine presses and storages in this area have been unearthed through excavation. We’ll explore these caves with an expert archeologist and, by sunset, make it to the largest wine project in the region, Armas. Once at this state-of-the-art winery, we will take a tour and enjoy a short ride through the vineyards and orchards of the enterprise. Before we return to Yerevan, we will have a sunset dinner and wine-tasting, accompanied by a lovely view of hill-sides overgrown with grapes.
Day 11. Wine-Tasting and Exploration at Areni
A long and intensive day is in store, so we’ll hit the road bright and early after a hearty breakfast. Our destination is the foothills of Vayots-Dzor Province, the village of Areni, where practically every single villager is involved with winemaking. Here we’ll visit the Hin Areni wine factory. After grabbing a cool bottle of white wine, we’ll climb the plateau and see a fantastic panorama of the entire Areni terroir. Next, we’ll traverse an ancient trail into the canyon which harbors one of the most impressive medieval monasteries in Armenia, Noravank, a splendid structure surrounded by red cliffs. Of course, the main revelation of the day will be the Areni-1 Cave, where a few years ago excavations unearthed the most ancient vestiges of viniculture in the world. The grape seeds discovered in local amphorae are 6100 years old! After visiting this cave, we’ll taste wines at Old Bridge Winery, a small enterprise owned by the Khalatian family, which manufactures no more than 10,000 bottles per year (we will have the opportunity to taste the 2009 and 2012 blends). We will also visit the medieval bridge which was a part of the Great Silk Road and gave the winery its name. At the end of this explorative day, we’ll have dinner at a guesthouse in Yeghegnadzor, and spend the night there as well.
Day 12. Road to Nagorno-Karabakh
Today we’ll drive 200 km to Stepanakert, the capital of Karabakh. As we venture south, the landscapes outside your window will range from striking highlands to arid canyons and deep dark forests. En route we will stop at Mirhav, a boutique restaurant in the small yet utterly charming town of Goris. The first stop in Karabakh will be Shushi, the former capital. Here we will visit the carpet museum and meet David, a wine-maker who is experimenting with two local grape species, Charents and Khndogni. After some wine-tasting and lunch, there will be time before sunset to hike in the Karkar River canyon to an abandoned village of millers, and to splash about in beautiful waterfalls. We will spend the night at a guesthouse owned by a local wine-maker named Joseph. Rest assured, dinner will imperceptibly transform into a tasting of the host’s luxurious liqueurs and wines.
Day 13. Southern Karabakh
We’ll travel to the Hadrut district, the former historical province of Dizak. The main adventure of the day will be the ascent of Mt. Dizapait (2480 m) associated with many legends and myths. At the summit, there is a medieval basilica called Kataravank, and in fair weather breathtaking views of Karabakh and bordering Iran can be seen from the mountain top. After descending into the foothills, we’ll have lunch at a campfire. In the afternoon, we will go to the village of Togh, the historical capital of Dizak, where the Avetisian family has established a wonderful winery. Here we’ll taste some of the best Armenian wine, Kataro, made with indigenous Khndogni grapes. On the way back to Stepanakert, we’ll stop at one of the most ancient trees in the world, a 2000-year old platanus.
Day 14. Back to Yerevan
We head back from Karabakh to Yerevan. En route we’ll make a stop at Tatev and ride the hi-tech aerial tramway (the longest in the world!) across the Vorotan River canyon to visit a 10th century monastery. The view of the canyon is simply breathtaking, so we’ll lunch there. Later we’ll also journey to Lake Sevan, driving along the coast. There we’ll visit a cheese-maker named Arman, who ages his cheeses in wine and blends them with spicy herbs, experimenting with various species of mold. We’ll also taste the best baklava in Armenia, made in the nearby town of Gavar, and enjoy fish from Lake Sevan. In the late afternoon, we’ll be in Yerevan and have a light dinner at Wine Republic, one of the most captivating wine restaurants in the city.
Day 15. The Journey Back Home
This day is designated for simple relaxing walks around the city and buying souvenirs. You will also have the chance to purchase any of the wines that you enjoyed during your travels across Armenia. The group will have a final lunch together, then we’ll give you a ride to the airport so you can fly back home with treasures from your grand caucasus wine adventure!