Ottolenghi’s head sommelier, Heidi Nam Knudsen, fell hard for the wine and food of the Caucasus on her first trip four years ago. This past April, she brought the boss with her.
When Heidi Nam Knudsen, head wine buyer and sommelier for London-based Ottolenghi Group, sat down to grilled eggplant, pomegranate, and walnut paste at Pheasant’s Tears restaurant on a 2013 business trip to Georgia, the world’s oldest recorded wine producer, she was seized with an idea. “It was so similar to what we do,” she said. “I texted Yotam that night to say he was coming back with me.”
Four years went by before they could swing a trip. In that time, wines from a half-dozen Georgian vineyards (all natural or biodynamic) were added to the Ottolenghi wine list, and travelers from across the globe started trickling into this small Caucasus nation straddling Asia and Europe after shots of the sunspeckled lobby at Tbilisi’s new Rooms Hotel and the misty Kazbegi Mountains started blowing up on social media.
Knudsen and Yotam Ottolenghi spent the first couple of days in Tbilisi, the capital city known for the candy-colored wooden homes that line the streets of Old Town, then hired a car to explore the regions of Imereti, to Tbilisi’s west, and Kakheti, to its east. These rural areas, wild and overgrown, with rambling vineyards, villages, and medieval-era monasteries, are home to deceptively simple-looking restaurants where home-style cooks with generous smiles do knockout chicken stews. Here, too, maverick winemakers ferment vintages in underground vats called qvevri, a 6,000-year-old practice.
Naturally, the duo’s visits revolved around food—khinkali dumplings for breakfast, quail and pickles at the markets, and evenings spent feasting at Georgia’s famed supra dinner parties, where courses of khachapuri (cheese breads), roast chicken, and stewed wild greens (pkhali) are punctuated with boisterous toasts of brola wine. In between, there were tastings with the winemakers Knudsen met four years ago, whose fruity chinuri whites pair beautifully with dishes like Cornish hake at Ottolenghi’s three restaurants.
“Georgian cuisine is emotional,” Knudsen says. “Vineyards are interspersed with orchards, barns, and vegetable patches; everything is grown together and feels so connected.” This vibe carried over to the meals they shared along the route, each one inevitably punctuated with multiple ceremonial pours of local chacha brandy.
The Ottolenghi Guide to Eating and Drinking Around Georgia
This stone-walled wine bar is co-owned by eight local vintners and showcases Georgia’s emerging natural wines. “This is where to meet top Georgian winemakers when in town,” Heidi Nam Knudsen says. Order the wild asparagus with sumac yogurt and a glass of fruity Saperavi Budeshari red.
Yotam Ottolenghi loved the tempura-fried vine leaves with curd from chef Ketevan Mindorashvili, who also whipped up mezcal–and–sea buckthorn breakfast cocktails.
This cavernous bistro has a rotating menu of traditional ethnic cuisines from all over Georgia, meaning you may have beet and carrot salads or wild leeks and poached eggs, depending on the night.
One of Knudsen’s favorite Georgian winemakers, Ramaz Nikoladze is head of the Slow Food movement in Georgia and produces biodynamic tsitska whites with no chemicals or herbicides. You can sip his tsolikouri direct from his qvevri.
Family run and right on the Dzirula River, Zgapari specializes in mushrooms foraged in the surrounding area. “We had phenomenally good chicken with sour blackberry sauce,” Knudsen recalls.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site has 12th-century frescoes and dozens of underground, defunct qvevri.
Archil Guniava’s Wine Cellar
Knudsen and Ottolenghi opened bottles of naturally sweet tsolikouri, light-bodied tsitska krakhuna, and gamy otskanuri sapere before a lunch of cucumber-and-tomato salad with roasted chicken.
Iago Bitarishvili and his wife, Marina Kurtanidze, modern Georgia’s first female winemaker, produce only crisp chinuri, which goes well with their khinkali soup dumplings and quail.
John Wurdeman and Gela Patalishvili’s shavkapito and kisi grapevines overlook eastern Kakheti’s Sighnaghi Mountains; the restaurant does smoked sulguni cheese corn bread and beet with wild plums.