The Cellars of Tsinandali
Tsinandali is located just outside of Telavi, the capital town of the tourist region of Kakheti. The town of Telavi has some fortresses and vineyards and is located on high ground supposedly offering a majestic view of the Caucasus Mountains. Unfortunately, the region was almost totally foggy during our visit and visibility was limited to just a few hundred meters from the town so we decided to proceed directly to Tsinandali.
Tsinandali is the name of the village itself but the name is also equated to the estate of the 19th-century aristocratic poet Alexander Chavchavadze (1786–1846). The estate is also sometimes referred to as the “Tsinandali Gardens” because of its sprawling beautifully landscaped surroundings. But most of all, the estate was made famous by Chavchavadze for the fine vintages made at his estate winery.
History has it that Alexander Chavchavadze, after inheriting this village from his father, Prince Garsevan, refurbished the estate, constructed a palace and built a huge garden in 1835. It was also in this place where Chavchavadze built Georgia’s oldest and largest winery where he combined European and centuries-long Georgian winemaking traditions. The place gained further dramatic fame when, in 1854, the place was raided by Shamil, a charismatic Muslim leader who pillaged the estate and kidnapped the wife, children and relatives of Alexander’s son, Prince David Chavchavadze. It was only in 1855, after complicated negotiations, that the hostages were released in exchange for Shamil’s captive son Jamal al-Din and 40,000 silver rubles. The place became the property of the state in 1917 and was converted into a museum in 1947.
Ancient Wine Cellars
The visit started with a tour of the main building, Chavchavadze’s former residence, which was now a museum. The story about the place was told by a fluent guide as she showed us various rooms and assorted memorabilia showing the Chavchavadze family’s affluence and fondness for art during their time. And then it was time for visit the wine cellars located at the back part of the sprawling compound.
Huge restoration work was underway at the winery section and the tour route was not yet well organized so we just found our way to the various sections, along a line of huge oak barrels, inside large empty rooms which I imagine was full of wine-making activity a long time ago, until we finally descended into the dimly lit underground cellars .
There were 10 huge cellars, many of them still under renovation, but we were allowed into one that was allegedly preserved since the time of the Chavchavadzes. This time, a guide led us into the dark and damp enclosure and explained to us how the room condition and temperature was maintained. She also told us that the wine bottles, some of them dating back to as early as the 1400s, have never been touched.
It was quite claustrophobic inside the cellar but I was excited about what we were being told, felt thirsty with the thought that I was in a room full of vintage wines, and for some reason, Edgar Allan Poe came to mind.
In his gripping story of revenge in “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), Montressor, the storyteller, used a prized wine (Amontillado) to lure his object of revenge, the unsuspecting Fortunato, a wine connoisseur, into the wine vaults where Montressor ruthlessly executed his plan by chaining his drunk enemy to the wall of a small recess in the crypt then, tier after tier, closed it with a wall of stone and mortar as the intoxicated and confused Fortunato still waited to try the Amontillado. A morbid thought but, while the setting of the story was somewhere else in Europe, the damp air and the old brick walls made it easy for my fertile mind to imagine a Fortunato walled in somewhere in the dark portions of these cellars.
A Taste of Georgian Wine
We did not get to see the vineyards or the present winery but the highly regarded dry white Tsinandali wine is still produced in this place and, at the end of the tour, we were treated to wine-tasting of the younger versions inside a room full of Tsinandali and Georgian wines. I am not a wine connoisseur like Fortunato so I had to solicit the advice of the bar tender and my Georgian friends before I chose and bought a bottle of semi-sweet red.
Back at my hotel in Tbilisi, I struggled and resisted with some difficulty, the temptation to open the wine bottle during my last few days in Georgia and so was able to bring home and keep a valuable souvenir from Tsinandali.
“I drink,” he said, “to the buried that repose around us.”
“And I to your long life.”
– The Cask of Amontillado
- Road to Kakheti 1: Above the Clouds at Gombori (travellingartist.wordpress.com)
- Road to Kakheti 2: Under the Clouds at Shuamta (travellingartist.wordpress.com)