The classical period saw the rise of a number of early Georgian states, the principal of which was Colchis in the west and Iberia in the east. In Greek mythology, Colchis was the location of the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts in Apollonius Rhodius’ epic tale Argonautica. The incorporation of the Golden Fleece into the myth may have derived from the local practice of using fleeces to sift gold dust from rivers. In the 4th century BC, a kingdom of Iberia – an early example of advanced state organization under one king and an aristocratic hierarchy – was established.
After the Roman Republic completed its brief conquest of what is now Georgia in 66 BC, the area became a primary objective of what would eventually turn out to be over 700 years of protracted Irano–Roman geo-political rivalry and warfare. Colchis, later known as Lazica was the battlefield of the Lazic War fought between the Byzantine Empire and Sasanian Persia.
From the first centuries A.D, the cult of Mithras, pagan beliefs, and Zoroastrianism were commonly practised in Georgia. In 337 AD King Mirian III declared Christianity as the state religion, giving a great stimulus to the development of literature, arts, and ultimately playing a key role in the formation of the unified Georgian nation, The acceptance led to the slow but sure decline of Zoroastrianism, which until the 5th century AD, appeared to have become something like a second established religion in Iberia (eastern Georgia), and was widely practised there. In the ensuing period, until the course of the 7th century, what is now Georgia remained dominated by the Romans and Sasanians.
Located on the crossroads of protracted Roman–Persian Wars, the early Georgian kingdoms disintegrated into various feudal regions by the early Middle Ages. This made it easy for the remaining Georgian realms to fall prey to the early Muslim conquests in the 7th century. Despite the capture of Tbilisi in 645 AD by Muslims, principality of Iberia retained considerable independence under local rulers.
The stage of feudalism’s development and struggle against foreign invaders saw the unification of the Georgian lands and the rise of a single Georgian feudal monarchy under the Bagrationi dynasty in 11th century. The Kingdom of Georgia reached its zenith in the 12th to early 13th centuries. This period during the reigns of David IV (c.1089–1125) and his granddaughter Tamar (c. 1184–1213) has been widely termed as Georgia’s Golden Age or the Georgian Renaissance. This early Georgian renaissance, which preceded its Western European analogue, was characterized by impressive military victories, territorial expansion, and a cultural renaissance in architecture, literature, philosophy and the sciences. The Golden age of Georgia left a legacy of great cathedrals, romantic poetry and literature, and the epic poem “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”, the latter which is considered a national epic.
David suppressed dissent of feudal lords and centralized the power in his hands to effectively deal with foreign threats. In 1121, he decisively defeated much larger Turkish armies during the Battle of Didgori and liberated Tbilisi. At the height of its dominance, the Kingdom’s influence spanned from the south of modern-day Ukraine, to the northern provinces of Persia, while also maintaining religious possessions in the Holy Land and Greece.
The 29-year reign of Tamar, the first female ruler of Georgia, is considered the most successful in Georgian history. Tamar was given the title “king of kings” (mepe mepeta). She succeeded in neutralizing opposition and embarked on an energetic foreign policy aided by the downfall of the rival powers of the Seljuks and Byzantium. Supported by a powerful military élite, Tamar was able to build on the successes of her predecessors to consolidate an empire which dominated the Caucasus, and extended over large parts of present-day Azerbaijan, Armenia, and eastern Turkey as well as parts of northern Iran, until its collapse under the Mongol attacks within two decades after Tamar’s death in 1213.
The roots of Georgian viticulture have been traced back by archeology to when people of the South Caucasus discovered that wild grape juice turned into wine when it was left buried through the winter in a shallow pit. This knowledge was nourished by experience, and from 6000 BC inhabitants of the current Georgia were cultivating grapes and burying clay vessels, kvevris, in which to store their wine ready for serving at ground temperature. When filled with the fermented juice of the harvest, the kvevris are topped with a wooden lid and then covered and sealed with earth. Some may remain entombed for up to 50 years.
Wine vessels of every shape, size and design have been the crucial part of pottery in Georgia for millennia. Ancient artifacts attest to the high skill of local craftsmen. Among vessels, the most ubiquitous and unique to Georgian wine-making culture are probably the Kvevris, very large earthenware vessels with an inside coat of beeswax. Not only kvevris were used to ferment grape juice and to store up wine, but also chapi and satskhao; others yet were used for drinking, such as khelada, doki, sura, chinchila, deda-khelada, dzhami and marani.
The continuous importance of winemaking and drinking in Georgian culture is also visible in various antique works of art. Many of the unearthed silver, gold and bronze artifacts of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC bear chased imprints of the vine, grape clusters and leaves. The State Museum of Georgia has on display a cup of high-carat gold set with gems, an ornamented silver pitcher and some other artifacts dated to the 2nd millennium BC. From classical Antiquity, Georgian museums display a cameo depicting Bacchus, and numerous sarcophagi with wine pitchers and ornamented wine cups found in ancient tombs.
From the 4th century AD, wine has gained further importance in Georgian culture due to Christianisation of the country. According to tradition, Saint Nino, who preached Christianity in Kartli, bore a cross made from vine wood. For centuries, Georgians drank, and in some areas still drink, their wine from horns (called kantsi in Georgian) and skins from their herd animals. The horns were cleaned, boiled and polished, creating a unique and durable drinking vessel.
During Soviet times wines produced in Georgia were very popular. In comparison with other wines from Moldavia and Crimea that were available on the Soviet market Georgian wines had been more preferable for Soviets. In 1950 vineyards in Georgia occupied 143,000 acres, but in 1985 already 316,000 acres due to increasing demand. In 1985 wine production was 881,000 tons. During Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign, many old Georgian vineyards were cut off.