By seven o’clock in the evening, the white wine has turned Georgia soft-focus. I’m being driven through a world of water meadows, wild plum blossom and slow-moving sheep when my guide, Lela, gestures towards the peaks of the Caucasus that backdrop the scene. “My father was a geologist, so he spent his whole life studying mountains”, she says. “He travelled all over the continent to different ranges, but the landscape he found the most beautiful was the one he knew the best. I think I agree.”
There’s a Georgian habit of ascribing genders to large mountains depending on their shape. The rounded slopes of the Caucasus are bold, unassailable and resolutely female. With their towering, snow-dusted contours, they loom like some fiercely colossal maiden-clan over the green plains of Kakheti province in the east of the country. Lela’s father was a good judge, I’d say.
And the mountains are more than just postcard fodder. Their bulk acts as a barrier to the cold winds blowing in from Russia, granting Kakheti its own micro-climate and, in turn, helping the area to form part of what many experts consider to be the world’s oldest wine region. It’s said that viticulture here dates back 6,000 years. “Kakheti is a battle of wills,” as Lela rightly points out, “between having your nose in a wine glass and your eyes on the scenery.”
Good wine in Georgia? Believe it. There’s a folktale that sums up the country’s passions nicely. When God was distributing land to the various peoples of the world (you’ll be told over the first of numerous nightly toasts), the Georgians were too busy drinking and eating to stake a claim. Enraged, the Almighty threatened to grant the revellers nothing, before being invited to join the feast himself. So wowed was he by the wine, food and hospitality that he responded by presenting them with the scenic plots he’d kept by for himself.
These days, high-quality mealtime fare is a given. Visitors who preconceive thin plonk and Soviet stodge arrive to discover 500 grape varieties and a cuisine shaped by centuries of being on a key Silk Road spice route.
This crossroads location is reflected by more than just what’s found on the dinner table. Georgia is part of the relatively tiny trio of Caucasus nations that sits surrounded by three broad-shouldered neighbours: Russia, Iran and Turkey. As a result, the whole history of the nation has been the product of systematic incursions by empires, armies and religions.
The upshot is that the country has a glittering pick-and-mix of different cultural flavours. In the pleasingly hilly capital, Tbilisi, where I begin my trip, the blend of old and new is at times extraordinary. Ultra-modern bridges and a glass-fronted presidential palace share the town centre with a crumblingly handsome Old Town, while twisting alleyways lead past sulphur baths, coffee shops and Stalinist academies. The 8th-century fortress high above town, meanwhile – near to both a synagogue and a mosque – looks down on the numberless spires of the city. Inside, the churches are magically murky, thick with candles, icons and incense.
It’s a satisfying city to wander around, and neatly captures the essence of Georgia’s part-Asian, part-European, part-Middle Eastern DNA. The impenetrable local alphabet, making words look like so many twisted fish-hooks, only adds to the sense of foreignness.
My day trips from the city, first to the spectacular mountain town of Kazbegi then to the religious centre of Mtshketa (try pronouncing that midway through a khinkali spicy dumpling), serve up switchback monastery hikes and Middle Ages architecture respectively. The main cathedral at Mtshketa is said to have the remnants of Christ’s robe under its flagstones, while its facade is still marked by bull’s-head fertility symbols. Like most things in Georgia, it has been subject to complicated influences.
There’s nothing too complex, however, about the national trait for hospitality. “When your history’s full of violence, you always welcome guests who come in peace,” is Lela’s frank take on the subject. It’s in the winelands of Kakheti that I experience this in its fullest form. Outside the 6th-century Ikalto Monastery, to give one of many examples, I take a short walk through a cypress grove and find myself lengthily waylaid by a group of shepherds insistent on sharing bread, fish and homemade wine with the bemused Englishman who has wandered into their midst.
That night, over a homestay table weighed down with soups, salads, cheeses and meats, the 2008 conflict with Russia comes up in conversation. While it’s no longer a deterrent to tourism – visitor numbers rose by almost 40% last year – the effect on the wine industry is still being felt. Moscow, previously the largest buyer of Georgian wine, no longer imports a drop. The upshot? The best producers, keen to woo outsiders, have had to up their quality even further. For the visitor, immersed in a pastoral landscape on the furthest edge of Europe, it’s one of many tangible rewards.