A Modern Flâneur in... სიღნაღი (Sighnagi)

8,000 years of wine-making in Kakheti, Georgia...


Joel Bowman, sticking his head above the parapet in Sighnagi, Georgia…

From a tiny hilltop perch we cast our gaze across the expansive Alazani Valley below, beyond the patchwork fields and silvery fish-farms, shimmering in the haze, toward the imposing Caucasus Mountains, off in the dusk-purple distance. Welcome to the oldest wine country in the world.

Save for a smattering of modest dwellings along the cobblestoned ridge, the view from ancient Sighnagi probably hasn’t changed much since the first settlements broke ground here, many, many millennia ago.

(View from our balcony, looking east, toward Azerbaijan.)
(View north, toward the 17th century fortifications and, 25 miles or so beyond, the Russian border.)


The Kakheti region itself, the easternmost in Georgia, borders Russia (to the north) and Azerbaijan (to the east). Distinguished by its proud viticultural refinement, the locals here have been making wine for 8,000 years. That’s long enough for them to refer to the “Old World” wines of France, Italy, et al, in lovingly condescending tones, as “European Style.”

Their own “qvevri method,” which involves fermenting grapes (along with skin, stem, stalks, pips ‘n’ all) in giant earthenware amphorae buried below ground or set into stone floors, yields incredibly complex wines. Not a few of these we sampled this past Friday night, a labor of love we undertake so as to give you, our dear reader, honest, frontline reporting.

(Here the proprietor of Kerovani, a delightful Kakhetian guest house, shows us his private wine production. The holes in the floor are for the ceramic qvevri. The sand on top keeps light from penetrating the glass lids and spoiling the process.)

And with over 525 varietals to try – from the rich, deep purple Saperavi… to the straw-colored Kisi, with hints of pear and apricot… to the aromatic Mtsvane Kakhuri, often blended with the smooth Rkatsiteli… and plenty more unpronounceable varieties besides – there’s more than a lifetime’s worth of “due diligence” here in Georgia’s ancient wine country.

After a feast that would make Stiva Oblonsky blush, we retired to our hillside retreat and turned on a recording of the great Georgian chant, Shen khar venakhi (Thou Art a Vineyard) by King Demetrius I of Georgia (1093–1156), dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Find a quiet space and give it a listen yourself…

You are a vineyard newly blossomed.
Young, beautiful, growing in Eden,
(A fragrant poplar sapling in Paradise.)
(May God adorn you. No one is more worthy of praise.)
You yourself are the sun, shining brilliantly.

~ Thou Art a Vineyard, by King Demetrius I of Georgia (1093–1156)

As the Perseids meteor shower animated the heavens above… and the ancient wine mixed in our head… we wondered if we had not already found our own way home.



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