We get even closer to God at the tasting table of Alaverdi Monastery, set with serious stemware and shiny spittoons. We’re in Kakheti now, the lush agricultural region southeast of Tbilisi, where ranks of vines spread for miles, and even four-year-olds know about qvevri. Alaverdi’s 11th-century limestone silhouette rises against the dramatic purplish shadow play of the Great Caucasus ridge. In the 19th century, the fiftyish red-bearded black-robed winemakers were here, explains Father Gerasim, but the czarist colonialists whitewashed the monastery’s rare frescoes. In the 20th century, atheist Soviets destroyed most of the 8th century wine cellar, storing gasoline in the qvevri. But in 2006, the monks started over and blessed their first vintage. Now they’re running a model facility, marketing their wines under a savvy “Since 1011” label to drive home its millennial history. My own idea of paradise? The celestial ice cream made from buffalo yogurt and monastic honey sold at Alaverdi’s little café.
In the 1990s, artist John Wurdeman—born in New Mexico and raised in Virginia—was travelling in Georgia, following his passion for singing and recording polyphonic songs. But he ended up marrying a local musician. Soon after, he opened a boutique winery that now makes internationally acclaimed wines, followed by a wine bar and restaurant—all with Georgian partners. The restaurant is located in Sighnaghi, a beautiful, fortified hillside medieval town in the winemaking Eastern Georgian Kahketi region. Pheasant’s Tears is in the center of the historic (and now restored) part of Sighnaghi. The restaurant’s slightly rambling building contains Wurdeman’s artist studio, along with a carpet shop, antique-filled public spaces, a cobblestone courtyard, and an interesting wine cellar. The restaurant food is prepared by ebullient Chef Gia Rokashvili and is passionately authentic, but not parochial—reflecting Gia’s travels (he loves Indian food) and served tapas-style. Chalkboard daily specials might include just-caught mountain trout, rustic village pies with wild greens filling, seasonal vegetables in garlicky walnut sauce, smoky kebabs served with herbaceous condiments, or khashlama, a lamb stew in a slurry of sour plums simmered in tarragon, cilantro, and mint. All ingredients are organic—from foraged wild greens to mushrooms—and bread is made on the premises in tone, a clay tandoori-like oven. Stop in for a glass of qvevri-fermented natural wine at the restaurant’s wine bar, which acts like an informal travel agency and can arrange visits to local winemakers—one of whom may be sitting next to you at the bar. They can definitely set up a tour of Wurdemna’s Pheasant’s Tears winery. The restaurant’s entertainment is the resident Zedashe Ensemble, founded by Wurdeman’s wife, and Wurdeman often sings along.
With its medieval churches and soft rolling hills covered by vineyards, Kakheti is Georgia’s answer to Tuscany. Among the region’s most charming places to stay is Chateau Mere, located near Telavi, the largest city in Kakheti. The place calls itself a chateau, but the quaint, turreted, rough-hewn stone complex feels slightly like a ramshackle estate of an eccentric, over-hospitable uncle who treats hotel guests like friends. Owner George Piradashvili is gregarious (even by Georgian standards) and is the entrepreneur behind the excellent Winiveria winery. He opened the hotel in 2011 because he wanted a place for his friends, who are mostly Georgian musicians and actors, to stay in. The living room is crammed with photos of Georgian celebrities who usually stay here, along with a piano, antlers galore, Georgian textiles, and an antique gramophone that all create a homey feel. The 15 guestrooms have pine floors and tasteful, minimal furnishings. Most guests prefer to hang out by the pool or on the terrace, taking in the romantic views of the lush Alazani Valley and the dramatic Caucuses mountains beyond, drinking the owner’s juicy Saperavi wines or the aromatic white Khikhvi, and tasting his house-cured meats and stringy, briny artisanal cheeses. The hotel also arranges grape-picking and crushing activities, cheese-making and bread-baking demos, and horse riding. Piradashvili also owns the romantic lakeside Royal Batoni hotel.
North of Tbilisi, you’ll find some of Georgia’s most iconic attractions: Jvari Monastery and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, both UNESCO World Heritage sites, located in Mtskheta, the former religious center of Georgia. Then drive along the stunningly scenic Georgian Military Highway to Stepantsminda, commonly known as Kazbegi, where neighboring Mount Kazbegi makes for great walking or biking. Stay at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi in the 6,000-mile high Kazbegi village. This improbably stylish mirage of a mountain lodge was the brainchild of a local gambling tycoon, Timur Ugulava. A minimalist Scandinavian aesthetic (and barely any closet space) dominates inside the serene 156 guestrooms, all with breathtaking views on snow-covered slopes. The public spaces are decorated with fascinating Georgian vintage film posters, old rugs, bookshelves, and leather couches that invite endless lingering. The restaurant does stylish takes on Georgian dishes; don’t miss the khachapuri (cheese pies). There’s also a cozy bar with its own fireplace and cigar menu, a sweeping sun deck, an almost Olympic-size indoor swimming pool, and mountain bikes for the guests. The building is fashioned from metal, glass, and local wood reclaimed from old buildings.
2 Pavle Ingorokva St, T'bilisi, Georgia
This wine-centric restaurant, located near Freedom Square, is owned by local collector, folklorist, and cultural preservationist Luarsab Togonidze, who also runs a fashion brand that revives traditional Georgian clothing. The modern Eastern-Mediterranean menu is inspired by food cultures Georgian traditionally traded or had relationships with, from Persia to Byzantine-Greece. On the plates are heady permutations of garlic, eggplant, tahini, and local herbs, such as cilantro, purple basil, and tarragon. Ingredients are strictly local and seasonal: In the spring, a nettle pilaf or meatballs in sorrel sauce; fall might bring baked polenta with wild local mushrooms. Tiramisu is reinterpreted with homemade ladyfingers soaked in local Rkatsateli white wine. The owner often greets guests dressed in the chokha, Georgian national costume, which is a calf-length wool coat with a tapered waist. His advisor on food and wine is John Wurdeman, the American co-owner of Pheasants Tears winery. Decor features ethnographic wine artifacts—ceramic drinking vessels, decanters, and traditional drinking horns displayed on glass shelves—which sets the wine theme. The name of the restaurant comes from a silver ladle used by nobles for scooping and drinking wine. Chances are you’re going to hear Georgian polyphonic singing at one of the tables; guests often break into spontaneous song.
13 Ivane Machabeli St, T'bilisi, Georgia
This place opened in May 2015 and is located inside a romantic garden. The garden belongs to the graceful Art Nouveau mansion built in 1905 by a notorious brandy magnate, then appropriated by the Soviet Georgian Union of Writers. Now, where nomenklatura scribes once devoured elite rations, chic young Tbilisians are sampling chef Tekuna Gachechiladze’s modern riffs on old flavors. Platinum blond and blue-eyed, stylish even in a chef’s jacket, Tekuna went to New York in the early days get a PhD in psychology, but somehow ended up at a cooking school. Back in 2006, she ran a chic brasserie in Tbilisi, then she opened Culinarium (her own cooking school with a built-in restaurant), followed by Littera. She is remixing classic Georgian flavors for the 21st century. Elarji, Georgia’s white grits and cheese, is reimagined as fried puffy croquettes, gooey with smoked suluguni cheese, and served with a smooth Baja sauce made with almonds instead of the usual walnuts. Tartare of buttery Georgian beef is highlighted with adjika, a fiery coriander-perfumed chili paste (made by her mother-in-law) and tangy djonjoli, pickled flowers of the bladderwort plant. Just as ethereally reconfigured are her wild Black Sea mussels in chakhapuli, a springtime sauce of tarragon and tart green plums that usually smothers meat. Dessert might be a panna cotta of buffalo yogurt with caramelized walnuts.
Kakheti Hwy, T'bilisi, Georgia
Located off the busy highway that leads from the airport to Tbilisi, there’s a remarkable restaurant specializing in cuisine from Georgia’s eastern Kakheti region. Local truckers love the takeout bakery window, where golden khachapuri (cheese pies) preen in their many cheesy varieties. Inside: low couches, stone walls, blue and white-painted ceiling, black-and-white vintage photos. Huge burnished bread loaves, leavened with natural hops, are made with an old mother starter and baked by the young resident baker (once a classical flautist). Jumber Khunadze is the portly, unstoppable hospitable manager, who makes sure guests are happy, fed, and have their glasses filled with house wine, such as the inky young Saperavi. On the locavore menu: velvety walnut-stuffed eggplant rolls, plump meat-filled dolmas dabbed with thick buffalo yogurt, interesting cheeses—from the supple Suluguni with a purple Saperavi-washed rind to Gouda ripened in sheep’s skins. Seasonal specialties might include delicate kalmakha tree mushrooms, which are sizzled in a clay skillet called a ketsi, then strewn with walnuts and tarragon blades. Owner Chichiko Goletiani, who is also a Microsoft rep here in Georgia, opened the restaurant as a hobby and labor of love, sourcing everything from the lush organic farms of Kakheti. His pride is the sizzling meats, whether it’s the sweet baby lamb chops that taste like meat lollipops or the succulent mtsvadi (kebab) from fat Kakhetian calves. This is farm-to-table—not as a fad, but as a way of life. Tea from mountain herbs gathered by shepherds is served with homemade preserves in such flavors as Cornelian cherries.
Elene Akvhlediani Agmarti, 4, T'bilisi 0103, Georgia
Opened in 2015, this wine-centric retreat—up a hill from the Mtkvari River and near the presidential palace—is in its own cozy world with a romantic garden. It features 13 guestrooms decorated with carpets, homey antiques, and wooden armoires that look culled from old family homes. Each room is different: some feature blond Karelian Birchwood furniture, one has a hamam and a vintage French fireplace, and others Art Nouveau accents. The balconied building is a lovely example of traditional Tbilisi late 19th-century architecture, designed by a well-known local designer from Saba Design Company who studied in and was inspired by Italy. Downstairs is the private tasting room and wine cellar, dedicated to the hotel’s encyclopedic selection of Georgian vintages—some dating back decades. The hotel restaurant is one of the most interesting in Tbilisi, overlooking the charming surrounding garden. The chef adds creative presentation to Georgian dishes, like lobio (stewed red beans in a clay pot served with rustic cornbread), phali (vegetables pates in walnut sauce), and pkhlovana (a savory bread filled with beet leaves). The suggested wine pairings are spot on, like the addictive green cilantro soup with rye bread toast and a pairing with oak-aged chacha, Georgia’s fiery answer to grappa. And the French-inspired cheeses are made by famous cheese-producing nuns from the Pokhe Convent.