When we say that Georgia may be the most underrated food and drink destination in the world, we’re not talking about peaches and sweet tea. At the intersection of Europe and Asia lies Georgia — the country — one of the most culturally rich, diverse nations in all of Eastern Europe.
Although it’s small in size, Georgia has a rich and extensive history, with layers of occupation, war, and fights for independence woven in between. After hundreds of years of Russian occupation, the former Soviet republic finally declared its independence in 1991, electing its first president on May 26 that same year. Beyond its modern history, Georgia is rich in antiquity, much of which is still readily available for travelers to see. Traditional song, stunning architecture, and outdoor adventures in the Caucasus Mountains and Black Sea abound, but the real draw for travelers in-the-know today is the food and drink.
From old-school, homemade Georgian cuisine to innovative, modern fine-dining (and, of course, plenty of amber-hued qvevri wine), Georgia fulfills the stomach as much as it does the soul. It won’t be long before Georgia is on the lips of foodies and winos everywhere, and tourists start to descend en masse. For now, though, it’s still soaring under the radar. So swap your dollars for lari and hop the next flight to Tbilisi — Georgia’s bustling, culturally rich capital — and dig in.
Visit the birthplace of wine.
The cultural and historical Georgian wine is enormous within the country, but it’s also massively influential to the entire world. Georgia is known as the birthplace of wine altogether and has produced ghvino for 8,000 consistent vintages.
Before you start on your gastronomical quest through the country, get a taste for how wine was made back in the old days. Head to Vardzia, a 12th-century cave monastery dug out from the Erusheti Mountain, located along the Kura River. Winemaking was in no shortage here, and ancient stone presses are still present at the site. It’s also rumored that the world’s oldest vine sits just at the foot of this ancient cave monastery — we challenge you to find it. Vardzia is currently under submission to be listed as a future UNESCO World Heritage site.
Indulge in a supra.
With such a tumultuous history, the Georgian people have seen a lot yet remain some of the most kind, hospitable people on the planet. Resilience stories, family history, and past trials reside within every family, so you should chat with as many locals as possible. One of the best ways to hear them tell their tales is over a supra, a Georgian feast and one of the country’s biggest traditions. The word supra actually means “tablecloth” in the local language, which is laid on the ground for feasting if no table is accessible. A supra is always led by tamada, the “toastmaster,” no matter how many people are in attendance — which leads us to our next tradition.
Raise a glass… or a horn.
The tamada is always chosen by the host or guests of the supra, who will then propose toasts throughout the meal, discussing the topic of each toast in detail. Glasses will be raised, though not sipped from, as the toast moves around the table from person to person. If someone in attendance doesn’t feel compelled to speak, they may sip from their glass. Feasting on food is certainly acceptable during these long toasts, but chatting is not. Once the topic has passed around the table, the toast is complete… well, until a new toast topic is proposed.
You may find at these supras that people are using drinking horns instead of wine glasses for their toasts. Georgian drinking horns (kantsi) are crafted from the horns of bovids and originated in ancient times, remaining prevalent throughout the Middle Ages. Today, kantsi are still staples of celebratory drinking.
What to drink:
The country is synonymous with natural wine production, that is, the creation of wine from organic fruit, with zero additives and non-manipulated juice. Over 470 grapes are cultivated within Georgia, with Saperavi (red) and Rkatsiteli (white) dominating in popularity. However, Mtsvane, Tsolikouri, and Chinuri are unmissable whites (especially when vinified into skin-contact-style amber wines), as well as Alexandrouli and Tavkveri for reds.
To sample the wines at the source, head west to Kakheti, which is divided into the two smaller regions of Kvareli and Telavi. Nearly 80 percent of the nation’s wine is produced here, and it’s possible to visit both big estates and smaller, family-owned wineries — the latter of which we recommend more if you’re keen on personalized hospitality. Some of the best wineries in the west include Oda Family Winery and Baia’s Vineyard. Elsewhere in the country, we’d recommend Pheasant’s Tears and Okro’s Wine in the east and Iago’s Winery in central Georgia.
No visit to Georgia would be complete without trying a historical glass of amber wine produced from a Georgian qvevri: tear-shaped, ancient clay pots sunken beneath the earth and used to ferment and age wine naturally. Qvevri pots have been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List for their cultural impact and significance on vinification history.
What to eat:
You’d be forgiven for not being able to list one dish that’s native to Georgia, which could make ordering from any restaurant menu intimidating. Don’t worry, all of the key ingredients in Georgian cuisine are crowd pleasers. Fresh produce; warm, gooey cheese; walnuts; and pomegranate seeds play a huge role in the food of Georgia, making it especially appealing to vegetarians. Here’s a crash course in dishes you’ll probably find everywhere.
Khachapuri, traditional Georgian cheese bread, varies in style and preparation from region to region, but it always remains a staple on any Georgian table. Adjaruli Khachapuri is one of the most decadent renditions, with dough formed into a boat-shaped vessel, loaded with hot cheese and butter, and topped with an egg.
Khinkali, aka Georgian dumplings, are a solid staple for any late-morning lunch — especially after a night of copious amounts of local wine. These dumplings are formed by molding lumps of dough into twisted, knob-shaped vessels, stuffing them with meat (optional), cheese, and spices. Pork or beef fillings are generally more common, with lamb being used more frequently in the mountainous regions.
3. Badrijani Nigvzit
Don’t be turned off by the complex name — these eggplant slices are worth embarrassing yourself by butchering the pronunciation. Stuffed with walnut paste and crunchy pomegranate seeds, this simple dish is a flavorful staple on Georgian tables, generally served with a bottle of wine before the main course of a meal.
Pkhalia is a traditional vegetarian appetizer crafted from spinach and pomegranate seeds, though many other vegetables can be substituted. If you happen to come across a roasted beet riff on the dish, we wouldn’t pass it up.
Where to dine in Tbilisi:
If you’re short on time, the best place to try as much Georgian food and drink as possible is in the capital city. Tbilisi has charming cobblestone streets and plenty of tiny, family-owned spots for local wine-sipping and people-watching. Once you’re done taking in sites like Narikala (a fourth-century fortress), the Art Museum of Georgia, and the Bridge of Peace, here is where you absolutely must eat and drink.
Natural wine, local decor, and an abundance of vegetarian options make Poliphonia one of our favorite restaurants in Tbilisi. Fresh ingredients, flavorful salads, and a lively ambiance (don’t be surprised if a band of local singers comes to serenade your table) make a visit to Poliphonia far more than just a great meal — it’s an all-around sensory overload of an experience.
For impeccable service, stunning food, and an in-house sommelier, hit Barbarestan. It’s known for local cuisine, a hospitable staff, and mouthwatering desserts, which we suggest you save as enough room for after dinner.
This café-bar hybrid, new to Tbilisi’s food and wine scene, is worth checking out. Great music, chill vibes, and an open-view kitchen allow diners to view local chefs preparing their meal right up until it hits the table.
For full bellies, Vino Underground is the perfect after-dinner spot, as the food focus is on small plates and snacks. But the real reason for visiting VU is the wine. Over 100 family-owned wineries are represented on Vino Underground’s list, most of which are produced in qvevri.