Georgia (the country)

Sulphur Bath Masseur Wine

11 August 2018

A private room at Chreli Abano

I didn’t plan on ending up drunk in a grotty Tbilisi locker room, making toasts to the glories of Georgia. But then, I suppose one never does.

I ended up in that locker room because what I thought would be a two-hour river cruise through the center of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, turned out to be just 30 minutes. What to do with that extra time? Exhausted from the previous day’s hiking in the Caucasus Mountains, I decided that a sulphur bath soak would be just the thing. I’d had a lovely experience at the freshly renovated Chreli Abano, a historic sulphur bath sparkling with mosaics, but it was expensive and a little tame.

Instead, I sought out a bath still frequented by local people. A sulphur bath with public pools. A bath that doesn’t take credit cards. A bath that was a little more of an adventure.

The Abanotubani neighborhood, including the blue façade of Chreli Abano

Most of the bathhouses in the Abanotubani neighborhood cater almost exclusively to tourists nowadays, and I had trouble finding one with public facilities. Front desk clerks kept pointing me farther and farther up the street, until there it was, exactly what I was looking for: The Queen’s Bath, housed in a once-grand Persian-style building with crumbling stucco. A bald gentleman sitting outside the entrance greeted me. I later learned his name was GaGa (no relation to Lady).

I said that I wanted a scrub and massage — Tbilisi’s sulphur baths are reminiscent of Turkey’s hammams — and he understood, despite my almost total lack of Georgian. After taking me to the counter to pay, he escorted me to the locker room, which hasn’t seen an update since before I was born. But no matter — a massive attendant of about 70 opened a locker for me, and I undressed and put on my flip-flops (always bring flip-flops when you travel). I was about to wrap the sheet-like towel I’d received around my waist, but the attendant took it from me, tossed it in my locker and locked the door. Towels, it seems, were not allowed in the bath!

GaGa, who was to be my masseur, led me to the showers, a row of narrow-gauge PVC pipes mounted on the wall, and I had a rinse. He pointed to the turbid sulphur bath, indicating I should have a soak before my scrub. In the pool were two more gentlemen. One rested his arms on the edge and faced away from the center, and another, a zaftig 60-something, sat facing me. He spoke.

Queen’s Bath

“I don’t understand,” I said, raising my hands in the universal gesture of confusion. He pointed to himself and said his name, Rahib, and I did the same.

“Amerikani!” he exclaimed. I nodded. “Azeri, Azeri,” he said pointing to himself, indicating that he came from neighboring Azerbaijan.

“Ah, very nice.” I said, smiling and nodding. That was an error.

Rahib scooted across the pool and sat next to me. He then took my hand and attempted to place it… in an inappropriate place. I withdrew, saying politely but firmly, “No, no. No thank you.” And I scooted myself to the other side of the pool.

Unfortunately, Rahib did not wish to take no for an answer, and he followed me. I moved towards the pool’s exit — all the while, mind you, the other man in the pool hasn’t moved a muscle — and Rahib continued his pursuit. “Muslim! Muslim!” he said, pointing to himself, with a tone that seemed to suggest that because he was a Muslim, it was great idea for me to touch his junk. I felt unpersuaded.

Fortunately, GaGa was ready to give me my scrub, and I escaped the randy Azeri. I laid down on a marble plinth topped with a slimy piece of black rubber matting. I felt concerned about what might be living on/in the mat, but GaGa got to work and gave me the scrub to end all scrubs, followed by a thorough soaping with a fluffy mitt and an ocean of suds. I arose from the plinth feeling thoroughly restored, refreshed, and sparkling clean. GaGa suggested another soak, but I decided a nice cool shower was a better idea. I’d had enough of the sulphur pool.

I returned to the locker room, thirsty but fully relaxed. I had just finished dressing when GaGa approached holding a small tumbler of a dark red liquid. “Drink,” he said. I took a big gulp, relishing the idea of some cool cherry juice — cherries were in season — and nearly gagged. It was most definitely not cherry juice.

Three men at a table in the corner of the locker room laughed. “Ha ha! No like wine! Ha ha ha!”

I composed myself after the initial surprise, and said, “Ha! I like! I like! I like wine very much.” I pointed to the glass. “Saperavi?” Saperavi, Georgia’s signature red grape, is unusual in that both its flesh and its skin are dark. Most red wine grapes have dark skins but light-colored flesh. It has the capability to make rich, structured wines full of fruit and sour-cherry acids. Some Saperavis can be absolutely sensational. It’s even started to catch on in New York’s Finger Lakes.

From left to right: Ilia, Giorgi and GaGa

“Yes! Saperavi!” they exclaimed, surprised I knew what it was. “Come. Come! Sit!” They graciously invited me to join them at their table, where GaGa had just set out a jug of Saperavi, a salad of tomato, cucumber and basil, and a skillet with an egg dish resembling a Spanish tortilla. How could I refuse? GaGa refilled my glass.

“Thank you! It’s very good,” I said, feeling rather out of place in that little old locker room, at a table with people who spoke little to no English.

GaGa looked pleased. “I make,” he responded. Many Georgians make their own wine, because commercial wine is simply too expensive to drink in any quantity. And Georgians like to drink in quantity.

“You made this?” He nodded. I took another sip. “Wow! I mean, it’s really very, very good. It’s got lots of dark fruit, with plenty of juicy acids to balance, and there’s focus! The white pepper spice has great focus to it, and the tannins are big but really well-integrated. Fantastic!” In my enthusiasm, I had forgotten about his limited English, but he seemed to understand.

“Eat, eat. I also make,” he said, pointing to the salad and skillet. The richness of the eggs with potatoes worked beautifully with the forceful wine.

The two other gentlemen sitting with us, Giorgi and Ilia, also smiled at my description of the wine. As GaGa refilled my glass again, Giorgi, the younger of the two, brought out a clay bowl. I had an idea of what was happening. At a supra, a traditional Georgian feast, a tamada takes the role of toastmaster, who gets the ball rolling by saying something heartfelt or funny or poetic and drinking a hearty draught from a glass, bowl or drinking horn. He or she then passes the bowl on, so that  other guests can make their own toasts. We may have been in a poorly maintained locker room at a little table with just bread, salad and eggs, and naked men periodically squeezed by, but Giorgi had just turned our gathering into a little supra.

The author, out of focus in more ways than one, holding the toasting bowl

GaGa poured some Rkatsiteli — which he had also made himself — into the bowl for Giorgi. Rather touchingly, he toasted to America and to friendship, and downed the wine. The bowl came to me, and I toasted (as I had once before) to the beauty of Georgia and the joy of its hospitality. The Rkatsiteli had ample stone fruit flavor, a zip of green apple acid and no shortage of tannins, but the clay bowl helped tame them. If you have a wine that’s too tannic, you might try drinking it out of a clay bowl instead of decanting! GaGa and Ilia also made toasts, and once again the bowl came to me.

“Many Americans don’t know much about Georgia, but this country is absolutely amazing,” I said, probably a little too loudly. “I mean, look at this. GaGa just met me. Giorgi and Ilia, you didn’t know me at all, and yet you invited me to sit at this table to share your food and wine. This is… this is something that could only happen here in Georgia. Georgia is amazing, and you guys are amazing, and I love this place,” I said, with most of my vocabulary lost to the wine. GaGa, Giorgi and Ilia smiled and raised their glasses, and I downed a mercifully half-filled bowl of GaGa’s thoroughly delicious homemade Rkatsiteli.

I may have slurred a bit when I said it, but I meant every word. Georgia is amazing, and I do love that place. Thank you, GaGa, Giorgi and Ilia, for an afternoon I’ll never forget.

Last-Minute Winery Lunch In Kvareli

27 July 2018

Lake Kvareli, the second-prettiest lake in Kakheti

I felt irritated with my guide, NaNa. We had just spent half an hour driving in circles trying to find the second-prettiest lake in Kakheti, Georgia’s most important wine region (the prettiest lake she wanted to save for later). She was now on her phone, trying to arrange a last-minute lunch at a family winery nearby. When she announced, with palpable relief, that the family could indeed host us, in spite of the short notice, my irritation turned to pleasant surprise, as it so often did in Georgia.

Georgia is not just a state, of course, but a magnificently beautiful country, bordered by the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains, south of Russia and northeast of Turkey. Winemaking there dates back at least 8,000 years, according to the most recent archaeological evidence, making Georgia the likely birthplace of wine itself. But there were a few viticultural bumps in the road between then and now, most recently the communist prioritization of quantity over quality when Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union.

Wine Gallery, just your average Tbilisi wine shop

All my research materials tell me that quality winemaking took off in Georgia only after the Russians banned the import of Georgian wine between 2006-2013, in order to punish the country (recall the brief war in 2008 over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions Russia still illegally occupies). Ironically, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “The embargo forced exporters to improve quality and look further afield to more demanding markets such as western Europe, the U.S., Japan, China and Hong Kong.”

Because this development is so recent and ongoing, most books describing Georgian wines are in some respects out of date. The World Atlas of Wine, for example, speaks of Georgia’s “extraordinary potential,” and Uncorking the Caucasus warns that “Obtaining high-quality wine is difficult outside of the niche bars and shops in Tbilisi,” and that even “…in Georgia’s most famous wine region, Kakheti, options were remarkably thin and the wineries were mostly inconveniently spread out over long distances in the valley.”

I visited in June of this year, and nowadays, Georgia is less a country of potential and more a country of results. I found excellent and inexpensive wines all over the place, and in scenic Kakheti, I had no trouble weaving seven winery visits in with my monastery tours and hearty country lunches.

My first of such lunches was, in fact, at a winery: the Old Vine Family Cellar in Kvareli. We arrived not 15 minutes after NaNa’s phone call to the aptly named winery, which was an extension of a family’s home, built alongside a patio shaded by a century-old grapevine. The small winery had several qvevri in the floor. Qvevri — amphora-like clay pots lined with beeswax and buried in the ground — are the cornerstone of traditional Georgian winemaking. Rather than pressing juice into the qvevri, winemakers usually put gently crushed whole grapes inside, including seeds, skins and sometimes stems. As as result, white wines fermented in qvevri can be as tannic as reds. A white Kisi I tried in Tbilisi tasted like a mouthful of fruity burlap.

Giorgi among his qvevri at Old Vine Family Cellar

Giorgi, the owner and winemaker, met us and took us to his cozy tasting room. As a gentleman of a certain age, Giorgi knew more Russian than English, but [insert standard passage about the language of wine being universal here]. And NaNa helped translate the more complicated ideas we wanted to express to each other.

I asked for a spit bucket, which confused NaNa a bit. “So he doesn’t get drunk,” Giorgi explained, though NaNa was clearly skeptical. Georgians don’t seem to worry too much about getting drunk. One of my later guides told me how, the night before, he drank about three liters of wine, he injured his finger, and his friend had somehow broken a rib. Wine is a health food in Georgia, the occasional broken bone aside, and Georgians drink it as such. Toss those kale juicing machines! A qvevri is all you need.

Giorgi’s small, home-based winery doesn’t appear on any list of Georgia’s best, but I’ll be damned if Old Vine Family Cellar doesn’t make some captivating stuff. The Rkatsiteli — one of Georgia’s most important white wine grapes — smelled of peach blossoms and felt surprisingly spritzy. He could have put “pétillant naturel” on the label if he’d wanted to. I loved the juicy acids and well-balanced tannins. NaNa joined me in the tasting, but, of course, refrained from any nasty spitting.

The blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane Manavi was fragrant with peaches and apricots, and developed gracefully from peachy fruit to orangey acids to a tannic finish. Excellent. Mtsvane is another of Georgia’s important white wine grapes, and like Rkatsiteli it often has notes of stone fruits, but I find it tends to be spicier and more floral. Qvevri-made Mtsvane is a bit like tannic Gewürztraminer.

An Rkatsiteli fermented without the grape seeds had aromas of apple and peach, leavened with a freshness like strawberry leaf. It, too, was well-balanced, with ample fruit, round acids and pleasantly nutty tannins, softer because of the absence of the seeds in the qvevri.

Saperavi, Georgia’s most important red wine grape, has dark skin and dark flesh (most red wine grapes have only dark skin). It makes inky dark wines full of rich fruit and acid, and Giorgi’s example was no exception. It smelled rich and raisiny, and it had plenty of ripe dark fruit flavor. Yet it didn’t feel at all heavy, with bright sour cherry acids and well-integrated tannins keeping it well in balance.

And I loved the Old Vine Family Cellar blend of Aladasturi, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, redolent of currants, black pepper and earth. Again, zesty acids kept the wine light on its feet in spite of its rich fruit.

There was nothing amateurish or clumsy about these wines. I would be happy to drink any of them, any time.

When Giorgi suggested that we try some homemade brandy and chacha, NaNa exclaimed, “No! No, it’s too much. Too much to drink.” I gestured to the spit bucket and indicated that I would be happy to try some. Once NaNa saw me trying the spirits, she couldn’t resist trying them herself. The brandy tasted strong but pleasantly nutty; the grappa-like chacha developed slowly, allowing me to get used to its alcoholic power; and I also enjoyed the sweet tarragon liqueur, which reminded me of Italian finocchietto.

NaNa playing guitar while our lunch arrived

We moved to the shady patio, sitting down at a table beneath that massive century-old grapevine. While Giorgi had been pouring wine for us in the tasting room, his wife, Liana, had conjured a feast in the kitchen. Soon our table heaved with colorful salads, local cheeses, pork fritters, bean stew and fresh bread. I reached for the garden tomato and basil salad, but NaNa stopped me. “Wait. I will try first and let you know if it is good,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. She did this with each dish, like a taster protecting a king from poison, pronouncing “This is very good” or, less commonly, “This is just OK.” She must be more of a connoisseur than I, because I found everything to be thoroughly delicious. Our table looked like something out of a travel magazine spread.

“Robbie.” NaNa liked to call me Robbie, which I found oddly endearing. “You should go help with the barbecue! That is a man’s job.” NaNa had a great sense of humor but she could be rather sexist, like many people in Georgia. Earlier that day, I had told her about a wine I tried in a Tbilisi bar, the first vintage by the first winemaker to commercially bottle a wine from a grape called Buera. I was excited to be among the first to try wine made from this grape. She replied, “Buera? No, I don’t know it. But let’s ask the driver. He’s a man, so he knows all the Georgian grape varieties.” (There are approximately 500 Georgian grape varieties.) The driver, unsurprisingly, had not heard of Buera. “No, he doesn’t know it. It must be a foreign wine,” she said, and that was the end of it.

Bakur at the barbecue

Helping with the barbecue did sound like a good idea in any case. I joined our driver, Bakur, by the grill, filled with smoldering grapevine cuttings. We had no common language and only two skewers of pork to worry about, but we had fun fussing with them and taking photos of each other at the grill. NaNa grew bored, however. “Robbie! Robbie!” she called out, sounding rather tipsy. “Don’t leave me alone for so long!” I lingered for a couple of minutes more by the grill, but NaNa grew more insistent. “Robbie! Come drink with me!” We brought the pork over to the table, and it was perfect: simple and fatty, and flavorful from the grapevine smoke.

I raised my glass to Liana and Giorgi who had joined us. Toasts are important in Georgia, and I wanted to make mine count. “I would like to make a toast to Georgia,” I said, “and to your wonderful hospitality. Look at this beautiful feast! What a joy to share it with you, here, in such a lovely place, while drinking such delicious wine. To welcome me so warmly to your home, and at such short notice — I feel very honored. I won’t ever forget this lunch. To new friends, and to Georgia!” I must have been just a little bit tipsy myself, because I had a tear in my eye as I finished.

Speed Blogging! (Part 2)

23 July 2011

Speed blogging attempt #2! This time it was all reds; and I felt privileged to try some truly unusual stuff:

2006 Barboursville Vineyards “Octagon”: I was very excited to try this magnum of a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It’s a big wine, with good fruit, a bit of spice, medium tannins and a pleasant metallic finish. It still tastes young. I want to drink it with a grilled steak. $40 for a bottle, $90 for a magnum. Both label and wine have an elegance, making the magnum a great choice for a dinner party.

2007 Chateau Mukhrani Saperavi: Saperavi, I just learned now, is the national grape of Georgia (the country). The wine comes from a beautiful Bordeaux-style chateau, which I hope the Russians don’t try to conquer (again). It looks gorgeous. The wine has big black pepper spiciness followed by a burst of dark fruit. Most enjoyable! A fine deal for $19.99, ideal with some kofta.

2009 Boxwood Estate Winery “Boxwood”: It smells tight, this Bordeaux-style blend from Virginia, and there’s something I should remember about maceration, sandy loam and malolactic fermentation, according to the sales rep. It tastes tight as well — more like a Rhone, to my mind. It dries the tongue right out, making it a good choice for fatty red meat, like prime rib. $25 at retail.

2009 Old World Winery “Abourious”: I met the assistant winemaker for this California wine the night before, and I became very excited to try this variety called Abouriou, native to southwest France. It has to be labeled simply “red wine,” because the variety is so rare, it’s not even officially recognized by the Tax and Trade Bureau. The quintessential Odd Bacchus wine! A dark, purply red, it smells like caramel popcorn and tastes like black current/black pepper jam. A racy blast of flavor — seek it out. It’s $55, but hey, it’s Abouriou.

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