TBILISI, Georgia >> Want to learn about the origins of winemaking? You’ll have to go about 2,000 miles east of Bordeaux, France, to the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus Mountains.
This beautiful and affordable country has many other attractions. There are 1,000-year-old churches, wild mountains offering winter and summer splendor and coastal resorts on the Black Sea. After being part of the Soviet Union for decades, Georgia declared independence in 1991, and the country has embraced tourism and development.
Georgian architecture, food, wine and music is a multi-ethnic mix of East and West. Romans, Persians, Mongols, Arabs and Russians all fought to control the country over the last 2,000-plus years. Now the people are overwhelmingly Christian, yet street food and Georgian chants have a Middle Eastern or even Asian tinge.
Archaeological sites show that Georgians began making wine at least 5,000 years before the French. You can experience and taste some of the wine history throughout the Georgian countryside. Small wineries and many, many families still ferment grapes in oval clay containers called qvevri, which may have inspired the later amphora of Greece and Rome. Georgia has hundreds of native wine grape varieties, including kisi, mtsvane, rkatsiteli and saperavi. Try the unfiltered and natural golden (or orange) wine style for a sense of how wine was first made thousands of years ago.
The Alaverdi monastery and winery, which dates to the year 1011, features a 170-foot tower and high stone walls, with beautiful icons inside the church.
Ancient rituals linger. Every September, Georgians from several ethnic and religious backgrounds make a pilgrimage to Alaverdi called Alaverdoba. The festival, which now lasts for about a week, was in ancient times a multi-week harvest celebration linked to pagan, pre-Christian moon cults.
For outdoor pursuits, the Caucasus Mountains rise to more than 15,000 feet, with glacial lakes and semi-tropical valleys hidden throughout. It is untamed land, but also a botanical and human crossroads for Central Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East that is home to Anatolian leopards, bears, wolves, lynx and golden eagles.
Back in Tbilisi, the capital, you’ll find a mix of quaint Old World neighborhoods and trendy new riverfront areas. Small bakeries make chewy, crisp, khachapuri bread, shaped like a small alien spacecraft. Try it with the traditional melted cheese and egg in the center. There are Georgian flatbreads — like pitas — are stuffed wih savory mixes of chopped meat and spices.
There are upscale restaurants, too. PurPur combines local dishes with classic French-style cooking in a 19th-century atmosphere. Try the pkhali appetizer, which is a sort of pate made from ground walnuts and different vegetables, such as beets or spinach.
For a darker experience, you can visit the Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori, his birthplace. Tour groups offer it as a day trip from Tbilisi.