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Saturday, 21 October, 2000, 10:44 GMT
A dream of Georgian vineyards
Georgia's mountains
A view of the mountains in the area

By Robert Parsons

In the Alazani valley, it had been a summer like no other. Not a drop of rainfall between June and September and a sun that burnt with a relentless, blinding dazzle.

The valley shimmered in a throbbing, ennervating heat; a furnace that sucked the moisture from the soil and turned villages into a cloud of dust.

Rob Parsons in his vineyard
Rob Parsons in his vineyard
In Kisiskhevi, the men sat beneath their walnut trees and waited - the languid stillness of midday broken by the rattle of dice on a backgammon board and the crackle of dessicated leaves.

In the distance, the mountains of the Caucasus quivered green and liquid, playing tricks with my imagination. I followed the flight of a hawk, its wings out-stretched to catch the uplift from the heat spirals.

Stalin's barber

It had been 20 years since I first came to Georgia, carried south from Moscow for two sweltering days on a Soviet train - 20 years since an idea had first formed in my mind.

I blame it all on Stalin's barber - the man who once shaved the greying whiskers of the fearsome dictator. It was a chance encounter in the forested hills north of Kutaisi in western Georgia.

The memory is clouded now by the passing of time and the cluttered accumulation of experience but it still lingers - a moment of magic and poetry in my first Georgian vineyard.

medieval stone church in Georgia
Stone houses are a common feature in Georgia
It was early March. The winter snow had melted and a herd of pigs was snorting and sifting through the sodden leaves at the side of the mud track. Our car rolled and slithered into a village.

Temuri and Maia met me at the station. Friends of friends, they were about to teach me a mind-numbing lesson in Georgian hospitality. We stopped outside a large stone house, its wooden balcony coiled with vines.

I had no idea at the time but this was to be the first stop on a bacchanalian tour of their relatives' kitchens - no small venture in a village where everybody shared the same family name.

The table heaved with food, the air reeked of spices and wood smoke and I found myself the object of the curious gaze of a small gathering of very large men.

They had the stubby fingers of those who have always worked the soil, bellies that boasted of a bucolic wealth and the red glowing noses of men who think nothing of downing several litres of wine a day.

This 16th century church is a famous vineyard and winery in the Alizani valley
A 16th century church, part of a famous vineyard in the Alizani valley
I have a vague recollection of a series of introductory toasts and the terrifying appearance of a gigantic drinking horn that made its way inexhorably around the table. I felt my brain go chill and numb long before I reached the bottom.

The surroundings span into an incoherent whirl. Time was concertined until through the mists of alchohol I found myself in a vineyard in the chill of early evening.

I believe - and given the state I was in I cannot be absolutely sure - that I was being introduced to Stalin's barber - a man with remarkably steady hands.

Mole hills of wine

He led the way through an orchard towards a group of curious mounds - what at first I took for mole hills.

An old man now, he stooped at the first mound, looked up at me and said: "Let's try this one". I was nonplussed. Did he intend to drag the mole out by its tail?

No, he explained, this was the traditional Georgian way of making wine - unchanged for thousands of years. The juice from the grapes and their skins are poured into a giant amphora - what the Georgians call a kvevri.

It's then buried in the soil up to its narrow neck. The top is covered with an oak lid, sealed with clay and covered by an earthen mound. And then its left alone, out among the flowers, to ferment and turn to wine.

saperavi grape
The saperavi grape is densely red
There was a moment of hush as Stalin's barber cleared away the top soil and scraped off the clay. He paused like a priest about to confer the sacraments. Only the lid remained.

He stood and, so as to underline the drama of the occasion, trod deliberately around its circumference. I edged closer and willed him to take the final step.

As the lid came away, a raspberry haze rose from the ground and was swept away on the breeze. A crimson mirror reflected the scudding clouds - 400 litres of fresh young wine.

The barber took his ladle and scooped out the first glass and handed it to me. I raised it to my mouth and drank. It was a moment of magical intensity.

"It's saperavi," he said, referring to the grape, which in Georgian means pigment. It was densely red and cool and stained my lips like blood.

Georgia and its vineyards had taken over a corner of my mind.

20 years on

Twenty years on, sitting in the ferocious heat of summer, the memory of that day wafted back across time. It had been summoned by an association of ideas. I had been gazing absent-mindedly at a row of saperavi vines - my own saperavi vines - when the image of the barber reassembled itself in my thoughts.

"It's saperavi," he said, and I saw myself raising that glass to my lips. A vague wish made then - to own my own vineyard - had been fulfilled.

So much had had to change to make it possible - the disintegration of the Soviet Union, that empire of captive nations, Georgia's declaration of independence nine years ago and legislation passed by the Georgian parliament last year allowing foreigners to buy land.

Sitting in the shade of a tree, a trickle of sweat running down my back, I ran my eyes across the land my friends and I had bought.

A line of walnut trees mark the northern border, beyond which the Caucasus rose jagged thousands of feet above the Alazani - the cradle of Georgian wine. Around me, the vineyard itself - half saperavi, half white rkatsiteli.

Towards the back, an orchard: figs, peaches, plums and pears, pomegranates, apples, apricots and medlars. And amidst it all, rising from the dust, our house, its roof now on and a terrace slowly taking shape.

Eyes half closed, I reached out for a jug of wine cradled in the roots of the tree and dreamed... dreamed of a row of mole hills, beneath each of which lay 400 litres of wine.

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See also:

17 Jun 00 | Europe
Winning wrinkles in Georgia
07 Apr 00 | Media reports
Shevardnadze's campaign pledges
16 Mar 00 | Europe
The Caucasus: Troubled borderland
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