Some moments in life are fleeting and unique. Blink and you missed it. Wine often cohabits this space, whether apparent to the drinker during the moment of imbibement or not. I’ve lost count of how often I drank a transcendental bottle, and then woke up the next morning thinking “I must track down some more of that”. And how many times the realisation dawned that it was something exceptionally rare, long sold-out or so obscure that there was effectively no chance of ever finding it again.
Ultimately, as the character Maya Randall so insightfully notes in the film Sideways, sometimes opening a special bottle of wine is the occasion. So these precious experiences have to be embraced and accepted for what they are – fragile, brief glimpses of something almost divine, manifested through the art of consuming (and thus destroying) the object itself. Wine’s party trick is that it connects these instants to another place and time, through the vintage marked on the label, or the date and place where the bottle was procured.
My first visit to Georgia was in November 2012. It was special for many personal and professional reasons. Experiencing the extraordinary cultural overload that is Georgia was one thing. Spending the whole week visiting vineyards and monasteries in the chilly November weather was another – much of the trip was spent feeling freezing cold. I fell in love with the country, and simultaneously with one of my travelling companions, then the journey finished with a nasty dose of food poisoning. It was – as Vinnie Jones might remark – emotional.
A visit to Alaverdi Monastery was pivotal. The monastery has been right at the core of Georgia’s traditional qvevri wine renaissance, often producing some of the most profound wines from anywhere in the country. It’s a commanding and slightly austere place to visit, more so in November when the winemaker monk decides to conduct the entire tasting outdoors. Father Gerasim’s presence that day was vital, helping us make a deep connection to the monastery and its traditions. His straggly beard and brooding stare were difficult to penetrate at first, but his clear enthusiasm for the winemaking and its rich cultural references quickly broke the ice.
The wines themselves were thrilling and almost shocking in their clarity – but also occasionally rather brash due to their youth. The Kakhetian amber wine tradition, where both skins and stems are left in the qvevri for a full six months, produces a deep amber coloured, savoury and highly tannic liquid. It’s clearly a wine that demands ageing, but these bottles are now so hard to track down that my assumption was only theoretical. Still, one bottle of Alaverdi Monsastery’s Kisi 2010 – tasted and purchased during that visit in November 2012 – somehow managed to survive three house moves (spanning two countries) and stayed clear of our thirsty palates. Until last weekend that was.
Disappointment is always a risk with a bottle that has been so patiently hoarded. But in this case, the fireworks more than detonated and the wine proved everything I’d ever suspected about qvevri wines’ ability to age. If only I’d been smart enough to photograph the glass, as the colour remained a sensational and deeply tinted orange amber. It’s almost impossible to describe the flavours and aromas – autumnal sensations of peaches, papayas and khaki fruits perhaps, but transformed with age into something more herbal or balsamic. Texturally, this Kisi 2010 was the equal of top Barolos or left-bank Bordeaux, with that wonderful sensation of tannin and grip, yet so fine grained and elegant that there was no hint of astringency. I don’t want to push the red wine references too far though. Because what this glorious amber wine really showed was that perfect combination of a white grape’s salivating acidity with the depth, profundity and structure born of skins and stems. No red or white wine could ever press all these buttons at the same time.
In terms of development, the 2010 is still fighting fit. If there is anyone on this planet lucky enough to retain some bottles, fear not – there’s no need to drink up yet. This Kisi has what it takes for at least another decade. Provide your full address and telephone number and I will be happy to supply more personalised advice . . .
Availability is not the only issue when it comes to bottles like this. Wine production at Alaverdi Monastery seems to be increasingly sidelined – reports are not confirmed, but Father Gerasim has apparently departed, and the monastery no longer appears to be exporting at all. Don’t be confused by the ‘Alaverdi Tradition’ bottles which are more widely available – these are a separate line of wines made from bought in fruit and produced entirely by the monastery’s winemaking consultants Badagoni. They are good, honest qvevri wines but not at the same level as the monastery’s own production – and not worth the outrageous prices charged at Tbilisi Airport (around €35 a bottle at the time of writing).
It is mere folly to even want to repeat the experience of drinking a perfect wine – circumstance and company are transitory even if the wine’s stocks were assured. Yet the tinge of melancholy that follows a voided but magical bottle is surely part of the pleasure. As the showbiz saying goes “Leave them wanting more”.
I wish I could provide availability information for Alaverdi Monastery’s wines. But the only option right now appears to be to visit the monastery itself. Tours can be booked via this link.