with Rod Oram


B to B 2024

B to B 2023

Tour of NZ 2023


Tour Aotearoa

To the fount of wine

Sep 7, 2023

Day 39. Wednesday, September 6. Lagodheki to Ikalto. 90km, with 930m of climbing.

To Georgians go the honours for discovering wine more than 8,000 years ago. Like many good things in life, it was a happy accident. Local neolithic hunter-gatherers buried clay pots full of natural grape juice and discovered it self-fermented into wine over winter. So, they began cultivating grapes and perfecting the process, archaeologists tell us.

That gift to humanity came about in these plains below the South Caucasus mountains we’ve been riding through in recent days. And I’m sitting here writing about this at the Wine Trails vineyard which is hosting us this evening in the village of Ikalto, just outside the famous old wine-making town of Telavi.

We’ve pitched our tents between the vineyard’s wine-making and tasting facilities. Mikheil Memanishvili, the vineyard owner, in the centre below, showed us the first before dinner; and under his guidance we availed ourselves of the latter after dinner.

But our modern climate crisis is seriously disrupting wine-makers’ skills honed through the centuries. This summer’s alternating periods of intense rain and drought have compromised the grapes. Some winemakers are delaying their harvests. They don’t know yet whether the grapes will recover enough to make a decent vintage and volume this year.

Some viticulturists further away, who sell some grapes to our host winemaker, have suffered far worse. Ferocious hail in the recent storm we experienced at a distance destroyed their grapes.

For eons, this part of Georgia has been an ideal place for cultivating grapes. Thanks to diverse and unique microclimates, Georgia has some 500 varieties of grapes – tho only 38 are officially grown for commercial viticulture.

Yet for all this history and natural abundance, Georgia is only a modest wine producer. It ranks 18th in the world with only two-thirds of New Zealand’s output, which is ranked 13th. And of course we’re far behind Italy, the world’s number one, which produces 13 times as much wine as we do.

On our 90km ride today from Lagodheki to Ikalto, we passed many vineyards but they appeared modest in scale.

Needless to say, the history of all this is complicated. While Georgia was part of the Russian empire for a century or so, it achieved independence after the First World war. But in 1921, Bolshevik forces invaded the country and then incorporated it into the budding USSR.

Under Soviet rule, Georgians were forced to abandon their traditional grape varieties and wine-making processes, such as using qvevri (shown below), the huge clay fermentation pots they buried in the ground. Thereafter for many decades, Georgia was a bulk supplier of indifferent wine to the USSR.

Since it regained its independence with the breakup of the USSR in 1991, it has been reclaiming its wine-making history, culture and quality. Qvevri only account for a miniscule volume these days – in the wine-making photo above at the vineyard we’re visiting, you can see the tops of them in the floor.

But, as we discovered at Moniek’s birthday dinner the night before last and again this evening, Georgia’s very distinctive grape varieties and production styles are making a high quality, very distinctive contribution to the wines of the world.