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.
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 Virigin 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.
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.
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.
Just a quick post to remind you of my Georgian PDO mini-series, and also help you get a better overview of it – something otherwise hampered by the reverse-chronological order on my home page.
My first post aims to give a quick practical guide to the Georgian PDOs you are most likely to come across in the UK – Tsinandali, Mukuzani, Kindzmarauli and Khvanchkara . Arguably, these are also the most important PDOs in general. In outline at least, this covers pretty much everything that most wine drinkers will need to know about Georgian PDOs, while the other two posts in the series are more hardcore.
After the practical guide, I dive into more detail, listing and summarising all the current PDOs, and giving a bit of background. Here I try to stick to the facts.
Finally, I express opinions about the Georgian PDO system and labelling requirements, and offer a few suggestions for improvement.
I understand absolutely why Georgia feels the need to try to protect names in its own country, and perhaps even more importantly in Russia, which has a bit of a history in wines fraud and is still an important market. I also think, when selling to foreign markets where Georgian wines are less understood, including the UK and the EU, it is a good idea to have a solid PDO system in place before it is absolutely necessary. And it is probably a shrewd move to make that system compatible with the EU’s.
The legal framework for Georgia’s PDO system looks sound to me. I won’t bore you more than necessary, but there is a law that bans the misleading use of PDO names on labels, and in advertising and related documents. It does leave open the question as to what could be construed as misleading, but is otherwise clear.
Additionally, each PDO registration document carries a paragraph that says how, for foreign language labels etc, the PDO name should be spelled using the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, and that is should be followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” and/or “PDO” (in English) or the Cyrillic alphabet equivalent (presumably in Russian). The main point of these paragraphs seems to be the spelling of the PDO name, rather the circumstances in which it should be followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” and/or “PDO”. The lack of clarity is not helped by the very different ways that this clause is rendered into English in the official translation of each PDO registration document; the Georgian versions of the same documents seem to be much more consistent.
Sadly, I think the lack of clarity on labelling requirements has opened to way to some confusion. Here are a few examples of wine labels, which incidentally are not at all meant as criticism of the particular producers concerned.
On the left we have a Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi wine, with Kakheti at the bottom of its label. Is this just saying that it’s grown and made in Kakheti, or is it claiming the PDO of Kakheti? If it is the former, does that make it misleading? Then the middle label also has Kakheti at the bottom, but this cannot be Kakheti PDO because the wine contains many non-compliant grape varieties. Is that misleading? Finally, the one on the right has Kartli at the bottom of the label, which is not a PDO, so that is fine. But that does suggest the two other labels do not represent PDO claims either.
Moving on to another set of labels, the above Teliani Valley one actually has three PDO names on it: Teliani, Tsinandali and Kakheti. I think most people familiar with Georgian wines would assume that it is Tsinandali PDO. But is that actually correct? And what are other people to think? Teliani Valley is actually a producer’s name but it looks geographical, and Kakheti would be more recognisable for someone who knows Georgian regions but not wine. And for those smarty-pants who thought the Teliani Valley wine was Tsinandali PDO, what about the label on the right. Tsinandali too? Nope, I don’t think so – look more carefully – in smaller letters it says Kakheti AOC. To be fair, I think this is an old label, which is also indicated by the use of AOC rather than PDO, but at the very least this is very confusing.
Actually, it is quite common for Georgian producer names to include the name of a PDO. Apart from Teliani Valley, examples that spring to mind are Tsinandali Estate, Vazisubani Estate and Royal Khvanchkara. OK, it happens in other countries too, but that does not make it any less confusing.
To be constructive, and with all due humility and the perspective of a foreign drinker of Georgian wines, I would suggest a couple of additional PDO labelling regulations:
1) PDO wines should have the PDO name clearly displayed on the label, followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” or “PDO”. This is not unusual for other countries with PDO and PDO-like systems. In some cases there is also some uncertainty about, or discrepancy between, the name of the PDO and what should appear on the label (Ateni, I am looking at you). Why not make it crystal clear and consistent?
2) Also, any other word on the label that is a PDO, but not the wine’s actual PDO, should have a clearly defined context. So, for example, a Tsinandali PDO wine may additionally say “Wine of Kakheti”; Kakheti PDO wines may say “Made from grapes harvested near the village of Tsinandali” on the back label (if that is true, of course); and producer names that incorporate a PDO name should usually be preceded by “Produced by”.
Additionally, moving away from the subject of PDOs, it might be worth seeking to protect the use of “qvevri wine” on wine labels, restricting its usage to defined production methods – I would suggest limiting it to methods that are traditional in the region of origin. Also, it would not hurt to standardise on “qvevri” or “kvevri” as the transliteration for wine labels. By all means, avoid the mess that Armenia got into with “karas” and “karasi”.
Is all this really so important? Well, it’s hardly a life or death issue, but I believe clarity is the key to communicate Georgian PDOs to wine-drinkers, especially in markets where the wines are little known. It is effectively a type of branding – one that deserves care and attention over a long period of time.
I will explain in this post some of the formal details of what Georgian wines PDOs are all about, and how to get further information about each of them, but firstly here is a summary table of the 24 PDOs currently registered. (The table will probably display better on phones if your screen is horizontal.)
The links in the table take you to the official English translations of the Sakpatenti PDO registration documents, which include quite a lot of detail, including maps. I recently printed them to PDF files, because I could find no other way of linking to the individual PDO documents. However, there are issues with the Sakpatenti English translations. In particular, note that the Georgian originals consistently say “up to 15%” when specifying a grape variety percentage, but in the English translation this becomes simply “15%”. More on Sakpatenti and its website later.
Note also that in some places the information in my table differ may differ from other published summaries of the PDO. The obvious example is the entry for Kakheti, for which the PDO rules changed at some point. I do not remember the change being announced, but in 2010 it was a PDO for dry white wines only; now it is a lot broader. I am not sure about the reason for all the discrepancies, but I believe my version to be correct at the time of writing.
Anyway, now for a bit of background, and how to get further information…
While Georgia is not part of the EU, it has an equivalent system to regulate and protect its wines, and has chosen to use EU terminology. So initially, back in 2005, it called the protected categories Appellations of Origin. Now they are Protected Designations of Origin, though you will still see the older term in some official contexts. Incidentally, following usage in the EU, Georgia also has PDOs for goods other than wine. Additionally, there is protection through Geographical Indications for other goods, but currently not for wine.
Sakpatenti, the National Intellectual Property Center of Georgia, is the body responsible for registering PDOs, and applications for new ones must be made to Sakpatenti. Registration of a PDO confers legal protection within Georgia, and Georgia seeks protection by treaty for its PDOs in foreign countries. The Sakpatenti website lists the Georgian GIs (here including PDOs) recognised abroad by treaty, and the foreign ones recognised by Georgia. Apparently, only the first 18 Georgian PDOs are currently recognised by the EU. They are the ones described in this Sakpatenti publication of 2010, and shown on the above map. Note that the PDO descriptions in this book are different to the ones referred to in my table, and are quite vague about aspects like mandated grape varieties.
For the definitive and up-to-date list of Georgian PDOs and GIs, and the registration documents with details about each one, see the State Registry in English or in Georgian. The Georgian documents are the definitive versions, and some of the English translations are dodgy. So if in doubt, I would recommend running the Georgian through Google Translate to get a second opinion. It is not too difficult if you use the registration numbers, and document section numbers, to help you orient yourself in the Georgian space.
So far in this mini-series on Georgian PDOs, I have tried to stick to objective facts. But next time, I shall conclude my series with opinion.
Edit 24/07/20: Due to some confusion on my part I was unfairly scathing about the English translations. Sorry! I have now moderated my criticism.
Most Georgian wines are marketed by grape variety and the reputation of the winemaker, so as far as the consumer is concerned the country’s PDOs (the equivalent of French Appellations) are often of little relevance. However, there are a few that you might come across in the UK, and here I briefly describe the four that immediately sprang to mind when I was thinking of compiling a shortlist. Later checking showed that they also happen to be the Georgian PDOs most readily available in the UK. And, as they were all in the first six PDOs to be registered, it seems that they were considered to be amongst the most important in Georgia.
These PDOs come from the regions of Kakheti and Racha, and the maps below show you immediately where those regions are within Georgia, but you need to click a few times to get to hi-res maps that show you the location of the PDOs. The maps do not show physical geography, but it is worth noting that the Alazani river in Kakheti flows in a wide plain, while the Racha vineyard area is more mountainous.
Tsinandali PDO is named after a village in Kakheti, the region where the majority of Georgian wine comes from. This is a dry white (i.e. not orange) wine from the area around the village, made using the Rkatsiteli grape variety with up to 15% Kakhuri Mtsvane. Rkatsiteli is the most common Georgian grape variety, and Kakhuri Mtsvane is also quite popular, and sometimes simply called Mtsvane. The Tsinandali wines that make it to the UK are often relatively inexpensive, and I find them to be straightforward and refreshing. They could perhaps be compared to Chablis, though I would say Tsinandali is more aromatic. I would most naturally think of serving them with white fish.
Mukuzani PDO is also named after a Kakheti village, but this is a dry red wine, and made solely from Saperavi, the most common Georgian red grape. Saperavi wines are usually very dark, an almost opaque purple, and often have a dark and brooding taste profile to match, with smokey fruit. They can also have a fair whack of tannin. Beyond that though, I cannot say I have noticed anything distinctive specifically about the Saperavi from Mukuzani, though as with Tsinandali I have mainly tried cheaper examples imported into the UK. These are wines that can stand up to strong flavours – spices, and beef.
The final two PDOs in my shortlist are Kindzmarauli and Khvanchkara. Frankly, I think the only thing most UK wine drinkers need to know is that these are unfortified semi-sweet red wines, and thus are vini non grata (excuse my, er, Latin) because they do not conform to modern so-called good taste. But please do not dismiss them out of hand. Served at cellar temperature, I find the ones with good balancing acidity and/or tannins very attractive, and they can work very well with grilled meats. But do be aware that they are not sweet enough to function as pudding wines. Kindzmarauli is another Kakheti Saperavi wine, but from the other side of the Alazani river from Tsinandali and Mukuzani. Its name suggests that it comes from somewhere called Kindzmara, but I cannot find such a place on the map. Khvanchkara is made from two lesser-known varieties, Aleksandrouli and Mujuretuli, and is named after the village of Khvanchkara in Racha. Traditionally, these semi-sweet wines were made from ripe late-harvested grapes, which gave a fermentation that naturally arrested due to cold winter temperatures and high alcohol content. That method is sometimes still employed, but these days stopping the fermentation with artificial refrigeration is a lot more common.
So those are my top 4 Georgian PDOs. In my next post, I intend to take a more formal look at Georgian wine PDOs in general, and briefly mention all 24 of them, with links to their official registration documentation.
You may already know that Txakoli, Txakolina and Chacolí are names used for the light and sharp white wines of the Spanish Basque country. But can they be used interchangeably, or are there subtle differences to be aware of? I have been confused about this issue for some time, and if you have too, you are now in luck – I am about to explain. (But if you really don’t care, feel free to get on with the rest of your life.)
The Basque noun for the wine could be either Txakoli or, to confuse matters even further, Txakolin (with an n). However the Basque nationalist Sabino Arana, in his spelling reform of 1895, proposed standardisation on Txakoli, so that is what you normally see now as the wine’s unadorned name in Basque.
The a at the end of the Txakolinais actually the Basque definite article, but you will note that it is not added to Txakoli, but Txakolin, which is the only reason why I bothered telling you about the Txakolin spelling at all. So Txakolina could be translated into English as the Txakoli. You will see Txakolina in the Basque PDO names Bizkaiko Txakolina, Getariako Txakolina and Arabako Txakolina. In these names the ko endings signify the genitive, like the apostrophe s does in English. So you might translate the PDOs into English as The Txakoli of Bizkai, The Txakoli of Getaria and The Txakoli of Araba.
Chacolí is simply the Spanish (i.e. Castillian) version of the Basque Txakoli, and I believe the two words would be pronounced very similarly in their respective languages. Hence, you also get the official Spanish names for the PDOs: Chacolí de Bizkaia, Chacolí de Getaria and Chacolí de Álava.
Incidentally, while Txakoli is the base word, and it often appears on wine bottle labels, it does not seem to be protected as an EU traditional term (it is not listed in Commission Regulation (EC) No 607/2009 Part B), while Chacolí-Txakolina does have protection.
I’m going to bow-out here while I still feel on safe ground, but if you want more information about the linguistics of Txakoli, and the wine itself, you could try the Txakoli Wikipedia article. And, if you can read Spanish, or are prepared to muddle through with an automatic translation, you might be interested in part 1 and part 2 of Del vino chacolín al txakoli on the euskonews website. I am also very grateful for help received on the WordReference Language Forums.
At least this divided opinion in my COVID-19-restricted tasting group of two. I absolutely ****** loved it, but my wife was not so sure. And even its newest greatest fan had to admit that the style was a tad challenging.
It was La Cosa, The Thing, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y Leon, 100% Muscat of Alexandria, produced by Alfredo Maestra, 11.0%, 2018. It is available in half-bottles for around £14, imported by Caves de Pyrene, and available from CdP and Buon Vino – and I thought other places in the UK, but they seem to have disappeared from Wine-Searcher in the last few days.
It is a medium-deep amber colour, and cloudy with a fine haze. That haze did not bother me, though the last half-glass of the bottle was uglier – a haze that was more brown, and also with larger floaty flakey bits – something I would have preferred to leave in the bottle.
On the nose you start to get a real feeling for the wine. It is intense, and redolent of botrytis – barley sugar and fresh apricot. We are not meant to be able to smell acidity, but this one actually seemed to smell sharp. In the same way, I guess, that we cannot smell sweetness, but some wines still smell sweet. This one definitely did not smell sweet.
On the palate the adjective that springs to mind is huge. It is hugely sharp, and hugely flavourful. Yes it is sweet too, but the balance is definitely on the acidic side, with the sweetness only taking a little off its edge. In addition to the botrytis notes I got on the nose, there is also a hint of cider, something I do not normally like, but this aspect is not dominant here, and there is a certain complexity, and a bitter twist in there too. Despite being full of flavour, this has a very light-bodied feel, which adds to the refreshing quality of the wine, and leaves the palate feeling clean. Not cloying in the slightest
Overall this is not what I would expect from a sweet Muscat – it is much better. Some might find it challenging, but I rose to the challenge and loved it. Just wow!
While this is great now, I see no reason why it wouldn’t age, and possibly improve. I would suggest you drink it alone – without food and, if you can manage to sneak away with the bottle, by yourself, and at any time of day.
I wrote at the end of my tasting note that it should be enjoyed on its own terms. It is uncompromising. Be warned!
Wines not bottled at source have a bit of a bad reputation for many people, and it seems the main reason is the lack of guarantee of origin and quality, something that is supposedly conferred by the producer’s bottle and label.
A moment’s thought however reveals that any guarantee is far from absolute. Bottles and labels can be faked, and they offer no protection from rogue producers. Also, wine can now be transported efficiently and safely in bulk, with traceability afforded by documentation and information technology.
The guarantee is really only required when there are significant distances between production and consumption – in wine-producing regions empty containers are often taken to a nearby producer for refill. The locals are of course in a great position to know the seller’s reputation, and may even make wine themselves.
As far as small producers are concerned, selling to locals is one thing, but bottling their wine is often the key to getting better prices from large cities, and possibly other countries. And once in a bottle with a label, wine can take a very different position in society. It is no longer a lightly processed agricultural product, only of local significance, but an international lifestyle product. The larger and cheaper brands are designed for the mass market, while more expensive wines available in smaller quantities become desirable luxury goods. At the luxury end of the market, connoisseurship is enabled by bottles and labels. They allow critics to write about a particular wine and vintage, and punters that are possibly in another part of the world can then buy what purports to be the same wine. Even if it is common knowledge that wine can vary considerably between bottles of the same lot, particularly for older vintages, somehow that variation is conveniently forgotten by connoisseurs when obsessing over wine. Thus, labels change how the product is regarded, and they can so easily mislead.
The culture surrounding natural wines largely ignores conventional wine connoisseurship, and I think in many ways it would be more at home with the idea of bulk wine – something meant to be quaffed rather than sipped. Is not bottling one of the most unnatural things you can do to a wine? Even if you leave out the preliminary steps of fining, filtering and dosing with sulphites, squeezing wine into a closed space with little oxygen cramps its style. However, bottling is important to reach the more lucrative market city markets and their natural wine bars. Best not use a traditional wine label though – rather get a mate to design something funky and rebellious, so those connoisseur types know to stay away.
There are comparisons to be drawn between en rama Sherries and natural wines. Strictly speaking an en rama Sherry is taken directly from a solera cask, and valued for its fresh and lively character. Which is all very well if you have access to casks in a Sherry bodega, but not so handy if you live in another country. So Sherry houses now offer the en rama experience oxymoronically from a bottle, where its contents have only minimal processing – perhaps a little fining, only coarse filtration, and minimal sulphite usage. And in doing so, unlike many natural wine producers, it seems they have a product with connoisseur-appeal.
If only for environmental reasons, we need to explore alternatives to bottling wine at source, even if there are huge image problems to overcome for most customers. The romance of drinking unbottled wine in situ might, just might, be a starting point to convince some people. It would work for me, but then I am a far-from-typical wine drinker.