Monday, April 30, 2007

Destination: Georgia

For those interested in visiting Georgia, rest assured that there are plenty of resources out there to aid the aspiring traveler.

In the realm of books, Lonely Planet produces a guide to Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan, Odyssey Illustrated Guides carries a guide to Georgia and Bradt has a Georgian guidebook. Maps and phrasebooks are also readily available for those interested.

There are several websites filled with information on Georgia, among them the Georgian Department of Tourism, Yahoo! Travel, and a great place called Adventures Great and Small. If the blogging scene is how you get your information, check out Travel to Georgia, myrussiablog's Georgia on My Mind post, describing in beautiful words and pictures her visit last year; the Georgia & South Caucasus blog; Where on Earth's Georgia section; and, for our Swedish readers, Allt om Georgien.

Tbilisi International Airport is serviced by several major airlines including British Airways and Lufthansa, as well as regional operators. Nonstop service to Tbilisi can be found from London, Paris, Amsterdam, Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, Athens, Istanbul, Tel Aviv and several regional airports.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Alazani White Wine

Alazani wine takes its name from one of Alazani River (Georgian: ალაზანი, Azeri: Qanıx), which forms part of the border with Azerbaijan in eastern Georgia, before flowing into the Kura River. As a result of the slightly warmer climate in the Alazani Valley, grapes grown there are sweeter than elsewhere in Georgia.

This wine is made from Rkatsiteli grapes (Georgian რქაწითელი; literally "red stem"). This is one of the oldest variety of grapes in Georgia, with archaeologists having unearthed examples in clay jars from the 3rd millenium BC. Recently Rkatsiteli grapes have been planted in Eastern Europe, the Finger Lakes region of New York and Australia.

It has a semi-sweet flavor with light fruit tones and a straw color that darkens as the wine ages. Alazani white wine goes well with fruit, nuts and deserts.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Weinhaus Tbilisi Brings Georgian Wine to Germany

Bringing their knowledge and experience of the Georgian wine tradition to the work they do, the folks at Weinhaus Tbilisi aim for the highest quality in Georgian wines, with their products coming from only the most prominent wineries in Georgia. The high quality of Weinhaus Tbilisi's wines has been attested to by a blind panel in November 2006 (see Der Berliner Weinführer 2007); in July 2006 they were also named "Wine of the Month" by Tagesspiegel and in January 2007 the European wine magazine Vinum praised the high quality of Weinhaus Tbilisi's products.

Just last Saturday Weinhaus Tbilisi hosted an evening of traditional Georgian food and drink featuring a film about the nation of Georgia and wine cellarers on hand to answer questions.
Weinhaus Tbilisi sells both red and white Georgian wines as well as a variety of specialty food items.

You can visit Weinhaus Tbilisi at Humboldtstraße 23, at the intersection of Wielandstraße in Hannover. The shop is open Monday through Friday, 10:00am to 6:00pm and on Saturdays from 10:00am to 4:00pm.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Ancient Music Accompanies Ancient Wine

Georgia is not only home to the world’s oldest wine, reaching back 8,000 years, but its folk tradition of polyphonic music may also be the world’s oldest, predating the arrival of Christianity in Georgia.

Like most European scales, the Georgian scale can be broken down into octaves, though the spacing of the tones is different.

Much of traditional Georgian folk music centers around the supra; among traditional favorites are Zamtari, a song about winter commemorating ancestors, and Mravalzhamier, a hymn of joy. Dance music, love ballads, work songs, traveling songs and sacred music – of both liturgical and folk varieties – can also be found in the Georgian tradition.

Different regions of Georgia are known for different musical styles: In Racha and Ajara, male vocalists are accompanied by bagpipes. In Samegrelo and Guria, dissonance, high pitches and yodeling-like vocals called krimanchuli are characteristic. The isolated Svaneti region may have the oldest traditions, with irregular harmonies a middle voice leading two supporting voices.

The music of Kakheti may be the most famous Georgian variety, with the Kakhetian-style patriotic song Chakrulo being carried on the Golden Record of the Voyager spacecraft. Kakhetian music is characterized by a simple bass part with two soloists singing on top and playing off one another. The melodies of Kakheti alternate between recitative sections with highly poetic lyrics and ornate cascading flourishes.

The Hasidic Cappella performing traditional Georgian music

Three men from the Rustavi group playing the dhol, a traditional drum

Another trio from Rustavi, performing an instrumental

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Mukuzani Red Wine

Mukuzani red wine is a Georgian favorite, made from saperavi grapes in the Mukuzani district in Kakheti since 1888. Mukuzani is distinct from the other wines made from the same grapes in that it is aged in oaken casks for a longer time - at least three years - whereas Kindzmarauli is only aged for two years and Saperavi for one.

Mukuzani has a deep red color with a soft smoky scent of oak and berry. The taste begins dry but the oak and fruit flavors quickly come through. As a result of its longer aging, Mukuzani has more complexity than the other wines made from saperavi grapes. It goes particularly well with steaks and dark meats.

The matured wine contains 10.5-12.5% alcohol and has 6.0-7.0% titrated acidity.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

King Vakhtang Founds Georgian Capital

Tbilisi, home to over 1 million people, was founded in the 4th century by King Vakhtang I Gorgasali (ვახტანგ I გორგასალი), a saint of the Georgian Orthodox Church (pictured above). The city was located on the Kura River along one of the Silk Road routes and remains an important transportation hub today, located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe.

The city was and still is a very diverse place, with the Sunni mosque and the synagogue are located next to each other in the Abanotubani bath district, the place where King Vakhtang’s falcon fell, in the process revealing to him the hot springs that led him to build on this site. Not far away is the Metekhi Church of the Assumption (pictured above, next to Vakhtang’s statute). The original building was constructed by Tbilisi’s founder, though the Mongols destroyed this structure; the current church was built by King Demetre Tavdadebuli in the 13th century.

In modern times Tbilisi has served as the capital of the sort-lived Transcaucasian Federation (1918) and the Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918-1921). Since 1991 it has once again served as the capital of an independent Republic of Georgia.

The most popular sports in Tbilisi are football (soccer), rugby, basketball, and wrestling. There are several professional football and rugby teams as well as wrestling clubs. NBA players Zaza Pachulia and Nikoloz Tskitishvili are natives of Tbilisi. Tbilisi's signature football team, Dinamo Tbilisi, won the UEFA European Cup Winners' Cup in 1981, becoming the easternmost team in Europe to achieve the feat.

Each October Tbilisi residents celebrate Tbilisoba, a festival commemorating the founding of their city.

An 1839 depiction of Tbilisi, by N.G. Chernetsov

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Georgian Language, by Popular Demand

(If you have trouble viewing this image of the Georgian alphabet, please click on it to see it more clearly on a white background.)

There have been several requests for more information on the Georgian language (kartuli ena or ქართული ენა).

Georgian is spoken by 3.9 million people in Georgia itself and by another half million Georgians living abroad, mostly in Iran, Russia, Turkey, Europe and the US. The other South Caucasian languages (see below) are spoken by over 600,000 people.

The oldest example of Georgian writing is an inscription in a church in Bethlehem from AD 430. While the left-to-right direction of the writing, the order of the letters and many of the letters themselves all show Greek influences, the Georgian alphabet also has elements of the Persian and Syriac alphabets. Georgian tradition attributes the invention of the Georgian alphabet to Parnavaz I of Iberia in the 3rd century BC, though some scholars have suggested that the alphabet only came together as a result of the influence of Christianity. The modern version of the alphabet, called Mkhedruli (მხედრული, "military"), first appeared in the eleventh century; it was used only for non-religious purposes until the eighteenth century, when it completely replaced older variations. It has thirty three letters.

The oldest surviving text in Georgian dates from the 5th century AD, The Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik (Tsamebay tsmindisa Shushanikisi, dedoplisa) by Iakob Tsurtaveli. The Georgian national epic, The Knight in the Panther's Skin (Vepkhistqaosani) dates from the 12th century (pictured below).

Georgian is a member of the South Caucasian or Kartvelian family of languages, which also includes Gruzinic, a dialect spoken by Georgia's Jewish community, which is usually mutually intelligible to Georgian speakers; Megrelian, spoken in northwest Georgia; Svan, also spoken in northwest Georgia; and Laz, spoken on the southeast shore of the Black Sea.

The South Caucasian group has no known connections to other languages, not even the North Caucasian group. Some linguists have suggested that the South Caucasian group is part of the larger Nostratic language family, but the idea has not received widespread acceptance. Likewise, certain grammatical similarities with Basque, including the case system, have led some linguists to suggest a connection, though the resemblance is mostly superficial.

Of the other South Caucasian languages, Mingrelian has been written with the Georgian alphabet since 1864. The language has only flourished in written form in the period from 1930 to 1938, when the Megrelians enjoyed some cultural autonomy, and after 1989. The Laz language enjoyed similar flourishing in written form between 1927 and 1937, and today in modern Turkey, though now utilizing the Latin alphabet. As Laz speakers integrate into mainstream Turkish society, however, the language is dying out. Gruzinic, spoken by the Jewish community, is often written with the Hebrew alphabet.

There are a variety of online resources for those interested in further information on the Georgian language, among them an Online Georgian Grammar, a Georgian-English, English-Georgian Dictionary and good website on the Georgian Language & Alphabet.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Kolkheti Fortified White Wine

Kolkheti is a fortified vintage white port made in Western Georgia from Tsitska and Tsolikauri grapes (pictured), both of which are used to make premium dry wines and are grown in the Imereti district. This ancient region of Georgia was once home to the legendary Golden Fleece and is today a popular travel destination because of its diverse geography, reaching from the subtropical to the alpine.

As a fortified wine, Kolkheti has had additional alcohol added to the normal wine process. However, fortified wines must be distinguished from spirits made from wine; spirits are the result of a distillation process, whereas fortified wines have spirits added to them. Kolkheti, produced since 1977, has an amber color and a harmonious taste, working well with deserts. It contains 18% alcohol, 7% sugar and has 7%, titrated acidity.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

GUAM Supports Georgian Wine

In the face of the Russian ban on Georgian wine, the GUAM group of countries (consisting of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) gave a show of support for the Georgian wineries by hosting a wine festival in Kiev last May.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (pictured above), along with the other heads of state, was on hand for the event. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who was elected the first president of GUAM, told reporters "I am firmly convinced that our region has great potential and that it will become one of the most promising regions in modern Europe. This concerns not only energy or transport projects."

A new name was also coined for the group, the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, though the GUAM moniker is likely to also remain in usage.

Ukrainians holding a rally in support of the Republic of Georgia.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Georgians Take the World Stage by Storm

The Georgian song and dance ensemble Erisioni, in conjunction with American producer Jim Lowe and French stage director Pascal Jourdan, have taken Georgian folk dance to the world with their sensational performance, Georgian Legend.

In 2000 the first version of the show, called The Legend of Tamar, toured in the United States. The Los Angeles Times called it "sensational," The New York Times "spectacular" and The New York Post "a feast of riches for eye and ear." In 2001 and 2002, Georgian Legend debuted in Europe, with an audience of 150,000 and over 100,000 CDs sold in a few months. The same program toured in Russia and China and will to tour in France and Germany in 2007 with Legends of the Storm.

An amazing and innovative video of Legends of the Storm

The Erisioni Ensemble in action

Khvanchkara Red Wine

Khvanchkara is a red wine made from Alexandrouli and Mudzhuretuli grapes (pictured below), cultivated in the western region of Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti (above). Khvanchkara is fermented in a traditional manner in open oak vats with wild yeast from the vineyard were it was developed. Special boards are used to keep the skins submerged during the fermentation process and when the wine is taken from its skins only that which drains freely is used.

The wine has a dark ruby color and a strong bouquet, with some of the wild yeast noticeable when it is first poured. The taste is harmonious and velvety with a raspberry flavor and subtle oak tones resulting from the fermentation process. The finish is sweet and lingers.

Khvanchkara has port-like qualities without fortification or sugar added, making it perfect for spicy foods, fresh fruit, cheeses, desserts and cigars.

Khvanchkara red wine contains 10.5 - 12.0% alcohol, 3 - 5 % sugar and has 5.0 - 7.0 % titrated acidity. It has been produced since 1907.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Patron Saint Comes Bearing Grapevines

The Grapevine Cross ("Jvari Vazisa" or ჯვარი ვაზისა in Georgian), also known as Saint Nino's cross, is a major symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and dates back to the 4th century AD, when Christianity became the official religion of the ancient Georgian kingdom of Iberia, thanks to the missionary work of St. Nino.

Legend has it that Nino received the Grapevine Cross from the Virgin Mary and bound it together with her own hair. This was the cross Nino brought with her when she came to evangelize the Georgians. The Grapevine Cross is recognizable by its slightly drooping horizontal arms.

Tradition holds that the original cross of St. Nino was kept at the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (see right) in Mtskheta until 541. During the Persian invasions, it was taken to Armenia and stayed there until David the Builder recovered the Armenian city of Ani from the Muslims in 1124 and returned the cross to Mtskheta. In the 14th century King Vakhtang III enshrined the cross in a special reliquary, decorated with scenes from the life of St. Nino. During subsequent Persian and Ottoman invasion, the cross was taken to the Gergeti Trinity Church, then to Ananuri (seen below) in highland Georgia, and eventually to Moscow. In 1801, the Georgian emigre prince George Bagration presented it to Tsar Alexander I who returned it to Georgia in 1802 after Georgia's incorporation into the Russian Empire. Since then, the cross has been kept in the Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Georgia Holds First Ballooning Championship

Last October the Republic of Georgia held its first aeronautics championship, sponsored by the country's leading wine producers, in the region of Kakheti (pictured below). Fifteen teams from Georgia, the Czech Republic, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, and the UAE participated.

Hot air balloon pilots dropped markers from their balloons, trying to hit targets on the ground below. While three prizes were awarded to the top performance in this regard, the most coveted prize came from a special competition. The Kakheti Governor's Cup - consisting of a 100 liter oak barrel full of Saperavi wine - was awarded to the team able to drop markers into ten empty wine barrels.

Other special prizes were awarded for other feats: the Black Sea Cup went to the first pilot able to capture a "Golden Fleece" hoop suspended from a pole 5m above the ground.

The event was organized by the National Aeronautics Federation of Georgia, the Governor of Kakheti, the Department of Tourism and the Department of Sports.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pirosmani Red Wine

Pirosmani is a naturally semi-sweet red wine. It is made from the Saperavi grape variety cultivated in the Kardanakhi village in the Alazani Valley of the Kakheti region. The wine is fermented in clay jars buried in the ground, an ancient Kakhetian technology of wine-making.

Pirosmani wine begins with a deep purple color, though in its 4th and 5th years it begins to develop a softer burgundy tone. It has a rich fruity scent of blackberry and blackcurrant, and can also have touches of black pepper when young. The flavor is rich with ripe berry flavors that slide easily over the palate and are enhanced by the sweetness of the wine. The finish is soft but strong, still full of rich fruit and sweetness.

Pirosmani wine contains 10.5-12% alcohol, 1.5-2.5% sugar and has 5-7% titrated acidity.

This Georgian wine is named after Niko Pirosmanashvili (1862-1918), known as Pirosmani (Georgian: ნიკო ფიროსმანაშვილი). A primitivist painter, he often depicted animals and people with food. He is also known in Russia for a romantic encounter with a French actress who visited his town; Pirosmanashvili was deeply in love with her and to prove it he bought her enough flowers to fill the square in front of her hotel window, driving himself bankrupt in the process. The story became famous when it was recounted in a poem by Andrei Voznesensky, and later in a hit song by Alla Pugacheva. Pirosmani was also the subject of a short film by director Sergei Parajanov entitled "Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme."

Monday, April 16, 2007

Georgians Know How to Feast

No description of Georgian culture would be complete without due reference to the supra, a banquet of lavish portions, but also an art form. These events are put on for weddings, birthdays, Easter, Christmas, housewarmings and other important occasions.

The supra is usually held at a single long table, or a string of tables running end to end. Foods of all kinds and generous quantities of Georgian wine are kept in supply at all times.

The festivities are led by a toastmaster called the tamada. His task is to not only to propose the toasts but also to blend the enthusiasm and camaraderie of banqueting with moments of reflection and tranquility. He must have the skills of an orator, a poet, a philosopher, a social commentator and a singer all rolled into one.

The toasts are given in a specific order: the first is to peace, the second to parents, then to siblings, to the deceased (especially friends and relatives of those present), to life (especially the lives of the children of those recently departed), and then to love and friendship. Only after this litany of traditional toasts has been given is the tamada free to add his own toasts, as befit the occasion. When the tamada is finished with toasts on the topics of his choice, then guests, with his permission, may offer their own. (Starting on a new topic without the tamada’s permission is a major social gaffe.) As the night progresses, successive speakers attempt to one-up each other, with a sort of oratory contest developing.

Particular customs accompany some of the toasts. During the toast to the dead, for example, the tamada usually pours some wine on bread and crosses himself, praying that God be merciful to the souls of the departed.

Because a supra is not only a social event, but also a spiritual one, toasts are usually accompanied by a direct appeal to the divine: God, help us in all our deeds! Toasts at a supra are never negative and wine is only drunk when toasts are given, so it is the tamada’s task to ensure that the toasts come with proper spacing and regularity. When drinking a toast all of the men stand and drink their wine in silence.

After each toast is given, a song is sung by everyone present, a song chosen by the tamada, whose selection must artfully reinforce the message of each toast. Georgian drinking songs are usually melodious, polyphonic and complicated, though well-known to the Georgian people.

If there is space, folk dancing will also be included at a supra.

The night ends with the tamada proposing a toast to the patron saints of the Georgian people and one of the men then toasts the tamada himself.

Knight Sets Out to Rescue Maiden, Becomes National Epic

The Knight in the Panther's Skin ("Vepkhistkaosani" or ვეფხისტყაოსანი in Georgian) is considered by many the national epic of Georgia and tells the story of the passionate search for a woman, stolen by devils across the sea, by a knight who undertakes the quest on behalf of her distraught suitor. The poem was written in the 12th century by Shota Rustaveli, treasurer to Queen Tamar of Georgia, who reigned during the kingdom's golden age. According to legend, Rustaveli was orphaned as a child and brought up by his uncle, who was a monk. The poet is considered by many one of the finest examples of a medieval writer, touching upon such themes as chivalry, friendship, courtly love, and courage; the three heroes of The Knight in the Panther's Skin are brave, philanthropic, and generous. Their philosophical musings, reflecting ancient Greek, Persian and Chinese philosophy, have become proverbs in Georgia today.

The oldest surviving copy of The Knight in the Panther's Skin dates from the 16th century; it was first printed in 1712. There was a time in Georgian history when it was expected that the text would be memorized by all female members of the country's aristocracy.

The Wardrop translation can be found in its full text online, while the Urushadze or Oriental Translation Fund editions may be purchased on Amazon.

Below you can see King Rostevan and Avtandil hunting, from a 1646 manuscript by Mamuka Tavakarashvili.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dimi White Wine

Dimi white wine comes from small areas in the Imereti region of western Georgia (seen above and below). Known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Lazica and to Persians as Lazistan, this area was home to the early Georgian kingdom of Egrisi (Georgian: ეგრისი), which flourished between the 6th century BC and the 7th century AD. The Pitsunda Cathedral is one of oldest monuments of the Georgian Christian architecture constructed by King Bagrat III of the Bagrationi Royal House in the 5th century.

Dimi white wine is made from the Tsolikauri and Krakhuna grape varieties and is produced using an old local technique of fermenting the grape pulp to which some quantity of grapes husks is added. The wine is the color of dark straw and has a harmoniously fruity flavor with a savory astringency. Dimi contains 10.5-13.0% alcohol and has 6.5-8.0% titrated acidity.

Saperavi Grapes

Saperavi grapes are known for their dark pink flesh and very dark skins, from which they get their name (from the Georgian საფერავი, literally "paint" or "dye"). These grapes are the most important for Georgian wine culture and produce deep red wines which are suitable for extended periods of aging, up to 50 years. There are three main kinds of wine made from saperavi grapes: kindzmarauli, which is aged for two years, mukuzani, aged for three years or more, and a variety aged for only one year, known simply as saperavi.

Saperavi grapes originated in the Kakheti region of Georgia, but are now grown throught the country, with Australian growers recenty trying the variety as well. These grapes are capable of surviving extremely cold winters, and are thus popular in high altitudes and inland regions.

Wines made from saperavi grapes have a strong flavor and texture, which makes them a natural pairing for a variety of Georgian cuisine, including game dishes or hearty winter foods.

A Georgian drinking from a traditional drinking horn, a khantsi.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Russia Bans Georgian Wines

For those who weren't following the news out of eastern Europe in March 2006, Russia banned Georgian wine imports, in an attempt at political pressure. The story was widely carried by the BBC, Radio Free Europe and other news outlets.

Russians have long prized the wines of Georgia. "For more than 70 years the Russians were drinking our wine... Suddenly the officials say they don't like it anymore," explained Shota Kobelia, a Georgian vintner. With the change in Russia, however, Georgian wines are simply going elsewhere. "We are able to... sell premium wines in the EU, the US and Japan," says Mr Kobelia. "There is a growing appreciation of the distinctive flavours of what is one of the world's oldest wine making regions." The Russian ban was not, however, very creative, making use of recycled Soviet era images to try to turn aside the Russian public's love of Georgian wine.

Nana Mageladze at her wine shop in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Kindzmarauli Semi-Sweet Red Wine

Made from the Saperavi variety of grapes, kindzmarauli is produced in the Kvareli region of eastern Georgia, which was first brought into the Kingdom of Georgia by King David the Builder in the 12th century.

Kindzmarauli is a naturally semi-sweet red wine whose flavor results from only picking the grapes after enough sugar has naturally formed within them. Thus, the sugar content is maintained without chemicals or additives. With a scent of ripe berries and a deep purple color, kindzmarauli has a velvety taste that is rich and peppery with a touch of sweetness and a lingering finish which balances both fruit and acidity.

This wine contains 10.5-12.0% alcohol, 3-5% sugar and has 5.0-7.0% titrated acidity. The Georgian Royal Collection and Tamada are two of the leading producers.

For those interested in traveling to the home of kindzmarauli, the Kvareli region of the Kakheti province is not only home to a variety of wineries but also home to such breathtaking attractions as the Gremi monastery, and the Alaverdi monastery (pictured below), founded by a 6th century Assyrian monk who came from Antioch.

The Cradle of Wine

The world's oldest known wine was found at Shulaveri in the Republic of Georgia, where the art of making wine may have begun more than 8,000 years ago. From Georgia the domestication of the Eurasian wine grape has spread across the centuries and continents to cover the entire globe.

This blog exists to share the joys of Georgian wine as well as the the culture and country that continue to produce this European treasure.