How not to pick a wine

In a nutshell, contrary to the advice and suggestions you might see in some places, do not pick a wine based on how you presume the price is determined. That is how you don’t do it.

Even I have been guilty of offering price-related selection advice to an extent, in that I wrote a version of the common trope that explains how, if you spend a bit more money on your wine, there is a huge increase in the money available for the wine production element of the cost. To be fair to myself, I did add a touch of scepticism that you don’t usually get in those explanations. But these days I would give greater emphasis to the fact that, just because more money is available for wine production, it does not necessarily mean it is spent that way. It could for example go on marketing, to yield more profit, or to subsidise other wines in a producers range. Also, even if more is spent on production, it does not necessarily mean that you are going to like the wine any more. New oak barrels are expensive, but how much do you like oaky wines?

Then there is the idea that people typically go for the second cheapest wine on a restaurant list, to avoid spending too much while not appearing to be a skinflint.  So another piece of advice often given is to avoid the second cheapest wine, because that will be marked up more highly by cunning restaurateurs. That idea was recently debunked a few months ago, and gleefully reported on in the wine press. Apparently, in reality percentage markups are highest on midrange wines. So in these newly enlighted times, presumably those are now the wines to avoid? No, actually not.

All of the above is irrelevant to the consumer. Let people in the wine trade and restaurant business worry about the economics of wine production, mark-ups, and price points. For the wine consumer there are only two relevant considerations: how much the wine costs, and how much pleasure we can derive from it. Of those two factors, cost is a perfectly straightforward, but the concept of pleasure bears more analysis.

It is not just the liquid in the bottle that is important for pleasure, or even the issue of how well it goes with whatever you are eating. For all manner of goods, and wine is no exception, we seem to gain pleasure from all sorts of things. Rarity, for example. How many bottles were produced, and how common is the grape variety? Then some people take pleasure in enjoying expensive items; while others love a bargain. And labels can be as important on wine bottles as on items of clothing. It’s all a question of what works for you, and pleasure is rarely rational. If you are interested in How Pleasure Works, you may like the book with that title, written by Paul Blom – I did.

I admit that it is difficult to know how much pleasure one will get from any particular wine. But at the very least, thinking about pleasure is more pleasurable that fretting about the economics of wine trade.

Aldi wines – some impressive, some not

For a supermarket with a relatively small selection, I think Aldi have a very interesting and eclectic range of wines, which I have been exploring recently, sometimes trying recommendations from others, and sometimes just taking a punt on what looks interesting. I must say that the recommendations have been the more successful wines for me so I am hoping here to pass on some of that success for others to enjoy. If you don’t have an Aldi store nearby that stocks them, you can buy online and get any quantity of wine delivered for £4.95. (I have BTW paid for all the wines reviewed here, and have no commercial relationship with Aldi other than as a customer.)

Impressive

Let’s start with the impressive wines – ones that I would recommend.

Firstly, I would remind you of the Spanish Bobal wines I reviewed back in 2019. Aldi are still selling the organic one for the same price of £4.99 (but a different label), and I having been ordering and drinking it with enjoyment throughout that period. Not every day, but it is a staple that I always like to have available at home, and of the people I know who have tried it, all like it. It is admittedly a very small sample, but remarkable in that it covers a wide range of wine lovers with different levels of knowledge and experience. So that is definitely on my list of recommendations. Just to be clear, it is the Toro Loco Spanish Organic Red.

Next up is another wine that was recommended to me and I have recommended. And all the reactions, including my own, have been positive. This is Aldi’s Greek Assyrtiko for £6.99. If you have been following my blog for some time you will know that the home of the Assyrtiko variety is the Greek island of Santorini, but this wine is from north of mainland Greece, in Amyndeo, a region better known for its red Xinomavro wines. Nevertheless, this is the most Santorini-like Assyrtiko I remember tasting that is not actually from Santorini. I’d say it is comparable to a low-end Santorini, but at less than half price. If you are wondering what that is like, here’s my tasting note: Intense, fresh, mineral and citrus. High acidity. Dry, but ripe fruit. Decent length. A hint of liquorice edginess, which I like. Refreshing and clean ****. On re-reading my note, I am not sure how typical liquorice is of Santorini to be honest, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on that – it was after all only a hint I found.

Finally in my impressive category of Aldi wines is Specially Selected French Jurancon, also at £6.99. But be warned that I have only so far had one bottle of this, though I definitely intend to buy more. Also be warned that it seems to be a bit of a Marmite wine. Myself, I love it, but some others are not so keen. My very brief tasting note is: Intense citrus – lime and orange. High acidity. Dry ****. So the overall effect is that of a very tangy wine, but without the lemon citrus notes that often accompany that style. I am not very familiar with Jurançon Sec, but from my limited experience the Aldi wine certainly conveys the correct feel, but with the volume turned down a little – you cannot have it all for £7.00. In my opinion it is just a pleasure to have such an interesting wine readily available at a supermarket for a very reasonable price.

Indifferent

Now for a brief mention of the more indifferent wines I have recently tried from Aldi. These were all OK, and the low price encourages exploration. I don’t feel motivated to return to buy more, but do try them if you are tempted.

Dealuri Romanian Feteasca Regala £4.99: Intense, pear-drop mainly. Medium acid. Off dry, maybe a little residual sugar but certainly sweet aromatics. Not unpleasant, but simple, and maybe a bit cloying **.  This is a Romanian wine from a good quality Romanian grape, but in my opinion totally lacked any character – it may as well have been a cheap Pinot Grigio.

Castellore Italian Frappato £6.49: Cherryade. Medium acidity. Low but detectable tannin. A touch of bitterness too, and it’s certainly not flabby. I think this is just off-dry. Pleasant in a childish sort of way ***. The Sicilian variety Frappato can make glorious wines, with vibrant crunchy red fruit, but this is not one of them. And while I did see some varietal character, I really would prefer to pay considerably more money to get something better.

Italian Aglianico £6.99: Vague dark berry fruit. Oak. Medium acid. Medium tannin. Very restrained. Perhaps some floral notes. Oakiness that gets stronger as the wine warms – I prefer it close to cellar temperature ***. I was a bit conflicted about this. I do like restrained wines, and this certainly was restrained, to the point of a fault. And I also appreciated that it was not made in an obvious crowd-pleasing style. But on the other hand Aglianico is one of the great Italian varieties, and this showed barely a hint of that greatness. If it were £4.99 I may have been more forgiving, but at £6.99 I felt I needed more, however irrational that might be.

Bad

There were no bad wines amongst the ones I tried 🙂

Glinavos Paleokerisio 2019

If you are at all adventurous in your taste for wine, you really must try this one.

As the label is all Greek, let me start by deconstructing it to the best of my ability. Paleokerisio is the name of the wine, and it is produced by Ktima Glinavos, where ktima means estate. It is a mere 10.5% ABV, and comes in a crown-capped 50cl bottle (which is a pain to stack in a wine fridge as the bottles teeter worryingly on top of each other due to the barrelling in the shape). Merchants seem to interpret the “19” in the lot number as the vintage indication, and I’m sure that is correct, but formally speaking this is a non-vintage wine.

The wine is designated PGI Ionnina, and thus comes from a mountainous region in north-west Greece. The region does not extend as far west as the coast, but has Albania to the north, and the Greek regions of Macedonia and Thessaly to the east. It is around 100km north to south, and 75km east to west, and thus has a wide range of growing conditions. Sadly, I do not know which part this particular wine comes from.

It is made from 97% Debina, and 3% Vlachiko, which are both varieties local to the region. Debina is a green grape, and Vlachiko red.

The name Paleokerisio means “like the old times”, which is the first hint at why you might find this wine is particularly interesting – it is made in the old style of the region. This means the grapes are fermented on their skins, and the wine is semi-dry and semi-sparkling. But the viticulture is not organic, and the second fermentation is in tank, so its production is maybe not quite as old-style as you might think. Nevertheless, it is interesting and, more-importantly, delicious. Yes, it’s an orange wine, though the small percentage of red grapes seems to give the amber colour a ruddy tinge.

I’d describe the colour as a deep ruddy-amber, or a palish ruddy-brown. The nose is not intense, but has some of that phenolic character you tend to get on orange wines. It is very slightly sparkling, off-dry, has highish acidity, and a slight astringency and bitterness. I repeat: it’s delicious. The sharpness, astringency and bitterness adds a refreshing edge to the wine, but is nicely balanced by its slight sweetness *****

Generally I like orange wines at cellar temperature, but I think this one benefits from being properly fridge-cold. It is great to drink by itself, and also with food from the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece to the Middle-East, or even with spicier Indian food. Yes, I know that is a pretty broad brush, but I think the wine is very flexible. As I see it, the main exceptions are that it would not work so well as an aperitif, nor with very delicate fish dishes, or dark meats in a heavy sauce.

If you are interested in buying some, I suggest you google “Glinavos Paleokerisio”, and expect to pay £12-14 for the 50cl bottle.  I got my last lot as a case from Pure Wines, for £12.50 each. Prior to that I used Wine and Greene, but the last time I looked they no longer had it in stock. If you make my suggested search, you will also find Julia Harding’s review of the wine, which I only noticed after I writing my tasting note. I was pleased to see that she too was enthusiastic about it, but we differ on the ideal serving temperature.

In addition to the label and my palate, information for this post came from merchants’ websites, The Wines of Greece by Konstantinos Lazarakis (also recommended), and Google Maps.

Botijas – Peruvian winemaking in clay

In an online discussion on “amphoras” in winemaking, wine enthusiast Peter Harvey drew my attention to a vessel I failed to mention in my earlier blog post on the various types of clay pots in winemaking: the botija, as used in Peru. I am very grateful to Peter for the information and photographs, which I use with permission.

He saw botijas in use at three wineries in the Ica Valley – Vinos Intipalka, Bodega Tres Esquinas and Bodega Lazo – and La Reyna de Lunahuaná, in the Lunahuaná valley.

Unlike most clay winemaking vessels, botijas seem to me to be true amphoras. They are the right size for amphoras, and the shape looks correct too. There is a narrow opening at the top, meaning the contents must be poured out rather than scooped. And they have a pointed bottom which, in common with classical common-use amphoras means they can be stuck into the earth to help keep them upright, as shown above at La Reyna de Lunahuaná. They do not have the usual long narrow neck, but are more like the belly amphoras from 640-450 BC, and although the name amphora implies something that can be lifted from both sides using two handles, handles were not always present.

The framed picture above is of the actual press still in use at Bodega Tres Esquinas, and their winemaking process is described by Peter Harvey:

The grapes are trodden Portuguese style, and the juice from the treading floor and the press runs directly into the botija which is carried in a wooden frame and plonked in lines under cover but otherwise in the open, loosely covered by hessian or suchlike. When the fermentation’s over they’re stopped off with a bung and cloth to settle the contents. After use they are simply washed out with water.

He also points out that

The Botijas were mainly used of course to make the base wine to be made into Pisco. Like the Georgians they seem to be “rediscovering” this technique for table wine and I know that the big Ica player Intipalka are sourcing old ones and re-using them.

While the use of botijas in Peru is currently of no direct relevance to UK wine drinkers, botija wines may eventually arrive over here, and in the meantime I feel reassured that the Peruvian winemaking traditions are being maintained.

The Story of Wine – book review

This edition of The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson, is published by Academie du Vin Library. The headline price is £30 from both Amazon and direct from the publisher, but at the publisher’s you can use this £3 discount code: WINENOUS3. I’ll leave it to you to juggle shipping charges against any possible in-principle objections to Amazon. Mine was a review copy.

If the title of the book sounds familiar, that is because it has been around since 1989, published by Mitchell Beazley. As far as I can tell the text is identical to the Mitchell Beazley edition I have from 1999, so I will start by comparing the 1999 edition with this one.

Firstly, the Academie du Vin Library book has a good quality soft-covered binding, and the paper, rather than being bright and shiny, is a good quality matt. It is 240 x 170 mm, and comprises 496 sides. The text is clear and well laid-out, and with no illustrations the page design is clean and uncluttered. I think one of the major selling points of the Mitchell Beazley edition was the sumptuous quality of the book, with its rich colour illustrations, but personally I can see the attractions of the new edition. Basically, I find this version a lot more inviting to read – it’s considerably lighter to hold, the text is not broken up by illustrations, and it still feels sumptuous (but in a different sort of way). These are not minor points. In the last few years when I got interested in the origins of wine after having visited Georgia, I intended to reread the earlier edition, but somehow it just seemed too much like hard work due to its look and feel. Yet I now feel motivated to try again with this edition. But perhaps that is just me?

Regarding the illustrations, I have just checked a few places in the 1999 edition, and I cannot see any place where they are particularly closely related to the text, let alone essential for understanding it. Admittedly they do sometimes add information, but my overall impression is that Johnson wrote his book with the intention that the text should stand by itself.

It was a while since the last time I read the text and, irrespective of my new-found enthusiasm, I am realistically not going to reread it in the immediate future, so what follows here are a just few observations about the text. I’ll maybe write a follow-up post with more detail.

The first thing to note is the author’s intention to write this book as a story, hence the title of the book. He does not pretend to be a historian, and Hugh Johnson’s classic style of prose is unencumbered by footnotes, though there is a bibliography for each chapter. And as a story, it starts in the mists of time, and ends in the late 20th century, in the decades when Hugh is getting engrossed in the subject of wine. As such, the story is complete, and did not did to be updated since it was first written, he explains in his preface. Hmmm… that sounds like a pretty thin excuse to me, and I immediately spot some details in chapter 2 that could do with updating in the light of more recent archaeology, and I also consider how wine has changed in the last 30 years or so. But I could just about be prepared to treat it as a story on its own terms – a story reflecting its time of writing.

As for the subject matter of the book, I don’t think I could do better than reproduce the contents pages. (Try clicking on the image to make the text legible.)
If illustrations in a book are important to you, try to find an older edition – Google reveals there are still new copies kicking about waiting to be purchased. Otherwise, for sheer reading pleasure, I’d recommend you get this new Academie du Vin Library edition.

Edit: Well, some time after writing this review I did start reading the book again. But I did not get far. I found Johnson’s expansive prose rather annoying, and would have much prepared something terser that concentrated on facts, rather than scene-setting. However, as mentioned above, maybe this is just me. Judge for yourself whether you are like me or not.

Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! – book review

Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! by Ben Howkins, is published by Academie du Vin Library. The headline price is £23 from both Amazon and direct from the publisher, but at the publisher’s you can use this £3 discount code: WINENOUS3. I’ll leave it to you to juggle shipping charges against any possible in-principle objections to Amazon. Mine was a review copy.

In a couple of sentences…  It’s an attractive book, both visually and tactually, and if you like an easy-going style of writing I think you’ll enjoy it. It covers a broad range of topics and, irrespective of other factors, will be of particular interest to anyone who wants to know more about the trend towards en rama styles and the new generation of boutique bodegas.

The book is 240 x 170 mm, and comprises 223 sides on a heavy glossy paper, in high-quality soft covers. The pages are nicely bound, so the book will open flat, and comfortably stay open. From a sample so far of two, the quality of the binding, seems to be common to all the Academie du Vin Library publications. These may sound like superficial details, but I am increasingly realising that a book’s touch and feel is important – in the same way perhaps that a wine glass is to the wine it contains.

The book is well-illustrated in colour throughout, the illustrations complementing the text without being too intrusive. But as usual with most wine books, I found the maps lacking – I think there was only one created for the book, and it had little detail. Old maps were also reproduced in places, but were so small as to be impossible to read. On the positive side from a practical point of view, the book did at least have a decent index.

The major topics covered are: history, vineyards, wine styles, and bodegas. Those are followed by a miscellaneous group of smaller chapters on various subjects: Ruiz-Mateos (the man who broke the Sherry bank), the general culture of the region, non-local cultural references to Sherry, tasting and tasting notes, related food and drink, and finally a collection of reflections on Sherry from 50 wine notables.

The author aptly describes his book as “a personal take on the current sherry scene”, seemingly contrasting it with “Julian Jeffs’ classic book Sherry“. I see what he means. Jeffs’ book is indeed excellent in its scholarship and detail, and Howkins is wise not to attempt to emulate it. Nevertheless, in my 2016 review of Jeffs’ book I did note that it failed to communicate the current excitement for Sherry. Also there was no mention by Jeff of the trend towards en rama bottlings, and only slight coverage of the newer boutique bodegas. Howkins’ book certainly addresses well all of those aspects.

But what is implied by what he says is his “personal take”? Well, he has spent a lifetime in the wine trade, including a period working specifically with Sherry, and that gives him rich insights into developments in the region over the last 50 years or so and, through personal contacts, further back into the 20th century. It also gives him a good understanding of attitudes to Sherry in its export markets. However, one thing that struck me, was that this perspective is rather privileged, as there are numerous stories of being entertained by owners and directors of Sherry companies – glasses of Sherry in meetings, late and long lunches, late and long dinners, home visits, flamenco evenings, bullfights.

Don’t get me wrong – the experiences are interesting and entertaining, as Howkins writes well, and it gives a good insight into how Sherry fits in with that kind of lifestyle. But my recent personal experience of Sherry as a tourist in Sanlúcar, was very different. I found that Manzanilla, while important, was viewed by locals as a rather ordinary everyday experience. I was told they used it for cooking, and you could buy it in any bar very cheaply. But each bar and restaurant I came across obtained all its wine from a single bodega and, while delicious, they were all basic level wines, so the vast range of exciting Sherry styles and bodegas mentioned in the book was not readily available to me. I am not complaining, as I had a good holiday, but it was not the wine-geek and cultural nirvana the book might lead one to expect.

When I started reading I was a bit unsure about the book, as I think I am naturally more attuned to Jeffs’ drier formal writing, rather than Howkins’ prose that is more relaxed, wordy and effusive. But as I continued, I got more and more into the style and subject matter, really enjoying the Sherry company chapters, and especially the one on boutique bodegas. I also found it very interesting to learn more about the cream styles of Sherry, which tend to get overlooked in more recent accounts. I was aware of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, and must have drunk a few glasses in my time, but had no idea how important that one brand was to the British wine trade, and to the Sherry region.

After the bodega chapters however, I thought they got more piecemeal, disconnected, and of variable interest. In particular, I really did not understand the need for the final chapter of 50 personal reflections on Sherry. Each piece individually may have been interesting, but after the first 20 or so, many started to sound a bit samey.

Despite its weak finish, the book’s engaging mid-palate literally whetted my appetite for Sherry, and led me to crack open a half-bottle of Manzanilla brought back from Sanlúcar. I think the author would mark that down as a success.

Subjectivity is not to be sniffed at

“Any fool can have a subjective opinion about wine” is one of the arguments I occasionally see in favour of objectivity in winetasting, and that can be followed by “but experts have invested a lot of time in learning to taste objectively”. There are so many assumptions built into that line of argument I hardly know where to start, but my main counter-argument would be that objectivity in winetasting simply does not exist. However, here I would like to focus on debunking the idea that subjective views are necessarily trivial and to be lightly dismissed. We subjectivists do not all take a swig of wine that hardly touches the sides, and immediately pronounce on its quality.

For me, the ideal person to assess a wine is someone who acknowledges the subjectivity of taste, and yet is happy to give an opinion nevertheless. That person would understand the objective properties of wine, i.e. its physical properties and chemical composition, but also know how those elements translate into the perception of flavour, depending on the environment and individual differences. And of course personal preferences.

In its simplest form, a subjective approach might not be too dissimilar to what is thought to be objective tasting, according to the WSET Systematic Approaches to Tasting Wine for example, but without claiming any objectivity in the final quality assessment. The taster might also like to comment on their sensitivity to the different dimensions of the wine, and how factors other than the wine itself might be influencing its perception.  Of course this is not easy – in fact it is very difficult to do well. But that is really my main point here. A serious subjective approach to winetasting is far from trivial. If anything, the problem is that it is too complex if done well. But that is no excuse for us to stick our heads in the sand and pretend the complexities don’t exist.

Finally, I would add that I think it is important for the taster to say how much they actually enjoy drinking the wine. To me, a quality score, perhaps arrived at by totting up the scores for intensity, balance, persistence etc, is pretty meaningless, and I’d much rather know a taster’s finger-in-the-air feeling about a wine. That is how I score wines, and to be honest I sometimes find that subjective assessments can be hard to arrive at. With conventional wines from classic regions it is a lot easier, because you know more what to expect, and you understand your preferences a lot better. But with more weird stuff (natural wines, I am mainly looking at you) I find it can be more difficult to decide. The problem is in being able to understand the good and enjoyable aspects of an unexpected wine, and when one would best drink it. For example which dishes to match it with. Occasionally I find that a wine that seems promising on initial tasting does not work that well with food, and vice-versa, and established wisdom and accumulated experience with more-conventional wines does not always work.

But I usually get there in the end with my subjective opinion – if not before, then when deciding whether or not to buy more of the same wine.

(In the above, by concentrating on the complexity aspect of subjectivity I have ignored other important aspects. For more on subjectivity and wine, my World of Fine Wine article is a good place to start)

Goodbye landline – Hello VoIP

Apologies to wine enthusiasts – normal service will be restored as soon as possible – but this is an update to my 2012 post: Replacing a BT landline by VoIP. In brief, I have been and gone and done it.

After the flurry of activity back in 2012, there were several years of inaction, as I was a bit nervous about committing to VoIP, and my wife was not totally happy with VoIP line quality. We continued to have phones connected via Sipgate and Voipfone, but only used them occasionally, and for outgoing calls only.

ATA and Virgin Hub 3.0 – another great technical innovation of 2020 was the introduction of a labelling machine into the household

However there were a number of technical innovations in the Slatcher household. Not least, I was dragged screaming and kicking into the 21st century, and got myself a smartphone. This was significant because it meant I could call using VoIP also on my mobile, using the Zoiper app. And eventually, I moved from PAYG to unlimited UK calls for a small monthy charge, which made my landline even more redundant. In the meantime, my Virgin broadband speeds got faster and faster, and I ditched my old separate router to enable me to fully use that speed. Without the old router, my ATA stopped working, and at first I couldn’t be bothered to work out how to reconfigure it, so I had a cathartic clearing out of the rats-nest of redundant cables, boxes and phones. The ATA was moth-balled, and VoIP was Zoiper-only for a while.  But even though I was using it less and less, my landline provider (no longer BT) kept ratcheting up the line rental charges, so something had to be done.

A few months ago I resurrected my ATA, plugging it directly into my Virgin Hub 3.0 modem/router. It turned out to be not too difficult to get it working again with both Sipgate and Voipfone. When I looked afresh at the deals and service offered by those two companies, it seemed that their pros and cons were still pretty much as they were back in 2012. Voipfone would have been more expensive, with small monthly charges for a ported landline and multiple registrations, but it had excellent phone support. While Sipgate had no recurring charges for the same features, but support, while adequate, was email-only.  As I was by then less dependent on my old landline number working, I decided I could live with email support, and chose Sipgate as my main VoIP service provider – it was the one destined to host my old landline number, and to be the one hooked up to the main set of household phones.

The number porting went smoothly, so now the deed is done and everything is hunky-dory. The multiple registrations are a great feature, and mean that when someone calls our old landline number all the household phones ring, and also Zoiper on both our mobile phones. I also very much like the Sipgate voicemail system. All messages are emailed to me as mp3 attachements, which is so much handier than having to negotiate an answering machine or phone-based voicemail.

So far, so good.

Intoxicated by Matrobela?

Serious wine tasters are supposed to spit, to avoid intoxication. However, as this Georgian wine producer chose the name Matrobela (Georgian for intoxicating), I decided to actually drink these wines. Shocking, I know.

Matrobela is a recently established producer from 2015, and I have not been able to find much information about it. But it is based in Kisiskhevi, a village in Eastern Georgia, not far from the Kakheti regional capital of Telavi, and right next door to Tsinandali village. It has a modern winery with large stainless steel tanks, and a so-called château with qvevri and space for tastings and other events – a successful combination of the traditional methods and the best experience of modern wine making, as it says on their website.

I first encountered Matrobela at Georgian wine tastings in the UK organised by Sarah Abbott’s Swirl Wine Group, and always found their wines to be of high quality. So I thought I would buy a few bottles from Taste of Georgia in order to get to know them better.

I give the Taste of Georgia’s normal prices below, but actually got a couple of pounds discount on each bottle, so if you are lucky with the timing of your purchase you might too. You might also note that I mention below the Georgian PDOs of Tsinandali and Mukuzani – if those names are new to you, you might like to take a look here.

Mtsvane, White Dry, 2018, 13.0%, £15.50
The back label says this was grown in Kakheti, which is where most Georgian wines come from.  Mtsvane is the grape variety.
Very pale greenish straw. Herby, and somehow seems to have a heavy low-register nose – unusual and difficult to describe. On the palate, medium-high acidy. Fully dry, but with ripe fruit. Full-bodied, a little hot even, but in an OK sort of way. Intense aromatically, like nose but perhaps with some orange peel or blossom too. Overall it is very flavoursome and makes a big impression. Unusual, but I like it.

Rkatsiteli, Amber Dry, 2018, 13.0%, £17.00
Here the grape variety is Rkatsiteli. On the back label we find that this is fermented and macerated in qvevri, with 6 months skin contact, and unfiltered. Also, amongst the other details, it says that the vineyards are in the Appellation Tsinandali. So is it claiming to be Tsinandali PDO or not? I would guess not. It is also strange that qvevri are not mentioned on the front label. There is something that looks like a qvevri logo there, but the labels of the three other wines have a much more prominent qvevri design element, even the ones that are presumably made in stainless steel.
The wine is a very pale shade of amber, and there is very little sediment. Perhaps, although it had 6 months of skin contact, not all the skins were present? Also, if it is unfiltered it must have been very carefully racked and fined. The nose is subtle and nicely balanced, with citrus fruit as the main aroma – orange, lemon and lime I think. And gentle phenolics from the skin contact. Medium acidity. Dry, and low but detectable astringency. Drink now. Balanced and nuanced. There is nothing at all here to frighten the horses, and even the most hardened orange-wine sceptic might find something to love about this wine

Mukuzani, Red Dry, 2018, 13.5%, £18.50
This is a Saperavi varietal wine, and aged in oak barrels for 12 months according to the back label. And from the prominent use of the word Mukuzani on the front label, I think we can fairly assume this is Mukuzani PDO.
Intense purple. I have seen more intensely coloured Saperavi, but this is still pretty dark. Intense, fresh, sharp dark fruit. Sweet and fruity blackberry rather than blackcurrant. No obvious oak, which is nice. High acidity. Medium astringency, maybe medium-high. Intense aromatics as per nose. Intense and lip-smacking. Like a slap round the face, in a good way. Good length and a slightly bitter finish – again, something I see as a positive. This is good to go, but I would see no problems keeping it for a few years at least.

Saperavi, Red Dry Qvevri Wine, 2018, 12.5%, £18.50
As with the Rkatsiteli, we are told that the grapes come from the Tsinandali Appellation, which sounds a bit silly. They may well come from the Tsinandali area, but it is a white wine appellation. Also on the back label, it says that this has 4 weeks of skin contact, and is unfiltered.
Intense ruby-garnet with purple tinges. Yes it really does seems to have elements of lot of shades of red! As with the Mukuzani, it is not nearly as dark as many Saperavis. And again, no sediment, which is surprising for an unfiltered wine. Fresh, sharp, dark fruit. Hint of blackcurrant boiled sweet  esters, but also some pleasant complexity. Medium-high acidity. Medium tannin. Nice ripe tannins, but with a texture you can almost chew. Thanks to the texture, this is full-bodied effect despite the moderate alcohol level. The flavours are light though, so it does not feel heavy and brooding.  Some bitterness, especially on finish. Drink now I think. A good, all-round, nicely balanced wine.

Perhaps it does not come out strongly enough in my tasting notes, but I was very impressed with these wines, which each got a ***** rating from me. They are all unusual enough to be interesting to a western palate, and yet they are also of high quality according to international standards, showing good intensity, balance and complexity. They also showed no faults, and neither did the ones I encountered at earlier tastings – something which you certainly cannot say about a lot of Georgian wine production as soon as you move away from the large-scale brands. In my experience, even the prevalence of something as undisputably faulty as cork taint seems to be higher in Georgian wines, so I was pleased to note that Matrobela uses Diam corks.

Having said all that, I do not want to sound too critical of the more artisanal and natural end of the Georgian wine spectrum. There are many such wines with “challenging” flavour profiles that I enjoy, and they can be the wines that give me most pleasure. In that regard, I like many wines that others might dismiss as faulty, and also the massively tannic Saperavis from Kakheti.

But these  Matrobela wines are different – they are easy to like. I have been intoxicated by Matrobela, literally and figuratively.

Edit 24th October 2020 – A few days ago I opened another bottle of the Mtsvane. I don’t know whether it was me, the wine or the occasion, but I enjoyed it a lot less this time round. It seemed less flavourful, and the high alcohol was quite obtrusive – definitely hot, and more like a fino Sherry than anything else, but not as refreshing. I would need to try more bottles before I could recommend this wine.

Unpleasant smells, the coronavirus, and corked wine

By now, I think it is quite well known that loss of sense of smell, or anosmia, is a key symptom of COVID-19, but this BBC News article explains how a short-term anosmia due to COVID-19 can turn into a longer-term parosmia, which is a distorted sense of smell. The parosmia seems to make many everyday substances, food for example, smell disgusting. I find this interesting, and not a little scary. I am not sure what the sufferers think, but given a choice between no smell and disgusting smells I think I would choose the former.

But to return to what I found interesting, when reading the BBC article I immediately thought of the disgusting smell of corked wine, which is primarily caused by the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, commonly abbreviated to TCA. Based on experience of corked wine you might think that TCA had two effects: one being to stimulate some smell receptor cells, to create a nasty smell; and the other to inhibit other smell receptor cells, to give the “fruit scalping”. However, experiments with newts showed only the inhibiting effect, and no receptor cell stimulation. We have to be a bit careful here, because of course the newt olfactory system might not behave like the human one but, on the face of it, the absence of any stimulation to create the corky smell seems rather puzzling. If the human nose behaved like the newt’s then could that mean that corkiness exists as a component of all wines, only to be revealed when other smells are suppressed? It seems unlikely, especially considering that other TCA-contaminated food and drink has the same musty smell.

Perhaps you can now see where this discussion is heading, and I must warn you that from this point it is all speculation on my part. It is possible there is a more solid basis in science, but I am not aware of one.

Could the COVID-19 parosmia be caused by some smell receptor types being inhibited, while others have been restored to a working state? And is that also the way that TCA gives rise to a musty smell, with some receptors types working and some inhibited? Note that in both cases it is not actually a case of aromas being removed from a blend, as there is not a one-to-one relationship between receptor types and aromas. Rather than aromas being removed, it is the taking out of action of receptor types, and that changes the shape of the “smell images” on the olfactory bulb, turning them into ones that are more similar to the images of bad smells (see my earlier post for a discussion of smell images). In the case of TCA, the smell that is distorted into mustiness could perhaps have nothing to do with the wine, but be the unnoticed background smell we have all the time from our own body (i.e. mouth, throat and stomach).

Speculation aside, I think you will agree that our sense of smell is an amazing thing, and of great value. Let’s hope that all COVID-19 sufferers manage to fully regain theirs. And may their wine never be corked.