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. However, 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.

Georgian wine PDOs – a quick guide

Most Georgian wines are marketed by grape variety and the reputation of the winemaker, so as far as the consumer is concerned the country’s PDOs (the equivalent of French Appellations) are often of little relevance. However, there are a few that you might come across in the UK, and here I briefly describe the four that immediately sprang to mind when I was thinking of compiling a shortlist. Later checking showed that they also happen to be the Georgian PDOs most readily available in the UK. And, as they were all in the first six PDOs to be registered, it seems that they were considered to be amongst the most important in Georgia.

These PDOs come from the regions of Kakheti and Racha, and the maps below show you immediately where those regions are within Georgia, but you need to click a few times to get to hi-res maps that show you the location of the PDOs.  The maps do not show physical geography, but it is worth noting that the Alazani river in Kakheti flows in a wide plain, while the Racha vineyard area is more mountainous.

Tsinandali PDO is named after a village in Kakheti, the region where the majority of Georgian wine comes from. This is a dry white (i.e. not orange) wine from the area around the village, made using the Rkatsiteli grape variety with up to 15% Kakhuri Mtsvane. Rkatsiteli is the most common Georgian grape variety, and Kakhuri Mtsvane is also quite popular, and sometimes simply called Mtsvane. The Tsinandali wines that make it to the UK are often relatively inexpensive, and I find them to be straightforward and refreshing. They could perhaps be compared to Chablis, though I would say Tsinandali is more aromatic. I would most naturally think of serving them with white fish.

Mukuzani PDO is also named after a Kakheti village, but this is a dry red wine, and made solely from Saperavi, the most common Georgian red grape. Saperavi wines are usually very dark, an almost opaque purple, and often have a dark and brooding taste profile to match, with smokey fruit. They can also have a fair whack of tannin. Beyond that though, I cannot say I have noticed anything distinctive specifically about the Saperavi from Mukuzani, though as with Tsinandali I have mainly tried cheaper examples imported into the UK. These are wines that can stand up to strong flavours – spices, and beef.

The final two PDOs in my shortlist are Kindzmarauli and Khvanchkara. Frankly, I think the only thing most UK wine drinkers need to know is that these are unfortified semi-sweet red wines, and thus are vini non grata (excuse my, er, Latin) because do not conform to modern so-called good taste. But please do not dismiss them out of hand. Served at cellar temperature, I find the ones with good balancing acidity and/or tannins very attractive, and they can work very well with grilled meats. But do be aware that they are not sweet enough to function as pudding wines. Kindzmarauli is another Kakheti Saperavi wine, but from the other side of the Alazani river from Tsinandali and Mukuzani. Its name suggests that it comes from somewhere called Kindzmara, but I cannot find such a place on the map. Khvanchkara is made from two lesser-known varieties, Aleksandrouli and Mujuretuli, and is named after the village of Khvanchkara in Racha. Traditionally, these semi-sweet wines were made from ripe late-harvested grapes, which gave a fermentation that naturally arrested due to cold winter temperatures and high alcohol content. That method is sometimes still employed, but these days stopping the fermentation with artificial refrigeration is a lot more common.

So those are my top 4 Georgian PDOs. In my next post, I intend to take a more formal look at Georgian wine PDOs in general, and briefly mention all 24 of them, with links to their official registration documentation.

Txakoli, Txakolina or Chacolí?

You may already know that Txakoli, Txakolina and Chacolí are names used for the light and sharp white wines of the Spanish Basque country. But can they be used interchangeably, or are there subtle differences to be aware of? I have been confused about this issue for some time, and if you have too, you are now in luck – I am about to explain. (But if you really don’t care, feel free to get on with the rest of your life.)

The Basque noun for the wine could be either Txakoli or, to confuse matters even further, Txakolin (with an n). However the Basque nationalist Sabino Arana, in his spelling reform of 1895, proposed standardisation on Txakoli, so that is what you normally see now as the wine’s unadorned name in Basque.

The a at the end of the Txakolina is actually the Basque definite article, but you will note that it is not added to Txakoli, but Txakolin, which is the only reason why I bothered telling you about the Txakolin spelling at all. So Txakolina could be translated into English as the Txakoli. You will see Txakolina in the Basque PDO names Bizkaiko Txakolina, Getariako Txakolina and Arabako Txakolina. In these names the ko endings signify the genitive, like the apostrophe s does in English. So you might translate the PDOs into English as The Txakoli of Bizkai, The Txakoli of Getaria and The Txakoli of Araba.

Chacolí is simply the Spanish (i.e. Castillian) version of the Basque Txakoli, and I believe the two words would be pronounced very similarly in their respective languages. Hence, you also get the official Spanish names for the PDOs: Chacolí de Bizkaia, Chacolí de Getaria and Chacolí de Álava.

Incidentally, while Txakoli is the base word, and it often appears on wine bottle labels, it does not seem to be protected as an EU traditional term (it is not listed in Commission Regulation (EC) No 607/2009 Part B), while Chacolí-Txakolina does have protection.

I’m going to bow-out here while I still feel on safe ground, but if you want more information about the linguistics of Txakoli, and the wine itself, you could try the Txakoli Wikipedia article. And, if you can read Spanish, or are prepared to muddle through with an automatic translation, you might be interested in part 1 and part 2 of Del vino chacolín al txakoli on the euskonews website. I am also very grateful for help received on the WordReference Language Forums.

La Cosa, Alfredo Maestro – yet another Marmite wine

At least this divided opinion in my COVID-19-restricted tasting group of two. I absolutely ****** loved it, but my wife was not so sure. And even its newest greatest fan had to admit that the style was a tad challenging.

It was La Cosa, The Thing, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y Leon, 100% Muscat of Alexandria, produced by Alfredo Maestra, 11.0%, 2018. It is available in half-bottles for around £14, imported by Caves de Pyrene, and available from CdP and Buon Vino – and I thought other places in the UK, but they seem to have disappeared from Wine-Searcher in the last few days.

It is a medium-deep amber colour, and cloudy with a fine haze. That haze did not bother me, though the last half-glass of the bottle was uglier – a haze that was more brown, and also with larger floaty flakey bits – something I would have preferred to leave in the bottle.

On the nose you start to get a real feeling for the wine. It is intense, and redolent of botrytis – barley sugar and fresh apricot. We are not meant to be able to smell acidity, but this one actually seemed to smell sharp. In the same way, I guess, that we cannot smell sweetness, but some wines still smell sweet. This one definitely did not smell sweet.

On the palate the adjective that springs to mind is huge. It is hugely sharp, and hugely flavourful. Yes it is sweet too, but the balance is definitely on the acidic side, with the sweetness only taking a little off its edge. In addition to the botrytis notes I got on the nose, there is also a hint of cider, something I do not normally like, but this aspect is not dominant here, and there is a certain complexity, and a bitter twist in there too. Despite being full of flavour, this has a very light-bodied feel, which adds to the refreshing quality of the wine, and leaves the palate feeling clean. Not cloying in the slightest

Overall this is not what I would expect from a sweet Muscat – it is much better. Some might find it challenging, but I rose to the challenge and loved it. Just wow!

While this is great now, I see no reason why it wouldn’t age, and possibly improve. I would suggest you drink it alone – without food and, if you can manage to sneak away with the bottle, by yourself, and at any time of day.

I wrote at the end of my tasting note that it should be enjoyed on its own terms. It is uncompromising. Be warned!

The Importance of Being Bottled

Wines not bottled at source have a bit of a bad reputation for many people, and it seems the main reason is the lack of guarantee of origin and quality, something that is supposedly conferred by the producer’s bottle and label.

A moment’s thought however reveals that any guarantee is far from absolute. Bottles and labels can be faked, and they offer no protection from rogue producers. Also, wine can now be transported efficiently and safely in bulk, with traceability afforded by documentation and information technology.

The guarantee is really only required when there are significant distances between production and consumption – in wine-producing regions empty containers are often taken to a nearby producer for refill. The locals are of course in a great position to know the seller’s reputation, and may even make wine themselves.

As far as small producers are concerned, selling to locals is one thing, but bottling their wine is often the key to getting better prices from large cities, and possibly other countries. And once in a bottle with a label, wine can take a very different position in society. It is no longer a lightly processed agricultural product, only of local significance, but an international lifestyle product. The larger and cheaper brands are designed for the mass market, while more expensive wines available in smaller quantities become desirable luxury goods. At the luxury end of the market, connoisseurship is enabled by bottles and labels. They allow critics to write about a particular wine and vintage, and punters that are possibly in another part of the world can then buy what purports to be the same wine. Even if it is common knowledge that wine can vary considerably between bottles of the same lot, particularly for older vintages, somehow that variation is conveniently forgotten by connoisseurs when obsessing over wine. Thus, labels change how the product is regarded, and they can so easily mislead.

The culture surrounding natural wines largely ignores conventional wine connoisseurship, and I think in many ways it would be more at home with the idea of bulk wine – something meant to be quaffed rather than sipped. Is not bottling one of the most unnatural things you can do to a wine? Even if you leave out the preliminary steps of fining, filtering and dosing with sulphites, squeezing wine into a closed space with little oxygen cramps its style. However, bottling is important to reach the more lucrative market city markets and their natural wine bars. Best not use a traditional wine label though – rather get a mate to design something funky and rebellious, so those connoisseur types know to stay away.

There are comparisons to be drawn between en rama Sherries and natural wines. Strictly speaking an en rama Sherry is taken directly from a solera cask, and valued for its fresh and lively character. Which is all very well if you have access to casks in a Sherry bodega, but not so handy if you live in another country. So Sherry houses now offer the en rama experience oxymoronically from a bottle, where its contents have only minimal processing – perhaps a little fining, only coarse filtration, and minimal sulphite usage. And in doing so, unlike many natural wine producers, it seems they have a product with connoisseur-appeal.

If only for environmental reasons, we need to explore alternatives to bottling wine at source, even if there are huge image problems to overcome for most customers. The romance of drinking unbottled wine in situ might, just might, be a starting point to convince some people. It would work for me, but then I am a far-from-typical wine drinker.

The Wines of Georgia – book review

The Wines of Georgia by Lisa Granik MW, is published by Infinite Ideas in the Classic Wine Library series, with a recommended price of £30. I couldn’t find it cheaper at the usual discounting online booksellers, but it is worth googling for a discount code to buy directly from the publishers. As I write, there are substantial reductions available for WSET, MW and CMS students and/or alumni. By way of disclosure, I should point out that I was given a review copy.

In broad terms, the organisation follows the pattern of many wine books whose topic is a country or major region. Firstly there is background information, separated into chapters on geology, history, wine culture, and a rather large one on local grape varieties. Then, apart from some closing thoughts, each subsequent chapter takes a Georgian region as its subject. The size of each region’s chapter reflects the extent of its winemaking activity, so the Kakheti chapter is another large one, as Kakheti is responsible for the majority of wine production in the country.

My second reviewer disclosure is to declare how much of the book I actually read. Most background chapters were read carefully, but I skipped through the grape variety and regional chapters to get a general impression, pausing only to read in more detail where I was more familiar with the subject matter, or where something in particular otherwise caught my attention. I suspect this reading pattern would not be untypical, as the later chapters would be heavy-going if read in a linear fashion, and are a lot more suited for reference material.

My general impression is that the book is well-researched and detailed. Not only has Lisa travelled extensively in the country, but she has consulted organisational authorities, and read in some depth on the subjects she writes about. Thus for example, she avoids the retelling of Georgian history according to folk memory, and offers a more nuanced interpretation of Georgia’s Soviet period. There are but a handful of comments in the text that I find questionable, but they could be largely put down to emphasis and interpretation, and are certainly not significant enough to merit analysis here.

The tone is generally formal and serious, so you have to be on your guard or you will miss the occasional flashes of dry humour. One consequence of this tone is that Georgia’s romance is downplayed, along with its people, food and countryside. But that’s fair enough, the main topic after all is wine, and a single book cannot be expected to cover everything.

The regional chapters, which comprise around half the book, are packed with solid and interesting information. However, they might be easier to navigate if more structure were imposed on them. Thus, while they contained solid information on the geography, geology, PDOs, and producers, it was not always obvious where to find it. If structure  does exist in the regional chapters, then it is perhaps more a criticism of the publisher’s layout and typography than the author. A finer level of detail in the table of contents would have helped, as would a better index.  For example if you want to know about Kindzmarauli, a word you may find on a Georgian wine label, it does not have its own top level index entry; you have to know to look under Protected Designations of Origin, and then Kakheti.

Better maps would also have helped in some of the explanations in the regional chapters. Map quality in wine books is a constant complaint of mine, and actually the ones in this book are better than most. It is really only the Upper Kakheti map that attempts to cram in far too much information – but this is sadly the one that covers most of the country’s wine production.

On the positive side, I was very pleasantly surprised to see what I thought was a very balanced approach in any discussion of homemade and natural wines. This subject is usually divisive, and while a fair amount of writing on Georgian wine has come from cheerleaders of the natural wine movement, MWs seem to often adopt the opposite, very disdainful, stance. The cheerleaders may make my eyes roll, but it the disdain irritates me more. Anyway, I finished up unirritated, with eyeballs intact, and just a little curious as to exactly where Lisa draws the line between faultiness and acceptability in natural wines.

The blurb on the back cover claims that this is the definitive book on Georgian wine. I am not sure I agree, if only because I am not sure a definitive book can exist for a subject matter that is changing so rapidly. But I would go so far as to say it is the best book to date, without a shadow of a doubt. So if you want to learn about Georgian wine, this should be your first port of call.

New decade – new look

The theme that determined the look of my blog a few moments ago was 10 years old, and deemed to be obsolescent by various 3rd parties. Hence, I was pushed very much towards an update of my website’s appearance, and I have a new theme. It is now Responsive, which is considered to be a Good Thing – not least by Google apparently when it calculates the weightings to use for page rankings. Personally, on smaller devices I think it now looks a lot better than it used to, but worse on laptop and desktop machines. That’s progress.

Anyway, I know there are a few niggles with some older posts, but otherwise everything seems to be working. However, if you notice any problems please do let me know. Meanwhile, I’ll try to get working on new content.

Happy New Year!

A couple of Bobal blends from Aldi

In the past I have sensed that some people assume I only write reviews of wines I would unconditionally recommend. But that is not the case, so please read on – it’s not a long blog post.

I recently noticed a few recommendations for Toro Loco wines at Aldi, and as my local store had a couple of their shelves, I thought it would be interesting to compare them side-by-side. Both were initially tasted, and drunk with food, at a middle-eastern BYO restaurant. Here are my tasting notes…

Superior 12.5% 2018 £4.00
(Tempranillo and Bobal)

Medium ruby. Thin, austere fruit. Cherry. Medium acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now **

Orgánico 12.5% 2018 £5.00
(70% Bobal, 20% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon)
Medium ruby. Tad more purple. Dark fruit. More full and soft. Cherry again. Medium acid. Medium tannin. Drink now. A good solid ***

Firstly – kudos to Aldi for stocking wines from the little known Utiel-Requena region near Valencia, and with the little known Bobal grape as a major component. Bobal has a reputation for being a rustic variety but, as is so often the case, if it respected with careful winemaking it can deliver characterful and high quality wines.

To be frank, I would question the quality of the first of these wines, and neither would be my first choice if I wanted a crowd-pleasing fruity red wine, but with food their character made them a pleasant alternative to those crowd-pleasers. The Orgánico was a much better wine all-round when viewed critically, and well worth a fiver, but for quaffing with food the so-called Superior worked too. Feint praise perhaps, but I think I am being fair.

If you are tempted to try Bobal at a more serious level, I would suggest Aranleón Sólo (£9 at The Wine Society), or Cien y Pico En Vaso (available at a few places for a similar price). Some might find these wines a little challenging – dark, heavy and tannic – but if you occasionally like that sort of thing they will not disappoint.

Château Ksara in Manchester

On the afternoon before a Château Ksara wine-trade dinner at Comptoir Libanais, I was invited by Rachel Davey to drop by at the same venue to taste some Ksara wine. There I had the pleasure of meeting George Sara, co-owner and board member of Ksara, and Michael Karam, the author of Wines of Lebanon, and enthusiastic champion of Lebanese wine. George (leftmost in the image) very clearly, yet with a soft touch, communicated his pride in what Ksara had to offer, while Michael enthusiastically contributed with a broad range of views, opinions and insights into Lebanon and its wines, from the very general, to the specific wines we had in front of us.

Château Ksara is the oldest and largest winery in Lebanon. It dates back to 1857, when Jesuit monks inherited some land and started to farm it. In the 1860s the monks made their first dry red wines there; prior to that it was only sweet wine for sacramental purposes. Under the Jesuits, the business grew to the point where it was producing the vast majority of Lebanese wine, and in 1973 Ksara was sold to a consortium of Lebanese investors lead by Jean-Pierre Sara. The winery lies in the Bekaa Valley, which is more of a mountain plateau than what most of us would think of as a valley, and the grapes for most wines (with one exception, mentioned below) also come from the Bekaa Valley region.

I describe the wines below in groupings suggested by George after the tasting, disregarding the order in which they were actually tasted which followed the usual progression of white wines, through rosé, to red. The prices are rough UK retail prices gleaned from Wine-Searcher, but I was unaware of the prices when tasting and making notes.

Lebanese heritage wines

These are all made from varieties that have been in Lebanon for a long time. Not all of them are native to the country but, if not native, they have most definitely been adopted by the country, and can produce wines that are distinctively Lebanese.

Blanc de l’Observatoire, 2018, 13.0%, £12
Obeidy 30%, Muscat 30%, Clairette 30%, Sauvignon 10%.
Fresh. Citrus and apple. High acidity. Dry. Aromatic. Drink now ****

Merwah, 2018, 12.5%, £15
There is no other varietal Merwah wine in commercial production, and 2018 is only its second vintage, and the first one to be imported into the UK. The 60-year-old low-yield vines are grown on the slopes above Douma in north Lebanon (not the Bekaa Valley) at an altitude of over 1,500m. The grapes are hand-harvested, and the wine is made with low intervention techniques.
Complex nose. Citrus, violets, biscuity. Medium-high acidity. Dry. Drink now *****

According to Michael, DNA analysis has shown that the Obeidy variety used in the Blanc de l’Observatoire is not, as thought by some, the same as Chardonnay, or any other grape. However, tests on Merwah to confirm or deny its identity with Semillon are still ongoing. For what it is worth, I recognised a fleeting aroma on the Merwah that I find quite distinctive and have before found only on Semillon wines. I can best describe it as Nez du Vin – the smell you get when you open the box of a Nez du Vin kit. What more proof does one need?

Edit 06/11/19: On the jancisrobinson.com forum José Vouillamoz has just confirmed that he has DNA-profiled samples of Merwah, as well as Obaideh (AKA Obeidy), and that neither is identical to any other known variety. However, studies are ongoing, and nothing is officially published yet.

One more comment on the Merwah, which occurred to me only after the tasting: why is it bottled in clear glass? There seems to be an increasing awareness of lightstrike faults and, even if the wine has been kept in the dark, the clear glass bottle will be sounding alarm bells for some consumers. Is the wine’s colour really such a strong selling point, as it is supposed to be for rosé wines?

Gris de Gris, 2018, £13
Carignan and Grenache Gris.
Pale salmon. Strawberry. And something else a bit more punchy – spice or rubber? Medium acidity. Drink now ***

I wasn’t too keen on the Gris de Gris, and rosé is not my favourite style anyway, but George persuaded me to try some with a mouthful of Fattoush. I must admit it seemed to improve the wine for whatever reason. As with all the wines, I find it difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions after only a brief taste.

Le Prieuré, 2017, 13.5%, £12
Cinsault and Carignan, with some Grenache and Mourvedre. Fermented in concrete tanks that were installed at the time the monks ran the winery.
Medium pale violet. Soft berry fruit reminiscent of Beaujolais.  Medium acidity. Low but detectable astringency. Drink now *****

Michael enthused about Le Prieuré being the taste of the Bekaa valley. So if you’ve ever wondered about typicity for Bekka Valley wines, you could do worse than try some of this.

Lebanon meets Bordeaux

In these wines we have a nod towards Bordeaux, but the wines are not intended to be imitations, and include non-Bordeaux grape varieties.

Blanc de Blancs, 2018, 13.0%, £13
Sauvignon 55%, Semillon 25%, Chardonnay 20%.
Refreshing. Medium-high acidity. Reminded me very much of white Bordeaux.
Drink now *****

Reserve du Couvent, 2016, 13.5%, £13.00
Syrah 40%, Cabernet Franc 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 30%. Oak-aged for 12 months.
Medium purple. Seemed to have some of the same quality of fruit as Le Prieuré, but with spice, and a bigger tannin kick on the palate. Medium-high acidity. Drink now *****

Reserve du Couvent is Ksara’s flagship wine, and a bestseller in Lebanon. I thought it was good now, but was told it should keep 5-10 years

French-style from Lebanon

These wines are intended to be true to their French originals of White Burgundy and Claret.

Chardonnay, Cuvée du Pape, 2017, £20
Aged in oak barrels.
Medium pale gold. Medium acid. Oak. I could easily believe this was a white Burgundy. Drink now *****

Château, 2016, 13.5%, £21
Veilles vignes. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot. 12 months ageing in oak, old and new in equal parts.
Medium pale purple. Dark berry fruit. Pencil box. Medium acidity. High tannin. Good fruit and spice. Needs more time. Was told would keep 10-20 years *****

In summary

While I have tasted quite a wide range of Lebanese wine in the past, for some reason the only Ksara wine I had tried prior to this tasting was the Reserve du Couvent, so I was pleased to get to know Ksara better. Overall it was a good and varied set of wines, and all were showing well. I see I gave most of them very good star ratings and wonder, as I often do, if I was not over-generous. However, they fairly represented my subjective opinion at the time, so I will not go back to adjust the ratings.

And generally the wines were very reasonably priced too in my opinion. However, while the Chardonnay Cuvée du Pape and Château wines may have been fairly priced, I am not sure what they offered that could not be bought from Bordeaux or Burgundy for similar money or less. George commented that Ksara’s cheaper wines tended to sell best to export markets, which I think will continue to be the case, while the more prestigious French variety wines were more favoured in Lebanon.

I really must try to revisit some of these wines to gain a better appreciation, but from my exposure to them so far I think the Merwah was the most interesting and attractive white, while the Reserve du Couvent was my favourite red, for being a good all-round solid performer.