Some wines from Vinnaturo

They first caught my eye at love + labour‚Äôs natural wine tasting at Salut Wines the other week. There were several nondescript pouches of wines sitting on¬†one small table, and it was largely that low-key presentation that piqued my interest. As you might perhaps expect from an importer called Vinnaturo, all these wines are natural – at least organic, and¬†using “low intervention” winemaking.¬†They are all packaged by¬†the company¬†in bag-in-box, bag without box, or keg, with the intention of reducing CO‚āā emissions from transportation and keeping costs down. Bag alone is currently how they sell most wines.

I shall leave it to others to consider how appropriate it is for natural wines to be packaged in plastic, but it is fine by me. I do however wonder if the presentation could benefit from being more standardised. The three wines I bought after the tasting had slightly different bags, different labels (click to enlarge the picture and read them), and different label positions. I like the idea of simple design, but this was close to just looking like no one cared. The same applied to the way they were delivered. They came in three separate boxes padded out with mountains of plastic chips and bubblewrap. Any one of the boxes would probably have been large enough to hold all three pouches, and the largest of the three boxes certainly would. The smaller boxes were very flimsy, one with a side torn open, and the tape holding the lid of the larger box was coming off. Doubtless most of the packing was reused, so not contributing further to landfill, and the pouches actually arrived in good condition, but it nevertheless did not give a great impression. For natural wines at least, I believe the presentation of the wines in bag is a USP, and I suppose all I am really saying is that a lot more could be made of it. Perhaps the on-trade is their biggest customer, and they do not care about such things?

While in whinge mode, could I also say I would appreciate vintage information on their website? This does exist on some of the labels, and I would appreciate knowing the vintage, if only so that if I reorder I know I am getting the same wine. I was also looking in vain for best-before dates and advice on how long the bags last after opening. Unless things have improved vastly in the last few years, I know deterioration over a period of months can be an issue with this technology.

Anyway, let’s now get down to the¬†important business – the wines themselves.

At the tasting, I tried all¬†five of the Vinnaturo wines on show.¬†Afterwards bought two of the ones I liked best, and¬†additionally their skin-contact Trebbiano as I thought that sounded interesting. The prices given below are for the 1.5 litre bags I bought. Unless I say otherwise, assume they were tasted after pouring from my wine fridge¬†at¬†12¬ļC. Also a¬†quick reminder that my star ratings are for enjoyment at the time of tasting or drinking. Reassuringly, I¬†scored the¬†red wines the same in both locations:¬†the love + labour tasting, and drinking at home. It does not always work out that way!

Vinnaturo, #6, Trebbiano, Skin Contact, IGT Toscana Bianco, Biodynamic, Cosimo Maria Masini, San Miniato (Pisa) Italy, 2016, 12.5%, £22.00
The Vinnaturo website says “straw, earth, floral, apricot, delicate.” My tasting note begs to differ.¬†Medium pale orangey caramel colour.¬†Intense tangy smell of sherry-like oxidation. Possibly an walnut nuttiness.¬†Highish acidty. Bone dry. Low but detectable astringecy. Aromatics as nose.¬†Good but¬†mono-dimensional length.¬†Drink now. Not too unpleasant if you want a simple low-alcohol sherry-like experience. Amontillado I think. Little of the phenolic character and astringency that I woud normally¬†associate with skin-contact wines. I tried later straight out of¬†a normal fridge –¬†it had a very subdued nose, and seemed a little more astringent¬†and¬†refreshing. If it were sold as a “normal” wine I would return it as faulty, but given the usual slack accorded to natural wines I would more politely say it is too dominated by the oxidation¬†**

Vinnaturo, #9, Trepat, Catalonia, Spain, NV, 11.0%, £20.00
This one is supposed to be¬†“wild, without being too crazy” according to the website, and the description is pretty spot on.¬† Medium pale crimson, with violet edge. Intense and fresh on the nose, and bretty in a band-aid sort of way. Blackberry fruit. Highish acidity, and low but detectable astringency. Intense aromatics very much as nose, but with the sharp blackberry fruit being a lot more dominant. refreshing to the last.¬† Sharp and bitter finish. An excellent food wine that is difficult to tire of. For me this is the epitome of natural wine. Traditionalist still would not like it, but I could drink a lot¬†*****

Vinnaturo, #4, Tempranillo, Fermented and aged in amphora, Dionysus Agricultura Biologica, Castilla La Mancha, Spain, 2016, 13.5%, £20.00
Spicy and dark but still juice on the website for this one. I’m not sure what still juice means, but yes it is spicy and dark.¬† Medium ruby colour.¬† On the nose, medium intense dark fruit with a slightly sweet effect, a fresh slightly vegetal quality,¬†and a touch of spice.¬† Medium acidity. Medium high astringency, and a tannic bitterness¬†with the dark spicy fruit still showing through. And the fruit comes out more as the wine warms. Bitter finish.¬† This is altogether a much more serious wine, and if it were in bottle I would say it needed another 5 years or so to show its best.¬†You don’t have to be into natural wine to like this one¬†****

So, a couple of wines I liked, including one I liked a lot, and one I didn’t like, which could easily be the outcome for a selection of three wines from any merchant. But Vinnaturo is very different in terms of image, and in the way it packages its wines. And despite my niggles, I still have a good feeling about their general approach, and I wish them luck, and hope¬†to see them grow and succeed. Will I buy from them again? I think so –¬†I would really love more of that Trepat.

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The Grand Cork Experiment – stunt or science?

At the end of July, The Grand Cork Experiment was launched with as much¬†fanfare as could be mustered in the wine media.¬†According to an¬†article in The Drinks Business “a space in Soho was transformed into a laboratory to test whether the pop of a cork had a more positive impact on the wine tasting experience than the click of a screwcap.”¬†A few months later, at the end of September, the results were announced with even greater fanfare – this time¬†in the national press. Take The Telegraph headline for example: “The great wine debate: Corks really are better than screw-tops, Oxford study finds”. And¬†how did we conclude that¬†corks are better? The same wine¬†is apparently preferred if, just prior to tasting, the sound of a¬†popping cork is played to the taster through headphones,¬†when compared to the sound of a screwcap being opened. Right, so that is sorted then, and it’s all proved by those boffins at Oxford. Well, not really.

Firstly, let’s take a look who funded the experiment, and who else was involved.¬†The funding body¬†was APCOR, who “exist to promote and value cork as a raw material of excellence, and its products. We work to represent and promote the Portuguese cork industry worldwide.”¬†That’s not a good start for unbiased research, but not necessarily a problem if the researchers are given complete control of the experiment and allowed to publish the results regardless of what they show. Charles Spence of Oxford University has a good reputation as an academic in this field,¬†and we are told in July that he designed the experiment. But I doubt very much that he designed the whole experience that experimental subjects were exposed to. This seems to have been the work of Bompas & Parr, who were employed by APCOR. Whatever this company does in general,¬†it is¬†certainly more akin to marketing and brand-building than it is to science.

In the absence of any scientific report, let alone peer-reviewed paper, it seems that the best description of the experiment is given in another article from The Drinks Business. The event was clearly very showy and expensive, it was viewable through windows opening onto a Soho street, and designed to impress. Certainly it was not how scientific experiments would normally be conducted. The¬†experimental bit comes in slide number 9 of The Drinks Business presentation: Each visitor is “placed in a chair and given headphones, before being asked to rate four wines according to their quality, intensity and how much they invoked a feeling of celebration. Importantly, the wines were served in pairs, and before each one was sampled, the taster was played either the sound of a cork popping, or a screwcap being twisted open.” Ignoring some of the silly headlines, the results¬†seem to be¬†best summarised by Wine Industry Advisor here: “Overall, participants rated the same wine as 15% better quality when served under a cork than a screwcap. The wine under a cork was also rated as more appropriate for a celebration (+20%) and more inciting of a celebratory mood (+16%).” This is actually quite interesting, but not exactly earth-shattering. If you give most people two glasses of the identical wine while¬†implying that they are different they will often manage to find differences that do not exist, and here the sound of a popping cork was sufficient to swing the results a little bit in favour of the wine associated with the cork pop. But we are told nothing of the quantitative scale that was used, so the percentage increases are pretty meaningless. Neither are we told if the reported increases are statistically significant. And if the wines were actually sealed under cork and screwcap, an actual wine difference due to the closure could of course easily swamp any effect of a popping sound.

Strangely, the razzmatazz surrounding The Great Cork Experiment does not get a mention in the media¬†articles that discuss the results –¬†presumably because it was not mentioned in the press release. The fancy event laid on by Bompas and Parr, takes very much a backseat and, again according to The Telegraph, it is now reported that the study was not just designed by Charles Spence, but¬†conducted “by a team at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory headed up by psychologist Professor Charles Spence”. Perhaps this is because APCOR would prefer us to have forgotten the PR stunt aspect, and the details of what happened to the participants before they took part in the actual tasting. Those details I think are rather important….

Again referring to The Drinks Business description of the event, slides 1, 2 and 3 say that before the tasting there is “a cork workshop, where visitors can paint and play with cork”, they can¬†“also then see (sic)¬†the sound a cork makes by placing it in the ‚Äėpyramid synth‚Äô, which produces different noises depending on the colour and density of the material”, and they are¬†“invited to partake in a ‚Äėbrain scan experiment‚Äô, which uses¬†brain activity monitors to test how a person‚Äôs senses are triggered by the rituals associated with wine drinking”. This is really not the sort of thing you would expose experimental participants to if you were serious if determining the effect of a cork-popping sound on wine preference. It is known a priming, and I am sure Bombas and Parr knew exactly what they were doing, and how it might bias the results. What Charles Spence’s part in that was,¬†I wouldn’t like to speculate on. Hopefully his input was restricted to the design of the actual sound-playing and tasting. But, the¬†event as a whole was an exercise in sensory branding, to associate the sound of a popping cork with good wine. The popping cork is itself a form of priming where, to quote Wikipedia,¬†“exposure to one stimulus (i.e., perceptual pattern) influences the response to another stimulus”. And the preamble activities seem very much also to be designed to increase the subjects awareness to cork, the popping sound, and its place in wine rituals. Fine as a piece of marketing, but science?

Cynicism¬†aside though, if the pop of a cork really is so important, there are lessons to be learned that are unrelated to the possible superiority of any particular closure. One is that in addition to all the other ritual associated with removing a cork contrary to current sommelier training, the cork¬†should be¬†extracted¬†with such vigour that the blighter does actually make a popping noise. Or perhaps, in cases where the cork is too fragile or¬†Elfen Safety¬†objects to¬†Champagne corks flying across the restaurant, perhaps the sommelier’s phone could have an app with cork-removal sound effects. Of course, the experiment also suggested that the same app might work equally well with screwcapped wines.

(Despite my best efforts to dig out information from the Internet maybe I am wrong, and the results reported in September were actually taken from a peer-reviewed paper, and based on a proper experiment conducted at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory in Oxford. Do tell me if you know that to be the case.)

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An embarrassment of wines

The reason these wines are something of an embarrassment for me is that I like them so much. So much in fact, that they all got my top rating at some point in the past year or so. You might think it should not be too embarrassing to occasionally dish out 6 stars, but these are not grand wines. Some of them are very respectable and definitely not to be sniffed at, but I bought the cheapest one for £7.00, and even the expensive ones are by no means the most prestigious wines I have experienced in that period.

So objectively (if you believe in that sort of thing) I liked them too much. But my rating system is based on subjective enjoyment on the night, and I do my best to be honest to that concept. Nevertheless, when I am mightily enjoying a wine and yet I know it is generally regarded as being rather modest, I do some serious soul-searching before it gets my top rating. However embarrassing though, here I lay out my vinous soul for scrutiny. Maybe there are some wines here that will press your buttons too or, failing that, you will at least learn something about what makes me tick.

Kidev Erti Chinuri Petillant Naturel, 2016, 10.0%

Made by Lapati Wines in¬†Georgia, and Chinuri is the grape.¬†Kidev Erti is the brand they give to their sparkling wines, and means “one more”. If¬†this were imported, I¬†guess it would be around ¬£20 in the UK.

I first tried this in Tbilisi, at John Wurdeman’s new restaurant venture, Poliphonia. On the second occasion I was not nearly so impressed, and that is partly what I am trying to illustrate here. It is a natural wine, but I don’t think bottle variation accounted for my differing reactions. Much more likely to be taster variations, or serving temperature perhaps.

Medium pale straw. Intense, deep, rich, petrol notes. Medium acid. Off dry. Not astringent. Drink now. Top marks!

Boutari Naoussa, 2011, 13.0%

¬£7.00 from Booth’s on special offer in 2016, but¬†the normal price at the time¬†was ¬£11.

This is a Naoussa wine from the North of Greece, of the grape Xinomavro. It is a high quality appellation, but this is right at the bottom end of what you would expect to pay for Naoussa. I gave this wine the big thumbs up on two separate occasions. Both with food of course. Other times I liked it too in a rustic sort of way, but not quite to the same extent. Here are my two very positive tasting notes.

Medium pale tawny garnet. Intense. Caramel dark fruit. Mature notes, and violety high tone. Edgey licorice. Very attractive. Complex. Medium high acidity. Medium tannin. Distinct texture Рlike a thin paste or fine coffee grounds, or high cocoa-content chocolate. Aromas on the palate as nose, but with more emphasis on the high-toned aspect. And something more savoury or meaty Рcrispy bits on the side of a roast. Nothing obtrusive, and all in balance. Elegant and not hugely intense on the palate. Excellent length. Refreshingly savoury, slightly bitter finish. Not a stunning wine that whacks you round the face, but it hits the spot.

And here is my note from another occasion. Medium pale tawny garnet. Intense, edgy. Savoury. Spicy dark fruit and violets. Beautiful. Medium high acidity. High tannin. Excellent length. Drink now in my book, but good for another 5 years at least. Great with steak.

So what is my excuse for the stupidly high score? No idea, really. I knew it was rather preposterous,¬†but on those two occasions¬†the wine¬†was just so unbelievably attractive for me. That’s just the way it is.

Bertrand Ambroise Bourgogne Veilles Vignes, 2007, 13.0%

Bought from Christopher Keiller for £15.50. A significant step up in price from the Naoussa, but 6 stars!? I have had quite a few bottles of this and always liked it, but on this occasion the food and my mood seemed to raise it to new heights.

Pale garnet. Intense, mature Burgundy. Complex. Sous-bois. Mature red fruit. Cherry. Highish acidity. Medium low tannin. Excellent length. Beautiful. Drink now. Excellent unpretentious Burgundy. If there is a criticism, it is a perhaps a bit sharp and thin. But with food it is wonderful.

Bertrand Ambroise Nuits Saint Georges, 2005, 13.0%

A Burgundy from the same domaine, this time at village level, and my tasting note sounds suitably more effusive, even if my level of enjoyment peaked with the previous wine. Another favourite wine of mine, but this bottle seemed particularly good. Bought for £30 from a small local merchant that is no longer trading.

Palish tawny garnet. Intense sous-bois and fully mature Burgundy fruit. Oaky, caramel. Medium high acid. Light bodied, but intense aromatically. Low but detectable astringency. Delicate, savoury and long. Perfumed. Drink now.

Ch√Ęteau de Beaucastel Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape, 1999, 13.5%

While we are on the classics, to¬†emphasise that¬†I don’t just enjoy weird shit, how about this one?¬†It’s a¬†rather boring tasting note, but I know from my score how enthused I was by this wine. I bought it from Costco in 2007 for the princely sum of ¬£24.65. I see the 2015 now sells for around ¬£50.

Medium pale garnet. Intense, sweet, dusty, caramel maturity. Medium acid. Low tannin. Viscous and full bodied. Delicate and mature aromatically. Complex. Excellent length. Drink now. Only 5 stars when tasted before eating, but 6 when drinking with food.

Now we continue with the upward trend in price –¬†but we also get more weird.

Max Ferd Richter Graacher Goldwingert feine Spätlese, 1964, half bottle

I didn’t buy this personally, but it was obtained direct from the producer for¬†around ¬£50. There is no alcohol percentage attached to this one because they did not use to put it on¬†labels back in 1964. No grape variety on the label either, and you wouldn’t guess by tasting it, or from my note. But it was of course Riesling.

Medium pale straw. Intense yet muted, smokey. Medium acid. Dry. Smokey on the palate too, and coffee maybe. Drink now. Yes, white wines can taste like this too. Difficult to score, but I went for top marks.

Karaman ProŇ°ek Malasija Dubrovacka, 2008, 15.0%, half bottle

Karaman is the winery, which is in the¬†Konavle valley at the Southernmost tip of Croatia. The grape is Malasija Dubrovacka,¬†which translates as¬†Dubrovnik Malvasia, AKA Malvasia di Lipari. And ProŇ°ek is the name given to this style of wine.¬†While writing this I¬†learned that this half bottle is around ¬£40 at the cellar door, and it would be considerably more here in the UK if anyone thought they could sell it. I thought it was probably about half that price at the time of drinking.

Medium pale amber.¬†Intense, fresh, sharp, orange, lemon, caramel, spice. Wonderful. You can¬†sense the high alcohol, but¬†in a good way.¬†Medium high acid. Off-dry effect, but it is apparently “dry with sweet impression”. Wonderful (again). Exceptional length.¬†Drink now.

I must explore ProŇ°ek wines more. How convenient that I will be in Dubrovnik shortly :)Watch this space.

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Wine appreciation and architecture

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from wine recently¬†and catching up on an old interest of mine –¬†architecture –¬†and eventually came across my copy of Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books on Architecture. Here I paused, partly because I was just so impressed by Palladio’s work, and partly because my mind started wandering back to wine. Specifically, I was thinking about well-balanced wines.

All classical architects¬†stress the¬†importance of balance and harmony, but one of the strongest proponents is Palladio. For him there was little compromise. Architecture should follow¬†the precedents laid down by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who in turn seem to have spent a lot of time obsessing about what looks right. And form should¬†be determined by function: columns should look solid, arches unbroken, and the exterior should reflect the interior structure – there is no room for deception and trickery. The Villa Rotunda is¬†perhaps¬†Palladio’s most famous building – see¬†drawings¬†above. I find it difficult to imagine any building¬†more balanced, harmonious, stable¬†and restful. Just looking at the drawings makes me thing of a beautiful well-balanced wine: one with all the correct elements present, but nothing out of place or obtrusive.

OK it’s beautiful, but isn’t this all a bit boring? In both architecture and wine? I’m not sure I would use the word boring. I actually find harmony and balance rather stimulating in a quiet sort of way. But on the other hand I would not want everything to be balanced. Wonkiness, funk, flamboyance and individualism has its¬†place.¬†But it is reassuring to be able to return to the comfort and safety¬†of classicism now and then.

And isn’t the definition of balance rather arbitrary? It is all very well for the ancient Greeks and the wine trade to define balance in their respective fields, but what about the rest of the world? Yes it is arbitrary, but even if there are billions in the world who might disagree there is a broad consensus in our own little corner of Western culture.¬†Sometimes, while not being blind to others,¬†we just have to accept the culture in which we live.

I might return in my blog with further architecture-wine pairs as there must be others if I put my mind to it. But for now I shall stick at this single example Рone that occurred to me spontaneously РPalladianism and balanced wine.

Just one final thought. Discussions of music and wine always seem to slip into matching the two, whatever that means. So how about a bit of architecture-wine matching? I have not tried it, but would love to. Of course, architecture is not meant to be enjoyed from drawings any more than wine is from technical specifications, so you should really taste the wine while wandering around the building, inside and out. It would be a lot more difficult to organise than music-wine matching, but if anyone would like to transport me to Villa Rotunda with some nice wine I will happily comply. The idea of enjoying wine in a Palladian villa sounds wonderful!

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What is it with wine?

For your amusement, let’s kick off with a video rant about¬†the French¬†and wine…

Well, it amused me. It also touched on a lot of issues most people have with wine, not just in France. At the risk of taking it far too seriously, here are some of my thoughts on the points raised. I hope it helps. Or at the very least does not make things worse for you.

It is basically just fermented grape juice
Exactly. People pile¬†wine high with cultural baggage, not to say bullshit, but underneath it all is an agricultural product. If you don’t like the baggage, chuck it out and enjoy wine for what it basically is. And if you do, don’t foist it on others.

When you buy wine there is way too much choice
Yup, that’s big problem for many. And it does not just apply to posh wine merchants – if anything the big supermarkets are even worse. I am all for having a good¬†selection of wine styles, but the problem is that a lot of¬†the wines on offer are very similar, meaning the real choice is not a good as you might want.

All¬† I wanted was an alcoholic beverage –¬†I didn’t realise I needed a degree in Ňďnology to get one
No, but¬†a little knowledge goes a long way and can greatly enhance your enjoyment of wine. Maybe take a day or so to read up on wine regions and grape varieties? That should be a good foundation. If you don’t fancy that sort of thing then I’m afraid it is a question of asking advice and trial and error.

It’s not like the labels help you in any way reduce your choice
The grape varieties and wine region on the label can be very useful Рsee previous point. But I agree 100% about the descriptions on the back label. Label tasting notes seem to be written by people who have not actually tasted the wine, food suggestions are often ridiculously general or specific, and many awards are obscure or pretty meaningless. Just ignore them.

What wine do you suggest?
That’s the way to deal with selecting wine in a restaurant if you are feeling out of your depth. At most restaurants here in the UK, the person serving you will probably know little more than you, but you might get lucky. And even if you don’t, you will have effectively deflected the pressure from yourself, and onto someone else who feels insecure. Don’t worry if you are all eating different things. There may be a single wine that matches them all, or you could order wine by the glass. Either way, remember that it if you have asked for advice¬†you can be grateful that it¬†is¬†Someone Else’s Problem.

Deciding for the whole table whether the wine is good or not
The important thing here is that the object of the exercise is not to proclaim on the subtle qualities of the wine, but to check that it is not faulty and is at the right temperature for you. If you want to make a good impression, play it casual and understated. Beyond that, here are a few very basic tips for spotting whether it is faulty or not. If it is from a bottle with a screwcap, or a plastic or DIAM cork, it is probably OK. Ask about the closure if necessary or, even better, you could have based your original wine selection on the type of closure. If it smells or tastes absolutely foul it is faulty, but remember that your judgement need not be binary. If you have a proper sommelier, and have any doubts at all about how the wine tastes, raise your suspicions and they will dealt with them appropriately. You might even be totally upfront with your sommelier, say you find it difficult to spot wine faults, and ask them to taste for you.

Hipster beer?
You are on your own with that.

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Why is wine the colour that it is?

Aren’t red wines¬†red¬†because they are made from red grapes? And white wines white because their grapes are white?¬†That is usually sort-of correct as far as it goes. At least if you¬†take red¬†to be¬†sufficiently loosely defined¬†to include various shades of purple; and white¬†to mean¬†straw, green and golden colours. But it is far from the full story. And it does not explain how, for example, the red grape¬†Pinot Noir¬†can be¬†used to make¬†a white Champagne. And what about ros√©, and the small but growing number of orange wines?

To explain all this, we need to take a step back and look at grapes in more detail. Remove the skin from the vast majority of grape varieties, red or white, and you will find they have a white flesh Рagain I use the term white loosely. What you think of as the colour of the grape is literally only skin deep. And the extent to which wine takes on the colour of the grape depends on the degree of contact with its skins. There are a number of factors involved, but critical is the length of time that contact is maintained.

Leaching of skin colour will start immediately after crushing, which is when the grapes are squeezed to break their skins and release the juice. And the step in winemaking that ends all skin contact is called pressing. Here, after letting most liquid¬†run off the skins and other solid matter, the solids are pressed to extract even more, some of which will be added back to¬†the liquid¬†that ran off freely. Thus the colour of the wine mainly depends not only on the colour of the grape skins,¬†but when pressing takes place, as summarised in this table. (Actually it occurs to me that in some cases the actual pressing after fermentation might not take place, and the wine is just¬†removed from¬†the skins. But for the sake of this table, let’s call that pressing nonetheless, otherwise things get even more complicated.)

Press immediately after crushing Press after fermentation
White skins White wine Orange wine
Red skins White wine Red wine

So, Pinot Noir yields white Champagne because its grapes are pressed so soon after crushing that there is no time for the skin colour to leach out. It is not clear to me why orange wines are such a marked shade of orange, rather than its something closer to the colour of the grape skins, but it must be something to do with how easily the various grape skin pigments can be extracted.

For simplicity, I omitted rosé wine from this table, but it is often obtained by using red grapes, and pressing at some time between the extremes that would yield white or red wine. It can also be made by crushing red grapes and letting some slightly pink juice slowly run out after crushing. With this method the pink juice is used to make rosé wine, while the remainder of the solids and juice is used for red. Either way, the point is that red grapes are used, but with a very limited degree of skin contact. Alternatively rosé wines can be made by adding a touch of red wine to white, a method typically used for rosé sparkling wines, and at the cheaper end of the market also for still rosé wines.

Arguably there is also an intermediate category of white grape wine that is equivalent to rosé, where the skins are removed well after crushing but before fermentation is complete. These wines could be referred to as orange wines with limited skin contact, and in colour they would be a lighter shade of orange. But unlike rosés, the colour of these wines is not so important, and one suspects that the main point of doing this is to tone down the astringency and distinctive phenolic aromatics of full-blown orange wines. Traditionally this is the style of wine in Western regions of Georgia, though it can also be found in other parts. Also wines that are certainly white can be created from a very limited degree of skin maceration that helps to extract aromatic compounds.

After all this you might be wondering why wines from white grapes are generally pressed before fermentation, and red grapes wines afterwards –¬†which is the only reason wines finish up with¬†their typical red and white colours. That is a very good question, and one that I have often pondered.

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Wine, ideology and quality

Particularly in recent months¬†this topic¬†has been on my mind a lot, as I have been drinking more natural wines,¬†thinking about them, and¬†listening to what others have to say. I’ve been wanting to write about it for a while, but couldn’t quite find the right angle.¬†I’m still not convinced, but here goes…

I totally get the point that people like the idea of organic and biodynamic viticulture Рthat it is less harmful to the environment and vineyard workers for example, and results in better wine. I certainly do not agree on all points, but I see where they are coming from. Similarly with natural winemaking. Absolutely there are moral issues associated with wine production, and there is also the possibility that more ethical forms may lead to better-tasting end product.


However. I am increasingly getting the impression that the ideological sense of the word good is getting conflated with good as an indicator of quality. For some, if a wine is ideologically good then it tastes good, and if it does not conform to their worldview then it tastes bad. Not merely because ideology and quality are correlated, but almost as a matter of definition. This ideological quality, as I shall call it, has nothing to do with the smell and taste of the wine, its price, the environment in which it is served, or any number of other possible factors, but is almost exclusively dependent on the ideology of how it is produced.

I was being deliberately coy when I wrote “getting the impression that” at the top of the last paragraph, because it is difficult to find direct and unambiguous quotes. But when you hear some people talking about natural wines the implication is clear. The well-known proponents of natural wines may be a little more guarded in what they say, but by the time these ideas¬†filter down to their followers¬†the message¬†can be a lot more blatant. Some really do believe that anything made with zero percent sulphites is delicious and everything else is crap.

Let me be clear that I am very aware that many lovers of natural wines do not espouse this ideological quality. And actually I am not even necessarily criticising those that do РI just find it an intriguing phenomenon that I am struggling to understand. In many ways it would be surprising if ideology did not colour our judgement of quality in a wine, but for me the shocking aspect is how massive the influence can be.

The idea of ideological quality seems at the moment to be most closely associated with the natural wine movement. But it can be broadened. There is for example the excellence of all wines awarded¬†100 points¬†by [insert name of favourite wine critic here]. If it seems too far-fetched to regard points as being part of an ideology, just remember Parker’s rhetoric about the democratisation of wine.¬†Also, stretching the concept of ideological quality possibly a little too far, some drinkers seem to¬†worship wines only from the classical regions of France, while others¬†make a virtue of drinking¬†wines from more out-of-the-way regions, and from rare grape varieties.

I absolutely don’t want to tell you which wines you should like, and why. But I do firmly believe we should¬†develop a greater¬†awareness of why¬†we like the wines¬†we do. In that awareness lies the route to¬†greater vinous enjoyment.

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Qvevri winemaking – variety, tradition and innovation

Although qvevri winemaking does indeed have an 8,000 year continuous history in Georgia, it is important to realise that it has not remained unchanged throughout that period, and that practice varies from region to region, even within regions. It is not a single concept that should be frozen in time and fetishised. It is so much more exciting: qvevri winemaking has many forms, and they should be encouraged to continue to live and evolve.

The appeal to tradition on the labels of the Alaverdi Monastery

The¬†aspect of qvevri winemaking practice that has¬†most impact on the finished product is the degree of skin contact. In Georgia’s largest winemaking region of¬†Kakheti, grapes of all colours are traditionally fermented on their skins, and the¬†skins remain¬†for a period of post-fermentation maceration. This results in red or orange wines,¬†that can often be¬†fiercely astringent. In contrast,¬†the more Westerly regions of Georgia typically use much more limited¬†skin contact. Here, for white wine production¬†grape skins¬†would be removed immediately after crushing, following the normal practice in¬†the rest of the world. And for all wines, if there is skin maceration at all it would be for a shorter period of time. But not all winemakers follow their regional stereotypes: some may prefer one style or the other, while others might like to make¬†both.

Other variations in practice include how the qvevri are made less porous, kept clean, the material used for lids, and how the lids are sealed post-fermentation. These factors might not affect the style of the wine, but could influence the quality if, for example, an animal fat is used instead of beeswax to reduce the porosity, or if the cleaning is inadequate. I doubt very much if animal fat is used in qvevri for commercial wine production today, but it was employed, and maybe still is to a very limited extent. Another regional difference is that in Kakheti the qvevri for winemaking are located indoors, as you might expect, while in Western Georgia the tradition is to have them just outside buildings.

Basketware filter to fit on the end of a pump hose for qvevri

Now let’s take a look at how¬†to how things have changed over the last 8,000 years. The first thing to note is that¬†the qvevri vessels themselves have changed a lot. Prior to the 3rd century BC, a relatively recent date in the context of eight millennia, qvevri were less than 1.5m high, had a flat bottoms, and either free-standing or only partly buried.

Another important development is in how the wine is presented to the consumer. The  qvevri wines we foreign consumers see will be bottled, while traditionally it would be kept in qvevri until drinking. Bottling has obvious economic advantages in making the wine available to more distant and lucrative markets, and also frees up qvevri at an earlier stage for making subsequent vintages. It allows the consumer to experiment with cellar-aging the wine in bottle, but wine will almost certainly have a different development trajectories in qvevri and bottle.

Then there are a couple of more recent developments that are regarded as a Bad Thing by some: practices that would not usually be thought of as natural winemaking, and the use of wooden barrels to age wine after the qvevri fermentation.

Qvevri lids with bubbler airlocks at Okro’s Wines

Relatively minor changes in recent years have been the use of pumps to get wine out of the qvevri, high pressure jet washers¬†for cleaning, stainless steel or glass¬†lids with bubbler airlocks, and tubes¬†suspended in¬†the qvevri for temperature control. My personal suggestion for radical improvement would be the addition of drainage holes¬†at the bottom of the qvevri. Yes, I realise it would be tricky, not least because the qvevri are buried, but in the 21st century surely it is not beyond the wit of man? There are also ways of reproducing some of the claimed advantages of qvevri¬†by using stainless steel vessels, but they of course would represent a¬†huge departure from tradition –¬†and totally destroy the magic.

If you believe qvevri winemaking evolved over thousands of years to become perfect, nothing could ever be a substitute for the real thing. But could it actually have arrived on the scene as an accident of history, and stuck around merely because it was good enough for the job? Is it really so crass to suggest that? Maybe. But it is in my opinion equally crass to imply that the vast majority of the world of wine has got it wrong. Regardless, live and let live I say. Vive la difference and all that. It would be horrible if qvevri winemaking were to die out.

(In addition to information gained personally, my main sources are Making Wine in Qvevri and a webpage entitled The History of Georgian Wine.)

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Qvevri – manufacture, use, and rise to fame

Qvevri – a large clay vessel of distinctive shape, used for winemaking.

The Georgian word ŠÉ•ŠÉēŠÉĒŠÉēŠÉ†ŠÉė apparently means that which is buried, and gets transliterated into the Latin alphabet as qvevri or kvevri. The two spellings exist as, while the official transliteration of¬†the first letter¬†is k, many Georgians use q¬†because it¬†has the correct sound and takes the same position in their keyboard as ŠÉ•. Most winemakers have now agreed to¬†adopt the spelling qvevri,¬†and it was also used by UNESCO when they gave it Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status. Intangible? I don’t think you would agree if one dropped on your foot.¬†No, actually it is the method of winemaking that was recognised by UNESCO, not the vessel itself.¬†They also have other names in different parts of Georgia,¬†but from here on I shall simply call them qvevri, and drop the italics.

The size of qvevri can vary widely, from a few litres to the largest in current use, which is seven or eight thousand litres, but for winemaking a typical range seems to be several hundred to around three thousand. As 1,000 litres of water weighs a metric tonne, people also talk about qvevri capacity in terms of tons, which has nothing to do with the weight of the qvevri itself.¬†We asked a qvevri maker, Zaza Kbilashvili in the Kakheti village of Vardisubani, how much¬†an empty one¬†weighed. He didn’t know, but it took 8 men to move one of his larger qvevri, and that was the important¬†measure as far as he was concerned.

The pointed qvevri base¬†is thrown on a potter’s wheel, but the rest is made as a coil pot, built up¬†with sausages of clay.¬†No tools or measuring instruments are used, everything being done by hand and eye, with the necessary skills being passed down from father to son. Zaza builds his qvevri¬†in the basement of his house, which would hold around a dozen large ones, and¬†I think he said the maximum size he could make was 2¬†tons. It takes him around three months to build up a batch of large qvevri, the progress each day depending on the weather –¬†progress being faster on hot dry days,¬†when the clay dries quicker to give a firm base for the next layer. The qvevri are then allowed to dry completely before they are¬†lugged out to the arch-shaped brick kiln in the garden. Here wood is stacked around the qvevri to give correctly distributed heating for the firing, which takes¬†seven days and has to be monitored continually. The final step is to give the insides of the qvevri¬†a treatment of beeswax while they are still warm. This is to make the clay walls¬†less porous to liquids while still allowing air to pass.¬†The wax should soak into the larger pores, and¬†not form a coating that prevents the wine from making contact with the clay.

After manufacture, the qvevri are shipped to the winemaker, who traditionally would be in the same region of Georgia, but now could be anywhere in the world. They are buried alongside each other, with only their openings exposed, to create a marani, or wine¬†cellar. The image shows the small marani in the Pheasant’s Tears restaurant building, which contains just¬†a few qvevri of different sizes.¬†These are¬†used by¬†the restaurant staff, but do not form part of Pheasants Tears’ main production.

In terms of the number of steps involved, natural qvevri winemaking is very simple: at its most basic, you crush the grapes, put them in the qvevri, wait, and take the wine out. However it is also vital to make sure all the leftover gunk is properly removed afterwards, and that the qvevri are  scrupulously cleaned. There are traditional tools for this purpose, but these days cleaning with a high-pressure water jet is a common. With larger qvevri, someone climbs down into the vessel to perform the cleaning operations, very large qvevri needing a small ladder for this purpose.

The final step in the life cycle of the qvevri is usually not destruction. In Georgia, the tradition is to respect old qvevri that have been disinterred by leaving them out on display. The ones shown here are at Alaverdi monastery.

The history of winemaking and the qvevri goes back in Georgia to at least the 7th millennium BC, as from that time qvevri fragments have been found with traces of wine tartrates and surrounded by grape pips. Since then, Georgia has seen 8,000 years of continuous winemaking in qvevri.

The so-called European style of winemaking, using barrels,¬†was introduced into Georgia in the 19th century.¬†For a period European and qvevri methods were both used in Georgia, but I have not seen any analysis of how wine production was structured in terms of method and¬†producer size. However,¬†the Soviet period from 1921 is still within living memory and¬†much more widely discussed.¬†Production was centralised in large state-run wineries, and¬†vineyards were¬†taken into collective ownership. The large wineries,¬†or wine factories as Georgians called them, worked with a very¬†limited number of grape varieties, principally Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, and were geared up to maximise volume at the expense of quality, most of¬†this volume being targeted at the Russian market. Meanwhile, very small-scale qvevri winemaking quietly¬†continued in people’s homes, using grapes taken from their gardens.

In post-independence Georgia, the large state-owned companies were privatised, other  wine-producing companies emerged, and quality improved with an eye on new export markets. Some of these companies even adopted qvevri production for their higher-end wines.

But there is another post-Soviet winemaking story to tell Рa lot less important in sheer economic terms, but big in terms of prestige and future potential. Georgian individuals were each given a small plot of ex-collective vineyard, providing small-scale qvevri winemaking with a better supply of grapes, and forming the basis for the vibrant, though still small in percentage terms, natural qvevri wine movement of the 21st century. For some, winemaking ceased to be merely an activity that kept family and friends supplied, and more viable small businesses were created. Even then it seems it was usually necessary to have another source of income, perhaps by working as a professional in Tbilisi, or by running a restaurant or guesthouse alongside the winery. Larger vineyard areas were created by combining the allocations given to family and friends, or perhaps by renting neighbouring plots. And derelict cellars were restored, and new ones built.

However, perhaps the key difference between this new breed of small winemaker and their predecessors is not so much production volume; it is that the¬†wines¬†were being bottled. Thus, rather than¬†being restricted¬†to the¬†limited market of their own village, they could be sold for more money in the shops and wine bars of Tbilisi –¬†notably ŠÉ¶vino Underground –¬†and¬†get international exposure. When you are producing a few thousand bottles per annum, you neither want nor get the attention of supermarket buyers. But with the current cult interest in natural qvevri wines,¬†to catch the eye of a sommelier¬†from a restaurant of international renown is a distinct possibility.

(Follow these links for information on qvevri and the history of Georgian wine. And for stories of small qvevri winemakers, I would recommend Tasting Georgia by Carla Capalbo. In addition to material personally gleaned, those are the main sources for this post.)

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Georgian wine labels – understanding and pronouncing

Understanding

When trying to understand a Georgian wine label, I would first try to locate any bits of text that refer to region or grape variety. Google could help here if it is not obvious from the context, as would having ready access to lists of regions and varieties, online or hardcopy. Once something is identified, it is be relatively easy to drill down to get more detailed information about it.

If the¬†colour of the wine is described as amber or golden, it is a¬†skin maceration wine made¬†from¬†green grapes¬†–¬†Georgian labels tend to avoid use of the more usual term orange wine. White wine on the other hand would indicate that¬†there has been little or no¬†skin contact (usually at least, but I do know at least one exception).

As Georgia still produces medium dry and medium sweet wines, largely for the Russian market, there is also often a sweetness indication of the label. The reassuring word dry is what you will usually find.

If qvevri is not mentioned somewhere on the bottle, not even the back label, you should probably assume that your wine is made in vat, tank or barrel. And conversely, if it actually is a qvevri wine you will usually be informed. Just note that the use of qvevri does not necessarily imply skin contact, and kvevri with a k is simply another transliteration of the same Georgian word.

Any other text writ large, will probably be the producer’s name or brand. In addition to that, it seems that there is now always¬†a¬†producer name in small letters on the back label, which is¬†usually different from the one on the front of the bottle.¬†Presumably this is the producer’s official company name,¬†or the company that bottled the wine, to allow for traceability.

Pronouncing

Why should you even bother trying to pronounce all the weird words you see on Georgian wine labels? Well, apart from the obvious Рthat it is the only way you are going to be able to communicate verbally about the wine РI think it represents a big step in familiarising yourself with it. The sound of a word is a lot easier to remember than a vague impression of what the word looks like, which is probably what you have without vocalising it.

My first piece of advice is not to be intimidated. Just take new words one syllable at a time, and one letter at a time. How hard can it be?

It can actually be as hard as you want it to be, but there is no point in aiming for perfection. Indeed, if you are going to be using a Georgian word in a sentence of your native language I am not sure perfection is possible, certainly not without sounding very odd. So I would, for example, not fret about distinguishing between the different Georgian versions of the consonants p, t and k Рsomething you have doubtless been losing sleep over prior to this reassurance.

The other Georgian sounds are a lot more straightforward, and the good news is: that every letter is pronounced; it is always pronounced the same way; and in many cases the transliterated version of Georgian is pronounced similar to English. So then just put a slight stress on the first syllable of each word and you are up and running.

If you wish to¬†improve your pronunciation, I think the Georgian alphabet on¬†this page is a great resource. Column 2 of the table gives you the letters you will see in the Georgian transliterations, and you can click the play-buttons to hear how the letter sounds in words. It is probably worth clicking¬†the vowel buttons right away¬†as there are only a few of them. As for the consonants, note that¬†r is rolled, and¬†kh is a bit like¬†the Spanish j or¬†the Scottish pronunciation of ch in loch. And especially note that gh is more like a French r sound than anything else; don’t ask me why¬†the letter combination¬†gh is used in the standard transliteration. It gets even more¬†confusing¬†when some people decide to omit the h from the transliteration – if you suspect that is the case¬†you simply have to check what Georgian character is being used.

When you come across a consonant combination that does not exist in your native language, just try to run the consonants together as quickly as possible, without labouring or stressing them. The Georgian combination kv is really no more difficult than the English cl, and there is no need at all to stick in an extra vowel between the k and the v, as the English media insist on doing in the surname of the tennis player Petra Kvitova for example.

If you need any more help with pronunciation, you could try Forvo. Its Georgian vocabulary is quite limited at the moment, but there are some wine-related words. You can enter the transliterated version of the word, or cut and paste the word in the Georgian alphabet Рsometimes one method will work better than the other.

Finally, I feel I have to say that I am very aware that some of what I have said here contradicts what other wine people have said and written about how to pronounce Georgian. In particular I differ in saying that Georgian letters are always pronounced the same way, and that none are silent. I do not wish to set myself up as a linguistic authority, but I base what I say on Georgian language tutorials, discussion with a couple of Georgians, and checking native-speaker pronunciations on Forvo and in YouTube videos. So my advice is doubtless not totally fool proof, but in good conscience it is the best I can give.

That said, I will make one concession that sort-of runs against my own advice:¬†the initial r in Rkatsiteli does indeed seem¬†to be¬†totally silent when spoken by Georgians in everyday conversation.¬†However, even then, when I questioned a Georgian about this,¬†she insisted that the r was actually there, just difficult to hear –¬†so maybe my advice to pronounce everything should still stand..? Besides, sticking the r in front of that grape variety will give you plenty of ¬†r-rolling practice,¬†and stand you in good stead for other words.

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