An overland journey home

Kiwi journalists Mauricio Olmedo-Perez and Charlotte Whale are taking the scenic route home from London.

Sampling Georgia's Old World wines

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Trying some traditionally-produced Georgian wine. Photo / Mauricio Olmedo-Perez
Trying some traditionally-produced Georgian wine. Photo / Mauricio Olmedo-Perez

As we headed to the far east of Turkey we were having to pull out our mini atlas more and more to explain where exactly we came from.

It would usually go like this: The suspicious Turk would scrutinise the page, take the atlas over to a group of his mates, they'd huddle around it in deep discussion. When they'd decided that we weren't making it up, we'd finally get the book back, all of them grinning at us - their new discovery.

Proving the existence of New Zealand wasn't a problem when we got to Georgia.

"Ah! Rugby!" was the first thing the border control officer said to us. I'd forgotten it had a team in the World Cup.

We took a long bus ride across the country, but were entertained by local passengers singing and dancing with each other - total strangers it turned out.

Outside, the entire 600-kilometre journey to the capital Tbilisi seemed to be lined with persimmon trees.

We got in quite late, so began our exploration of the city early next morning.

We discovered a fabulous flea market, full of old Soviet-era knick knacks that we wanted but couldn't fit into our packs, and art we loved but couldn't really afford.

All that self control made us hungry so we were on the lookout for somewhere to lunch.

Now I don't think I'm going to get the sympathy vote here, considering many of you might be reading this at work, but choosing a place to eat on holiday is a very big decision.

Boohoo I hear you say? Well for us, food can be the difference between a good holiday and a great one.

There's usually countless places to choose from and we're caught between indecision, hunger and the fear that the eventual decision could be the wrong one.

It's not just about the food either, it's about hunting for that hidden gem with the inquisitive owner who offers free little tidbits instead of settling for the restaurant with pushy wait staff and photos on the menu. (Very occasionally there's a bit of tension between the two of us when we eventually sit down. Hunger has made me ratty and Mauricio is fed up with the ordeal of searching.)

We've been pretty lucky - only a few dud meals so far. I've really enjoyed noticing the differences in flavours and techniques as we move from country to country.

Slovenia's food was influenced by the countries around its border: A lot of goulash and dumplings as well as pasta and risotto. We could taste strong Greek flavours in Albanian food. And in Georgia, the flavours are unmistakeably influenced by the Far East. One of the country's traditional dishes, Khinkali, is a dumpling and looks and tastes very similar to what you would order for dim sum.

After lunch we took a cab to Tbilisi's main shopping area. We'd been told to expect a bit of construction but what we found was more like a war zone. The government is taking an all-or-nothing approach and giving the entire boulevard a facelift.

Workmen warming themselves over open fires, rubble everywhere, dodgy scaffolding and geriatric generators littered the street. But nobody blinked an eye. It was shopping as usual for Tbilisi's elite, while Mauricio and I flinched at every loud noise.

I know I've blabbed on about food but what Georgia is most famous for is wine.

The country claims that preserved seeds found there prove it was the first to cultivate grapes. So we headed out to the wine region, Kakheti, and by the time we got there, man did we need a drink!

Despite there being only one line down the centre of Georgian country roads, drivers seem to see an imaginary third lane and many of them just drive down the middle, not bothering to pull in after they've overtaken. Our minibus did just that. I was bracing for death at every turn as the driver didn't exactly look like he had the reflexes of a cat, which would've been required if someone happened to be coming the other way.

Before I could get my hands on a drink we took a little detour to the Bodbiskhevi Market. We tumbled out of the death trap and jumped into a beaten-up Lada with a sweet old man who didn't go over 50km/hr. We must have driven through a time warp on our way because I have never seen anything like what I saw when I got out of the car.

Animal lovers stop here. Toothless women with black whiskers held up squawking chickens by their feet. Pigs were stuffed in rusty cages and pulled out by their hind legs to show off to possible buyers. Bovine carcasses as big as me hung from makeshift wooden stalls with corrugated iron roofs. Boisterous butchers hacked away cuts of meat with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. Wrinkled men selling homebrew out of petrol containers - I kid you not.

We just walked around not talking to one other. Everyone was welcoming and smiling, despite our dazed expressions. Very rural and very raw. I had to be careful to keep the distraught look off my face in the poultry/pork section: it's just the way they roll and who was I to come to their patch and judge?

So after all that we were very very thirsty. We made a beeline for the little village of Sighnaghi, home of the Pheasants Tears Organic restaurant. Its winery is located close by but as it was low season we couldn't take a tour.

The restaurant offered wine tasting and a fresh daily menu - the produce was of course sourced from Bodbiskhevi Market.

Adam, a seventeen-year-old fresh faced intern from the United States, took us through the process. He was exceedingly knowledgeable and so wholesome and sweet I just wanted to squidge his cheeks: the poor boy was probably a bit put off during his whole speech by the strange lady looking at him like a child looks at a puppy.

The traditional Georgian way to make wine is with a kvevri. Putting the grapes - with the skins still on - into a big clay pot and burying it in the ground. The pot is lined with beeswax to stop oxidation.

The result is a very different tasting wine from what we're used to. Now I'm not going to pretend to be a wine expert, but I drink enough of the stuff and I know what I like. And I like Georgian wine.

Pheasants Tears didn't offer a white, instead it has an amber wine, with a nice hint of honey. I also enjoyed their black wine. A very dark red, apparently the skins are left on the grapes until the very last minute.

Up until recently, Georgia exported its wine solely to Russia. But amid worsening relations in 2006, Russia banned all Georgian exports so wine producers were forced to explore the global market.

The traditional kvevri process came under threat as big producers adopted European methods using stainless steel and oak to give the wines a mainstream taste. A handful of organic producers have stayed the course though and as international wine drinkers get bored of the same old stuff they've been drinking forever, places like Pheasants Tears are slowly but surely seeing a demand for their product. So if you ever see traditional Georgian wine in New Zealand - give it a go.

Next destination after Georgia, well that's where we hit a snag. Our plan was Central Asia but being journalists makes getting visas to some countries there very difficult. So our next stop is India, we'll explain why in the next blog.

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