Places to eat and drink in Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is not only a great place to explore in its own right, but is a good base to discover the wines of South Dalmatia and, to a lesser extent, the rest of Croatia. While it was historically well-connected by sea, Dubrovnik’s land links with the rest of Croatia are rather tenuous as it lies almost right at the southern end of a very thin Croatian coastal strip, and nearby islands and peninsulas are more important for winegrowing than what you might call the mainland.


I cannot pretend to have explored the restaurants and bars of Dubrovnik to the extent that I can point to the very best places to eat and drink, but I can add my weight to some positive reviews you will find on Trip Advisor and elsewhere: three places in the old town, and one in another town, Cavtat, readily accessible as a day trip from Dubrovnik.

Firstly there is the wine bar D’Vino, which is just off the main drag in Dubrovnik. They serve platters of cheese and ham, and a good range of wines, including tasting flights. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, and I would recommend sitting inside the building to make it easier to benefit from their knowledge and enthusiasm, as some bits of the outside seating area are a bit remote from the main action. They also run wine tours out to the Pelješac Peninsula. I had already made other arrangements for visiting Pelješac, but I think I would be more confident going with them than any of the other standard wine tours I saw advertised.

We visited D’Vino twice, and the only other place we went back to was the restaurant Kopun. The name means capon, a castrated cockerel, which is their signature dish. They do however have a range of other options, and quite a decent wine list. I didn’t get into any detailed discussion about their wines, but their suggestions were confident and competent. Probably the best food-wine match of the trip was their Dubrovnik Capon with a Malvasija dubrovačka. The restaurant is one of two in the square in front of the Jesuit church, which you can actually see in the top-right corner of the image above at the top of a flight of stairs, though the restaurants are hidden.

The other restaurant in Dubrovnik that made a good impression was Lady Pi-Pi, named after their unusual statue of a woman having a pee. It is located high up in the old town, close to the wall on the North side. We walked there up many, many steps from the town centre but, after sharing a bottle of 16% Dingač, thought it safer to return by the easier route round the outside of the wall. This is a barbecue restaurant that has outside seating only, and there is no booking. So you have to be prepared to queue if necessary, and possibly get rained on. In heavy rain, the restaurant will close, possibly even while you are seated. One of the biggest attractions of the place is apparently the view over Dubovnik – if you are lucky enough to get a table with a view, that is. As we visited in October, and were prepared to share a table, we did not have long to wait. I really enjoyed eating there, but to be honest I am not sure why. The food was good, but there is a limit to how good grilled meat and chips can be. The best bit was probably the Cevapi – a local meat ball speciality. And the aforementioned Dingač hit the spot nicely too. This place is a nice break from the Dubrovnik tourist norm, and well worth considering if it sounds like your sort of thing, but personally I would not queue long for the experience.

Not in Dubrovnik at all but easy to reach by bus and boat, Bugenvila in Cavtat was probably my favourite restaurant of the whole trip, certainly as far as the food was concerned – good quality ingredients, and very well prepared. I learned afterwards that the chef had worked with Heston Blumenthal. We had lunchtime set menus with matching wine flights. I must admit that I was a little disappointed that 5 of our 6 wines (3 with each of the menus) were of international grapes. I also thought it a strange that I was served a Sauvignon Blanc with a mushroom and truffle oil soup, but I approached it with an open mind and it did seem to work in a yin-yang sort of way. I still wonder though if that was the intended match, or was it an error, or just some left-over wine?

More about the wines of South Dalmatia, including those briefly mentioned here, in my next post.

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Volatile acidity – what it is, and what it isn’t

If a wine’s smell reminds you a bit of nail varnish, nail varnish remover, Airfix glue or car touch-up paint, then that will be volatile acidity, often abbreviated to VA. If you are not sure what I am talking about then try some Chateau Musar, which is an excellent example of a wine with this character. A high level of VA is regarded as a wine fault and the wine is said to be volatile, but lower levels can be quite pleasing, and often lead the wine to be described as termed lifted or high-toned, indicating that the smell of VA seems to be higher in some sense than other wine aromas. Chateau Musar levels of VA probably lie at the upper end of what most people would consider acceptable, even though lovers of this wine see this as a very positive aspect of its character.

I believe the term volatile acid was coined because its volatility has important consequences for how it can be isolated for measurement. Steam distillation is normally used for the purposes of analysis, but if you simply boil a wine the volatile acids are also given off as a vapour. However, the non-volatile acids, mainly tartaric acid, will remain in solid form after the wine has been boiled dry. There are a few different volatile acids that can be found in wine, but by far the most prevalent is acetic acid (AKA ethanoic acid), which is what gives vinegar its distinctive smell and taste. Thus, effectively the term volatile acidity refers to the presence of acetic acid.

So why doesn’t volatile acidity in wine smell like vinegar, I hear you ask? Well, a proportion of the acetic acid reacts with the ethanol in the wine to create an ester called ethyl acetate (AKA ethyl ethanoate), and our noses are a lot more sensitive to ethyl acetate than they are to acetic acid. So at low levels of volatile acidity we will only detect the ethyl acetate, and at higher levels the ethyl acetate tends to drown out the smell of vinegar, even if it might still be noticeable in some instances. And if you have not already guessed by now, ethyl acetate is a solvent that is used in nail varnish, and the other products I mentioned above.

In principle acetic acid can be a straightforward oxidation product of ethanol. But in practice, whenever oxygen is present in large quantities, bacteria and yeasts may grow, and it is these microorganisms that are largely responsible for the production of acetic acid. Some is even produced by the yeasts responsible for wine’s primary fermentation.

And now for the bit about what VA isn’t. Normally it is not necessary to say what things are not, but many people describe VA as smelling of acetone, and there are a number of articles on the internet that link acetone with VA, one even saying that acetone and ethyl acetate are different names for the same thing. So hereby I declare what VA isn’t: acetone.

Acetone is (or at least was, speaking from personal experience) a very common laboratory solvent. Although I find it hard to recall it as I write now, the smell is unpleasant and irritates the nose, and it is nothing like acetic acid or ethyl acetate. I am not sure about the basis in science for this, but when I have the misfortune to smell a mouldy orange, my mind is taken back to the acetone bottle in laboratories of old, so that might give you some clue as to how it smells. And in addition to acetone’s smell being nothing like VA, as far as I can determine (it is difficult to prove a negative) wine never contains acetone in practically significant quantities. The only reason for the confusion seems to be that both acetone and ethyl acetate are sometimes used as a solvent in nail varnish removers, and I vaguely remember being told in school chemistry lessons that nail varnish remover actually is acetone. But that use of acetone seems to have practically died out. Many years ago I struggled to find a nail varnish remover that was acetone-based to check what acetone was like. And when I found one, even that ismelled mainly of added fragrances and other stuff, rather than the acetone itself.

So  if you want to learn about volatile acidity in wine in practical terms, forget about acetone – and sit yourself down with bottle of Chateau Musar, and a bottle of nail varnish. Enjoy.

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Some wines from Vinnaturo

They first caught my eye at love + labour’s 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 CO₂ 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 12ºC. 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. They are given below….

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 ‘pyramid synth’, which produces different noises depending on the colour and density of the material”, and they were later “invited to partake in a ‘brain scan experiment’, which uses brain activity monitors to test how a person’s 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 of 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 – like 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 – crispy 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.

Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-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 Prošek 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 Prošek 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 Prošek 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 – one that occurred to me spontaneously – Palladianism 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 cultural baggage, chuck it out and enjoy wine for what it basically is. And if you do like it, 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 œnology to get one
OK, 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 – see 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 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 deal 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 rosé, 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 – again 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 – that 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 – I 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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