A Taste of Argentina
How the layers of the country’s northwestern Calchaquí Valleys shape its flavors.
A writer and his wife eat and drink their way through Kakheti, an ancient wine-producing valley.
CUSTOMS OFFICERS ARE generally not paid to give foreign travelers a warm welcome. They are there to project national seriousness and frown upon any potential funny business. This seems to hold true in all cultures, from Sweden to Spain. However, this is not so in the Republic of Georgia. We arrive at Tbilisi International Airport at around four in the morning, which is when most flights arrive. After stamping each passport, a smiling customs agent hands each visitor a small bottle of Georgian wine. The people who live in this fertile wedge of the Caucasus have been making wine for a very long time, and they are fiercely proud of it.
Georgia claims 500 or so varieties of indigenous grapes that grow in every part of the country, but the heart of Georgian winemaking lies along its eastern border in a lush valley called Kakheti. It is harvest time and this is where my wife and I are headed.
We spend our first night in Tbilisi, in order to recover from our bleary-eyed arrival. To me, that’s no sacrifice at all. I have always loved this town. The weathered brick buildings with their spindly wooden loggias enchanted Pushkin and Tolstoy back when the city was known as Old Tiflis. The spell lingers. But the crazy bumper-to-bumper traffic?
The musician on liquid eyeliner, her favorite yarn store, and the ultimate...
A sail through one of the world’s wildest places to see blue-footed boobies,...
That’s new, and my Tbilisi friends are fed up with it. One popular solution is to flee town for a weekend of feasting in Kakheti, where a raft of small hotels is opening to serve them.
We stay at the Communal Hotel in Tbilisi’s Sololaki district before heading to its sister hotel in Kakheti the following day (there’s a third Communal Hotel, also in Tbilisi, and several more are planned). All of these properties share a cozy, cobbled-together vibe that feels stylish but also loose and easygoing: old kilims scattered on the floor, rattan lounge chairs, maybe a hanging bird cage with no bird. The owner, Giorgi Mindiashvili, hunts for these castoffs in villages up and down Georgia and restores each of them with care.
A very tall and gentle young man named Avto calls for us the next morning to drive us out to Kakheti. On the whole, it’s a good idea to hire a driver for any trips to the countryside: the back roads can get choppy, directions can be incomprehensible, and I’d much rather have a Georgian at the wheel when there are other Georgians on the road. About an hour out from Tbilisi, we start climbing a steep ridge toward the Gombori Pass, the gateway to Kakheti. The pass winds down through a dense forest before opening out onto a wide valley on both sides of the Alazani River. Beyond lie the Caucasus mountains, greener and gentler here than the craggy peaks you see to Tbilisi’s north, but still majestic.
Mindiashvili opened his latest Communal Hotel in 2021 in Telavi, a town of roughly 20,000 that is Kakheti’s administrative center. We join a jovial group of young Georgians around a long table for lunch. The wine flows freely, as does the chacha, which is Georgian grappa made from grape skins and stems after they’re filtered out of the wine. We pass on the booze and go straight to the traditional Georgian comfort food that any traveler here will encounter over and over without ever getting tired of it. Khachapuri is a warm cheese bread — different regions have their own ways of making it, but you can’t go wrong with any of them. It’s a little like pizza but chewier and, for my money, tastier. Khinkali are dumplings that look like wilted tulips filled with fragrant broth and an herb-scented meatball. You hold the tulip by its stem and nip a small hole in the dough to suck out the broth — careful not to spill it on your shirt! — before nibbling the meatball and the dough together. After you get the hang of it, you can motor through a dozen of them without thinking. They are addictive.
No one would call this a light lunch, and what we need most afterward is a brisk walk, so we amble down to Telavi’s market, where the bounty of the rich local soil is piled high: tomatoes, cucumbers, pomegranates, walnuts. They’re all central to Georgian cuisine. Walnuts and pomegranates show up often in sauces and pastes, and a bowl of raw cucumbers and tomatoes is never far from a Georgian table. If this sounds humdrum to you, you have yet to encounter the killer cucumbers of Georgia. Vegetables and fruits just seem to pack more of a punch here.
The name of Alexander Chavchavadze looms very large in Kakheti and, indeed, throughout Georgia. His house at Tsinandali, now a museum, is only 10 minutes from Telavi. Chavchavadze brought European winemaking methods back to Georgia in the early 1800s after serving as a high-ranking Russian officer during the Napoleonic wars. This transformed a nation of backyard wine-stompers into a nation of industrial wine exporters. But just saying that is like calling Benjamin Franklin the guy with the kite and the key. Chavchavadze was also an influential poet, a hero in Georgia’s struggle for independence, and a formidable intellectual who turned Georgia’s gaze toward Europe. (Among other things, he brought Georgia its first grand piano and its first billiard table.)
Chavchavadze’s summer house in Tsinandali is a small jewel, mixing Italian and Georgian architecture with great skill. Tsinandali’s garden was world-famous in its day, and for good reason. Alexander Dumas called it the Garden of Eden. Chavchavadze died as romantically as he lived. A small painting on the walls of Tsinandali depicts the scene: You see him in a horse-drawn carriage (another innovation he brought to Georgia) at the moment when his long scarf gets caught in the spokes of the carriage wheel. He was thrown to the pavement, hit his head, and died shortly afterward. Isadora Duncan was a copycat.
Another member of the aristocratic Chavchavadze clan named Sulkhan Chavchavadze built his Vazisubani winemaking operation an approximate 20-minute drive from Tsinandali. When two Georgian investors bought it in 2013, the vineyards lay fallow and the handsome white manor house had fallen into ruin. Both have since been restored. Vazisubani now makes very good white wines, such as khikhvi and kakhuri mtsvane, along with a saperavi red. The manor house, now looking like an English country estate, opened as a 19-room hotel last year. A crew is on hand to film a promotional spot, but the actors hired to play non-Georgian tourists never show. We are non-Georgian tourists — the only ones in the hotel. Could we stand in? Of course, we say. It is the role we were born to play, and we kill it.
If the comfort and convenience of high-class European hostelry is what you’re after, Vazisubani is the way to go. We have an excellent lunch of rabbit stew and baked trout (along with some khachapuri, of course) while we look out over the property’s approximately 86 acres of vineyards toward the misty mountain gorges beyond (keep going and you hit Dagestan, from whence a warlord named Shamil swooped down on Tsinandali in 1854 and carried off Alexander Chavchavadze’s daughter-in-law Anna. But that’s another story).
Despite Chavchavadze’s winemaking innovations, the vogue these days is to make wine the (very) old-fashioned, Georgian way. That’s how Vazisubani makes most of theirs, and it’s how our friend David Buadze makes his rkatsiteli and goruli mtsvane whites at his country house near Mtskheta, Georgia’s ancient capital. He invites us out for lunch to show us how it’s done.
After the grapes are pressed, the juice, along with the skins and stems, is fermented in giant clay vats called qvevri (if you just say “query,” you’re close enough). Buadze takes us down to his cellar where six qvevri, ranging from 500 to 1,200 liters, are buried in the soil. The porous clay enhances oxidation during fermentation and aging, which takes about six months. The skins provide natural yeast — nothing is added. “The process gives you the specific taste and smell of minerals — it’s the touch of Mother Earth,” says Buadze, who used to be a banker in Frankfurt. How long have Georgians been doing things this way? “This country has had 8,000 harvests,” says Buadze proudly.
Knowing that we would be in Kakheti, Buadze tells us we should look up a woman named Sophia Gorgadze — Sopo to her friends. “She was once the most beautiful woman in Tbilisi,” sighs Buadze. Today, Gorgadze runs a funky bohemian restaurant-cum-cheese-factory in Telavi.
It takes some doing to find Gorgadze’s Marleta’s Farm, tucked away on an unlit back street. Many people think Marleta is Gorgadze’s last name. It’s not. It’s the name of the cow Gorgadze’s skeptical Tbilisi friends gave her as a jokey gift when she moved here in 2015. Droll, but Gorgadze and her husband, Leo, still had to milk Marleta every day, so they started making cheese. The rest is history. (Marleta, sadly, has passed on but her portrait hangs in Gorgadze’s kitchen.)
This isn’t fancy dining, but it’s something much better. You walk past a colorful mural of giant nudes painted by Gorgadze’s father, then past some plaster sculptures that look like underwater creatures, and you get to a kind of shed with only four or five tables. There are kilims on the floor and a fire in the grate. Books line the walls — Gorgadze’s daughter is a writer — and, incongruously, flamenco music plays in the background. We have a sublime dish made with pork bellies and a wonderful dessert that tastes like cheesecake filling, made with cheese from Marleta’s Farm. The wine flows freely and the diners table-hop amiably. Presiding over everything is Gorgadze — regal, warm, and still very beautiful.
It is Avto who suggests we make a detour to the hilltop village of Sighnaghi before heading back toward Telavi. Sighnaghi is a pretty, walled town known in Georgia as the “City of Love” for all the couples who travel here to get married. But it is better known for a different kind of love. The body of Saint Nino, the woman who walked out of Cappadocia in the early fourth century to convert the kingdom that would become Georgia, lies in the Bodbe Monastery just outside town. Buses filled with pilgrims and school children from all over Georgia jam the parking lot. Avto silently lights four candles in the solemn ninth-century church. It is impossible to get a true sense of Georgia without taking account of its very old, very deep religious feelings.
For our last night in Kakheti, we stop at Tekuna Gachechiladze’s Silver Lakes Farm, a collection of bungalows and an outdoor restaurant on the Kakheti plain. It had opened just weeks before, and you can still hear the hammers at work. I first met Gachechiladze when she opened Café Littera in Tbilisi some years ago (she still cooks there during the week). At the time, she was taking some heat for fiddling around with traditional Georgian ingredients. For instance, Gachechiladze used almonds instead of walnuts in some dishes because they’re lighter. In Georgia, walnuts are sacred.
In the end, Gachechiladze prevailed. “Now everybody’s doing what I did,” she tells me when we meet again in Kakheti. “A journalist even called me the queen of Georgian cooking.” She serves us some wonderful sautéed oyster mushrooms from the Gombori Pass and a carpaccio of fresh figs with a pungent guda cheese — a guda in Georgian is the bladder of a sheep, which is where this cheese is aged.
We sit together under the stars, toasting one another, then Kakheti, then Georgia, then one another again. The wine is a brawny saperavi red made by Gachechiladze’s partner, Irakli, who bailed out of his career as a photographer 10 years ago. A Georgian origin myth comes to mind: When God asked all the peoples of the Earth where they wanted to live, the Georgians were the only ones not heard from. God got mad, until the Georgians explained that they were too busy feasting and singing God’s praises. Good answer — God ended up giving Georgians the plot of land he was reserving for himself. At this moment in Kakheti, it seems like a reasonable explanation.
Joshua Levine lives on the island of Hvar in Croatia. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine and other publications.
Kata Geibl is a photographer living and working between Budapest and The Hague. Her work is mainly focused on global issues, capitalism, the Anthropocene, and the ambiguities of the photographic medium. She has exhibited worldwide in solo and group shows. Her first monograph was published by Void in November 2021.
How the layers of the country’s northwestern Calchaquí Valleys shape its flavors.
An Arctic ski expedition with backcountry adventures and otherworldly beauty.
A former local, who discovered her deep love for food and hospitality in this sunny city, returns...
A Parisian’s guide to the best hotels, restaurants, and out-of-the-way shopping spots that the...
The musician on liquid eyeliner, her favorite yarn store, and the ultimate Parisian escape.