Botijas – Peruvian winemaking in clay

In an online discussion on “amphoras” in winemaking, wine enthusiast Peter Harvey drew my attention to a vessel I failed to mention in my earlier blog post on the various types of clay pots in winemaking: the botija, as used in Peru. I am very grateful to Peter for the information and photographs, which I use with permission.

He saw botijas in use at three wineries in the Ica Valley – Vinos Intipalka, Bodega Tres Esquinas and Bodega Lazo – and La Reyna de Lunahuaná, in the Lunahuaná valley.

Unlike most clay winemaking vessels, botijas seem to me to be true amphoras. They are the right size for amphoras, and the shape looks correct too. There is a narrow opening at the top, meaning the contents must be poured out rather than scooped. And they have a pointed bottom which, in common with classical common-use amphoras means they can be stuck into the earth to help keep them upright, as shown above at La Reyna de Lunahuaná. They do not have the usual long narrow neck, but are more like the belly amphoras from 640-450 BC, and although the name amphora implies something that can be lifted from both sides using two handles, handles were not always present.

The framed picture above is of the actual press still in use at Bodega Tres Esquinas, and their winemaking process is described by Peter Harvey:

The grapes are trodden Portuguese style, and the juice from the treading floor and the press runs directly into the botija which is carried in a wooden frame and plonked in lines under cover but otherwise in the open, loosely covered by hessian or suchlike. When the fermentation’s over they’re stopped off with a bung and cloth to settle the contents. After use they are simply washed out with water.

He also points out that

The Botijas were mainly used of course to make the base wine to be made into Pisco. Like the Georgians they seem to be “rediscovering” this technique for table wine and I know that the big Ica player Intipalka are sourcing old ones and re-using them.

While the use of botijas in Peru is currently of no direct relevance to UK wine drinkers, botija wines may eventually arrive over here, and in the meantime I feel reassured that the Peruvian winemaking traditions are being maintained.

The Story of Wine – book review

This edition of The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson, is published by Academie du Vin Library. The headline price is £30 from both Amazon and direct from the publisher, but at the publisher’s you can use this £3 discount code: WINENOUS3. I’ll leave it to you to juggle shipping charges against any possible in-principle objections to Amazon. Mine was a review copy.

If the title of the book sounds familiar, that is because it has been around since 1989, published by Mitchell Beazley. As far as I can tell the text is identical to the Mitchell Beazley edition I have from 1999, so I will start by comparing the 1999 edition with this one. Firstly, this book has the same wonderful soft-covered binding as the Sherry book from the same publisher, but the paper, rather than being bright and shiny, is a good quality matt. It is 240 x 170 mm, and comprises 496 sides. The text is clear and well laid-out, and with no illustrations the page design is a lot less busy.

I think one of the major selling points of the Mitchell Beazley edition was the sumptuous quality of the book, with its rich colour illustrations, but personally I can see the attractions of the new edition. Basically, I find this version a lot more inviting to read – it’s considerably lighter to hold, the text is not broken up by illustrations, and it still feels sumptuous (but in a different sort of way). These are not minor points. In the last few years when I got interested in the origins of wine after having visited Georgia, I intended to reread the earlier edition, but somehow it just seemed too much like hard work due to its look and feel. Yet I now feel motivated to try again with this edition. But perhaps that is just me?

Regarding the illustrations, I have just checked a few places in the 1999 edition, and I cannot see any place where they are particularly closely related to the text, let alone essential for understanding it. Admittedly they do sometimes add information, but my overall impression is that Johnson wrote his book with the intention that the text should stand by itself.

It was a while since the last time I read the text and, irrespective of my new-found enthusiasm, I am realistically not going to reread it in the immediate future, so what follows here are a just few observations about the text. I’ll maybe write a follow-up post with more detail.

The first thing to note is the author’s intention to write this book as a story, hence the title of the book. He does not pretend to be a historian, and Hugh Johnson’s classic style of prose is unencumbered by footnotes, though there is a bibliography for each chapter. And as a story, it starts in the mists of time, and ends in the late 20th century, in the decades when Hugh is getting engrossed in the subject of wine. As such, the story is complete, and did not did to be updated since it was first written, he explains in his preface. Hmmm… that sounds like a pretty thin excuse to me, and I immediately spot some details in chapter 2 that could do with updating in the light of more recent archaeology, and I also consider how wine has changed in the last 30 years or so. But I could just about be prepared to treat it as a story on its own terms – a story reflecting its time of writing.

As for the subject matter of the book, I don’t think I could do better than reproduce the contents pages. (Try clicking on the image to make the text legible.)

If illustrations in a book are important to you, try to find an older edition – Google reveals there are still new copies kicking about waiting to be purchased. Otherwise, for sheer reading pleasure, I’d recommend you get this new Academie du Vin Library edition.

Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! – book review

Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! by Ben Howkins, is published by Academie du Vin Library. The headline price is £23 from both Amazon and direct from the publisher, but at the publisher’s you can use this £3 discount code: WINENOUS3. I’ll leave it to you to juggle shipping charges against any possible in-principle objections to Amazon. Mine was a review copy.

In a couple of sentences…  It’s an attractive book, both visually and tactually, and if you like an easy-going style of writing I think you’ll enjoy it. It covers a broad range of topics and, irrespective of other factors, will be of particular interest to anyone who wants to know more about the trend towards en rama styles and the new generation of boutique bodegas.

The book is 240 x 170 mm, and comprises 223 sides on a heavy glossy paper, in high-quality soft covers. The pages are nicely bound, so the book will open flat, and comfortably stay open. From a sample so far of two, the quality of the binding, seems to be common to all the Academie du Vin Library publications. These may sound like superficial details, but I am increasingly realising that a book’s touch and feel is important – in the same way perhaps that a wine glass is to the wine it contains.

The book is well-illustrated in colour throughout, the illustrations complementing the text without being too intrusive. But as usual with most wine books, I found the maps lacking – I think there was only one created for the book, and it had little detail. Old maps were also reproduced in places, but were so small as to be impossible to read. On the positive side from a practical point of view, the book did at least have a decent index.

The major topics covered are: history, vineyards, wine styles, and bodegas. Those are followed by a miscellaneous group of smaller chapters on various subjects: Ruiz-Mateos (the man who broke the Sherry bank), the general culture of the region, non-local cultural references to Sherry, tasting and tasting notes, related food and drink, and finally a collection of reflections on Sherry from 50 wine notables.

The author aptly describes his book as “a personal take on the current sherry scene”, seemingly contrasting it with “Julian Jeffs’ classic book Sherry“. I see what he means. Jeffs’ book is indeed excellent in its scholarship and detail, and Howkins is wise not to attempt to emulate it. Nevertheless, in my 2016 review of Jeffs’ book I did note that it failed to communicate the current excitement for Sherry. Also there was no mention by Jeff of the trend towards en rama bottlings, and only slight coverage of the newer boutique bodegas. Howkins’ book certainly addresses well all of those aspects.

But what is implied by what he says is his “personal take”? Well, he has spent a lifetime in the wine trade, including a period working specifically with Sherry, and that gives him rich insights into developments in the region over the last 50 years or so and, through personal contacts, further back into the 20th century. It also gives him a good understanding of attitudes to Sherry in its export markets. However, one thing that struck me, was that this perspective is rather privileged, as there are numerous stories of being entertained by owners and directors of Sherry companies – glasses of Sherry in meetings, late and long lunches, late and long dinners, home visits, flamenco evenings, bullfights.

Don’t get me wrong – the experiences are interesting and entertaining, as Howkins writes well, and it gives a good insight into how Sherry fits in with that kind of lifestyle. But my recent personal experience of Sherry as a tourist in Sanlúcar, was very different. I found that Manzanilla, while important, was viewed by locals as a rather ordinary everyday experience. I was told they used it for cooking, and you could buy it in any bar very cheaply. But each bar and restaurant I came across obtained all its wine from a single bodega and, while delicious, they were all basic level wines, so the vast range of exciting Sherry styles and bodegas mentioned in the book was not readily available to me. I am not complaining, as I had a good holiday, but it was not the wine-geek and cultural nirvana the book might lead one to expect.

When I started reading I was a bit unsure about the book, as I think I am naturally more attuned to Jeffs’ drier formal writing, rather than Howkins’ prose that is more relaxed, wordy and effusive. But as I continued, I got more and more into the style and subject matter, really enjoying the Sherry company chapters, and especially the one on boutique bodegas. I also found it very interesting to learn more about the cream styles of Sherry, which tend to get overlooked in more recent accounts. I was aware of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, and must have drunk a few glasses in my time, but had no idea how important that one brand was to the British wine trade, and to the Sherry region.

After the bodega chapters however, I thought they got more piecemeal, disconnected, and of variable interest. In particular, I really did not understand the need for the final chapter of 50 personal reflections on Sherry. Each piece individually may have been interesting, but after the first 20 or so, many started to sound a bit samey.

Despite its weak finish, the book’s engaging mid-palate literally whetted my appetite for Sherry, and led me to crack open a half-bottle of Manzanilla brought back from Sanlúcar. I think the author would mark that down as a success.

Subjectivity is not to be sniffed at

“Any fool can have a subjective opinion about wine” is one of the arguments I occasionally see in favour of objectivity in winetasting, and that can be followed by “but experts have invested a lot of time in learning to taste objectively”. There are so many assumptions built into that line of argument I hardly know where to start, but my main counter-argument would be that objectivity in winetasting simply does not exist. However, here I would like to focus on debunking the idea that subjective views are necessarily trivial and to be lightly dismissed. We subjectivists do not all take a swig of wine that hardly touches the sides, and immediately pronounce on its quality.

For me, the ideal person to assess a wine is someone who acknowledges the subjectivity of taste, and yet is happy to give an opinion nevertheless. That person would understand the objective properties of wine, i.e. its physical properties and chemical composition, but also know how those elements translate into the perception of flavour, depending on the environment and individual differences. And of course personal preferences.

In its simplest form, a subjective approach might not be too dissimilar to what is thought to be objective tasting, according to the WSET Systematic Approaches to Tasting Wine for example, but without claiming any objectivity in the final quality assessment. The taster might also like to comment on their sensitivity to the different dimensions of the wine, and how factors other than the wine itself might be influencing its perception.  Of course this is not easy – in fact it is very difficult to do well. But that is really my main point here. A serious subjective approach to winetasting is far from trivial. If anything, the problem is that it is too complex if done well. But that is no excuse for us to stick our heads in the sand and pretend the complexities don’t exist.

Finally, I would add that I think it is important for the taster to say how much they actually enjoy drinking the wine. To me, a quality score, perhaps arrived at by totting up the scores for intensity, balance, persistence etc, is pretty meaningless, and I’d much rather know a taster’s finger-in-the-air feeling about a wine. That is how I score wines, and to be honest I sometimes find that subjective assessments can be hard to arrive at. With conventional wines from classic regions it is a lot easier, because you know more what to expect, and you understand your preferences a lot better. But with more weird stuff (natural wines, I am mainly looking at you) I find it can be more difficult to decide. The problem is in being able to understand the good and enjoyable aspects of an unexpected wine, and when one would best drink it. For example which dishes to match it with. Occasionally I find that a wine that seems promising on initial tasting does not work that well with food, and vice-versa, and established wisdom and accumulated experience with more-conventional wines does not always work.

But I usually get there in the end with my subjective opinion – if not before, then when deciding whether or not to buy more of the same wine.

(In the above, by concentrating on the complexity of subjectivity I have ignored other important aspects. For more on subjectivity and wine, my World of Fine Wine article is a good place to start)

Goodbye landline – Hello VoIP

Apologies to wine enthusiasts – normal service will be restored as soon as possible – but this is an update to my 2012 post: Replacing a BT landline by VoIP. In brief, I have been and gone and done it.

After the flurry of activity back in 2012, there were several years of inaction, as I was a bit nervous about committing to VoIP, and my wife was not totally happy with VoIP line quality. We continued to have phones connected via Sipgate and Voipfone, but only used them occasionally, and for outgoing calls only.

ATA and Virgin Hub 3.0 – another great technical innovation of 2020 was the introduction of a labelling machine into the household

However there were a number of technical innovations in the Slatcher household. Not least, I was dragged screaming and kicking into the 21st century, and got myself a smartphone. This was significant because it meant I could call using VoIP also on my mobile, using the Zoiper app. And eventually, I moved from PAYG to unlimited UK calls for a small monthy charge, which made my landline even more redundant. In the meantime, my Virgin broadband speeds got faster and faster, and I ditched my old separate router to enable me to fully use that speed. Without the old router, my ATA stopped working, and at first I couldn’t be bothered to work out how to reconfigure it, so I had a cathartic clearing out of the rats-nest of redundant cables, boxes and phones. The ATA was moth-balled, and VoIP was Zoiper-only for a while.  But even though I was using it less and less, my landline provider (no longer BT) kept ratcheting up the line rental charges, so something had to be done.

A few months ago I resurrected my ATA, plugging it directly into my Virigin Hub 3.0 modem/router. It turned out to be not too difficult to get it working again with both Sipgate and Voipfone. When I looked afresh at the deals and service offered by those two companies, it seemed that their pros and cons were still pretty much as they were back in 2012. Voipfone would have been more expensive, with small monthly charges for a ported landline and multiple registrations, but it had excellent phone support. While Sipgate had no recurring charges for the same features, but support, while adequate, was email-only.  As I was by then less dependent on my old landline number working, I decided I could live with email support, and chose Sipgate as my main VoIP service provider – it was the one destined to host my old landline number, and to be the one hooked up to the main set of household phones.

The number porting went smoothly, so now the deed is done and everything is hunky-dory. The multiple registrations are a great feature, and mean that when someone calls our old landline number all the household phones ring, and also Zoiper on both our mobile phones. I also very much like the Sipgate voicemail system. All messages are emailed to me as mp3 attachements, which is so much handier than having to negotiate an answering machine or phone-based voicemail.

So far, so good.

Intoxicated by Matrobela?

Serious wine tasters are supposed to spit, to avoid intoxication. However, as this Georgian wine producer chose the name Matrobela (Georgian for intoxicating), I decided to actually drink these wines. Shocking, I know.

Matrobela is a recently established producer from 2015, and I have not been able to find much information about it. But it is based in Kisiskhevi, a village in Eastern Georgia, not far from the Kakheti regional capital of Telavi, and right next door to Tsinandali village. It has a modern winery with large stainless steel tanks, and a so-called château with qvevri and space for tastings and other events – a successful combination of the traditional methods and the best experience of modern wine making, as it says on their website.

I first encountered Matrobela at Georgian wine tastings in the UK organised by Sarah Abbott’s Swirl Wine Group, and always found their wines to be of high quality. So I thought I would buy a few bottles from Taste of Georgia in order to get to know them better.

I give the Taste of Georgia’s normal prices below, but actually got a couple of pounds discount on each bottle, so if you are lucky with the timing of your purchase you might too. You might also note that I mention below the Georgian PDOs of Tsinandali and Mukuzani – if those names are new to you, you might like to take a look here.

Mtsvane, White Dry, 2018, 13.0%, £15.50
The back label says this was grown in Kakheti, which is where most Georgian wines come from.  Mtsvane is the grape variety.
Very pale greenish straw. Herby, and somehow seems to have a heavy low-register nose – unusual and difficult to describe. On the palate, medium-high acidy. Fully dry, but with ripe fruit. Full-bodied, a little hot even, but in an OK sort of way. Intense aromatically, like nose but perhaps with some orange peel or blossom too. Overall it is very flavoursome and makes a big impression. Unusual, but I like it.

Rkatsiteli, Amber Dry, 2018, 13.0%, £17.00
Here the grape variety is Rkatsiteli. On the back label we find that this is fermented and macerated in qvevri, with 6 months skin contact, and unfiltered. Also, amongst the other details, it says that the vineyards are in the Appellation Tsinandali. So is it claiming to be Tsinandali PDO or not? I would guess not. It is also strange that qvevri are not mentioned on the front label. There is something that looks like a qvevri logo there, but the labels of the three other wines have a much more prominent qvevri design element, even the ones that are presumably made in stainless steel.
The wine is a very pale shade of amber, and there is very little sediment. Perhaps, although it had 6 months of skin contact, not all the skins were present? Also, if it is unfiltered it must have been very carefully racked and fined. The nose is subtle and nicely balanced, with citrus fruit as the main aroma – orange, lemon and lime I think. And gentle phenolics from the skin contact. Medium acidity. Dry, and low but detectable astringency. Drink now. Balanced and nuanced. There is nothing at all here to frighten the horses, and even the most hardened orange-wine sceptic might find something to love about this wine

Mukuzani, Red Dry, 2018, 13.5%, £18.50
This is a Saperavi varietal wine, and aged in oak barrels for 12 months according to the back label. And from the prominent use of the word Mukuzani on the front label, I think we can fairly assume this is Mukuzani PDO.
Intense purple. I have seen more intensely coloured Saperavi, but this is still pretty dark. Intense, fresh, sharp dark fruit. Sweet and fruity blackberry rather than blackcurrant. No obvious oak, which is nice. High acidity. Medium astringency, maybe medium-high. Intense aromatics as per nose. Intense and lip-smacking. Like a slap round the face, in a good way. Good length and a slightly bitter finish – again, something I see as a positive. This is good to go, but I would see no problems keeping it for a few years at least.

Saperavi, Red Dry Qvevri Wine, 2018, 12.5%, £18.50
As with the Rkatsiteli, we are told that the grapes come from the Tsinandali Appellation, which sounds a bit silly. They may well come from the Tsinandali area, but it is a white wine appellation. Also on the back label, it says that this has 4 weeks of skin contact, and is unfiltered.
Intense ruby-garnet with purple tinges. Yes it really does seems to have elements of lot of shades of red! As with the Mukuzani, it is not nearly as dark as many Saperavis. And again, no sediment, which is surprising for an unfiltered wine. Fresh, sharp, dark fruit. Hint of blackcurrant boiled sweet  esters, but also some pleasant complexity. Medium-high acidity. Medium tannin. Nice ripe tannins, but with a texture you can almost chew. Thanks to the texture, this is full-bodied effect despite the moderate alcohol level. The flavours are light though, so it does not feel heavy and brooding.  Some bitterness, especially on finish. Drink now I think. A good, all-round, nicely balanced wine.

Perhaps it does not come out strongly enough in my tasting notes, but I was very impressed with these wines, which each got a ***** rating from me. They are all unusual enough to be interesting to a western palate, and yet they are also of high quality according to international standards, showing good intensity, balance and complexity. They also showed no faults, and neither did the ones I encountered at earlier tastings – something which you certainly cannot say about a lot of Georgian wine production as soon as you move away from the large-scale brands. In my experience, even the prevalence of something as undisputably faulty as cork taint seems to be higher in Georgian wines, so I was pleased to note that Matrobela uses Diam corks.

Having said all that, I do not want to sound too critical of the more artisanal and natural end of the Georgian wine spectrum. There are many such wines with “challenging” flavour profiles that I enjoy, and they can be the wines that give me most pleasure. In that regard, I like many wines that others might dismiss as faulty, and also the massively tannic Saperavis from Kakheti.

But these  Matrobela wines are different – they are easy to like. I have been intoxicated by Matrobela, literally and figuratively.

Edit 24th October 2020 – A few days ago I opened another bottle of the Mtsvane. I don’t know whether it was me, the wine or the occasion, but I enjoyed it a lot less this time round. It seemed less flavourful, and the high alcohol was quite obtrusive – definitely hot, and more like a fino Sherry than anything else, but not as refreshing. I would need to try more bottles before I could recommend this wine.

Unpleasant smells, the coronavirus, and corked wine

By now, I think it is quite well known that loss of sense of smell, or anosmia, is a key symptom of COVID-19, but this BBC News article explains how a short-term anosmia due to COVID-19 can turn into a longer-term parosmia, which is a distorted sense of smell. The parosmia seems to make many everyday substances, food for example, smell disgusting. I find this interesting, and not a little scary. I am not sure what the sufferers think, but given a choice between no smell and disgusting smells I think I would choose the former.

But to return to what I found interesting, when reading the BBC article I immediately thought of the disgusting smell of corked wine, which is primarily caused by the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, commonly abbreviated to TCA. Based on experience of corked wine you might think that TCA had two effects: one being to stimulate some smell receptor cells, to create a nasty smell; and the other to inhibit other smell receptor cells, to give the “fruit scalping”. However, experiments with newts showed only the inhibiting effect, and no receptor cell stimulation. We have to be a bit careful here, because of course the newt olfactory system might not behave like the human one but, on the face of it, the absence of any stimulation to create the corky smell seems rather puzzling. If the human nose behaved like the newt’s then could that mean that corkiness exists as a component of all wines, only to be revealed when other smells are suppressed? It seems unlikely, especially considering that other TCA-contaminated food and drink has the same musty smell.

Perhaps you can now see where this discussion is heading, and I must warn you that from this point it is all speculation on my part. It is possible there is a more solid basis in science, but I am not aware of one.

Could the COVID-19 parosmia be caused by some smell receptor types being inhibited, while others have been restored to a working state? And is that also the way that TCA gives rise to a musty smell, with some receptors types working and some inhibited? Note that in both cases it is not actually a case of aromas being removed from a blend, as there is not a one-to-one relationship between receptor types and aromas. Rather than aromas being removed, it is the taking out of action of receptor types, and that changes the shape of the “smell images” on the olfactory bulb, turning them into ones that are more similar to the images of bad smells (see my earlier post for a discussion of smell images). In the case of TCA, the smell that is distorted into mustiness could perhaps have nothing to do with the wine, but be the unnoticed background smell we have all the time from our own body (i.e. mouth, throat and stomach).

Speculation aside, I think you will agree that our sense of smell is an amazing thing, and of great value. Let’s hope that all COVID-19 sufferers manage to fully regain theirs. And may their wine never be corked.

Georgian Wine PDOs

Just a quick post to remind you of my Georgian PDO mini-series, and also help you get a better overview of it – something otherwise hampered by the reverse-chronological order on my home page.

My first post aims to give a quick practical guide to the Georgian PDOs you are most likely to come across in the UK – Tsinandali, Mukuzani, Kindzmarauli and Khvanchkara . Arguably, these are also the most important PDOs in general. In outline at least, this covers pretty much everything that most wine drinkers will need to know about Georgian PDOs, while the other two posts in the series are more hardcore.

After the practical guide, I dive into more detail, listing and summarising all the current PDOs, and giving a bit of background. Here I try to stick to the facts.

Finally, I express opinions about the Georgian PDO system and labelling requirements, and offer a few suggestions for improvement.

Georgian wine PDOs – an opinion, with suggestions

I understand absolutely why Georgia feels the need to try to protect names in its own country, and perhaps even more importantly in Russia, which has a bit of a history in wines fraud and is still an important market. I also think, when selling to foreign markets where Georgian wines are less understood, including the UK and the EU, it is a good idea to have a solid PDO system in place before it is absolutely necessary. And it is probably a shrewd move to make that system compatible with the EU’s.

The legal framework for Georgia’s PDO system looks sound to me. I won’t bore you more than necessary, but there is a law that bans the misleading use of PDO names on labels, and in advertising and related documents. It does leave open the question as to what could be construed as misleading, but is otherwise clear.

Additionally, each PDO registration document carries a paragraph that says how, for foreign language labels etc, the PDO name should be spelled using the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, and that is should be followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” and/or “PDO” (in English) or the Cyrillic alphabet equivalent (presumably in Russian). The main point of these paragraphs seems to be the spelling of the PDO name, rather the circumstances in which it should be followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” and/or “PDO”. The lack of clarity is not helped by the very different ways that this clause is rendered into English in the official translation of each PDO registration document; the Georgian versions of the same documents seem to be much more consistent.

Sadly, I think the lack of clarity on labelling requirements has opened to way to some confusion. Here are a few examples of wine labels, which incidentally are not at all meant as criticism of the particular producers concerned.

On the left we have a Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi wine, with Kakheti at the bottom of its label. Is this just saying that it’s grown and made in Kakheti, or is it claiming the PDO of Kakheti? If it is the former, does that make it misleading? Then the middle label also has Kakheti at the bottom, but this cannot be Kakheti PDO because the wine contains many non-compliant grape varieties. Is that misleading? Finally, the one on the right has Kartli at the bottom of the label, which is not a PDO, so that is fine. But that does suggest the two other labels do not represent PDO claims either.

Moving on to another set of labels, the above Teliani Valley one actually has three PDO names on it: Teliani, Tsinandali and Kakheti. I think most people familiar with Georgian wines would assume that it is Tsinandali PDO. But is that actually correct? And what are other people to think? Teliani Valley is actually a producer’s name but it looks geographical, and Kakheti would be more recognisable for someone who knows Georgian regions but not wine. And for those smarty-pants who thought the Teliani Valley wine was Tsinandali PDO, what about the label on the right. Tsinandali too? Nope, I don’t think so – look more carefully – in smaller letters it says Kakheti AOC. To be fair, I think this is an old label, which is also indicated by the use of AOC rather than PDO, but at the very least this is very confusing.

Actually, it is quite common for Georgian producer names to include the name of a PDO. Apart from Teliani Valley, examples that spring to mind are Tsinandali Estate, Vazisubani Estate and Royal Khvanchkara. OK, it happens in other countries too, but that does not make it any less confusing.

To be constructive, and with all due humility and the perspective of a foreign drinker of Georgian wines, I would suggest a couple of additional PDO labelling regulations:

1) PDO wines should have the PDO name clearly displayed on the label, followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” or “PDO”. This is not unusual for other countries with PDO and PDO-like systems. In some cases  there is also some uncertainty about, or discrepancy between, the name of the PDO and what should appear on the label (Ateni, I am looking at you). Why not make it crystal clear and consistent?

2) Also, any other word on the label that is a PDO, but not the wine’s actual PDO, should have a clearly defined context.  So, for example, a Tsinandali PDO wine may additionally say “Wine of Kakheti”; Kakheti PDO wines may say “Made from grapes harvested near the village of Tsinandali” on the back label (if that is true, of course); and producer names that incorporate a PDO name should usually be preceded by “Produced by”.

Additionally, moving away from the subject of PDOs, it might be worth seeking to protect the use of “qvevri wine” on wine labels, restricting its usage to defined production methods – I would suggest limiting it to methods that are traditional in the region of origin. Also, it would not hurt to standardise on “qvevri” or “kvevri” as the transliteration for wine labels. By all means, avoid the mess that Armenia got into with “karas” and “karasi”.

Is all this really so important? Well, it’s hardly a life or death issue, but I believe clarity is the key to communicate Georgian PDOs to wine-drinkers, especially in markets where the wines are little known. It is effectively a type of branding – one that deserves care and attention over a long period of time.

Georgian wine PDOs – the details

I will explain in this post some of the formal details of what Georgian wines PDOs are all about, and how to get further information about each of them, but firstly here is a summary table of the 24 PDOs currently registered. (The table will probably display better on phones if your screen is horizontal.)

PDO name Region Style Grape varieties
Akhasheni Kakheti Semi-sweet red Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri
Akhmeta Kakheti Dry, semi-dry or semi-sweet white; or amber Kakhuri Mtsvane, and (for amber wine only) ≤15% Kisi and Khikhvi
Akhoebi Kakheti Dry red Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri
Atenuri Shida Kartli Sparkling or slightly sparkling white; or dry non-sparkling white Chinuri, Goruli Mtsvane, Aligoté
Bolnisi Kvemo Kartli Dry, white, amber, rosé or red Rkatsiteli, Chinuri, Goruli Mtsvane, Saperavi, Tavkveri, Shavkapito, Asuretuli Shavi
Gurjaani Kakheti Dry white Rkatsiteli and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane
Kakheti Kakheti Any sweetness level, and any colour Rkatsiteli, Kakhuri Mtsvane, Kisi, Khikhvi, Mtsvivani Kakhuri, Chitistvala, Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rkatsiteli Vardisperi
Kardenakhi Kakheti Dry amber; or medium-dry fortified white Rkatsiteli, and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane and Khikhvi
Khvanchkara Racha Semi-sweet red Aleksandrouli, Mujuretuli
Kindzmarauli Kakheti Semi-sweet red Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri
Kotekhi Kakheti Dry red; or dry white Saperavi; or Rkatsiteli
Kvareli Kakheti Dry red Saperavi
Manavi Kakheti Dry White Kakhuri Mtsvane
Mukuzani Kakheti Dry red Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri
Napareuli Kakheti Dry red; or dry white Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri; or Rkatsiteli and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane
Salkhino Ojaleshi Samegrelo Dry red Ojaleshi
Saperavi Khashmi Kakheti Dry red Saperavi
Sviri Imereti Dry white Tsolikouri, Tsitska, Krakhuna
Teliani Kakheti Dry red Cabernet Sauvignon
Tibaani Kakheti Dry amber Rkatsiteli, and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane and Khikhvi
Tsarapi Kakheti Dry amber Rkatsiteli, and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane and Khikhvi
Tsinandali Kakheti Dry white Rkatsiteli and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane
Tvishi Lechkhumi Semi-sweet white Tsolikouri
Vazisubani Kakheti Dry white Rkatsiteli and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane

The links in the table take you to the official English translations of the Sakpatenti PDO registration documents, which include quite a lot of detail, including maps. I recently printed them to PDF files, because I could find no other way of linking to the individual PDO documents – this means that they will not necessarily be the latest versions, so check the registration and printing dates in the PDF files if in doubt.

There are issues with the Sakpatenti English translations. In particular, note that the Georgian originals consistently say “up to 15%” when specifying a grape variety percentage, but in the English translation this becomes simply “15%”.  More on Sakpatenti and its website later.

Note also that in some places the information in my table differ may differ from other published summaries of the PDO. The obvious example is the entry for Kakheti, for which the PDO rules changed at some point. I do not remember the change being announced, but in 2010 it was a PDO for dry white wines only; now it is a lot broader. I am not sure about the reason for all the discrepancies, but I believe my version to be correct at the time of writing.

Anyway, now for a bit of background, and how to get further information…

While Georgia is not part of the EU, it has an equivalent system to regulate and protect its wines, and has chosen to use EU terminology. So initially, back in 2005, it called the protected categories Appellations of Origin. Now they are Protected Designations of Origin, though you will still see the older term in some official contexts. Incidentally, following usage in the EU, Georgia also has PDOs for goods other than wine. Additionally, there is protection through Geographical Indications for other goods, but currently not for wine.

Sakpatenti, the National Intellectual Property Center of Georgia, is the body responsible for registering PDOs, and applications for new ones must be made to Sakpatenti. Registration of a PDO confers legal protection within Georgia, and Georgia seeks protection by treaty for its PDOs in foreign countries. The Sakpatenti website lists the Georgian GIs (here including PDOs) recognised abroad by treaty, and the foreign ones recognised by Georgia. Apparently, only the first 18 Georgian PDOs are currently recognised by the EU. They are the ones described in this Sakpatenti publication of 2010, and shown on the above map. Note that the PDO descriptions in this book are different to the ones referred to in my table, and are quite vague about aspects like mandated grape varieties.

For the definitive and up-to-date list of Georgian PDOs and GIs, and the registration documents with details about each one, see the State Registry in English or in Georgian. The Georgian documents are the definitive versions, and some of the English translations are dodgy. So if in doubt, I would recommend running the Georgian through Google Translate to get a second opinion. It is not too difficult if you use the registration numbers, and document section numbers, to help you orient yourself in the Georgian space.

So far in this mini-series on Georgian PDOs, I have tried to stick to objective facts. But next time, I shall conclude my series with opinion.

Edit 24/07/20: Due to some confusion on my part I was unfairly scathing about the English translations. Sorry! I have now moderated my criticism.