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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 October, 2003, 01:25 GMT
Revelling in Georgia's grape harvest

By Robert Parsons
BBC correspondent in Georgia

Georgia may be in the grip of election fever but people in the Kakheti region have other things on their mind - the grape harvest. The BBC's Robert Parsons bought a vineyard in the village of Kisiskhevi three years ago and has just finished harvesting his fruit.

Mountains in the Kakheti region
Kakheti is Georgia's main vine-growing region
Midnight in the vast bowl of the Alazani valley.

Outside, the infinite darkness of the Kakhetian night, heavy with the thick sweet scent of grapes.

Inside, two tables, eight guests and the demented rhythms of a pair of village musicians.

Expectation flickered in the air like the lightning that darted among the peaks of the nearby mountains.

The unbearable waiting was almost over - no more agonised assessments of clusters of ripening grapes, no more fearful examination of the lowering sky.

The time had come. The harvest, the rtveli, could begin.

At the table next to ours, two men had been locked in conversation.

Now they rose as if in a trance. Two brawny peasants, faces blackened by the summer sun with arms spread out like eagles and fingers flicking to the music.

They whirled with an ungainly grace that belied their rustic appearance. They snapped their legs and stamped their feet, threw back their shoulders and cracked their arms like whips.

Their cries of exultation filled the room and rebounded from the walls.

And then, just as suddenly as they had begun, the two men sank back into their seats, clutching their glasses of amber wine.

Overdue

It had been a mild summer and the harvest was three weeks overdue. But in mid-October, the sun burned with a ferocity that filled the grapes with hot juice and split their skins.

In the village of Kisiskhevi, horses and carts clattered through avenues of walnut trees laden with the bounty of autumn - wicker baskets piled high with rkatsiteli grapes.

Robert Parsons when he bought his vineyard in Georgia
Our correspondent bought his vineyard three years ago
I woke to the snorting of pigs. Hundreds of them advancing in a hairy black tide up the road that leads past our gate, snuffling out the fallen walnuts and sniffing the air.

Not the fat pink pigs of Western farmyards these, but long-limbed mountain pigs, with bristly hides and more than a hint of wild boar. I rushed to shut the gate to keep them from the vineyard.

They paused for an instant to give me an indignant porcine glare, then hurried off in search of easier pickings.

In the vineyard, the grapes glistened in the morning dew.

We have a mixture of black and green rkatsiteli. Now they sagged from the branches, heavy with the juice of next year's wine.

The sun had risen and vapour curled in wisps from the steaming ground.

Symbolic

The vine in Georgia has an iconic significance unmatched anywhere else in the world.

The vine is entwined into the national psyche - a symbol of regeneration, of wealth and plenty, and of the country's Christian faith in a sea of Islam and of resistance.

The Alazani valley lies on the old invasion route of the Persians into Georgia. The soldiers of the Shah would march along the road where our vineyard stands today hacking and burning as they advanced.

Yet just as often as the Persians destroyed the vines, the Georgians would grow them back again.

Perhaps because of this, the grape harvest in Georgia is more than just a Dionysian celebration - although it is that as well.

It is existential. It is a reaffirmation of survival, a statement of identity and of attachment to the land.

The rtveli also marks the end of the agricultural cycle - it is the last of the harvests. When it is over, preparation for the winter must begin.

Celebration

Our pickers arrived not by horse and cart but on the back of a swaying lorry. They disgorged into the vineyard, wicker baskets on their backs and the picking began.

We worked all morning, plucking the swollen sticky fruit from their straining stems.

Saperavi grape
The vine is a symbol of regeneration and plenty
By midday the job was done - 300 kilos of grapes. Not a big crop this year, but the fruit was good. Enough perhaps for 150 litres of wine.

That night we celebrated the end of the old and the beginning of a new cycle of life.

We roasted kebabs on a bed of vine cinders and quaffed great draughts of last year's wine to an endless stream of toasts.

Georgians don't sip their wine like Europeans. They throw it back with gusto, one glass at a time.

I stepped outside onto the balcony and into the great amphitheatre of the Alazani valley.

A power cut had plunged the whole of Kakheti into darkness. Inside, the revellers were in full flow.

"What enmity has destroyed," they sang, "love will rebuild" - their words drifting out across the valley.

The vineyard was illuminated by the light of the stars alone, glimmering in the inky night in all their unrivalled glory. The bed of vine cinders still glowed, but a crust of ash had already formed.

By morning the landscape had changed. Thick clouds scudded along the ragged edge of the Caucasus, disgorging their entrails along the mountain tops. The fire had died and a fine rain drizzled on the vineyard.

The grapes were gone and the vine leaves were turned to gold and red.

In the orchard, rain-varnished persimmons hung like perfect orange globes.



SEE ALSO:
Georgia on my mind
30 Dec 00  |  From Our Own Correspondent
A dream of Georgian vineyards
21 Oct 00  |  From Our Own Correspondent


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