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Saturday, 30 December, 2000, 15:17 GMT
Georgia on my mind
Georgia's mountains
Kakheti - the heartland of Georgian wine country
By Robert Parsons

At first sight I can't say it looked like much - not even now in the warm glow of memory.

The house was more a shell than a building, its grey corrugated roof mottled with lichen, its windows open to the elements and its rooms host to a herd of cows.

They looked up nonchalantly as I staggered in across a pile of rubble and hay, dismissed me with a heavy shake of their heads and resumed their bovine cogitations.


Vano was in his element, bursting into song, lord of all around him, master of the Caucasus, last of Georgia's kings

I might as well have not existed.

But I knew instantly that I had found what I was looking for.

For two November days, we had bucked and weaved in our jeep through the villages of Kakheti in eastern Georgia - Gurjaani, Qvareli, Iqalto, Shuamta, Manavi, the heartland of Georgian wine country.

Caucasus mountains

There were four of us: Lawrence, an American journalist with the Caucasus in his veins, Magdalena, Vano and myself.

Rob Parsons in his vineyard
Robert Parsons in Georgia
We were all in search of our holy grail - a farmhouse set in a green expanse of vines, a wooden balcony that gazed out onto the mountains of the Caucasus and an orchard heavy with the rich fruits of Kakheti.

It was a farmhouse crafted from wood and stone, squat and solid and capped with the soft russet of Kakhetian tile.

Vano was the key. I had first met him in London. An actor with a long pedigree in Soviet cinema, he had got a part in a film about a 19th century Englishwoman's love affair with Georgia.

He was an impressive sight - more apparition than real amid the down-at-heel terraces of north London.

Vineyards

He was a Georgian mountaineer with the long black beard of an Iranian mullah and the characteristic hawk nose of the Caucasus.

medieval stone church in Georgia
Stone houses are a common feature in Georgia
But it was the eyes - one aqua green the other piercing blue - that commanded attention. We became friends.

Ten years later, Vano was back in the now-independent Georgia and lead actor in a theatre fallen on hard times.

But Vano was not despondent. The acting kept him busy and he had his vineyards to look after.

I had sat with him on the balcony of his home the previous summer and marvelled at the quality of his red wine.

Powers of persuasion

It was then that he suggested the idea. "Why don't you buy yourself a house and vineyard here in Kakheti? I can look after things while you're away and you and the family can come down whenever you want a rest."

It was far too complicated, I protested.

saperavi grape
The saperavi grape is densely red
The vines would need too much care, and Kakheti was too far away.

Vano swept aside my concerns with a dismissive wave of his hands.

"It's easy... you pay the money, I'll sort out the paper work."

His teeth gleamed triumphantly behind his now greying beard.

Back in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, I broached the idea with Lawrence and Magdalena.

Biblical simplicity

"Want to buy a vineyard in Kakheti?" I suggested jokingly, expecting a shower of scorn.

They needed no convincing. Which was why, on that grey November morning, the four of us found ourselves lurching through the vineyards of Kakheti's Alazani valley.

Vano was in his element, bursting into song, lord of all around him, master of the Caucasus, last of Georgia's kings.

Tbilisi
The vineyard is a world away from Georgia's capital Tbilisi
There was a biblical simplicity to the countryside: a donkey braying by the roadside, the plangent whistles of a lone shepherd echoing down a dried-up river bed, and a stillness in the air that betrayed the onset of winter.

Georgians have been growing grapes and making wine in the Alazani valley since before the birth of Christ.

Archaeologists think as much as 3,000 years before - which would make Georgia the home of wine.

Falling on deaf ears

Georgians don't doubt it for a moment. They point out that more than 500 native varieties of grape grow in the country and claim that the very word "wine" derives from their own "ghvino".

The famous French traveller, writer and businessman Jean Chardin, who passed through Georgia on his way to Persia in 1673, remarked even then on the quality of the local wine.

"It has great strength and plenty of body," he noted. "It has a pleasant taste and is good for the stomach. If only the Georgians knew how to make wine like the French, it would be the best in the world."

Three-hundred years later, the Georgians continue to turn a deaf ear to foreign advice. Villagers make their wine in the same time-honoured fashion observed by Chardin, and we were set on joining them.

The perfect choice

That day, Vano the actor had transmogrified into Vano the Kakhetian estate agent. He had already spied out the ground.

As we approached the first property, he tapped his nose and gave us a look of cunning. "Okay", he said, "l'll pretend to do the buying and that you're just foreign friends. If they suspect you're buying, the word will be out all over Kakheti."

We thought we had kept Vano's pretence rather well - until on the second day he decided to reconnoitre one house by himself.

He made a tentative, probing offer to sound out the ground. The owner snorted derisively. He had other plans.

Final card

"Don't you know there are some rich foreigners in Kakheti looking for a house. One of them is from the BBC. When he sees my place, he'll double your offer."

He was mistaken. We didn't want his house. In fact, we didn't want any of the houses we'd seen. Vano was in despair. But he had a final card to play.

"There is a beautiful village," he said. "It's called Kisiskhevi and it looks straight across the Alazani valley to the mountains. The villagers are the most honest and hard-working in Kakheti."

The superlatives went on. Vano was clearly desperate.

As we approached, a watery sun broke through the cloud cover, illuminating the rain-soaked mountains in pale beams of light.

The vineyards in the Alazani glistened black and bare. We forked right and into an avenue of walnut trees.

Vano was looking pleased with himself: "It's this one," he said. "The second on the right."

It was the vineyard that made it possible to ignore the cows - that and the view of the Caucasus, and the orchard at the back.

The building itself had never been finished, because the owner had run out of cash and wanted to sell it quickly. It looked like a ruin, but we convinced ourselves that a new roof, a balcony, a terrace and a wine cellar would transform it.

We barely hesitated. I handed Vano my mobile phone and within minutes, the deal was done.

"The owner has agreed. All I have to do is sign the papers," he said.

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See also:

21 Oct 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
A dream of Georgian vineyards
17 Jun 00 | Europe
Winning wrinkles in Georgia
16 Mar 00 | Europe
The Caucasus: Troubled borderland
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