Imagine a country that is uniformly green, with consistently blue skies, 25 degrees when Delhi is 45, has snow-covered peaks as well as sea-side resorts, was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity but is strongly influenced by Islam, is inexpensive and extremely tourist-friendly and perhaps invented wine 7,000 years ago. It gets better still. It has one of the most beautiful capitals in Europe, is famous for its traditional polyphonic singing, issues e-visas in five days and is not too far away from home. Most readers still won’t get it, so let me add two final clues: Somewhat surprisingly, given the carefree spirit of its people, it produced one of the 20th century’s most ruthless and reviled dictators, and second, it fought a brief war recently with Russia (which, not surprisingly, it lost). I am referring of course to Georgia, which, along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, straddles the isthmus between the Caspian and Black seas and has long stood as a gateway between Europe and Asia.
Some time back, archaeologists excavated the kvevris of Armenia and Georgia. These are huge clay pots lined with beeswax, filled with grape juice, sealed with wooden lids and buried in the ground over the winter. The wine-making art of ancient times is still practised in Georgian homes. Since the cold of winter halts fermentation before all the sugar becomes alcohol, Georgian wines are often sweet. Without any additives, these ‘natural wines’ are becoming fashionable in Europe today. Most families still produce several hundred litres of the drink each year for their own consumption as well as for festivals and feasts. I took the funicular up a hill overlooking the city to a wine fair held to mark the new season. A happily inebriated crowd was moving from stall to stall sampling the latest offerings from dozens of wine-makers, exporters, as well as families.