In October, Megan Clarke, together with Sarah Abbott MW, Cat Lomax, Maggie Macpherson, and Salvatore Castano flew out to Tbilisi to take part in the IWSC’s wine judging in Georgia.
Here we hear from Megan about what the team of judges got up to during their visit to this historic country considered to be the 'cradle of wine'.
“My last visit to Georgia three years ago had been a great introduction to such a vibrant and welcoming country, so when the IWSC asked me to Georgia to judge the wine entrants ‘in situ’, I was delighted at the prospect of going back.
"After an overnight flight from Heathrow via Istanbul we arrived at the Wine Exchange in Tbilisi to embark upon our first day of judging. The Wine Exchange is easy to spot from the roadside as it features a giant corkscrew on the side of the building. On entry you are greeted by walls and walls of wine (mostly, but not all, Georgian) and an impressive display of empty wine bottles overhead.
"As per the IWSC’s judging format, flights were organised by style - a flight of Saperavi or a flight of Rkatsiteli – and we got to work writing down our tasting notes and scores then discussing each wine in turn and agreeing on the final score and medal (if any).
Some of the 477 wines entered for the IWSC wine judging in Georgia
"Upon completion of judging and a quick and restorative nap, we headed out to the Funicular restaurant for dinner which looks out over a beautiful view of Tbilisi. We were joined by key members of the Georgian wine trade and were treated to our first (of many) Supra. A supra is a traditional Georgian feast, normally reserved for special occasions, where dish after dish is bought out and you get to try many different local specialities. Key staples of the supra include cheese, aubergines with walnut paste (phkali), spinach and beetroot phkali’s, fresh cucumber and tomato salad (with walnuts of course), and khachapuri (a cheese filled bread in countless variations).
"Following lots of walnuts and cheese, the meat courses started to appear – veal with tarragon, barbecued pork, roast chicken, chicken in a garlic sauce, chicken in a walnut sauce to name the ones I remember! If you can stomach any more food by the end, you can finish with Churchkhela, a chain of walnuts threaded onto string and dipped into a reduction of grape juice (often Saperavi).
Interspersed between all the food is another key element of a Georgian supra - the toasts. The Tamada is the person who will lead the toasts for the evening – always starting with toasts to God, to Georgia and to wine.
"Day two and we were back at the Wine Exchange to continue judging, and this time we were joined by local experts. It was very interesting to judge with the Georgian judges who could explain the differences in the wines I had not had much exposure to before – for example the distinctive smell of an unclean qvevri.
Megan Clarke, Senior Wine Buyer for Ellis Wines tasting at the IWSC's recent wine judging in Georgia
"Our Georgian hosts were keen to have the results shared as quickly as possible, so that evening an awards ceremony was hosted at Tbilisi's Republic Event Hall, where a total 16 gold medals were awarded, as well as 63 silvers and 209 bronze. A great result.
"Our judging duties complete, the following day we headed down to Kakheti, the main winemaking region in Georgia where we visited Chateau Buera for a tasting and lunch. We were greeted by the owner who showed us around the winery to look at it's 32 qvevri’s and barrel room before being taken upstairs for a range tasting on the terrace. The tasting was followed by a surpa lunch overlooking the picturesque lake. After lunch which we set off for our next wine tasting at Chateau Zegaani, an impressive property that makes only organic Saperavi. The first vintage by the current owners was in 2011 and since then they have only released four vintages, choosing to only make quality wines in the best years.
Wine tasting at Chateau Buera
"That evening at dinner - our second supra of the day - we were joined by David Songulashvili, MP for Tbilisi, and other key members of the Georgian wine trade. The evening finished back at the hotel where we sat round the fire drinking chacha, the local grappa that is an integral part of any evening in Georgia. During this chacha-fuelled, fireside chat we learnt a bit more about the recent history of Georgia from our hosts mostly from a father-daughter team. She recalled growing up in the early 90s without much access to electricity and water, he was glad that was all she could remember as his memories were more focussed on the violence and guns that were a part of everyday life. A sombre reminder about how fragile peace can be and brings recent events sharply into focus.
"After the previous evening’s supra and drinks, we were all grateful for a slightly slower start the next morning, when we visited the beautiful town of Sighnaghi. That afternoon we visited Mosimieri, a German owned winery in Kakheti. The owner showed us around the winery and provided us with an in-depth explanation of the winery's qvevri’s, how they are made and maintained. Qvevri’s can only be made during the summer months as they are handmade and need to be built-up layer by layer, the clay semi-drying in the heat to prevent structural loss as the qvevri is built up. A long and labour-intensive method, there is always a long waiting list for new qvevri’s. Made of clay, so naturally porous the qvevri’s are coated in a neutral beeswax which is absorbed into those open pores, sealing them off without contributing flavour to the final wine.
Judges Maggie Macpherson, Megan Clarke and Salvatore Castano visiting Sighnaghi
"Following the tasting and a ‘snack’ of cheese and dumplings, we made our way back to our hotel for dinner where we were joined by the local experts who had judged with us earlier in the week. Together we finished our final day with one more supra for the road! All in all, an incredibly interesting and educational week of tasting great wines with great people."
Discover the results from the IWSC’s wine judging in Georgia here.