Friday, March 10, 2017
Ikalto Academy in Georgia: The Oldest Winemaking School
--For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World's Most Ancient Wine Culture by Alice Feiring
The country of Georgia, located in the Southern Caucasus, is claimed to be the birthplace of wine, extending back to at least 6000 BCE. Besides this achievement, Georgia may also be the location of the oldest winemaking school in the world, the Ikalto Academy. Although that Academy no longer exists, its memory is being honored through the creation of a new Academy, dedicated to Georgian wine and winemaking, which may have opened in Ikalto last fall.
Let’s explore the origins and history of the Ikalto Academy and then look to the future of the new academy.
During the 6th century, Ioane Zedazneli, a Christian missionary, lived in the city of Edessa (also known as Urhai), which was an important center for early Christianity and which was very significant for the Syrian Church. Ioane allegedly had a vision of the Virgin Mary which requested he select twelve disciples and travel to Georgia to spread Christianity. Following this vision, he assembled a group of other monastic missionaries who became known as the Thirteen Assyrian (or Syrian) Fathers.
All of them came from the Mesopotamian region and it is unclear whether they were from Assyria or Syria. Contributing to the confusion is that the ancient Greeks, who created the term “Syria,” applied it to Assyrians as well as other peoples in that region. However, the place of their origin isn’t especially relevant to the point of this tale.
The Thirteen Fathers include: Ioane Zedazneli, Davit Garejeli, Abibos Nekreseli, Shio Mgvimeli, Ioseb Alaverdeli, Anton Martkopeli, Tadeoz Stepantsmindeli, Piros Breteli, Iese Tsilkneli, Stepane Khirseli, Isidore Samtavneli, Mikael Ulumboeli, and Zenon Ikaltoeli. While in Georgia, these men established numerous churches, monasteries, and hermitages. As I’ve written previously, Christianity came early to Georgia, with King Mirian III, in 337 A.D. declaring it to be the state religion. However, there were still plenty of Georgians who had not yet embraced Christianity.
One of these Thirteen Fathers was Zenon Ikaltoeli, also known as Saint Zenon, who founded a monastic complex in the village of Ikalto, which is located about six miles from the town of Telavi in the Kakheti region. Over the centuries, new churches have arisen on this site, largely replacing the original church, where Zenon was buried. Today, there are three main churches on the grounds. The main church is Khvtaeba (Holy Spirit), which was built upon an older church, and the two others include Sameba (Church of the Trinity), and Kvelatsminda (Absolutely Holy).
During the early 12th century, an Academy was established at Ikalto by Arsen of Ikalto, a scholar, philosopher, translater, researcher, hymnographer, and defender of the Georgian Christian Faith. Arsen (later known as Saint Arsen) was the son of Kakhetian nobleman Ibad Vachnadze (also a learned man) and Arsen once also worked as the tutor for the renowned King David IV the Restorer (or Builder).
Arsen desired to create a high school and academy, and it quickly became an important educational and cultural center within Kakheti. Some of its more scholarly courses included theology, rhetoric, astronomy, philosophy, geography, geometry, and liturgical chanting. In addition, the academy offered course in more practical skills, including pottery making, metal work, pharmacology, viticulture and wine making. This might make it the oldest winemaking school in the world. One of the most famous students of the academy was the 12th century Georgian poet Shosta Rustaveli.
For the next approximately 500 years, the Academy was a significant element within the Georgian community, and it seems very likely it played a substantive role in promoting winemaking throughout the country. I haven't yet found more detailed information on the operation and influence of the Academy though I'm continuing to research the matter. Unfortunately, in 1616, the Academy was destroyed when Persian invaders, led by Shah Abbas I, set fire to it, and the Academy wasn’t rebuilt.
However, within the last few years, a major project has begun to create a new academy in Ikalto, the Qvevri School & Academy. The academy will teach about winemaking, qvveri creation and use, and similar topics, and may even offer classes in foreign languages. In addition, the academy will serve as a wine research facility. There appears to be some confusion as to whether the academy is already open or not. The National Wine Agency indicates the academy opened in September 2016 while Decanter claims the academy won’t open until mid-2017. Maybe part of the academy has already opened but certain elements won't open until later this year.
As the Georgian wine industry has often reached into its historic past, it is great to see them attempting to resurrect the oldest winemaking school in the world. The academy will help to preserve the past, especially how to create qvevri, and is a major step toward a positive future for the Georgian wine industry.