Giorgi Natenadze is the Bear Grylls of vignerons. He scours the mountain forests of Georgia in search of vines, wild vines. He climbs trees if he has to, harvesting from high up, abseiling to the forest floor with the vintage’s bounty. That’s how these wild vines roll – as nature intended, unleashed and roaming. Some of them are more than 400 years old – the White Horse Breast vine, as thick as an oak trunk – some of the oldest vines in the world.
Georgia is home to more than 500 indigenous grape varieties. In the past 17 years, Natenadze, grape hunter and winemaker, has discovered more than 40 of them himself, rare ones that grow in the forests in the south-west of Georgia. Only 20 or so of those have been formally identified; many are unknown to even the Old World. He has named one after himself – Natenadze Tetri – an aromatic white grape not found anywhere else.
Natenadze is part of the Georgian wine evolution – which has taken place over 8,000 vintages since 6,000 BC – producing biodynamic, natural wines made as the pre-Christian god Armazi intended. Let the indigenous grapes, the location, the soil, the climate and the local vigneron traditions run free – no intervention, pure terroir at play. Georgian wine is not Old-World wine like French or Italian; it pre-dates Old World. It is Ancient World wine. Wine culture runs very deep here.
Natenadze is proud of his country’s tradition of wine. “For Georgians, wine is everything, it is our philosophy, our life, our past and our future, it is our blood,” he says. His family hails from the Meskheti region, a mountainous area in south-west Georgia. The ancient tribes of Mushki and Mosiniks that roamed the region were innovators, credited by some scholars as the inventors of iron metallurgy – and vignerons as a side hustle.
Natenadze has inherited that creative flair from his ancestors. Having learned from his father everything about his region’s winemaking traditions and legends, he graduated from high school in search of local grapes that had been lost, destroyed by invading Ottoman Empire over 400 years ago and millennia of winemaking in this region came to an abrupt halt. Natenadze is proud to be part of its renaissance.
The wild vines of Meskheti grow near the spectacular cave city of Vardzia, a 19-tiered metropolis carved into stone that in its 12th-century heyday housed more than 15,000 people – and 25 wine cellars. Natenadze has restored ancient Vardzia’s stonewalled vine terraces, planting 24 local grape species and producing quality “terrace wines”. He was at first branded a lunatic. “People said, ‘Giorgi, it is crazy what you are doing, stop it, you cannot do it.’ But I did, because I see now that I am really crazy about this.”
The passion does not, though, come without risks – the climate is harsh and unforgiving, with extremely cold winters. An entire harvest can be spoiled in a day. But Natenadze only sees the spoils rather than the spoiled. He is forging ahead with his next episode of Vigneron vs Wild, pushing the boundaries of his craziness further. He is restoring the abandoned village of his native Chachkari, looking to create a tourist wine mecca: Georgia’s first open-air living history museum, complete with an underground cave hotel.
Chachkari had been a thriving community for centuries, with a long tradition in viticulture. Its wine was famed – the village made wine and grape spirits for King Tamar and her troops during the 12th century. King Tamar (or ‘Tamar the Great’) was the first woman to rule Georgia in her own right and so was bestowed the title mepe or ‘king’. Either way it seems she and her entourage were keen on wine. Chachkari appropriately means ‘Grappa’s gateway’, paying homage to times long past when the village sated the king’s thirsty soldiers who occupied the surrounding Meskheti mountain fortresses, defending the kingdom from would-be marauding invaders. The wine was made in chiselled wine presses, carved from rock cliffs. Each press could hold almost four tonnes of grapes and wine at a time, enough to plenish an army – perhaps a precursor to today’s bulk wines. Today more than 50 rock-hewn presses remain visible dotted throughout and above the village.
Natenadze hopes to bring the village alive, reviving the legend. Scramble over vineyards arranged on terraces encircling the village, then hop on a uremi (donkey cart) as you are transported back 800 years in time to a traditional village feast served by King Tamar-attired villagers, washed down with a Tamaris Vazi wine, the legendary red regal grape of the Tamar dynasties, fermented in traditional qvevri (clay jars). After the festivities, retire for the night in a cave conversion.
But it’s Natenadze’s own wines that excite. They’re fermented and aged, with skin contact, in minuscule quantities in these traditional qvevri. Sometimes no more than about 200kg or so of wild grapes make a vintage. He traipses far and wide for each harvest of his wild grapes – it takes two solid months to collect them all, ending in late November. That’s very late in the season, when much of the Old World has already picked, fermented and barrelled. “But we are not cool climate, we are cold climate”, Natenadze reminds me. He buries his terraced vines in winter, to protect them from the biting cold, winds, frost and snow.
But what about the wild grapes, how are they protected from the extremes? “By nature.” Natenadze seems surprised by my question. Pushing him further, he explains that the vines wrap themselves around fruit trees. The trees provide “warmth and protection” from the elements, allowing the vines to survive and thrive.
Natenadze seems to just go with the flow of nature, but don’t let appearances deceive you. At times he leaves nothing to chance, widely experimenting over many years with different sized qvevri, with solo and co-fermentations, with varying skin-contact fermentation and ageing. “Six months’ skin-contact in buried qvevri is best – it gives a good balance of tannins and aromatics”. I take his word for it; his wines are good enough proof.
His next experiment? To plant vines “trellised” on fruit trees in his own terraced plots, to replicate, domesticate the symbiosis that exists in the wild. That’s about as natural as you can get. But above all, he has a burning desire to “give new life to forgotten Meskhetian grape varieties”.
And I had a burning desire to try them. The 2018 Meskhuri Red – limited to only 1,160 bottles – is an unfiltered dry red blend of three rare grape varieties – Meskhuri Sapere, Kharistvala Shavi (Bull’s Eye red) and 400-year-old Meskhuri Tskhenis Dzudzu Tetri (White Horse Breast vine), from wild forest volcanic soil. Handpicked and traditionally fermented on skins in qvevri for six months, it has a sweet elderflower nose, with cranberry, sweet/sour Kirsch flavours layered with light, silky tannins. Perfect companion to a summer picnic feast. Drink now-2024. Alc: 10.0%.
Gela Patalishvili and John Wurdeman have also been integral to Georgia’s winemaking renaissance. Looking to restore Georgian winemaking tradition largely lost under former Soviet rule, they established their Pheasant’s Tears Winery (
pheasantstears.com) in 2006. The Soviet system had decreed that only four indigenous grape varieties could be commercially produced. Pheasant’s Tears now works with more than 400, drawing on Patalishvili’s long history as an eighth-generation winemaker in the Kakheti region in eastern Georgia.
Patalishvili and Wurdeman are very particular about their winemaking. Grapes are handpicked early, avoiding the day’s heat. Rapidly placed in aged-old presses while still crisp, the juice is drained into cool clay qvevri buried up to their necks underground.
They’re stirred 4-5 times a day with skin contact during the initial fermentation, then sealed for nature to finish its magic. Wild yeasts that lie on grape skins ferment the sugars into wine. This wine suffers no fools, authentically expressing the location, the climate, the soil, the variety itself. No oak or other additives in sight.
Qvevri are unique to Georgia, and were recognised in 2013 by UNESCO as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’. These tall, egg-shaped amphorae were a perfect winemaking vessel for the ancients, and now for modern-day vignerons. Made of clay, limestone and small quantities of precious metals, including gold, silver and copper, they provide a sturdy vessel for fermentation and storage, and through their anti-bacterial properties, preservation. The fermentation process occurs underground at a constant 13-15 °C. The pips, pomace and stems are pressed down by gravity and sink to the bottom of the jar, leaving the wine at the top of the qvevri, ready to be extracted and bottled after around 6-12 months.
An expressive red wine from Pheasant’s Tears Winery is its Kartli Shavkapito; the 2016 vintage is a prime example (available in Australia). An unfiltered dry red wine from Mukhrani, in the Kartli region in southern Georgia, from vines grown on brown alluvial soils mixed with sandstone and limestone. Shavkapito, a rare native variety, reveals in my bottle an earthy bouquet of autumnal leaves with a textured forest floor mouthfeel; it could do with a few more years to soften its punchy tannins. Would suit smoked duck or shiitake stir-fry. Drink 2022-2026. Alc: 13.0%.
Georgia’s largely unsung stalwart is the Tbilvino Winery (
tbilvino.ge). Founded in 1962, it is one of the largest modern-day wineries in the country, producing more than seven million bottles each year and exporting to more than 30 countries, including Australia. However, it still employs traditional qvevri winemaking to produce affordable, well-made table wines, ranging from dry, to off-dry, to demi-sec.
The 2017 Qvevris Saperavi is a classic dry red exponent (available in Australia). Produced from the ubiquitous Georgian saperavi grape, it is specially selected and handpicked from Kakheti vineyards in the east. Saperavi – meaning ‘dye’ – is one of the few grapes that has both red skin and red juice, producing deep red-purple ferment. These vines grow on south-east-facing slopes on sandy ‘duruji’ alluvial soils. Fermented and macerated on skins in clay amphorae, the colour is an intense dark violet, smelling of cherries and rhubarb, with a plummy tannin structure. Partners well with seared eye-fillet beef, BBQ spare ribs or tender game. Drink now-2027. Alc: 13.0%.
It’s no surprise that Old and New World winemakers alike have jumped on Georgian wine in the past decade or so. These winemakers seem keen to make up for the last eight millennia lost. Even the French and Italians are going to the country, investing there or taking techniques back home, imitating the country’s traditional, natural ways, working with clay amphorae (or more modern egg-shaped ceramic fermenters). But extending this appreciation to Grylls-style grape-hunting may be a step too far for them.