Georgia's Garden of Eden--the Alazani Valley
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Towering mountains, meandering rivers, vineyards, warm-hearted locals, open pasturelands, and medieval monasteries. This is how most people tend to describe Georgia, but there is one spot within Georgia that encapsulates all of these aspects—the Alazani
The Alazani Valley is the easternmost of Georgia’s three main valleys. With a length of around 160 km/100 mi and a maximum with of only around 36 km/22 mi, the Alazani Valley is a long, narrow, horn-shaped valley nestled in central Kakheti.
The Alazani Valley is named after the Alazani River, which begins deep in the mountains of Tusheti. The river flows through the Pankisi Gorge before it enters the Alazani Valley near the town of Akhmeta. The Alazani River follows a braided, meandering course through the center of the valley and eventually forms the Georgia-Azerbaijan border south and east of Lagodekhi.
A Wine-lovers’s Dream
The Alazani Valley is Georgia’s primary wine-producing regions as that it produces around 70% of Georgia’s wine. This is due to the region’s geography. The Alazani Valley has a climate similar to California’s Napa Valley, Southern France, and Italy’s Tuscany region, making the Alazani Valley’s temperature and precipitation favorable to viticulture. What’s more, the Alazani valley has what’s called cinnamic soils, meaning that the soil is rich in clays, carbonates, and in many locations, iron. Cinnamic soils are ideal for viticulture since they encourage the growth of complex and deep root systems, allowing plants to draw large quantities of nutrients and minerals from the soil, thereby giving the wine that is produced from them a fuller, deeper flavor.
There are numerous micro-regions in the Alazani Valley, such as Telavi, Tsinandeli, Q’vareli, and Gurjaani. Each micro-region has its own unique soil composition, giving the wine that is produced there distinct flavor. It therefore comes as no coincidence that viticulture has been a staple of the Alazani Valley for over 6,000 years!
The Caucasus Mountains form the northern rim of the Alazani Valley, rising so high that their snow-capped tops become indistinguishable from the clouds. Dotting the Alazani Valley are numerous medieval ruins and forts, such as Gremi Fortress, which sits in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and has spectacular views of the Gombori Ridge and Telavi which are just a mere 20 km away, the fairytale-like Alaverdi Monastery, which was the tallest structure in Georgia for centuries, and the ruins of Iq’alto.
The best place to see the Alazani Valley is not from the Valley itself, but rather from the towns of Telavi and Sighnaghi, and Gurjaani, which sit on the slopes of the Gombori Ridge. The Gombori Ridge forms the valley’s southern rim. These towns have amazing views both of the valley, but also of the Caucasus Mountains.
Sighnaghi is a small town which was renovated within the past decade. Its medieval walls still surround much of the town, and the terracotta roofs make the town feel as if it came straight out of Tuscany. This town is best explored on foot since most of the streets are cobblestone, steep, and very narrow.
Telavi is the largest city in Kakheti and is also the region’s capital city. In the center of the city is the ruins of the medieval fortress which offers commanding views not only of Telavi below, but of the Caucasus Mountains. Much of the city center has been restored, especially Erekle II Street.
Despite most of Georgia’s tourism infrastructure being oriented around the country’s three largest cities, the Alazani Valley is by-far the best place in Georgia to experience real Georgia. The Alazani Valley has it all: charming vineyards, medieval forts, churches, and ruins, and majestic mountains soaring into the heavens above.
All seasons are ideal for visiting the Alazani Valley. The summer is generally warm and dry with occasional afternoon thunderstorms. During autumn, the forested hills surrounding the valley become a tapestry of colors. Winter brings a feeling of mystery to the valley as it is frequently filled with fog and mist. Spring, of course, brings vibrant colors, but the weather can be a bit less predictable.
The sites in the northern portion of the Alazani Valley, such as Telavi, Iq’alto, Alaverdi, and Gremi, can be seen in one day.
Marshrutkas going from Tbilisi to Telavi will drive through Gurjaani. This route takes around 2.5-3 hours. The direct route to from Tbilisi to Telavi requires around 1.5 hours, but the road is much steeper than the longer route and there are small portions of it that are in poor condition. It’s best to rent a car if you wish to take the more direct route.