How I got hooked on wine

Origins are often shrouded in the mists of time, and alternative versions of the origin narrative develop. My love of wine is no different, and two stories emerge from the vinous haze.

The first is more outward-looking.  I started going to wine tastings as I had friends who were already enthusiastic about wine, and I was persuaded to join them. Eventually, so much of my social life involved tasting and drinking wine that I decided I wanted to learn a lot more about the subject. It was then that I started reading widely about wine, eventually focussing on what was necessary for a WSET qualification, but not stopping there. Neither did the social aspect of my love of wine ever stop. There are few greater pleasures than sharing food and wine with friends.

The second story is more introverted, more focussed on a single event and, to be honest, the significance of the key moment only became clear with the benefit of hindsight. To give too many details would involve fabrication, but I distinctly remember the taste of the wine concerned, and I remember the effect it had. Its flavour was not complex or profound, but it knocked me round the mouth and made me sit up and pay attention. The flavour was petrol, the petrol of a mature Hugel Riesling. Oddbins’ shelf-talker had tried to warn me what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me adequately. The wine I usually drank at the time was pretty mainstream – probably New World, and at the posh end of what you could get in a supermarket. But petrol? Wine could taste like that too? And people sell and buy the stuff, and drink it? It took me some time to get used to the idea, but as I worked my way towards the end of my share of the bottle I realised I really liked it, and wanted more.

And I still want more. I want more petrolly Rieslings, and I want other interesting and weird flavours. I want to challenge my preconceptions about what wine can and should taste like. It may come as no surprise to you that I like exploring natural wine. I find the apple flavours you can often get in natural wines rather boring, but I like the fresh bright fruit, and often the volatility and Brett too. I like home-made, skin-contact, slightly cloudy Rkatsiteli, served from a jug in an outdoor restaurant in Georgia (see above image). Those wines remind me of when the whole gamut of wine was opening up to me for the first time.

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Homemade wine – eliminate or celebrate?

In Caroline Gilby’s recent book The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova, she is rather scathing of homemade wine. She explains how it is estimated to account for up to half the wine consumption of Bulgaria, and is regarded by the locals as an authentic product, from the heart, and free from nasty chemicals. And, as such, it is often thought to be superior to commercially produced wines. But she goes on to say that anyone from the international world of wine would see it as a horrible, faulty liquid that bears little resemblance to proper wine. Caroline proposes that drinkers of homemade wines need to be educated about how faulty they are, and persuaded to switch to entry-level commercial wines in the hope that they will eventually move on to a higher quality premium product. The story seems to be very similar for Romania and Moldova.However, my experience of homemade wine in ex-communist and ex-Soviet countries is rather different, albeit more limited than Caroline’s. Also I seem to have managed to arrive at very different conclusions – perhaps due to my different exposure to homemade wine, but I suspect also a fundamentally different attitude to wine. I have only tried one Romanian homemade wine. It was pinkish grey and had a sweet aromatic smell – perhaps rosehip and clove – with low acidity and high alcohol. It was certainly not a style I am used to, but was pleasant enough, and not faulty in any way. When in Georgia though I tried several homemade wines, in restaurants mainly, but also in one of those encounters that is probably unique to that country, where a group of builders were taking a refreshment break with a large plastic bottle of wine, and insisted on offering some to us.

Was the Georgian homemade wine good? I thought the closest comparison was with their commercial artisanal natural qvevri wines – which for brevity I shall refer to below simply as natural wine. The worst homemade wine was as horrible as the worst natural wine, while at the other end of the scale the best homemade wine was good, but not nearly as good as the best natural wine. Hardly a ringing endorsement you might think, but given a common restaurant choice between homemade wine and a cheap wine made in industrial quantities, I would go for homemade every time, and I think most Georgians would do the same. Homemade wine is at the very least more interesting. And to the extent that authenticity and soul means anything at all I see that as a positive too. It would be interesting to know what Caroline’s view is of the commercial artisanal natural qvevri wines of Georgia. I suspect she might be quite critical of those too, so perhaps our views on homemade wines differ because I have a greater acceptance wines that do not conform to western stereotypes, and wines that we say are technically faulty.

But has the presence of homemade wine held back the development of the commercial wine sector in Georgia, in the way that Caroline implies is the case in Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova? My impression is that during Soviet times, under-the-radar winemaking in homes and farms is to be credited with keeping traditional Georgian qvevri winemaking practice alive. It probably also helped preserve a broad range of grape varieties that would otherwise have died out. In that sense, homemade wine has had a hugely positive influence at a time when the Soviet Union seemed hell-bent on destroying local tradition by concentrating production in a few large wine factories, using only a handful of productive and easy-to-grow grape varieties. And I think the positive influence continues today, as experience of home winemaking seems to be a factor in giving people the confidence to try their hand at more commercial small-scale natural wine production. Even if that type of wine makes only a small direct contribution to the Georgian economy, it is still important in raising the profile of the country internationally and attracting western tourists.

And what of the future? I do not see any reason to discourage homemade wine. Moving economic activity from the home to the commercial sector might increase GDP, but does not necessarily improve quality of life. Rather than encouraging the growth of the commercial sector at the expense of homemade, I would rather see wine quality improvements across the board. I am not sure green harvests are the answer, but attention to cellar hygiene must be a good thing. I suspect that Georgian winemakers at all levels already know how important that is, as there are millennia-old methods and tools for keeping qvevri clean, but the actual practice is probably lacking in some places. Not selling their wine in clear plastic bottles in bright sunshine (as in the picture above) would also help!

In summary, I find the idea of homemade wine rather comforting and reassuring. I take it as a sign that there is still a real grass-roots wine culture – not one that is imposed by, or developed for, international markets. Is that so bad?

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Wine snobbery, and how to discourage it

A few years ago I wrote about wine snobs, but I am not entirely happy with that post. It was mainly a mini-rant about how the media bandies the term around. That still annoys me, and it is increasingly done by wine merchants too – Naked Wines, I’m looking at you. On reflection though, while I still don’t think I have met anyone I would call a wine snob, wine-snobbery does exist to a greater or lesser degree in many wine drinkers. Call it prejudice if you will – maybe that is actually a better word – a refusal to drink any wine under £10, anything that does not come from France, or any wine that is not natural. I think that is part of being human, though many of us have red lines that are drawn in a more nuanced way than the above examples.

There is however another type of snobbery, which harks back to an older usage of the word. It is not to do with someone looking down on people with less-refined taste; but rather someone of lower status pretending to be above their station. Using British TV comedy cultural references, think more Hyacinth Bucket than Margot Leadbetter.

The world of wine can be very intimidating, and it does not help when wine educators selling their services play on those fears by offering solutions to deal with problem situations: when you are entertaining clients in a restaurant and are handed the wine list, for example. Then, as part of your wine education, you are given a set of tools to use in those situations, and many other rules and facts for good measure. I think what we are doing here carries the danger of actually creating more wine-related social anxiety, and more wine snobbery – snobbery in the sense of encouraging people to pretend they are better than they are. And there is always the possibility that, those novices actually mistake what they have learned for deeper knowledge, and acquire snobbery in the more modern sense of the word, looking down on (or at least askance at) others who do not understand wine.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am all in favour of wine education, but for people who have a genuine desire for knowledge; not for the allayment of social anxiety. However, it is a long road to acquire what I would call real knowledge about wine, and in my opinion the most important thing is to convey to novices that they should not worry. Wine is to be enjoyed, not stressed about. Learn how to enjoy wine, and in the meantime if you need to select from a wine list, ask for advice from the restaurant.

If you do not want to promote wine snobbery, take a relaxed attitude to wine and encourage others to do the same.

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Tsigani Gogo, a Georgian wine by Laura Siebel & Niki Antadze

For several reasons I found this wine both interesting and distinctive. Delicious too.

The first impression is the striking label, presumably depicting a tsigani gogo (gypsy girl), and the unusual blue bottle with a red wax seal. Now blue is not a bottle colour I associate with good quality wines – quite the reverse in fact – but I must admit the overall effect is rather classy. Then you might notice that the wine is the result of a collaboration between Laura Siebel, of Domaine de la Pinte in the Jura, and Niki Atadze and his winery in the Georgian region of Kakheti. Turn the bottle round, and you will see that the combination of grapes varieties used in this wine is as unlikely as the winemaker partnership. It is in fact a blend of the red variety Saperavi, and the white Mtsvane. Well, I say Saperavi is red, but it is a teinturier variety and often gives wines that are so dark as to be nearly opaque.

I do not know the percentage of Mtsvane used, but judging by the wine’s medium-pale red and its aromatics I would guess it is substantial – a lot closer to 50% than the 5 to 10% of Viognier that is typically added to Syrah for example. Neither do I know the degree of skin contact this wine had, but if either Saperavi or Mtsvane is made in the traditional Kakheti style, with the must fermenting and ageing on all the stalks and skins, you can get an extremely astringent wine. While Tsigani Gogo did have fair degree of astringency, it was not extremely high, so I would guess the stalks were discarded after crushing, perhaps along with some of the skins. What I do know about the production from the UK importer Caves de Pyrene: “Fermentation, vinification and ageing in qvevri. No punchdown, no press wine, all wild and ambient. No filtration and no sulphur”. The absence of punching-down is another departure from traditional Kakheti practice, and that too would reduce the wine’s astringency. Caves de Pyrene also say that the Antadze Winery has organic vineyards, so I guess all together that means this is a natural wine – should you care about that sort of thing. Tasting note follows…

Tsgani Gogo, Laura Siebel & Niki Antadze, Pomegranate-color wine from Saperavi and Mtsvane, 12.5%
It is apparently from the 2016 vintage, but not stated on the label. I paid £28.44 from Caves de Pyrene, including a 10% discount. Medium pale ruby. Intense, fresh, and aromatic. The nose reminds me a lot more of Mtsvane than Saperavi. Medium high acidity. Maybe slightly sweet? Tingly on tongue, from both acidity and I think dissolved CO2. Lazy bubbles on the side of the glass also indicated a high CO2 content. Medium astringency. Very bracing from the acidity, and astringency. Fresh red berry aromatics, and sharp apricot perhaps from the Mtsvane. Drink now. Instantly likeable for me, and what I think is called glou glou. This is not a wine for serious and respectful sipping, but its structure makes it nevertheless feel quite grown-up *****

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A week of food and wine in Split, Croatia

A week ago we returned from a week in Split, Croatia, and I share here some of our food and wine experiences. This break was not particularly wine-focussed, and we did not visit any local producers, but we did drink wines made from local varieties with meals. I’ll kick off with three of our favourite restaurants, the first two being suggested by the owner of our rooms as places he likes to eat.

Villa Spiza is just outside the Palace (the area in the centre of town where Diocletian’s Palace stood). They buy in fresh food every day, and as it starts to run out it they cross dishes off the menu, and close the restaurant when it has all gone. No reservations, so you have to just turn up and be prepared to queue for a table. When we were there we waited around 30 mins, but the queue soon grew to an hour. Both from the perspective of getting a good choice of dishes, and minimising queuing, it is perhaps best to go for lunch or an early evening meal. You will also have to accept that seating can be cramped. So what is so great about it? The food was simultaneously the best and the cheapest we found in Split, and although the staff were busy, they were also attentive and friendly. This is where we got the Dingač mentioned below, which we had with steak. It was served at room temperature (mid-to-high 20s Centigrade) but when I asked for a bucket of ice and water the bucket appeared unquestioningly, and within the minute of my asking. We only visited once because we did not feel like queuing on other occasions, wanting a more relaxing evening.

Konoba Fetivi is bit further out, but still only 10 or 15 mins walk from the Palace. Nothing fancy, but good quality food and reasonably priced, and we had two evening meals there. Best known for the fish and sea food, but they serve meat too. This is where we got the house white mentioned below. When we were there a couple of weeks ago, we needed to book to get in for dinner.

Gallerija is actually in the Palace area, and a bit hidden away down a side alley from an already very narrow street, in a small courtyard. Good food at a decent price, with good service and a very pleasant location. We were staying so close to this place that we could use our rooms’ WiFi, so perhaps we were a bit biased, but we had dinner there twice, and a few breakfasts too. Not as busy at the other two places above, but probably still worth booking for dinner to be on the safe side. The image above is the view from the restaurant courtyard, towards the building where we stayed on the second floor.

The above three restaurants I would recommend with confidence, but now for some other places you might be tempted by if you use the Internet to check out wine places in Split. Zinfandel had great service and food, but it was expensive, e.g. the steak was about twice the price it was in most places. And the hasselback potato on their menu to accompany the steak was not at all like a hasselback. Despite the price and the un-hasselback potato, I must admit we came away feeling we had a good experience, so if you are feeling flush maybe you should give it a try. In contrast, the lunch we had at Uje Oil was very disappointing considering the praise it seems to get online. There were many minor annoyances with the place and the service, which together gave a bad impression, and the food we ordered was average at best. Maybe we caught them on a bad day, but I can only report what we experienced, and we were not tempted to return. Booking was needed for both these two places also. In fact, on two occasions we tried booking Uje Oil around midday for dinner, and failed both times.

Now, a couple of wines that made an impression in very different ways.

Anticević Dingač Traditional 2015,  with a mere 16% ABV. HKR 410 at Villa Spiza. Intense purple ruby. Intense aromas. Mainly savoury, but with hints of sweet dark fruit. Spicy. Medium high acidity. Off dry. Medium high tannin. Savoury and slightly bitter on finish. Good now, but could well improve with some more age. Excellent with the steak we were eating *****

Gospoja Dry White Wine, 12% ABV. This was the house white at Konoba Fetivi, and we were told the variety was Žlahtina. The wine was taken from a 10 li catering bag-in-box, and served in carafe at HRK 90 for 75cl. It was what the waiter recommended, and most people in the restaurant were drinking it. Pale straw. Stone fruit and citrus – lemon and lime? Medium high acid. Dry. Tad astringent maybe. Tingly finish. Drink now. A lot better than other cheaper wines we drank in Split, and better than some that were more expensive. Surprisingly good, and worked well with fish *****

Finally, a wine merchant. Looking online the best one in Split seemed to be Vinoteka Terra. It’s in a sort of courtyard just off the road prilaz braće Kaliterna, down some stairs, and in a cellar that it shares with a restaurant. The sign for the shop is a very small plate on the door, and easy to miss – the restaurant signs being a lot more prominent. The picture you might find on the Web, of an alcove with wine shelves, is the whole shop interior, and is not nearly as big as some online reviews make out. Nevertheless, it is still the best selection of Croatian wine I have seen in one place, taking up about half of the shop’s shelf space. Top marks for the help I was given by the lady in the shop in my quest to find 6 bottles to bring back in checked-in luggage. No idea how competitive the prices are for Split.

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Georgian wines from M&S and Waitrose

After having written quite a bit recently about Georgian wines that are not easy to get hold of in the UK, and sometimes frankly impossible, I thought I should investigate two Georgian wines that you can pick up in supermarkets. In fact, as far as I know these are the only Georgian wines you can buy UK supermarkets. And I was very impressed by them. As with any country really, there is a lot of low-end Georgian wine that I find unpalatable, but here the buyers seem to have done a pretty good job at finding decent quality at a sensible price.

Let’s start with Tbilvino Qvevris 2015 12.0%, which was £10.00 from Marks & Spencer.

Perhaps the first thing to point out is the remarkably low price. OK, there are no claims made about organic viticulture or low-intervention winemaking, and Tbilvino makes wine on an industrial scale. But even so, this particular wine was fermented in qvevri – large clay pots buried in the ground – and that itself is a relatively expensive small-scale batch process. The next cheapest qvevri wine in the UK is over £12.00, and most are closer to twenty.

This is an orange wine, the colour being due to the must of white grapes being fermented on their skins. It was made in Kakheti (Eastern Georgia) where the tradition is to add stalks as well as skins, and to keep punching down and agitating the skins and stalks in the fermenting wine, all of which usually results in robust tannins. But this wine is altogether much more gentle, and while definitely having the character of an orange wine it is a lot more approachable than many, thus serving as a good introduction to the style. The grape is the Georgian variety Rkatsiteli, which is the most common white variety in Georgia, and highly regarded.

Medium pale amber. No obvious sediment. Slightly phenolic. Vague bitter orange notes on the nose. Highish acidity. Medium low astringency. A very slight apparent sweetness that might just be ripe fruit aromas. Whatever it is, it takes a little off the edge of the acidity and astringency, whilst still leaving the wine relatively fresh and bracing. A pleasant and undemanding wine ****

The next wine, Orovela Saperavi 2008 13.0%, is available from Waitrose for £16.79.

Orovela is a smaller producer than Tbilivino. They certainly used to make several different wines but now, according to their website and social media at least, seem to be focussing more on their Saperavi sales at Waitrose. Like Rkatsiteli, Saperavi is a common and highly regarded variety in Georgia. However it is a red grape, or to be more precise an extremely dark purple one, and also has red flesh, so it often gives very dark wines.

No qvevris used here – it’s conventional winemaking with oak ageing. But the special thing about this wine as far as I am concerned is the considerable bottle age. In fact, at 10 years, I think it is the oldest Georgian wine I have ever tried. Georgian wines are often said to age well, but my impression is that in practice they are usually drunk young – by English standards at least.

Intense purple ruby. Intense nose. Some dark fruit. Also a little vegetal, in a good way, which I think here is the first hint at the complexity of age. Highish acidity. Medium tannin. Excellent length. The maturity imparts some lightness and freshness to what could otherwise be a wine with a very heavy feel, and it is starting to soften and round with age too. It seemed to improve during the time it took to drink with a meal. An all-round, somewhat mature, good wine *****

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Wine experts, and the wisdom of crowds

It’s a strange thing, expertise. In many areas, I think to call yourself an expert in a very broad subject would sound rather silly. I used to work in engineering research and I don’t recall anyone calling themselves an engineering expert, but there were certainly people regarded as experts in much narrower specialities. Until I came across wine experts I thought an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less. However, wine experts (and here I mean the ones the public see, rather than industry consultants and oenologists) often seem to have knowledge that spans across most of the vast subject of wine – vintage variations, grape varieties, where it’s grown, how it’s made, how to store and serve it, what to drink it with etc etc. Some may specialise to an extent, but even then the areas of speciality are usually quite large. Their depth of knowledge in wine varies tremendously from person to person, but what they have in common is the ability to communicate their wine knowledge – they are essentially critics, writers, broadcasters and teachers.

So are these wine experts to be trusted, or should we listen more to the wisdom of crowds? That is the dichotomy often presented to us, but my answer is no in both cases. We should not trust wine experts per se, just because they are hailed as experts. And I am not even sure what the wisdom of crowds means in the context of wine – I can only imagine it would involve averaging the score of a lot of people you don’t know, who all work with their own rating system. Something which in my book is wrong at many levels.

To me, the only sensible approach is to treat each expert individually, and to do exactly the same for anyone you might regard as a member of the crowd. Each will have a level of knowledge in the subject they are pronouncing on, each will have their own palate and preferences, and each will express their likes and dislikes differently. All those factors are important, whether they are making factual statements about wine or offering opinions. If you do not know the person well, what evidence do they give for any assertions they make? Do they simply assert, or do they refer to another authority, or science? If they talk only from their own experience, how reliable do you think that is? Remember it is very easy to extrapolate way too far from very limited data, and palates and opinions vary a lot.

Personally, if I want factual information, Wikipedia is one of my first ports of call. In one sense it is a wisdom of crowds sort of work, but it is distinguished by the ethos of referencing sources. So if you doubt the article, or if it is important to you to get a particular detail right, you can check the source. Check if that detail is correctly derived from the source, and does the source in turn look reliable? Often it is not possible to do this with the pronouncements of wine experts, and even the best are fallible.

For matters of taste, I trust my own palate mainly, not because it is particularly wonderful, but simply because it is mine. Beyond that, I am most influenced by friends. As we often share and discuss wines I think a lot of that influence is subliminal and ours view tend to merge, but I am also very aware where our tastes are different.

So don’t trust experts just because they claim expertise, and don’t trust crowds just because they are crowds. First and foremost, consider the individuals offering the advice, and the evidence they have. It makes sense – trust me.

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Nero Oro – Nero d’Avola appassimento from Sicily

Nero Oro, Appassimento, Nero d’Avola, Sicilia DOC, The Wine People, 2017, 14.0%.

This is available from Majestic for around £9 if you “mix six”, otherwise £10. Oh, and it really is a Sicilia DOC wine as stated above, rather than the IGP designation shown in the image. The Wine People market it as part of their range, but the wine is actually made by Santa Tresa, an estate in South East Sicily near Vittoria.

Appassimento means that before winemaking the grapes are partially dried, which concentrates their sugar, acidity and flavour. In this case the enhanced sugar content of the grapes ferments to give a wine with a highish alcohol content, and with some sugar left over after the fermentation to give a slightly sweet wine. Together with low astringency, this gives a smooth easy drinking wine with some classy fruit, and the wine’s sweetness is moderated by balancing acidity.

This will doubtless have broad appeal, and it is well made for what it is, even if it is not a style I would usually drink myself. I suggest drinking it slightly chilled – maybe at around 17-18ºC. And remember it will warm up quickly if left out of the fridge in the hot weather we have been having recently, so probably best to bring it out a bit cooler than that. See here for advice on adjusting the temperature of wine bottles. I reckon it would work well with pork and duck, and pretty much any barbequed meat. Also with cheeses like Cheddar and Stilton, as a lighter alternative to Port.

Medium pale ruby. Intense fresh fruit – cherry and damson. A delicate fragrance, and aromas that somehow reminds me of Aussie Shiraz. Medium high acidity. Off dry. Low astringency, but there is some present. You can feel the alcohol on the palate, but it is not hot. The sweetness and acidity are nicely balanced, and the wine finishes sharp. A pretty and straightforward wine. Drink now ***

(Unlike the vast majority of wines I mention on my blog, I did not pay for this wine. It was offered to me as a sample, which I accepted because I thought the wine sounded interestingly different to a lot of wines on the market.)

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Vineyards, Rocks, and Soils – book review

This is a review of Vineyards, Rocks, & Soils – The Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology, by Alex Maltman, a book published earlier this year, by Oxford University Press which probably explains the unnecessary comma in the title. I picked it up recently from Wordery for just over £20.

My first impressions were very favourable. It is what I have come to think of as a classic-style book: with text organised in a logical sequence and designed to be read linearly from beginning to end. And the illustrations support the text rather than being the main focus of the book. Call me old-fashioned, but that is the way I like the world, and I already have more than enough books for the coffee table thank you. My only criticisms about the presentation is that the text on some of the illustrations is difficult to read due to its size and/or poor contrast, and that the colour illustrations are bound as plates in the centre for the book. I appreciate this is done to keep costs down, but it nevertheless makes the book less convenient to use. Close to the relevant bit of text, there are also grey-scale versions of the plate illustrations, but the grey-scale figure captions do not reference the plates, so I was more than a little bemused to see a grey-scale image used to illustrate the “striking red color” of the terra rossa soil, without realising the image also existed in colour elsewhere. Neither do the colour images reference the grey scale versions, or even duplicate the figure captions, so if you try browsing the colour plates you have no idea what you are looking at. (In case you are wondering, if there is a colour version of the figure it is the main text that links the two versions, by referencing both of them.)

The book starts at the atomic level, and works its way up in scale through two chapters about minerals (the chemical compounds that comprise rocks), then moves on to the three types of rock (sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic). That is followed by a couple of chapters about folds, faults and joints in rock, and how geology influences landscape. In this initial two-thirds or so of the book, there is little mention of how the geology influences wine, but the author does take pains to give examples of the minerals, rocks and landscape features under discussion in well-known wine regions and vineyards, and also notes how the geological terms are used on wine labels and in promoting the wines.

Building on that basis, the rubber then makes firmer contact with the road as we learn about how this geology affects vines and wines. Largely it is indirectly through the soil, so we look at how soils are created, mineral nutrients, minerals in wine, and a more general look and the concept of terroir. This is followed by a chapter on geological time, and the names of the geological periods. This seems like an odd place to discuss geological time, and to an extent the author seems reluctant to discuss it at all, as he maintains the age of the rocks has no bearing on the soils, vines and wines. But it is nevertheless a favourite topic of wine-writers, and of people promoting wines and wine regions, so he thought it should be mentioned. Finally, the book ends with an epilogue discussion of the  how the geology of the vineyard affects its wine’s taste.

At the end of the book, I felt I had grasped the broad thrust of the main geological content, but I must admit I skipped through some of the detail, and very quickly forgot some detail I did concentrate on. But I still have the book, and with its excellent index, and use of a bold typeface to indicate where new concepts are explained, it will be good as a reference work to help keep myself geologically sound in my writing.

Maltman seems to have become a bit of a bête noir amongst proponents of minerality and terroir, at least those who see things in black and white terms. But I think his attitude as expressed in this book strikes the right balance in a very measured and tolerant way. Nevertheless, and quite reasonably in my opinion, he does maintain a degree of scientific scepticism. I tend to agree with him on most of these issues of debate.

Also, while pointing out that wine people often do not use geological terms correctly, I think he is also very understanding, admitting that the subject can be very confusing, and that even geologists change their minds and do not always agree amongst themselves. However, when he sees important geological errors in the wine world he is keen to flag them up. A good example is the common confusion between the very different rocks called tuff (volcanic) and tufa (precipitated from cold water).

My final point is that Alex Maltman is an academic who has a wealth of experience in the teaching of geology, and it shows. He knows how to develop the subject in a logical way, how to explain topics that are likely to confuse, and how to lighten the mood with the odd anecdote. And he writes with authority. This is in marked contrast to the more journalistic style of writing where the author travels the world to “find out”, recording interviews with experts en route, and often requiring the reader to fill in the gaps and assemble everything to make a coherent whole. That journalistic style appears to be increasingly popular – but it is not for me.

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Georgia, Georgian wines, and me

From listening to what other wine lovers say, and from personal experience, there really is something special about the country of Georgia and its wine. But I find it tricky to put my finger on exactly what that something is. Different people may have different ideas, but for me Georgia’s authenticity is very important – somehow the place is very real and true when compared with the artifice, spin and posturing in the world I am more used to. That and the hospitality of the Georgians, which goes along with their love of food and wine, and other ways of having a good time like singing and dancing. And it is also important to me that their love of wine is so closely integrated into their culture. Yeah, yeah, I hear you say, but isn’t that the case with many other wine countries and regions? Well yes, to an extent, but Georgia takes it to a whole new level.

Food, wine and song – in the Tbilisi restaurant Azarphesha

Georgia is not just a country of wine drinkers; it is a country of wine makers. It is estimated that the home-made product accounts for around two-thirds of all wine consumption in Georgia. And it is not regarded as inferior – quite the reverse in fact, as with products like home-made cake and jam in Britain. Of course, not all home-made wine is natural and made in qvevri, but that is certainly considered by many to be the ideal, and from what I have been able to establish a substantial proportion of it is made that way.

Archil Guniava in the family marani

That base of home-made wine, together with very small-scale winemaking for local markets, forms the foundation for the commercial-end of artisanal qvevri wine production in Georgia. Bottling and labelling being the key additional process to enable it to be sold abroad, and alongside its peers in Tbilisi wine bars. This is the trendy stuff that gets most talked-about here, even if it represents only a few percent of commercial wine production in Georgia. To me, it is these cultural roots that make Georgian wines interesting and authentic – they are more than a mere fashion that could disappear as quickly as it arrives on the scene. You may have heard stories about the Soviet Union wiping out traditional Georgian winemaking in Georgia for decades. Well, it didn’t disappear even then – it lived on in people’s homes and on farms, and is now flourishing again.

I am not here saying that all natural qvevri wine production started as I described above; I know it didn’t. Equally, I am not saying that all such wine is superior. I am merely trying to explain what is special about it to me, and any hint of authenticity and rural tradition, however small, certainly adds to my enjoyment of Georgian wines. If that doesn’t impress you, fair enough, but please do not let it lead you to be dismissive about Georgian wines. You may find other things to like – the hundreds of native varieties for example, or the new generation of dynamic winemakers with innovative ideas. Or you might just like the way they taste, which I often do too!

Beyond wine, it starts to get a lot more difficult for me to describe why Georgia is so special, mainly because I have thought about it less. Perhaps it lies in its people getting their priorities straight: relatives, friends, food and drink, more or less in that order. Oh, and patriotism, and God and the Church, are up there in the list too. A lot further down seems to be political correctness and health and safety, also materialism I think. I am not saying I agree with all those priorities, but somehow it is refreshing to see them so clearly visible anyway. Or at least they seem to be clear – maybe I am getting it all wrong, in which case I apologise. I would not be the first tourist to base my liking, or hatred, of another country on a misconception.

Soft greens of the Vardazia Valley

Finally, Georgia makes me feel at home in a strange sort of way. Even if the people and countryside can be very different from their British counterparts, I feel a shared humanity, and even the soft greens of the landscape feel familiar. Somehow I belong.

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