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Putin and the Argonauts. By Justin Marozzi

Blog | By Justin Marozzi | May 15, 2024

Here I am in a cool cellar in Tbilisi, wine to the left of me, wine to the right of me.

As each glass is reverently polished off – this is no time for spitting– it is almost possible to imagine that this very act of drinking wine is a critical part of a modern-day quest for the Golden Fleece.

If that sounds a little far-fetched, let’s not forget there is a tantalising connection between Georgia’s ancient winemaking heritage and the legend of Jason and the Argonauts.

When fleece-seeking Jason set off on his improbable expedition, he sailed to the kingdom of gold-rich Colchis, on the Black Sea coast of today’s western Georgia.

‘The wealth of the regions about Colchis, which is derived from the mines of gold, silver, iron and copper, suggests a reasonable motive for the expedition of Jason,’ writes Strabo, the Greek geographer of the first century BC.

Inconveniently for Jason, the Golden Fleece was guarded by a sleepless dragon in a sacred grove close to the palace of King Aeëtes. More conveniently for Jason, the king’s daughter Medea fell in love with him and gave him a potion of special herbs and wine to put the dragon to sleep.

It did the trick. Jason was able to nip in and pinch the fleece, and even managed to sail off with his inamorata. Job done – barring future encounters with Sirens, flesh-burning dresses, vengeful Medea and wrathful gods. And wine was at the heart of Jason’s triumph.

‘We’re so proud of our 8,000-year heritage of winemaking,’ says Thea Adamashvili at Vinotel, our wine-tasting base in Tbilisi, interrupting these mythical speculations. ‘This is not legend. This is reality.’

During recent archaeological excavations at Dmanisi in southern Georgia, she says, tartaric acid, a key indicator of the presence of wine, was found on clay fragments dating back to the sixth millennium BC.

After the dead hand of the Soviets, who turned Georgian winemaking into a factory-based, high-volume, low-quality affair, the ancient method using qvevri – clay amphorae – to ferment the wines underground is enjoying something of a renaissance.

History is everywhere in Georgia, yet it often feels like a history that has been imposed on this ancient Christian nation in the Caucasus, rather than history that it has shaped itself. Perhaps that is only to be expected in a tough part of the world where Georgia counts serial invaders Russia, Turkey and Iran as neighbours.

Reminders of the intrusion of both ancient and modern history into the present are ubiquitous. ‘I occupied Georgia’ proclaims a car sticker with a picture of Putin, a reference to the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Russia annexed and occupied in 2008 to a deafening, hand-wringing silence from the West. ‘F— Ruzzia’ and ‘Ruzzia is a terrorist state’ graffiti are likewise everywhere.

The millennial history of winemaking is also celebrated from one end of this diminutive country to another. High on a bluff overlooking the capital stands the magnificent aluminium statue of Kartlis Deda, Mother of Georgia. In one hand, she bears a keen-edged sword for her enemies. In the other, she holds a clay bowl of wine for friends. Medieval monasteries routinely display the carved emblems of grapes and vines on their crumbling façades.

Sheepish: 5th century BC bracelet, Colchis

Contemporary history can also be found in Tbilisi’s cosmopolitan, buzzing bars.

In one, we find a Ukrainian and a Russian working together behind the bar, serving heady Georgian craft beer to an eclectic, multinational throng of drinkers, including a Russian tech entrepreneur and his Belorussian model girlfriend. Both fled their homelands after Putin invaded Ukraine.

It is time for my wife and me to flee, too, to the eastern winemaking region of Kakheti. The road to Telavi and Sighnaghi leads through Tsinandali, the Italianate summer mansion of Prince Alexander Chavchavadze, the Russian-born Georgian poet, military man and father of Georgian romanticism, who also happened to be the creator of his country’s largest and oldest winery.

The contribution to Georgian winemaking of this energetic man of action and man of letters is happily recalled every time a glass of Tsinandali, mouth-smackingly crisp white wine, is raised. We do this regularly – alongside plates of steaming khinkali dumplings, pillowy khachapuri cheese-filled bread, lamb chakapuli stew, pork mtsvadi kebabs, bean-filled lobiani bread, salty sulguni cheese … and so the waist-expanding delicacies continue.

This is no myth. It is an epicurean paradise.

Georgia is also a triptych of monks, monasteries and mountains. Sometimes the bearded holy men allow wine in to make it a high-spirited quartet. In Alaverdi Monastery – for many centuries the tallest building in the country, until the construction in 2004 of Sameba, Tbilisi’s gold-topped cathedral – monks working under the genial command of Bishop David tend to the monastery’s vines, as much as to their vows and prayers.

Sublimely positioned in the Alazani Valley beneath the Greater Caucasus – a jagged line of snow-crested peaks slashed across the sky – Alaverdi must be one of the world’s most beautiful places to make wine. The monastery’s origins date back to the fifth century, and each bottle label still bears the words ‘Since 1011’, a boast as glorious as this empyreal setting.

The Georgian Military Highway is calling. Quite what our underpowered and ancient little Mitsubishi Pajero will make of this famous mountain route is anyone’s guess – but there is only one way to find out.

Although its name conjures merely martial expeditions, this is also a procession of medieval and early modern architectural gems. At its southern terminus, just north of Tbilisi, the ancient capital of Mtskheta is home to soaring Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, the 11th-century burial place of kings. Next comes Ananuri, a complex of fortress and churches crouching over the Aragvi River.

My favourite, though, is the heaven-grazing Gergeti Trinity Church, looming high above the village of Stepantsminda, a tiny, 14th-century mountain-framed place of worship which is surely one of the most wondrous places on our planet.

On the return journey from this spirit-lifting site, the Pajero comes a cropper. We lose power and limp to the side of the road as huge container lorries thunder past. The advice from the car company is keep driving until you lose power, stop, wait a bit, start again and repeat.

Impatient WhatsApp messages are exchanged. ‘We are operative, my friend. Everything vill good,’ the car-hire man says firmly. Eventually, after a series of nerve-racking, lorry-dodging manoeuvres, a replacement car is provided and serene progress resumes.

After the obligatory stop at Gori to marvel at the improbable museum- cum-shrine to Stalin, we dash west to Kutaisi, Georgia’s languid, tree-shaded second city.

Above: Gergeti Church, 14th century
Putin annexed parts of Georgia in 2008

On its outskirts in the spa town of Tskaltubo, we trample through Sanatorium Medea, named after Jason’s lover, one of around 20 abandoned Soviet sanatoria.

Among the forest of Corinthian columns, trees grow through the ruins and marble stairs sweep up into an empty sky. A number of these forsaken sanatoria surreally still house the last of 12,000 refugees from Abkhazia – history again intrudes into the present.

There is time for lightning visits to admire the under-restoration frescoes of Gelati Monastery, a 12th-century masterpiece. Then on to cliff-hanging Motsameta, Place of the Martyrs, which houses the remains of two aristocratic brothers who rebelled against Arab Muslim occupiers in the eighth century.

In a pitiful effort to dilute our wine-soaked itinerary, we flash south to Borjomi, home to Georgia’s eponymous brand of sparkling spring water, but it is no good. We must have more wine – qvevri or otherwise; it doesn’t matter.

Glasses clink again. Wine glistens. We toast the Golden Fleece. Nika, the car man, was quite right. Everything vill good.

Justin Marozzi is author of The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus