Washington, D.C. has a Georgian restaurant. One. Before Supra opened last November, the nearest place to get Georgian food was New York. It’s a welcome addition to the D.C. dining scene. It made our 2017 DC Food Round-Up – By The Food Writers (under The Best Food Trends) and visiting the restaurant piqued our interest in Georgian wine. So we asked Supra owner Jonathan Nelms for a Drink Diary.
From drinking in airports during an 8-hour layover to visiting Georgia’s capital Tbilisi and Armenia’s capital Yerevan, here’s our most worldly Drink Diary yet.
When: Monday, February 19, 2018
Where: Washington Dulles International Airport, United Airlines, Business Class Lounge, Terminal C
What: Bloody Mary
Ten years ago, when I started traveling internationally for work, I had the same drink in the same lounge on the way to Zug, Switzerland. Balancing law firm life – now as a partner – with restaurant life didn’t really work, so this will be my last mission. Four days doing an anti-corruption risk assessment for a client in Georgia, followed by more of the same in Armenia. Some restaurant recon in between for Supra.
Probably my last business class travel for a while. The end of an era. So I’m bookending it with another Bloody Mary in the lounge. Not the greatest bar in the world, not the greatest drink, but tip while the bartender is reaching for the (rail – Smirnoff) vodka, and he’ll be a little more generous with the pour.
When: Tuesday, February 20
Where: Munich Airport, Lufthansa Senator’s Lounge, Terminal 2
What: Assorted (8-hour layover)
Wondered if Lowenbrau in its Motherland would be better than what I remember from college. It’s fine. I’m not a big beer guy, and in the middle of a 24-hour trip – business class or not – I’m not demanding a lot from my beer. This is fine.
The German news is showing that Georgian guy who won a major sumo wrestling tournament in Japan. Bet he can go through some Lowenbrau.
When: Wednesday, February 21
Where: Azarpesha (Tbilisi)
What: “Tamuna’s Wine,” Rkatsiteli 2016 (qvevri-fermented, unfiltered amber)
The Georgian capital is having a restaurant renaissance to go with the revitalization of its wine industry. One of the best is Azarpesha, part-owned by John Wurdeman, an American living in Georgia for over 25 years and one of the country’s most innovative and passionate winemakers. In addition to producing excellent wines for his Pheasant’s Tears label, John is a tireless advocate for others making natural wine in traditional methods, especially – but not only – in Georgia.
One of those is Tamuna Bidinashvili. Her marani (“wine cellar,” where the wine is made in terra cotta qvevri buried in the ground) is located in the village of Gremi in the Georgian wine region of Kakheti. Tamuna’s rkatsiteli is a semi-carbonic amber that encapsulates 8,000 years of Georgian viniculture but is very much a wine of today, especially as the product of a rare female Georgian winemaker. (‘Semi-carbonic’ meaning that some portion of the grapes are tossed in the qvevri whole and allowed to ferment without being crushed, a la Beaujolais Nouveau.)
I’m here with clients who love Georgian food almost as much as I do and are eager to see what Georgian wine is all about. Tamuna’s wine is a perfect kick-off to the trip. If you want to know what Georgian wine is all about and where it’s going today, you could do worse than this innovative treatment of rkatsiteli, Georgia’s most popular and best-known grape.
When: Thursday, February 22
Where: Barbarestan (Tbilisi)
What: Pheasant’s Tears, 2016 Tavkveri-Rosé (qvevri-fermented, unfiltered dark rosé) Winiveria, 2015 Saperavi (qvevri-fermented, unfiltered red)
Named for Barbare Jorjadze, author of a celebrated 19th-century cookbook, Barbarestan is decidedly not about Georgia’s 20th-century culinary greatest hits. Barbare’s descendants proudly bear her memory, the manager practically tearing up as he shows off a first edition, kept in a wooden box like a reliquary.
At the cozy basement restaurant on David the Builder (Davit Agmashenebeli) Avenue, they are working through the entire cookbook, and the results are phenomenal. A column of crispy pork skin comes packed with rich meat and accompanied by sour plum tkemali sauce. Dessert is an astonishing array of cheese foam, vanilla ice cream, candied seeds and salt. As unexpected as it was delicious.
I asked the waiter to “surprise me” for wine, and he came back with two good ones: First, a tavkveri-rosé by Pheasant’s Tears. We at Supra know John and his excellent wines well, but I haven’t had the rosé for a while. It’s outstanding but maybe not what a U.S. consumer would know as a rosé. (This may work for those looking for the elusive “Georgian pinot,” as this reads to me more like a light red than a rosé.)
Next a Winiveria saperavi. Saperavi is the most-common (by far) red wine in Georgia, and Winiveria is the winery at the Chateau Mare. Laura, Chef Lonnie, and I visited at the tail end of our whirlwind tour of Kakheti last summer just before we opened. This one is a classic, very well executed saperavi, with plum and cooked-fruit notes that complement the pork perfectly.
When: Friday, February 23
Where: Vino Underground (Tbilisi)
What: Archil Guniava, 2016 Krakhuna (qvevri-fermented, unfiltered light amber) DoReMi, 2015 Aladasturi (qvevri-fermented, unfiltered light red)
A wine bar that in one room includes so much there is to love about Tbilisi today. Western tourists, Russian visitors, and – most importantly – young Georgians come to sample wines they’ve never heard of along with raw foods and other organic snacks. Sitting with Ia Tabagaria of Living Roots Tours, we discuss the future of wine tourism. And of course we have wine, in this case wines from outside Kakheti.
First, one of my favorite wines – one that we’re proud to offer at Supra – a 2016 Krakhuna by Archil Guniava from the Kvaliti village of the Imereti region, out west. Tropical-fruity and light with an undercurrent of the dried fruits characteristic of Georgia’s qvevri-born ambers.
Second, a 2015 Aladasturi 2015 by DoReMi, also from Imereti. Aladasturi is unknown outside Georgia (and barely known in Georgia), though that may be changing. An extremely dry, qvevri-fermented (of course) red, Aladasturi is definitely not a beginner’s Georgian wine. A real kick of earthy qvevri goodness and a tannic punch let you know you’re drinking on the frontiers of Georgian winemaking.
Third, fourth, fifth…. Plenty more but I had to set aside my notebook and concentrate on the wine.
When: Saturday, February 24
Where: Khasheria (Tbilisi)
What: Blui’s Wine, Jghia 2016 (qvevri-fermented, unfiltered rosé)
In October 2015, genius chef Tekuna Gachechiladze (Khasheria, Café Littera, Culinarium) was gracious enough to invite me to Tbilisi to talk about introducing Georgian cuisine to a Western market. Her husband, professional photographer Irakli Bluishvili, was just starting to experiment with winemaking in his ancestral home in Akura village, Kakheti. I spent the weekend helping him clean qvevri and pump wine from one qvevri to the next.
Unbelievable that just a couple years later, “Blui’s Wine” is in bottles and on the market. And it’s good! Really good. Even better, he is making wine with the ultra-rare jghia grape. (The Soviet period and their fanatical dedication to 5-Year Plans saw Georgia’s 527 grape varieties reduced to 5.) Today only a handful of small producers are working with the revived jghia, fruit-forward but dry, with sour notes that cancel out any sweetness to make an incredibly drinkable light red or rosé qvevri wine. (We had some last year but sold out fast, and we’re looking for more!)
Sitting outside on a sunny warm day in Tbilisi, enjoying Tekuna’s ingenious updates/adaptations of classic Georgian recipes and drinking Irakli’s jghia is almost enough to make me forget I’m here on business. (It’s OK. The clients left. I’ll see them next week in Yerevan.) Next job: Get Blui’s jghia at Supra!
When: Sunday, February 25
Where: Poliphonia (Tbilisi)
What: Nikoladzeebis Marani, Tsitska 2016 (qvevri-fermented, unfiltered amber)
Tbilisi’s restaurant revolution can sometimes be hard to keep up with. I knew Poliphonia by reputation – it’s one of the wave of great new restaurants doing imaginative new things with traditional Georgian dishes – but I hadn’t been there yet. So I was a little confused when I got there and recognized the place. Turns out the excellent Shavi Lomi used to occupy Poliphonia’s very cool underground space. (Shavi Lomi recently moved across the river to the super-hip Plekhanov neighborhood.)
With a light yogurt starter, Georgian matsoni with green chilis and preserved lemon, and thick Megrelian kharcho (a walnut-sauced beef stew), I had a great amber wine from Nikoladzeebis Marani, a 2016 tsitska. Tsitska is another “rediscovered” grape that Georgians are just starting to re-embrace after the Soviet devastation of the industry. Light and crisp for an amber, tsitska offers green-apple tartness, the minerality and acidity tempered by an herbal grassiness characteristic of West-Georgian grapes. At Supra, we often look to tsitskas when we want to introduce ambers to newcomers.
When: Monday, February 26
Where: Rest stop (the Georgia-Armenia border)
What: No idea, something from a thermos
Nakhvamdis, Sakartvelo! (Goodbye, Georgia!)
I’m driving from Tbilisi to Yerevan, a lovely drive that takes you through snowy mountains and past the beautiful Lake Sevan. Along the road we stop at a way station that would put any I-95 rest stop to shame. Even at this roadside café, they are really cooking: bread from a Georgian toné (even though we’re in Armenia now), kebabs, a hundred cookies in all shapes and sizes, and so on.
A friend of the driver’s appears. They’re regulars on this route. Over some kind of shwarma – can’t make out the Armenian – we toast with something from a thermos. The thermos says “Messi!!!” and features a cartoon footballer kicking an improbable goal. I think, “That looks like Messi’s kid drew him.”
I wonder if that will be my last thought as something like molten steel burns down my throat. I think about Johnny Tremain and my daughter’s recent book report on same. (Who will help her with future book reports?) Eventually the vapors clear, and a pleasant smoky, grapy haze fills my throat. I manage to more or less genuinely say, “Mmm!” to the smiling driver and his pal.
“Ees chacha-a?” (Is this chacha?), I croak, for some reason in Georgian. (Driver and friend are Armenian.) [Eruptions of laughter.] I may never know….
When: Thursday, March 1
Where: Lavash (Yerevan)
What: Oghi, Konjak, Wine
While I’m focusing on Georgia for this piece, it would be very uncool to not say that hospitality in Armenia is no less of an art form than in Georgia. On our last night in Yerevan, our hosts took us to the lovely Lavash, a bright and modern – if a bit corporate – place downtown. (They use the same Steelite dishware that we considered – but couldn’t afford – when we opened Supra.)
Sahak, our host, does all the ordering, and everything is delicious. One of my favorite features of the Armenian table is the large plate of greens waiting when you sit down. Eaten wrapped in lavash with salty sheep’s cheese, the herbs mock the notion of an “amuse bouche” with their rustic simplicity.
They go well with our first drink, some sort of neutral spirit (not vodka) infused with mulberry, a drink called oghi or aragh and produced under the Artsakh label. (Now I know what was in that thermos. I’m pretty sure “aragh” is the sound I made when I drank it. This one’s better.) Warm and fruity, what you’d drink if you got lost in the snow up in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Next a tandzi oghi, which is similar but distilled from pears. Smoother, fruity but with enough burn to make you reach for a handful of green herbs. Somehow munching those brings you back to Earth.
Finally, no meal would be complete without Armenian konjak. (Back around 1900, the French gave permission to the Armenians to use the term konjak/cognac to describe their excellent brandies.) Armenian konjak was a staple of Soviet celebrations of all sorts. I memorably once drank way too much Ararat konjak as a naïve exchange student back in the USSR and have shied away from it ever since.
Twenty-seven years later, I have made peace with Armenian konjak, and it’s clear Sahak picked an excellent one. The Ararat Nairi (20) is smooth and butterscotchy, worthy of the toasts of thanks and praise we heap on Sahak and his colleagues for their friendship and hospitality this week.
Supra photos by Armando Gallardo, travel photos by Jonathan Nelms