Georgia, Georgian wines, and me

From listening to other wine lovers, 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 song and dance. 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, from what I have been able to establish a substantial proportion of it is, and it is certainly considered by many to be the best way of making wine.

Archil Guniava in the family marani

That base of home-made wine, together with very small-scale winemaking for local markets, formed 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 the cultural roots that make Georgian wines interesting and authentic – they are more than 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 to not let my views 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 its associated “-isms”, 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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Nikoladzeebis Marani

Nikoladzeebis Marani, which translates as Nikoladzes’ Wine Cellar, is the producer name you will see on wine bottles, but a lot of people will be more familiar with the name of the winemaker-owner Ramaz Nikoladze. Like Archil Guniava and his family, who we had visited previously on of our tour, Ramaz is a man of Imereti, and was making and selling wine locally before it occurred to him to bottle it and sell further afield. But Ramaz went a bit further. He was a bit of ringleader in persuading his fellow Imereti winemakers to set their sights on Tbilisi and beyond, and was also one of the founding members of the co-operative that kicked off the Tbilisi wine bar Ghvino Underground, a place that gave these wines showcase and market.


It was his wife, Nestan, who warmly welcomed us, showed us the new marani in an outhouse, and gave us lunch. We only got to see Ramaz briefly, as he was busy dealing with urgent business most of the day: he had to spray his vines, but there was a problem with the equipment. Archil had been spraying Bordeaux mixture, so presumably the same task was what Ramaz had in mind.

The new marani was created a few years ago with new qvevri, as shown in the film Our Blood is Wine. Indeed, I included a still from the documentary in my review, showing Ramaz helping to roll one of the qvevri into place. But when we were visiting, the qvevri were full, sealed with glass discs and covered in sand, the smaller pots above ground being for temporary storage of wine. We were told that bottling would take place in a few weeks’ time.

Then we were invited into the cool and spacious dining room of Nestan and Ramaz’s house, for lunch and the opportunity to try four different Nikoladzeebis Marani wines.

I think all wines were from 2016, and below I have identified the wines by their varieties. More very brief notes I am afraid, but the wines I liked most are clearly indicated by my star ratings.

Tsolikouri
No skin contact. The grapes came from Ramaz’ uncle’s vineyard. Pale gold. Intense, fresh, aromatically grapey. Medium acid. No tannin. Delicate ***

Tsitska, Tsolikouri
3 months skin contact. Pale gold. Intense, fresh, aromatically grapey. Medium acid. Medium low tannin. Fresh and vibrant. Aromas more intense on the palate *****

90% Aladasturi, 10% Dzelshavi
Not yet bottled. Medium purple. Intense fresh dark fruit. Medium high acid. Medium tannin ******

Chkhaveri
Not yet bottled. Medium purple ruby. Intense and fresh. Medium acid. Low tannin ***

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Archil Guniava Wine Cellar

We stopped off at Archil Guniava Wine Cellar on our way from the south of Georgia to Kutaisi. This was the first producer visit on our tour of South and West Georgia and we did not know what to expect. Archil’s place is located a few kilometres from the town of Zestafoni, off on a narrow road with rural houses strung out on both sides, and part of a settlement that goes under the name of Kvaliti. The already narrow road got even narrower. At one point our driver asked for directions and was told “keep going until the road ends, and it’s on your right”. This is about as rural as you could get whilst still being in the presence of houses.

On arrival, we were invited into the marani, a qvevri-containing cellar. It was the afternoon, and we had had a heavy lunch, but of course we were offered more food –  enough to have served as a lunch on any normal day. In addition to the obvious cucumber and tomato shown below, there is a bowl of hazelnuts, and the bread you see at the front of the image is khachapuri. Sadly, after the lunch even I was not able to make much of an impact on what we were given.

Although Archil worked in forestry, and still does, he comes from a family that was in previous generations well known for selling wine locally. So Archil now uses the family marani and qvevri, and his daughter makes wine there too. Compared with artisinal winemakers we met who have lived and worked in Tbilisi, Archil seems to be much more rooted in his village and his family’s winemaking heritage, and is maybe less subject to external influences. I read for example that he first learned about cultured yeast for winemaking only a few years ago (not that he uses it now, of course), and he still finds it strange that people like us want to visit and buy his wine. It is indeed strange when you think about it, but what of the wines we tasted?

They were all from 2017, and moved directly from qvevri to tasting-glass using a pipette. They are identified below by grape variety.

Tsitska
This was made with no skin contact, and will be ready in August. Very pale. Intense, fresh, and grapey. Low acid, and maybe a little off dry. Spritzy. Low tannin. Bitter finish. Pleasant enough, but this was too light and watery for my taste ***

Krakhuna
Spent 4 months on 15% of the skins, and was then transferred to new qvevri. Will be ready in August. Light gold. Intense, slightly vegetal, broad bean shells. Medium acid. Medium low tannin. I liked this better ****

60% Tsitska, 20% Krakhuna, 20% Tsolikouri
Contact with 100% of the skins for 4 months. This is the first time Archil has made this wine. Light gold. Intense, aromatic, a bit cheesy. Medium acid. Medium high tannin. Excellent length. My favourite so far, and this should get better. A successful experiment *****

80% Tsolikouri, 20% Otskhanuri Sapere
Contact only with the Otskhanuri Sapere skins. Palish red colour. Intense Beaujolais-like fruit. Medium high acidity. Medium tannin ****

Mgaloblishvili
Contact with 100% of the skins for 9 days. Made by Archil’s daughter. Medium pale red colour. Intense, sweet yet fresh red berry fruit. High acid. Sharp red fruit on palate. High tannin *****

These wines are not yet available in the UK, but will be imported by Proper Natural Wine. I personally imported one bottle each of Mgaloblishvili and a Tsolikouri Tsitska Krakhuna blend, both 2016.

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Nika Vacheishvili’s Marani and Wine Guest House

On our tour of South and West Georgia, returning to Tbilisi from Kutaisi we turned off the main road just after Gori, and headed South through the beautiful Ateni Valley for around 6 km. Just past the Sion Church, you will find a footpath on your left hand side. Take that path for a further kilometre or so, across the footbridge over the river, and you arrive at Nika Vacheishvili’s marani and guesthouse. As evidenced by the 4×4 parked there, you can drive right up to the house if you approach from another direction and know your way, but ours was the more obvious route. Here we see vineyards in front of the church, and behind that a hint of the landscape of the valley.


We were welcomed by Nika (centre), and joined briefly by his wife Diana when eating lunch. Nika used to be the Georgian Minister for Culture, Heritage and Sport, and decided to create the wine cellar and guesthouse in this location while working on the restoration of the Sion Church.

Wine production is small-scale, organic and natural, but it does not, as you may expect if you have been reading my blog, involve qvevri. Nika decided to start his winemaking in stainless steel, but has plans to use qvevri in the future. It would be interesting to see how the switch to qvevri will impact his wines.

Unfortunately I cannot remember many details of the lunch, but it was all good. However, one thing I do remember as being particularly impressive was actually one of the more modest dishes: sliced beetroot. In England I am used to having this served in a little watered-down vinegar, but here the Georgian sour plum sauce (tkemali) took the vinegar role, and brought it to a whole new level.

We had three wines served at lunch. Putting together my scrappy notes and information from the web, I believe we had the 2017 and 2016 vintages of the Atenuri – a wine from the Ateni Valley of 80% Chinuri and 20% Gorula Mtsvane. And the third wine was 2015 Koshkebis Chinebuli – made from 50 years old Chinuri vines – Koshkebis is Georgian for towers, and Chinebuli is a another name for Chinuri. To be honest, I am afraid to say I did not like these wines very much. I found the two Atenuri wines to be out of balance, in that they were too alcoholic for the body and aromatics. And the Koshkebis Chinebuli, although it had developed some interesting Riesling-like petrol notes, was a little musty. But I am a big believer in the subjectivity of wine appreciation, and my wife, whose opinions I respect, thought the wines were good. Maybe my palate was having an off-day.

Regardless, if you are looking for good food, and a quiet place to relax for a few days in beautiful countryside, Nika’s guesthouse should fit the bill.

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Oda Family Winery and Vino Martville

As another stop on our tour of South and West Georgia, we visited Oda, the family home of Keto Ninidze. Beneath the living-quarters of the house is the family winery managed by Keto, and there is also a restaurant business there. The restaurant is where we had lunch, except we were the only guests at the time, and Keto stayed with us at the table after showing us around her cellar and vineyards. So where does Vino Martville come into the picture? Well, Keto is married to Zaza Gagua who is a partner in that winery. (It is sometimes styled as M’artville with the “art” bit in another font and/or colour, I shall stick with Martville!) Vino Martville is currently better established than Oda Family Winery, so you are more likely to have heard of it, and the wines drank with lunch were Vino Martville.

Oda Family Winery lies in the village of Martvili, in the region of Samegrelo. Not only is Oda the name of this house and winery, but the word also describes this style of traditional Megrelian house, with pillars to keep out the damp and a shady veranda. Zaza and Keto moved here from Tbilisi, but the house belonged to Zaza’s great-grandfather, who built it around 100 years ago.

As is sometimes the case with oda houses, part of the ground floor has been walled-off to create a cellar space, and here the cellar contains qvevri and other winemaking equipment. I didn’t notice it when we were visiting, but that wooden thing to the left under the house, looks like a trough for treading grapes. Inside the cellar there is one small 50 li and few 500 li qvevri, along with a small basket press and stainless steel tank, and a storage room for bottled wine. Keto is shown here with one of her qvevri. Close to the house is a vineyard recently planted with the Ojalashi and Chviriluri varieties, but it is still too young to produce grapes for wine, so the first couple of vintages of Oda were made from grapes brought in.

In front of the house across the grass is a separate building for the kitchen, which I think is a traditional arrangement in Samegrelo but this was over-sized to cater for the restaurant, and a wooden canopy to shelter the restaurant tables.

The food was amazing – quite possibly the best we have had in Georgia, though some of that enthusiasm may be due to my love of spice, which is one of the defining features of Megrelian food. We started with pickled jonjoli flowers in a corn bread tart-casing, which was a great combination. Also show below, looking like a tomato-free pizza, is Megrelian khachapuri. Unlike the perhaps more common Imeretian style of khachapuri, here the bread is not only filled with cheese but is also covered with toasted cheese. Mmmm, cheese – if I wanted to invest in a street food business in the UK, it would specialise in khachapuri. Also shown are pieces of chicken with a light brown walnut(?) sauce and, just visible bottom right, two types of adjika, which is a paste of chili and other spices.

I believe the rolls shown below are gebjalia, which is also mainly cheese, the structural bit being heated cheese and milk rolled out when it has acquired the correct elastic texture, with a herby filling, and a soft cheese on the side and in the sauce. Cheese too is an important ingredient in the elarji, another Megrelian speciality, being pulled out of the pot to demonstrate that it has the right consistency. The basis is ghomi, which is a sort of porridge very similar to a soft polenta, and can be eaten as it is as the carbohydrate part of a meal. But if you stir in a type of cheese, and keep stirring and stir some more, you get a delicious cheesy stodge, which was served with an equally delicious and spicy stew. I think the meat was veal, and it was in a thick and slightly grainy sauce that I suspect got its consistency from nuts. Whatever it was it was good, and worked well with the elarji.

Was there something else? Ah, yes, the wines. Sorry, but again I have very brief descriptions and very enthusiastic ratings. I am not sure if the paucity of description is just a weakness on my part, or if there is something about these wines that discourages verbiage – as in many ways the appeal of these wines lies in their immediacy and simplicity. It may be some sort of vinous heresy, but in my opinion complexity is overrated. Philosophy aside, here are my tasting notes:

Vino Martville, Krakhuna, 2017
Medium greenish gold. Slightly cloudy. Intense, fresh, orange aromas. High acid. Medium high tannin. Mouthwatering. As nose. Drink now ******

Vino Martville, Aladasturi, 2017
Medium purple. Intense, sweet, dark berry fruit on the nose. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now *****

Finally, a few words about Keto. She was a philologist in Tbilisi and, in addition to making wine and looking after her family, intends to continue writing – about wine, and life at Oda. Judging by our conversations I am sure she will write from a thoughtful and interesting perspective, and I look forward to reading anything that might appear in English.

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Gotsa Family Wines

Like all the producers we visited on this trip, the location of Gotsa Family Wines  is rural and idyllic. Unlike the other locations however, it is readily accessible from Tbilisi by car – under an hour’s drive to the south, in the Asureti Valley. On arrival, we met the winemaker Beka Gotsadze and took a tour of his cellars, but first let’s take a look at the three wines we drank with lunch. Here they are with pre-lunch nibbles.All three were 2016 wines from Asureti Valley vineyards. Below I have identified all the wines by their grapes, but I think the one with five grapes might just be called Asureti White or something similar. My ratings may seem very high, but no claim of objectivity is made, and that is what you get when drinking outside in the shade with a great lunch and in a beautiful environment. Nevertheless, the Chinuri was my clear favourite, even if tasting note could have been more eloquent, and I was more than happy to fill the final 4 remaining bottle-shaped holes in our suitcases with wines purchased from Beka.

Chinuri
Medium gold. Intense, fresh, apricot. Phenolic. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. As nose. Drink now ******

Mtsvane, Khikhvi, Kisi, Mtsviani, Chitisvala Bodburi
Darker brownish amber. Intense, fig, raisins. Probably a little oxidised. Medium acid. High tannin. Refreshing, despite all the dried fruit flavours. Drink now *****

Tavkveri
This is labelled as a rosé wine, but I would rather describe it as a lightish red wine, like a less-serious red Beaujolais for example. Medium pale purple. Intense, soft strawberry aromas. Medium acid. Off-dry effect, but that could be from ripe fruit aromas. Low but noticeable tannin. Drink now ****
Beka was fun company, over lunch and during the tour. He was opinionated, but didn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and was willing to listen to other ideas too. He is definitely in the natural camp of winemakers, with certified-organic vineyards and low-intervention winemaking, and he is traditional to the extent that he uses qvevri and Georgian grape varieties. However, that is really where tradition ends and his desire to tinker and innovate kicks in.

Rather than using wood or stone to seal the neck of the qvevri, Beka prefers stainless steel. That is now quite a common thing in Georgia, but he has also devised a large insulating cap for the qvevri that hold maturing wine, to help keep the temperature constant. He also dangles electric heating elements in his qvevri to sterilise them before use. The insulating cap and sterilisation device are illustrated above. The long baskety thing, also illustrated, is a coarse filter that you drop into the qvevri to remove the heaviest crud from the wine you take out from within the basket.

But perhaps the most impressive innovation is that the fermentation qvevri have tubing coiled around them underground, enabling Beka to cool or heat the wine in the qvevri by pumping water through the tubing. The alcoholic fermentation produces heat, so to keep the temperature lower Beka pumps through cold spring water, and the resulting warm water goes into his swimming pool. And to encourage malolactic fermentation by warming the wine, the direction of flow is reversed, taking warm water from the pool. Beka shows us the controls for this temperature control system in the above image. Before becoming a winemaker, Beka used to be an architect, and his company designed heating systems for buildings – presumably this was the inspiration for his qvevri temperature-control ideas. The usual story you get in Georgia is that the qvevri is an ideal winemaking vessel perfected over millennia, and that the earth around the qvevri works perfectly to moderate its temperature.  So I am sure Beka’s ideas are not without controversy, but how do you know how perfect the basic qvevri is until you explore alternatives?

Another practice frowned on in some Georgian circles is that Beka matures his red wines in flavour-neutral old oak barrels to allow small amounts of oxygen into the wine. The frowns are because traditionally, i.e. before the 19th century, wood was not used to hold wine in Georgia winemaking, everything being in qvevri. Regardless of the vessel used, it is noteworthy that Beka sees fit to age his wine for up to two years before release, as he thinks is important for the wines to stabilise, especially if they are to be exported and experience less-than-ideal conditions in transit.

Overall, a great visit – certainly something to consider if you are a wine-lover staying in Tbilisi for a while.

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An Amazing Mtsvane and a Cracking Krakhuna

The Mtsvane and Krakhuna were served to us at g.Vino in Tbilisi, and Sapere in Kutaisi. We enjoyed evening meals there, but equally I have seen both places described as wine bars. Certainly you can pop into g.Vino for just a drink, and I presume the same applies to Sapere. They both focus on artisanal, natural, qvevri wine, g.Vino’s selection being pretty impressive, while Sapere is a smaller place with more limited choice. Actually, when we were at Sapere it was even more limited than normal – I asked for an orange wine and was offered only one option as they had used up most of their stock and were waiting for the 2017 harvest. Nevertheless, that wine turned out to be excellent, and Sapere had the edge over g.Vino when it came to food. Nowhere in Georgia did I eat badly, but Sapere was particularly good. Anyway, more on the two specific wines…

At g.Vino I said I’d like a bottle of Mtsvane, and was given a taster of  Chona’s Marani Mtsvane 2016. Mtsvane simply means green, and actually there are a few different Mtsvane varieties in Georgia, the most common one coming from Kakheti, where Chona’s Marani is located. So this was the Kakhetian Mtsvane – Mtsvane Kakhuri in Georgian – which is what I am used to drinking. But this was different. I was expecting something bright, lively, phenolic, astringent and aromatic, but this was more soft and gentle. Its appearance was not pretty – a cloudy muddy brown colour, depicted well in the image above. But I was not planning to sit and look at it all evening, and the nose was a lot more attractive – intense, fresh, fruity and spicy – and on the palate it had moderate amounts of acidity and tannin, giving that lip-smacking quality that works so well with food, without being too dominant. On the palate I noticed a slight lactic character, which also tended to give it a more rounded impression. Overall I liked it a lot (*****), so we took the rest of the bottle for 50 GEL. As far as I can tell it is not available in the UK, but if it was I guess it would retail for around £20 – the price most Georgian natural qvervi wines seem to sell for.

The wine we were offered at Sapere was the Giorgi Shalamberidze Wine Cellar Krakhuna 2015. According to the back label, it comes from the “Zestafoni district of Imereti, in the village of Tskhratskaro”, but that is pretty much all I can find out about the producer. Krakhuna is the grape variety, which I had not tasted before, but this wine was one of two really stunningly good examples we came across on the trip. It was pale gold, with an intense nose – honeyed and mildly spiced. Immediately after opening it was very slightly fizzy. There was a slightly off dry effect on the palate, which together with the honey on the nose could indicate a small amount of botrytis. Sadly, I realise this tasting note fails to explain why, but the wine was absolutely delicious. It hit the spot, and I gave it a doubtless hyperbolic ******. You had to be there to understand!

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A trip to South and West Georgia

My first visit to Georgia was mainly in Kakheti – the Eastern part of Georgia, where most of its wine is made. It made a big impression on me, and since then I have spent a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about Georgia. I had to return, and this time headed South and West from Tbilisi, spending one night near Vardzia and three in Kutaisi. The remaining three nights, immediately after and before our flights, were in Tbilisi. This time there was just the two of us in a car with a guide, on a private tour organised by Living Roots, which was a very much more intimate experience compared to the Arblaster and Clarke trip last time, and considerably cheaper. The number of wines we got to try was a considerably less, and we generally drank the wine, as God intended, rather than tasting it. But that was no bad thing. In addition to natural qvevri wines bottled for sale, we drank undocumented homemade restaurant house wines probably made the same way, and a couple of examples of cheap factory wines (as the Georgians sneeringly call them).

Just to be clear from a disclosure point of view for anything I might write about this trip –  I believe that we paid through Living Roots for everything we received. It was a holiday; not a press trip.

Some of the many highlights…

Part of the Vardzia cave-city to the right, overlooking its valley

In the South we visited the cave-city of Vardzia. Established in the 12th century as a place to hide from invading armies, it grew to a man-made cave complex on 13 levels suitable for permanent inhabitation. A series of earthquakes later exposed the cave-city in section, which is what we see now. Further North, and much close to Kutaisi, we visited the Gelati Monastery. It was founded in 1106, and became one of the most important cultural and intellectual centres in Georgia.

Gelati Monastery

Travelling North-West from Kutaisi, in the Samegrelo region of Georgia, we saw the beautiful Martvili Canyon, and rafted in a more gently flowing part of the river, also visiting the large limestone Prometheus Cave on our return journey.

The wine producers we visited were: Archil Guniava Wine Cellar, Nikoladzeebis Marani, Oda and Vino Martville, Nika Vacheishvili’s Marani, and Gotsa Family Wines. I’ll try to write more about them in later posts, but right now I would just like to say what wonderful lunches we had in those places. Our visit to Archil was late in the afternoon, and even there we were offered delicious khachapuri, tomato, cucumber and nuts.

Lunch at Nika Vacheishvili’s place in the Ateni Valley

Apart from lunches at winemakers, there were a few other foodie highlights. On our first evening we had great food and wine at g.Vino in Tbilisi. Here, there was a good selection of natural qvevri wine, and the staff were very friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. For lunch the next day we were in Poka Nunnery, in a cosy dining room with a wood stove. The whole meal was good, but I particularly remember the river trout, boned, and stuffed with onion, and the selection of hand-made nunnery cheeses to finish. Another meal that stood out was a dinner in the Kutaisi restaurant Sapere. The delicate spicing of the food was wonderful, and I also remember we drank a particularly good bottle of wine.

Barbare Jorjadze (left) at the Tbilisi restaurant Barbarestan. Clearly someone not to be messed with

The final meal of the trip was back in Tbilisi at the restaurant Barbarestan, which was significantly more up-market than any other place we visited in Georgia. All the recipes were taken from a 19th century cookbook written by Barbare Jorjadze, so every dish is traditionally Georgian, but not necessarily commonly eaten in modern Georgia. The decor and crockery is also perhaps how you might imagine things to have been back in 19th century Georgia. The food was good, and interesting, but I think the extra Lari we spend to eat in a place like this mainly went towards providing a very polished level of service. It was fun to try, but personally I prefer a more laid-back atmosphere.

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Foxiness, foxy grapes and foxy wines

The first time I came across the idea of foxiness was when I was reading about the battle against Phylloxera. One proposed solution was to switch to American grape species, which were resistant to the disease, or perhaps hybrids between them and the better known European grape varieties. But the problem was that the grapes, and the resulting wine, had what the French thought to be an unpleasant foxy flavour. Now foxiness certainly does not sound like something you would want in your glass of Bordeaux, but I had no idea what it was like, or what foxes had to do with it. Here is what I have managed to glean from the interweb in the meantime.

Firstly, let’s try to tie down which grapes smell foxy. They are usually grapes of the species Vitis labrusca. In particular, the Concord variety is often cited as being particularly foxy, which is convenient – most Americans are familiar with the flavour of Concord as it is widely used in their grape jams and juices. So, even if Concord is not so familiar in Europe, it seems reasonable to take that variety as some sort of reference point.

Another fact we can be sure of is that the chemical in Concord that gives its distinctive aroma is methyl anthranilate. That chemical is usually described as fruity and musky, and is often used to flavour soft drinks and sweets, which is another possible way in which we might be familiar with it. There are also quite a few mentions on the interweb that methyl anthranilate is to be found in the musk glands of foxes and dogs. On the face of it that seems to tie the story up, providing a nice link between foxy musk glands and the grape. But I am not convinced. Even if foxes may smell musky, for all the mentions that link methyl anthranilate to fox musk glands, the only hint of a source is given here, where “Peter Hemsted [Head Grape Researcher] tells of a fellow Researcher, whose work has shown that this ester is found in both the musk gland of the fox and the Vitis Labrusca grape”. Did this unnamed researcher’s finding ever get published, I wonder? Not as far as I know, and it maybe eventually proved to incorrect even. Unless anyone can dig out some harder evidence, I feel we should dismiss the chemical link to fox musk glands.

So setting aside the contents of fox musk glands, why else might we call these grapes foxy? Frankly, nobody really knows, and I don’t intend to go into it further here. But if you are interested in the speculation I can recommend this discussion of the topic.

However, what I really wanted was to taste foxiness for myself, and it was only after buying some Concord grape juice in the UK for another reason that I realised that this was exactly what I needed. It was Welch’s 100% Concord grape juice, and for comparison purposes I also bought a carton of Sainsbury’s own-brand grape juice, made from Spanish and Italian red grapes.

There was a marked difference in the appearance of these two juices. In wine terms, I would describe the European juice as a medium pale ruby, while the Concord was intense purple. The Concord was very sweet. It had intense aromas of berry fruit, distinctive yet difficult to describe. It reminded me of boiled sweets from my childhood – Blackcurrant Spangles I’m tempted to say, even if some other sweets may have had more of the musky element. I am not particularly familiar with musky smells in general, but the juice certainly had a slightly unpleasant animal note alongside the fruit. For some reason, it made me think of vomit, but I’m not sure if it is vomit-like or vomit inducing, and I’d like to stress that it was not nearly as unpleasant as that may sound. Anyway, it was largely masked by the sweetness when drinking, but seemed stronger on the finish, even if the sweetness also lingered. The word sickly seems appropriate in its ambiguity. In comparison, the European juice tasted very much like red table grapes, an was slightly oxidised, even though it was well before its best-before date. It was also very sweet, but the aromas were neither intense nor distinctive, at least when compared to the Concord juice.

Overall, I think I liked the Concord juice better, especially when diluted with an equal quantity of water, which is how I usually take fruit juice. On the other hand, when I used the Concord juice to make the Georgian dessert pelamushi, which involves reduction of the juice, I found the distinctive flavour to be far too dominant in the end product, and if I make it again I will try another type of grape juice. Sadly, I fear it really needs freshly pressed Saperavi. I must ask at Waitrose.

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Naming of Pots – amphora, qvevri, talha?

Today we have naming of pots. Compared to the beauty of wine, the names of the various types of clay container used in winemaking can seem rather prosaic, but they are of more than just geeky interest. Marketers will want names with the right sort of resonance, while other more practical minds might want precision to enable them to distinguish particular styles and usages. And layered on top of all that are cultural sensitivities: who owns the name, and who has the right to determine how it is used?

Amphorae as they would be stacked for transport in a ship’s hull

For whatever reason, the world of wine seems to have settled on using the word amphora as the generic name for a clay jar used in winemaking, and I can understand why. It is a vaguely familiar word that sounds good to western ears. It also nods towards the civilisations of Greece and Rome, which cannot be a bad thing when trying to create a positive image. But there are issues with using amphora, the first of which is accuracy. Most amphorae were actually relativity small containers of around 40 litres. And they usually had two handles to enable them to be moved about easily, as implied by the etymology of the name. Also, they were not used for winemaking, but rather for transportation and storage. Consequently, to call large handleless static vessels used for winemaking amphorae has little justification. Another issue is that the term amphora winemaking seems to imply that it originated around the Mediterranean, despite some styles being clearly modelled on the way qvevri have been used in Georgia for millennia. This failure to recognise Georgian tradition has understandably upset some Georgians.

So, we have the possibility of describing a clay winemaking vessel as an amphora as discussed above or, in at least some cases, a qvevri. I have done to death the subject of qvevri recently on this blog, so for more details I invite you to use the link above for more information, or even better my blog’s search box. But what other names could be appropriate? Let’s start by looking at other old names for clay containers that were kicking about at roughly the same time as amphorae.

Qvevri-like clay vessels used to make COS Pithos Rosso

There is the pithos for example. According to its Wikipedia article, the word pithos can be used for pretty much any old clay container, which is encouraging. Even better, they typically were often considerably larger than amphorae, and some of them could have been buried, as qvevri are. I am not sure that pithos was ever used to describe a fermentation vessel in ancient times, but it does seem a possibility. And the Sicilian wine producer COS, has named its clay-vessel wines Pithos, so there is some sort of precedent for its use. But sadly I fear the word pithos is little known today, so it is not great from a marketing perspective even if the word is more accurate than amphora. And the Georgians would still be upset.

Other ancient words for Mediterranean clay pots are dolium and krater. The word dolium looks like it could be an interesting contender for a generic name for a winemaking jar if it were better known. It is a large static clay container used for storage. And, as with the pithos, there seems to be a possibility that it was used also for fermenting wine. Krater on the other hand is really a non-starter. It does have associations with wine, but at the drinking end of its life cycle; kraters were used for mixing wine with water before serving.

Talhas in Alentejo. Note bung sticking out of hole bottom-right.

But moving away from obsolete words, let’s take a look at the Alentejo in Portugal. In that region, as in Georgia, there has been a continuous clay winemaking traditional that goes back millennia. The name for the clay winemaking vessel there is talha, and its use can be traced back at least 2,000 years. Like qvevri, talhas are large vessels of around 2m high and can be 1,000li or more capacity but, unlike qvevri, talhas stand above ground. That has at least one advantage and a few disadvantages. The advantage is that is it possible to get most of the wine out of the talha through a hole near its bottom, while you need to scoop or pump wine to get it out of a kvevri. Disadvantage number one is that talhas occasionally explode, and if you do not regularly punch-down to break the cap on the fermenting wine, the chances of explosion are increased. I have not heard of this problem with qvevri, so presumably the pressure from the earth around the buried qvevri helps keep it intact. Also, to punch-down, which requires considerable force, you might need to balance on a step-ladder, or even do it with your feet on the rim of the talha, while in Georgia you can keep you feet firmly on the ground – terra firma rather than terracotta. Finally, to keep the temperature of the fermenting wine low enough, the outside of the talha must be regularly dampened with water. In Georgia the earth around the qvevri acts to moderate the temperature.

Beyond the talha in Alentejo, in Spain I see that sometimes winemaking involves a tinaja, which seems to be the Spanish version of the word talha, but I cannot find out much about the history of the tinaja in Spanish winemaking, and it is also sometimes used for concrete jar-shaped vessels, as well as pottery. Similarly, at least in terms of my inability to find details, Armenia uses a qvevri-like vessel called a karas. There are also by the way a number of alternative Georgian regional words for qvevri.

All things considered, my personal view is that for a generic term, rather than the word amphora, we should simply say clay jar, and the phrase in clay could be used in the same way that we might use in oak. Unfortunately though, I fear the amphora horse has bolted, and we are stuck with the term.

But where appropriate, why not be as specific and local as we can be? Let’s use qvevri to describe the Georgian vessel, and of course talha in the Alentejo. As I see it, the only issue is in figuring out which specific names to use where there is no long local tradition. In those cases I would suggest using the traditional vessel name that best describes it, even if it comes from another culture. For example, those buried vessels at COS look pretty much like qvevri to me, so let’s use that name. If you feel your audience will not understand qvevri, a simple explanatory sentence will communicate so much more than persisting with amphora.

So much for the naming of pots. You might like now to move back to considering the beauty of wine, or even of the pots themselves.

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