Leisa Tyler explores the world's oldest wine culture and the stunning mountains of a nation rebuilding its travel industry.
The road to Vardzia snakes through a sunlit gorge speckled with crumbling castles, forts and watchtowers so abundant it's hard to keep count. Fields awash with violet wildflowers sit snug beneath cragged mountain ridges. Our box-like Lada, the colour of the rising sun, dodges potholes and barely misses the occasional vehicle coming the opposite way. The jovial driver, with a beer belly and week-old stubble, doesn't notice the landscape, he is concentrating on singing along to the hearty Georgian folk songs bellowing from the car radio.
When we arrive, no one is there. A 12th-century monastery carved into the imposing face of Erusheli mountain, Vardzia is one of Georgia's most prized ancient sites. Built high above the gorge, it has secret tunnels leading to the mediaeval ruins of Khertvisi, 18 kilometres away, to protect against marauding Mongols. At its height, Vardzia contained more than 6000 apartments and churches spread over 13 storeys, many with irrigation channels, kitchens and winemaking facilities. It's still used as a monastery; a handful of black-clad monks live in the caves, opening the heavy old doors of the fresco-covered Church of Assumption for the trickle of tourists who pass this way.
Georgia's charismatic president, Mikheil Saakashvili, would prefer more than a trickle of tourists. Almost 20 years since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, this ravishingly beautiful Caucasus country bordered by Turkey and Russia is working hard to assert an identity of its own.
High on Saakashvili's wish list is tourism. Georgia was a tourists' playground during the days of the Soviet Union, with more than 3 million visitors a year drawn to its rugged mountain scenery, two ski resorts, a stretch of Black Sea coastline, wineries and mineral water renowned for its ability to cure hangovers. Then came years of post-independence turmoil: a civil war, followed by wars with the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and, in 2008, with Russia. Not surprisingly, tourism dried up.
Georgia is hoping to revive its reputation as a destination. Infrastructure is poor at the moment - there are fewer than a handful of international-standard hotels and, strangely, a shortage of toilets in the country. Saakashvili has a raft of infrastructure projects in the works, including transforming the resort town of Batumi into the ''Barcelona of the Black Sea'', building a sleek visitors' centre in Omalo, a remote mountain town near the border with Chechnya, and developing wine tourism in the Kakheti Valley.
The laid-back capital, Tbilisi, built in the 5th century on the banks of the Kura River, is being given a facelift. The city's old town - a jumble of crooked streets, leafy courtyards and old wooden houses with intricate wrought-iron balconies - is slowly being renovated, as is the opera house and the state museum.
A bunch of international hotels are being built, including a Hyatt and Kempinski in Tbilisi, and Starwood in Batumi, while a flourishing home-stay project is generating funds for impoverished villagers.
Visiting Georgia has been at the top of my wish list for the past 10 years. I'm intrigued by a country that can produce some of the warmest and most welcoming people you're likely to meet and the tyrant Joseph Stalin, who was born in Gori, a city near Tbilisi, in 1878. I am also fascinated by stories about Georgian wine, rumoured to be the oldest in the world.
I arrive in mid-May. Mountains are still frosted with snow but the fields are peppered with wildflowers in every hue and it's warm enough to wear a T-shirt. Passes leading to the remote mountains of Tusheti are still closed, so after a few days rambling in leafy Tbilisi, I head to Georgia's more accessible mountains, near the town of Stepantsminda.
The last scattering of houses before Russia, Stepantsminda is a true frontier town: ramshackle, with a whiff of grumpiness among the local people. Pigs wander the main street, men stand around in groups nursing two-litre plastic bottles of beer and even the power poles are on a lean. Most travellers don't come to Stepantsminda for the town but for its setting, on the edge of the ominous Dariali Gorge, with the imposing peaks of Mount Kazbek in front, a soaring rift of birch forests and glaciers.
I bunk down in the spacious house of Kamuna Sujashvili, a young Georgian woman who bakes wicked khachapuri (cheese pies). Every second house in Stepantsminda is a home stay, which is not surprising when I find out that 80 per cent of its residents are unemployed and gas is free to encourage people to stay.
By day I trek through the mountains and to the 14th-century Tsminda Sameba Church; by night I feast on Sujashvili's stews and drink a grape vodka called cha-cha. Even in spring it's bitterly cold, so after a few days I decide to return to the lowlands and the lush Kakheti Valley to see Georgia's nascent wine industry.
Historians believe wine has been made in the Kakheti Valley - a belly of fertile plains enclosed by the snow-capped Greater Caucasus Mountains - for more than 8000 years. Grapes were fermented in clay amphoras called qvevris, which were glazed with beeswax and buried up to their necks.
Until 2006, nine of every 10 bottles of wine produced in Georgia went to Russia. Most of that was cheap and grisly, aimed at sustaining less-than-discriminating palates. But then the Kremlin placed embargoes on both Georgian wine and the magically curative Borjomi mineral water, claiming they were riddled with pesticides (although critics claim it was punishment for Saakashvili's pro-Western policies).
Faced with bankruptcy, Georgia's wine industry worked hard to reinvent itself. A coterie of energetic winemakers came to the fore and the ancient art of qvevri fermentation was revived.
My first sip of a qvevri wine is in the dungeon-like cellars of Pheasant's Tears, a boutique winery run by John Wurdeman in the town of Sighnaghi. The wine, made from local rkatsiteli grapes, is unlike anything I have ever tasted. It looks and smells like sherry but is smooth and dry with accents of roast almond and dried apricot. I'm told it's low in sulphates, so I can drink to my heart's content and not suffer the consequences the next day.
''The [Russian] embargo cloud had a very silver lining,'' says Wurdeman, a heavy-set American with a mop of black hair and matching beard, who moved to Georgia 10 years ago to study its folk music. ''Since then the quality of Georgian wine has improved drastically. If the embargo could stay for another five years, Georgia could become one of the world's best wine-producing regions.''
To support the Kakheti Valley's wine renaissance, the government has been scrubbing and buffing Sighnaghi and rebranding it for wine tourism. A charming 18th-century town with cobbled streets and superb views over the valley and Greater Caucasus Mountains, Sighnaghi has restored its candy-coloured gallery houses and opened its ancient stone monasteries to the public. There is a new museum, several wine bars and an annual wine festival in October.
I rent from Nana Kokiashvili a sunlit corner room with wraparound balconies overlooking a leafy square. When she opened her house to tourists in 2003, there weren't any hotels in Sighnaghi. Now half a dozen line the main square; they sit alongside shashlik stalls and restaurants - a rare feature outside Tbilisi and a reason why home stays, which usually offer half board, are so popular in the countryside.
That night, Wurdeman invites me to a traditional Georgian feast, a groaning table of eggplant stuffed with walnuts, roasted catfish, veal sizzling on a skillet and two-dozen bottles of wine for toasts, which get longer and more solemn as night passes into morning.
''Georgia has huge aspirations for tourism,'' Wurdeman tells me later that night. He has recently started wine tours in the Kakheti Valley and I join one the next day.
A 16th-century winery at Velistsikhe has been restored and turned into a museum, displaying its 1000-year-old vessels for wine fermentation and a huge collection of wine instruments, including 19th-century presses from France. At the Chavchavadze family estate in Tsinandali, I stroll through extensive cellars with wines dating back to 1814. Five kilometres from here, Schuchmann Wines is putting the finishing touches on the valley's first boutique hotel. Its qvevri-fermented wines, called kisi and saperavi, are the best I taste in Georgia.
And at Alaverdi Cathedral, a mediaeval building of arches and turrets under snow-capped peaks, a 6th-century wine cellar capable of processing 50 tonnes of wine has been restored by the Italian-Georgian winery Badagoni. It's not open to the public but I manage to peek at the cellars with the cheerful resident winemaker, Father George. ''Our culture lost so much during the Soviet period,'' he says as we share a glass of his latest white wine in the cathedral's recently restored cellar. ''Now, thankfully, it's all starting to come back.''
Turkish Airlines has a fare for about $1990, flying Qantas to Singapore (7hr), Turkish Airlines to Istanbul (12hr), then Tbilisi (2hr). You can also fly Qantas to Hong Kong, Bangkok or Tokyo. Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Despite information on some websites, Australians do not require a visa to visit.
The best time to visit Georgia is June-October. August and September are filled with festivals, including a wine festival in Sighnaghi. See www.georgia.travel.
Elkana, a Swiss-sponsored non-government organisation, keeps a comprehensive list of home stays throughout Georgia; see www.ruraltourism.ge.
The tasting hall of Pheasant's Tears in Sighnaghi is open daily, though visits are best pre-arranged by emailing email@example.com. Wurdeman runs one- to three-day tours of the winery country of Kakheti Valley and central and western Georgia. See www.pheasantstears.com.
Schuchmann Wines has a new tasting room and eight-room boutique hotel - double rooms from €50 ($73) - in the village of Kisiskhevi, near Telavi. The winery is open daily but phoning ahead is recommended. Phone +995 9055 7045, see www.schuchmann-wines.com.