Saperavi made in qvevri – examples of contrasting styles

A couple of months ago I organised a tasting of Georgian qvevri wines, and published the tasting notes here. I then reordered multiple bottles of some of my favourites from that tasting, so I could drink more substantial pours over the course of an evening, and write more-detailed tasting notes. The two Saperavi wines I reordered were very different, and made an interesting comparison.

Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Kakheti, 2016, 14.0%, £20.35  from Les Caves de Pyrene
This has an almost opaque purple ruby colour, and an intense nose of dark fruit. The smell also reminds me of ink – the stuff I used in fountain pens at school. Already the fruit seems to have a hint of maturity. High acidity and medium-high astringency on the palate, and all aromatic elements noticed on the nose are still present. Excellent length. Good to drink now. I have no experience of how this wine might age, but if I had to decide I wouldn’t keep it for more than a few years further. However it might be fun to try. *****

I see this as a wine made in the tannic style typical of the Kakheti region, which is the main wine-producing region of Georgia, and in the East of the country. However you look at it, it is a big wine, with colour and tannins resulting from prolonged skin contact. It certainly makes its presence felt, and I think its vigour is what I like so much about the wine.

Zurab Topuridze, Saperavi, 2015, 13.0%, £23.55  from Les Caves de Pyrene
Pale ruby garnet in colour. On the nose, intense and fresh, with sharp red berry fruit. Cranberry and raspberry I think. Also some complex high-toned notes. My mouth waters just from the smell. High acidity, and low but detectable astringency in the mouth. Intense aromatically. Aromas on palate as on nose. Maybe a touch of hospital brettiness as it warms slightly but, as with the high-toned notes, it is not obtrusive and adds to the complexity. There is sweetness from the fruit, giving a subtle underlying caramel nature. Excellent and delicious length. Drink now I think, but I would like to know how it ages. This wine is too sharp to be called balanced, but I don’t worry about that too much as I think balance is over-rated – drink with food. ******

Unlike the vast majority of red grape varieties, with Saperavi, not only is the skin coloured, but also its flesh. Following the French, we normally say these are teinturier varieties, and teinturier is practically a direct translation of the Georgian word saperavi – in English, the word is dye. So this Saperavi wine may have seen no skin contact at all, as it only had a pale red colour, and very little astringency. Both those factors are in marked contrast to the Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi. Note also that this wine comes from Guria in Western Georgia, where a lot of skin contact is less typical than it is in Kakheti. It is a lot more of a crowd-pleaser than the austere Kakhetian one with its hair-shirt manliness. On the whole, I too prefer it, both for its delicate nature, and its complexity. Yes, I know I also said I liked the vigour of the Pheasant’s Tears wine – it is possible to appreciate both styles.

So… two excellent wines, and an interesting comparison. Nevertheless, for me a there was a clear favourite. But you might feel differently, and I would encourage you to try both.

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The New Wine Rules – book review

The New Wine Rules – a genuinely helpful guide to everything you need to know, by Jon Bonné. This was just over £9.00 online from Wordery, including postage.

Right from the off I will say that a few parts of this book are obviously written for the US market, in terms of both language and content. But it is not a huge issue for me, and I note that Amazon UK are selling a version with a different cover that will published at the end of May. Perhaps this will be an edition more geared up for  the UK?

The book is of modest size, consisting of 89 “rules”, each one occupying anything from a few lines to two or three pages. I use quotation marks around the word “rule” because many of them are not so much rules as snippets of information about wine. I think it is fair to say that they are aimed at relative newbies to the world of wine. They might well appreciate a lot of the advice, but I was not so impressed, and took issue with a fair proportion of it, to a greater or lesser extent. I feel it is not only important to keep your target audience happy, but also to provide information that is appropriate, good quality, and clear, and although I accept these book was not written for us wine smart-arses, we are still entitled to an opinion on the quality of the content.

I actually thought the book got off to a great start. Rule 1: Drink the rainbow. Absolutely. Be adventurous, explore, and don’t be limited by tradition and traditional advice. At this point, I felt that the book my hands was the one I wanted to write myself, and this Jon Bonné chap had beaten me to it curse him. Rule 2: Forget “the best wines”. Drink the good. Spot on. Jon and me stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

But then things take a turn for the worse. Rule 3: A good wine-store employee is your best friend. This is advice I have often seen, but where are these wine stores, and how do you recognise them if you are a newbie yourself? I know one or two, but they are few and far between, and if you are not careful you can get really lousy advice, and even be lied to. Skipping a few rule now, brings us to … Rule 7: You can have all the corkscrew you need for under $10. Yes, I would agree with that, and the advice to get a waiter’s friend, or at least to try it. But then Jon goes on to slag-off winged (or lever) cork screws. Now I don’t like them either, but I know people that do. Why not simply suggest to try a few types of corkscrew and select your favourite? Then he goes on to say that if you want to go “really pro” buy an ah-so (or butler’s thief) extractor, or “splurge on a pro tool” like a Durand. So is he is really saying: stick to cheap corkscrews unless you want to swank around and pretend that you are a pro? I am really not quite sure. Durand’s are great for extracting old crumbly corks, and my advice would be to get one if you drink a lot of really old wines. But not just because you feel the urge to “splurge on a pro tool”. And I would add that if some bits of cork fall into the wine it is not the end of the world – just fish them out. I have read the whole book. Honest. But I chose to selected those examples from just the first few rules give a general flavour of the book and my objections

Other objections of mine are a bit more factual. For example, Jon implies at one point that white and red wines should be stored at different temperatures. I know some agree with him, but as far as I know (and I have just googled to confirm it) most people think it is fine to use the same cellaring temperature for all wines. Particularly in a book aimed at novices, even if there is some doubt on this issue, I think an author’s instinct should be to keep things simple. Another rather bizarre statement is that, in the 1855 classification, “all 5 levels” are considered Grand Crus. Perhaps by some, but I have not seen it before. I have seen them called Grands Crus Classées in one or two place, but usually they are simply Crus Classées. Also, according to Jon, Großes Gewächs wines no longer have to be dry. Really? It is the first I have heard of it, and I can find nothing about it when I google, but he might be right. But regardless of whether he is right or wrong, do his readers really need to know about this?

More generally, I am far from convinced that the best way to present information about wine is as a set of short rules. On the other hand that structure must be ideal from the point of view of the convenience of the writer, and it is duly noted for my book, which it seems I am going to have to write after all.

Overall, if I were asked to recommend a book for beginners I would suggest something with a more traditional format. I have a very high regard for Michael Schuster’s Essential Winetasting, which I used extensively when getting into wine. And if I return to it now I am still impressed by how accurate it is, even if it is written at an introductory level. So, especially as a new edition of Essential Winetasting was published last year, that is the book I would recommend.

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Cork Dork – book review

Cork Dork – a wine-fuelled journey into the art of sommeliers and the science of taste, by Bianca Bosker. I bought my copy recently online for around £6.50 including postage.

A friend once told me that the best accounts of life in a foreign country were by those who had either recently moved there, or who had lived there a long time. Cork Dork has the advantage of being written after only a year or so of the author throwing herself into the foreign deep-end of wine-geekery. The experience is still very fresh, and its portrayal insightful, clear, vivid and lively.

I found this book enjoyable at two levels. It works well as a personal story of Bianca’s entanglement in the world of high-flying New York sommeliers – a story in which she starts by observing only, but eventually goes native, takes her Certified Sommelier exam, and ultimately works as a sommelier. On this journey she also gains access to La Paulée de New York, and interviews academics and scientists.

But I also liked the other level – where Bianca takes a reflective and sceptical look at wine expertise with its associated rituals and characters. The reflections are perceptive and accurate, and the scepticism is never heavy-handed and often understated. Indeed sometimes is not stated at all, but the mere recounting of a personal experience occasionally seems to function as a questioning comment on her new world of wine. I share all of her scepticism, and have written about it here many times, but this never descends into calling bullshit on wine expertise – neither my scepticism I hope, nor Bianca’s. I think we both agree that what we are looking at are a human responses to a subject that is both intriguing and complex – and this is perhaps the main reason I think wine is such a fascinating subject.

Finally, an observation that the wine world entered by Bianca lies at the geekiest extreme of the spectrum. I know a lot of wine people, but very few of them are at all like her New York sommelier friends and colleagues. We did in the book get a small insight into an out-of-town sommelier desperate to pass her Certified Sommelier exam so she could better support her family, but she was I think the sole example of a more normal wine professional. Also, there are many amateur wine enthusiasts I know who do not indulge, or would even want to,  indulge, in exclusive Paulée debauchery. Neither do we aspire to be PXs (customers worthy of buttering-up and up-selling) at Michelin-starred restaurants. We are not all like that – honest. To that extent, there remain many alternative, more attainable, wine worlds worthy of exploration by anyone wanting to stick their toe in the wine water.

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When and where did winemaking begin?

I starting getting engaged with this topic when reading the November 2017 press stories about new archaeological evidence for winemaking in Georgia 8,000 years ago. We were told that this pre-dates the winemaking remains previously accepted to be the oldest, which were discovered in northern Iran. That confused me because, for several years now, Georgians have been claiming an 8,000 year old unbroken winemaking tradition. And then, to make my confusion worse, I saw articles elsewhere saying that the remains of the oldest winery were in Armenia. It does not help that popular reporting occasionally fails to differentiate different between “BC” and “years ago”, but to most people a couple of millennia here and there does not seem to matter. In the face of all these claims and a smattering of misinformation, what seemed to be lacking was a recent overview of the evidence with no promotional agenda – which is what I aim to provide here.

Firstly, as some say there is archaeological evidence for wine in China in 7,000 BC, let’s take a quick look at that claim. And dismiss it. What was found in China was evidence of a fermented drink. Some people have suggested the drink may have been made partially from grapes, but that is speculation, and seems very unlikely. Even if true, we would normally expect our wine to be made of grapes exclusively.

While individual countries now lay claim the oldest winemaking tradition, we must remember that modern-day boundaries did not of course apply back in Neolithic times. There was a largish region that included (to mix names from different eras) Northern Mesopotamia, Eastern Turkey, the Zagros mountains in Northern Iran, and the South Caucasus, in which there were many new developments: permanent human settlements, plant domestication for food, and crafts such as weaving, dying, stone working, woodwork and pottery. It was within this context that, not unsurprisingly perhaps, winemaking seems to have emerged.

Archaeological evidence can currently only point to the existence of early winemaking activity in a few isolated instances, each one in a particular place and time. While important, that evidence sadly can say little about the general picture. However, there is also supporting evidence that links this region with the origin of viticulture and winemaking. Genetic diversity in a plant is taken to be an indicator that it has existed for a long time – simply because it has had more time to mutate – and the Eurasian wild grape shows its greatest genetic diversity in the Near Eastern uplands, suggesting that grape vines in their wild form originated there. Also, Western European grape varieties are closer genetically to the wild vine of Anatolia than they are to more local wild vines, meaning that they probably originated close to Anatolia as domesticated forms, and later spread west. This is also consistent with the current indigenous Georgian grape varieties being closely related genetically to those of Western Europe, though by itself that fact does not indicate any particular direction of travel.

The oldest wine-related archaeological sites are in present-day Georgia, just 50km south of Tbilisi. They were two nearby villages, each around 1 ha in area – sites 2 and 3 on the above map – comprising circular mud huts of 1-5 m in diameter. Here sherds of fired-clay jars were found with residues that, when analysed, showed to be very likely to be of a grape product, and which were dated as 6,000-5,800 BC. The jars were up to 1 m high and 1 m in diameter, with a capacity of over 300 li. The jars had small unstable bases, so for stability could have been partly buried when used, but the decoration around the top of the jars suggested that they were not totally buried. Present day Georgian qvevris tend to be larger, and are totally buried, so these ancient jars are perhaps better seen as a forerunner of the Georgian qvevri rather than the first examples. In fact, no direct evidence of winemaking on those site has yet come to light, but pollen samples indicate that there were grapes growing nearby, and considering the wine culture known to exist in that region at later dates, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that wine was actually made in those villages. These are the same sites where for several years Georgians have, with little justification, been claiming an 8,000 year old history of winemaking. But it was a lot more recently that the convincing evidence mentioned above was obtained, and published in November 2017 the PNAS article Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus. Unless credited elsewhere, this PNAS article is the source of pretty much all the information in this blog post, and the map is reproduced from that article, so if you want to chase up more detailed references that is where to go.

Prior to November 2017, the earliest known winemaking site was in the of Northern Iran, site 17 on the map, just south of Lake Urmia. As on the Georgian sites, jars were found in a domestic mud hut with traces of the tartrates that indicated they had contained wine. These remains were dated to around 5,400-5000 BC. There were six partially-buried jars found in one hut, each with a capacity of around 9 li.


If this quantity was typical for a hut in the village, that indicates winemaking on a sizable scale, but we must go to the Areni-1 cave (site 15 on the map) of present-day Armenia for the earliest evidence of a winery. Unfortunately, because Armenia’s legitimate claim for the earliest known winery is sometimes made in isolation, this can easily give the impression that winemaking itself started here. While in actual fact the winery was dated to 4,000 BC – around two millennia later than the winemaking finds in Georgia. Nevertheless, the Areni-1 cave finds are significant and impressive. In addition to the tartrates, there were found grape-vine fragments, pips, and the red pigment malvidin. Also plaster pressing floors, arranged so the released grape juice would run into buried jars. To put these Armenian finds into a bit of perspective, they are roughly contemporary with early signs of winemaking in Northern Greece at Dikili Tash, yet still considerably earlier than anything in modern Italy.

So if anyone asks when and where winemaking began, the only honest answer is that we don’t know. However, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that it was in or around the South Caucasus. And there is strong archaeological evidence for winemaking 8,000 years ago at a specific location in what is now Georgia, which is the oldest hard evidence we have at the moment.

More interesting than chronological one-upmanship is perhaps the details of how wine was made in the Neolithic period, and how winemaking evolved into what we see today – but that is another story.

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A tasting of natural qvevri wines from Georgia

A couple of weeks ago we had a Georgian evening at our local tasting group, first tasting the wine, and later drinking it with Georgian food using recipes in the excellent book Tasting Georgia. All wines were purchased directly from Les Caves de Pyrene. Below I quote their standard retail prices, excluding the 10% discount I got for spending more than £200.

They were all natural qvevri wines which, as discussed in my previous post, make up a small percentage of Georgia’s total commercial wine production. They were also made using skin-contact to varying degrees. As this type of wine goes, I think the selection was fairly representative of what is produced in Georgia, with the emphasis on the Rkatsiteli and Saperavi varieties and the Kakheti region.

I thought the wines all showed very well. I have had some of them before, when I did not enjoy them nearly as much. Is this the fickleness of natural wine, or were the previous examples faulty or served at the wrong temperature, or was it just me? Or maybe it was a combination of all those factors? For example, I think I managed this time to hit on a good serving regime, which you might want to reproduce… they were all taken out of my 12°C wine fridge, double-decanted, and then left in my garage at 15°C for one or two hours before serving. On this occasion, they all got at least 5 stars, while Okro’s Rkatsiteli, Iago’s Chinuri and Zurab’s Saperavi particularly impressed with 6 stars. Yes, I know they are very high scores, but I do not pretend to be objective – it was a good evening and I enjoyed the wines. That is the important message to take away. It could be regarded as pay-back time for the occasions when I was not so impressed by the same wines.

Here are my rather sketchy tasting notes for what they are worth, in the order of tasting. Click on the image above for a hi-res view of the labels.

Pheasant’s Tears, Rkatsiteli, Kakheti, 2016, 12.5%, £18.30
From vineyards in Bodbiskhevi, around 3 km South-West of Sighnaghi, in the hills above the plains of the Alazani Valley.
Medium amber. Intense, fresh, phenolic. Honey. Medium low acid. Dry. Orange. Medium low astringency.

Pheasant’s Tears, Rkatsiteli, Kakheti, 2011, 12.3%, £18.20
Also from Bodbiskhevi.
Medium amber. Intense, mature. Medium low acid. Tad cheesy perhaps, but it didn’t put me off. Medium astringency.

Okro’s Wines, Rkatsiteli, 2015, 12.5%, £22.45
Vineyards in Nukriani. Around 3 km from Sighnaghi, but further up in the hills, to the West of the town.
Bright golden amber. Intense, fresh, fragrant. Medium acid. Dry. Gentle, subtle, rounded. Medium low astringency.

Ramaz Nikoladze, Tsitska-Tsolikouri, 2015, 13.0%, £23.55
Blend of two varieties, Tsitska and Tsolikouri. From Nakhshirghele, in Imereti
Medium orange. Slightly sulphurous. Medium high acid. Medium high astringency. Lemony.

Iago’s Wine, Chinuri, 2015, 12.5%, £19.20
Chinuri is the grape variety. 5,000 bottles, from 50 year old vines in the village of Chardakhi, around 20 km North-West of Tbilisi, in the southern part of Mtskheta-Mtianeti.
Medium yellow gold. Medium intense, fragrant. Medium acid. Medium high astringency.

Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Kakheti, 2016, 14.0%, £20.35
This is from Tibaani, around 5 km South-West of Sighnaghi, just above the plains of the Alazani Valley. Tibaani is actually the name of a smallish appellation in Georgia but, as the name is not writ large on the label, I think the claimed appellation is the much larger Kakheti.
Opaque purple. Medium dark fruit. Medium high acid. Medium high astringency. Fresh. Sharp and refreshing.

Zurab Topuridze, Saperavi, 2015, 13.0%, £23.55
From the Guria region, which has a Black Sea coastline.
Medium pale purple. Intense, sweet berry fruit. Medium acid. Gentle, sweet. Subtle, spicy.

Okro’s Wines, Saperavi Budeshuri, 2015, 11.0%, £23.55
Most Saperavi grapes have red flesh, but Budeshuri is a white-fleshed clone. The vineyard is in Manavi, around 40 km West of Sighnaghi, high in the hills, and possibly facing away from the Alazani Valley.
Medium purple. Intense, fresh, sharp black fruit. High acid. Intense on palate too. Medium low tannin. Sharp and tangy.

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Georgian winemaking starts at home

The Georgian wines the media likes to portray, and the ones sommeliers in hip restaurants and wine bars like to pour, are artisanal, natural, and made in qvevri. But if you look at all commercial winemaking in Georgia, this comprises only a few percent of total production. And this is reflected to a large extent in the Georgian wine available in the UK. Go to a specialist online Georgian merchant, select a bottle at random – the chances are that its contents have never seen the inside of a qvevri. Estimates for the percentage of qvevri wine vary, but are in the range 1-3% for commercial winemaking. A surprisingly low number perhaps, but that is not the biggest surprise.

In this pie chart you can clearly see what I reckon to be the biggest surprise. It is the vast quantity of homemade wine – something I became aware of only a few weeks ago. Estimates are all finger-in-the-air, but someone suggested 70% of wine consumed in Georgia is homemade. Another says home production is two to three times larger than the commercial sector. Regardless of the precise numbers, homemade wine is a huge proportion of the total. If it were twice the production of the commercial sector, that would put it at two-thirds of the overall total, and in my chart I have shown it as 70%.

But why should we care about this? One reason is that it was the home winemakers who carried the tradition of qvevri winemaking though the Soviet period, when all legal wine was made in large factories that paid no regard to the old methods. In this time many Georgians kept their home qvevri, and some must have quietly continued to use them as God intended. And this tradition of home winemaking led to the emergence of small-scale commercial qvevri wine production, and later to its increasing adoption by larger producers.

When we consider the scale of home production of wine in Georgia, that must challenge our ideas about the proportion of wine made in qvevri. Doubtless some home wine is made in large plastic containers these days, but I bet a significant amount is still in qvevri. So as a proportion of all Georgian wine, qvevri production must be a lot higher than the few percent that the commercial data suggest.

As a (rather large in terms of screen area) postscript, I would like to share a few videos about home wine production in a Georgian village. The videos are not the fastest-moving, but I think they are insightful, and I rather like the gentle pace and humour. How typical the methods are, I would not like to say in general, but the adding of kilos of sugar to the qvervi was unexpected for me, and you might like to check the YouTube comments on the matter. For completeness I also include videos by the same filmmaker on the making of chacha (the Georgian equivalent of Marc or Grappa) and bread. I wish I could credit the filmmaker properly, but I don’t know anything other than the information given on YouTube – they were uploaded in 2011 by the YouTube user omwuchi, who says he or she lived in the village with a host family.

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Wines from around Dubrovnik – Pošip, Plavac Mali, and Dingač

If you read my last post, you will know by now that Pošip and Plavac Mali are names of grapes used in South Dalmatia for varietal wines, white and red respectively. Also you will know that Pošip tends to be grown on the island of Korčula, while a lot of the Plavac Mali comes from the Pelješac Peninsula. Dingač on the other hand is a PDO name, for Plavac Mali wines from a particularly favourable site on Pelješac. Of the wines from around Dubrovnik, these are the ones that I tasted and drank enough of to get to know, and you will find them readily available if you visit.

Pošip

There was quite a variation in the Pošips I drank and tasted. None were exactly bad, but some were rather unexciting – neutral and fresh was the best you could say of them.

Others were considerably more intense and aromatic, and they were the ones I enjoyed most. An example was the one shown here, which I drank at Buffet Peninsula on Pelješac. This Pošip was 2016, 13.5%, Central and South Dalmatia PDO, made by Toreta, and from Korčula. It was intense, and in my opinion pungent in the Sauvignon Blanc cat’s-pee way. But while this was most definitely dry, it also had some honeyed aromatics that tempered the pungency. And those honeyed notes moved it away from anything that could be considered to be Sauvignon Blanc. Were it available in the UK, I think it would retail for a very reasonable £15. Another favourite was a little cheaper, and from D’Vino Wine Bar in Dubrovnik. It was made by Antunović, 2016, 12.5%, and with the same PDO, but this one was from Pelješac. It was hugely intense, fresh and herbaceous, and had a good smooth mouthfeel.

There were also sur lie Pošips, which were more rounded and complex. These seemed to be generally highly regarded and attracted a small price premium. I must admit they were good too, but on balance I preferred the more aromatic versions that were perhaps less nuanced.

Plavac Mali

Looking through my tasting notes, the Plavac Mali wines I tried also had a lot of variation. The fruit varied from red to black berries, and there were varying degrees of oakiness. Levels of astringency also varied, but tended to be a bit on the high side compared with most other varietal. And the degree of complexity increased, perhaps predictably, with price and age. I will highlight below a couple of Plavac Mali wines I particularly liked.

At the cheap and very cheerful end of the spectrum was the 2016, 13.5%, Plavac Mali made by Bura, illustrated here. It was the equivalent of £4.80 retail for a bottle at Buffet Peninsula, which I guess would be just under a tenner if it made it to the UK. The bottles I saw were labelled for the US market, and under screwcap. This wine was immediately appealing, with fresh acidity, low astringency, and bursting with juicy blackberry fruit and violets. Absolutely delicious in a straightforward sort of way, and absolutely a bargain.

A lot more expensive, and considerably more serious, was the 2005, 14.3%, Stagnum, made by Frano Miloš. This was beautiful – intense, complex, smoky and spicy. It had acidity to match the Bura described above but, even after 12 years, a good whack of tannin. The only problem with this wine was that it was very ambitiously priced at around £80 direct from the winery, so maybe £120 UK retail. In the sense that I have had worse wines that have been a lot more expensive, the price is maybe not so stupid, but nevertheless such a high price did act as a deterrent to buying. I did though get a bottle of the 2006 vintage, at around £50 from the winery, which had similar structure and I would characterise as lifted, complex, and aromatically delicate. The 2007 Stagnum was being sold for only £25, so obviously the winery put a large premium on aging. Miloš also make a cheaper Plavac wine, which was also good enough for me to buy.

Dingač

I found Dingač to be similar to non-Dingač Plavac Mali wines in their variation, but with the volume turned up – more intense, more alcoholic, more tannic.

The wine illustrated here is a 2015 Dingać produced by Šimunković, a small producer I believe, which we drank at Lady Pi-Pi with barbecued meat. I absolutely enjoyed it, but the main reason I mention it here is because that it was perhaps the most memorable wine of the trip. If Dingač is Plavac Mali with the volume turned up, this one was playing at full blast, with a declared 16% of alcohol, good acidity, massive tannins, and dark fruit aromas that managed to be both fresh and raisiny at the same time. Not usually my favourite style of wine, but in this meat-filled context it worked exceptionally well. It was £44 on the restaurant wine list, and I would guess that would be the equivalent of £25-30 retail in the UK.

My notes tell me that I enjoyed a couple of other Dingač wines even more, but the descriptive part of those notes is very poor, so I will just give them a quick mention. They were both tasted at the Peninsula Buffet wine bar. One was produced by Bura. It was 2015, 15,5%, and with an estimated UK retail price of £37. The other was a little cheaper at an estimated UK retail price of £25. The producer of this one was Ponos, and the vintage 2015. At 14.9% it was the lightest of the three Dingač wines mentioned here, and was also more moderate in tannin. Lots of donkeys on the label – a common motif for Dingač, as they were used to carry the harvest over the mountain to the winery.

And here ends my series of posts on Dubrovnik and South Dalmatia. Do feel free to let me know if you have any questions or comments.

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The wine regions of South Dalmatia

I am going to be a bit more vague than I would like to in this post, because I found it very difficult to get up-to-date and authoritative sources of information. However, I saw that as all the more reason for pulling together what facts I could to serve as an introduction to the region. Here’s my best shot…

At least I can speak with certainty about the PDOs and PGIs that exist in Croatia, as the EU maintains a list centrally. Croatian PGIs are easy – there are none! Of the PDOs, there is one that covers all of this region, and more, called Srednja i Južna Dalmacija, which translates as Central and South Dalmatia. Judging by the wine labels I have seen, this is quite commonly used, and wines of several different varieties seem to qualify for it. The only other two PDOs that are to me clearly in South Dalmatia are Dingač and Dalmatinska zagora.

Dingač and its sister area of Postup are on the Pelješac Peninsula, and discussed below, while Zagora lies somewhere between Dubrovnik and the peninsula and I know hardly anything else about it. Another major wine-growing area is the island of Korčula, of which I shall presently write a little more.

The Konavle Valley also deserves a brief mention. This is in the area around the symbol for Gruda in the map below. I don’t think the Konavle Valley has the same level of status as Pelješac and Korčula, but I have had at least two very good wines from there, and it is now accessible from Dubrovnik as a wine tour, complete with tourist train ride to take you between winery visits. There are also wine tours to the Pelješac Peninsula, which is a bit more of a schlep from Dubrovnik.

On wine labels you will additionally find a type of geographical area that is neither PDO or PGI called vinogorje, which could be translated as vineyard but in this usage it is a much larger wine area. I am not sure how strictly regulated these vinogorje names are, but South Dalmatia examples I have seen are Pelješac, Korčula and Konavle.

Probably the most important grape in the South Dalmatia is Plavac Mali. It is certainly the most important red variety – if I may presume to call it red that is, as the name translates as little blue one. It is grown principally on the Pelješac Peninsula, the entrance to which is around 40 miles North-West of Dubrovnik.

The vineyards of the peninsula are not all of Plavac Mali, and are scattered along most of its length. However there is quite a cluster of producers in and around the village of Potomje, and the flat land just to the North of the village contains what is probably the peninsula’s largest concentration of vineyards. The village, and its vineyards on the plain, can be seen in the image below. Just over the mountain ridge from Potomje, to the right in the image, are the steep South-facing slopes of the Dingač vineyards stretching down to the Adriatic. Dingač was the first protected geographical area in Yugoslavia, achieving this status in 1961. With its South-facing aspect, and possibly with the help of reflected light from the sea, grapes achieve high levels of ripeness and can make particularly powerful and tannic red wines. Dingač seems to be a strong brand – when I was there in Dubrovnik, most wines types seemed to be referred to by grape variety, but Dingač was always Dingač.

If Dingač was the first protected area for Plavac Mali, both chronologically and in terms of prestige, Postup must be second, in both respects. This area was protected in Yugoslavia in 1967, and is somewhat larger than Dingač – 70ha to th 40 ha of Dingač. Somehow however the Yugoslavian Postup has not yet managed to make it as a PDO. Postup’s wines are not as big and powerful as Dingač, perhaps because, although their aspect is similar on a South-facing slope by the sea, the vineyards are not as steep. (If you visit the D’Vino wine bar in Dubrovnik, do not be mislead by an information card you might be given, which implies that Postup is on the North side of the mountain ridge opposite Dingač.)

On the above map, Dingač lies by the top of the “l” in the word “Pelješac”, while Postup is further West, close to the Easternmost end of the island of Korčula. If you check on the Google Maps satellite images you can identify both these vineyard areas, and the ones on the plain around Potomje.

While the Pelješac Peninsula is best known for it Plavac Mali, Korčula specialises in white wine. The decision for it to focus on whites was taken by a Yugoslav government committee but that decision has had a lasting influence, even if on the face of it the island’s geography is not too different from that of Pelješac. Special mention should be given to the relatively rare grape variety Grk, which is grown in any quantity only on Korčula, largely at the Eastern tip of the island. However, Pošip is the variety that Korčula is best known for, and Pošip from Korčula is widely available in the region.

In summary, the local wines you are most likely to come across in Dubrovnik, or at least the ones I remember best, are Plavac Mali from Pelješac, in particular Dingač if you go a bit upmarket; and the white wines of Korčula, especially Pošip, and the rarer Grk.

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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 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. On the other hand, 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 smelled 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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