On Georgia’s Khaketi Wine Route

Khaketi vineyards with the Caucasus Mountains in the distance

Our second day trip out of Tblisi took us through the 1800 meters-above-sea-level Gombori Pass to the Khaketi wine region. Our driver, Mamuka (a/k/a Mamu) turned out to be tons of fun and we had a great day. The sweeping views of the pass gave way to bright green forest as we descended. We stopped to drink from a roadside spring where rows of decorated bottles and snacks were apparently for sale on the honor system. With its abundant springs, water throughout Georgia is of excellent quality.

A roadside spring

When a picturesque monastery perched on a roadside hilltop caught our eye, Mamu pulled in to let us hike up. The 16th century Gremi Monastery surprised us with its little Church of Archangels boasting a wealth of frescoes in varying states of preservation.

I’d been looking forward to visiting Winery Khareba in Kvareli. The winery is located in long tunnels bored into a mountain. With several tour options, we opted for the most extensive tasting and a hands-on cooking experience afterwards. The English-language tour of the tunnels and wine tasting consisted of just us and two German couples. After viewing stored wine and displays of modern and ancient wine-making techniques, our guide led us to long tables where we enjoyed nibbling on cheeses, nuts, bread and olive oil while sipping wines in a variety of styles. Georgia has an impressive wine-making tradition which Georgians claim to be able to trace back 8000 years(!). We tasted golden monastery wine; pale wine made from krakhuna grapes grown in the Imereti region; a creamy 10-year aged white blend of rkatsiteli, mtsvane and krakhuna grapes; a dry red monastery wine made from aladasturi grapes aged in clay vessels called “qveri” using an ancient technique we’d first learned of in Uplistsike; a rich 8-year-old red made from saperavi grapes cultivated in the Khaketi region; and finally, “Eulogy,” a semi-sweet red made from saperavi, aleksandrouli and usakelhouri grapes. Tasty and fascinating, and not a one of the grape varieties had we heard of before.

In the tunnels of Winery Khareba

The Germans had opted for a shorter tasting than ours so left mid-way through our tasting and we were on our own as our guide led us out of the tunnels. Thunder boomed as we neared the entrance to the tunnel and we were stunned to see our partly-cloudy day turned to a downpour of rain and hail. With borrowed umbrellas, we darted to a covered area where our cooking experience awaited. A woman instructor awaited us in front of a large flour-covered wooden work table. A few other tourists who had been watching her bake bread soon left and we were on our own with the baker and our wine-tasting guide. Soon, we were rolling and patting dough, adding cheese fillings, and crimping traditional dumplings. This was fun! We slapped bread onto the side of a big well-shaped oven, boiled the dumplings, and dipped strings of walnuts in thick grape past to make that favorite Georgian confection, churchkhela. Then we got to feast on our creations with side shots of chacha, a local alcohol like French marc made with grape skins and other bits left over from wine making.

Cooking traditional Georgian foods

Full and happy, we were off for more wine tasting. Thankfully, Mamu was driving! Our next stop was a small home winery, Tsinandlis Edemi where we were greeted by a pack of friendly puppies and other assorted dogs in a pretty garden. (This place also appears as “Tsinandali Edem” online and apparently offers guest rooms.) The owner showed us around the winery that had been in his wife’s family for generations, including a room where wine was originally aged in clay qveri. Once again, we heard the familiar story of how Georgia’s great wine-making tradition was stifled during the Soviet era, when only strictly-controlled, mass-produced wine was allowed for shipment to Russia. Now, enthusiastic Georgian vintners are producing creative and historical wines. Our tour ended up with David, Mamu, the owner and I sitting around a low wooden table set with cake and churchkhela and pitchers of colorful liquids. Our host poured wine to drink from a horn and taste after taste of flavored chacha. As the tastings kept coming, I took smaller and smaller sips. There is a limit! When we praised a bitter orange version of chacha, he gifted us with a small plastic water bottle of the last of the batch.

At Tsinandali Edemi, family winery

Now more than sated, we were off again. We stopped for photos of Caucasus Mountains beyond the wide valley and vineyards. [See lead photo above.] We made our final stop in Siğnaği, the “city of love,” a pretty town of cobbled streets, red roofs, old castle walls and great views. After much-needed coffees with Mamu in a cute café, David and I climbed the old walls to admire the sunset views. Heading out of town, a shop’s roadside display of colorful fabrics caught my eye. Mamu pulled over so I could buy a handwoven rug and a floral scarf at prices so low I didn’t bother to bargain. What a great day!


Practical info:

I used Viator to book this tour with Georgian Paradise +995 558 54 40 99. I paid $158 for both of us by credit card online. This included everything but our wine-tasting tours and hands-on cooking, coffees at the café in Siğnaği, and a tip for Mamuka. (And, of course, I paid for my souvenir purchases.)

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