What is it with wine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hipster beer?
You are on your own with that.

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Why is wine the colour that it is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wine, ideology and quality

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Qvevri winemaking – variety, tradition and innovation

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

The appeal to tradition on the labels of the Alaverdi Monastery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qvevri lids with bubbler airlocks at Okro’s Wines

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

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

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

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Qvevri – manufacture, use, and rise to fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Georgian wine labels – understanding and pronouncing

Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

Pronouncing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Georgia: a guide to the cradle of wine – book review

Georgia: a guide to the cradle of wine, by Miquel Hudin and Daria Kholodilina, available direct from Vinologue for $26 plus shipping.

Very recently published, I think it is fair to say that this is the only book about Georgian wine to cover the ground with the depth and scope expected by most wine lovers. Quite simply put, if you want a book on Georgian wine this is for you. As the introduction claims, the format hits the middle ground between a heavy coffee-table book and a compact travel guide. There are 300 glossy A5 pages, richly illustrated with pertinent photographs. While the glossy paper does make the book rather heavy to carry around, the robust hardback binding will minimise any damage when you toss it into the back of the car for your Georgian road trip.

As implied above, the book has all the sections you would expect in an introductory guide to a wine region or country, and also has practical information for visitors. There is a General Info part with, among other things, sections on the language, history and cuisine of the country, and notably a substantial section on Georgian grape varieties. The official Georgian appellations are covered the 20-page part 2, with the remaining two-thirds or so of the book being devoted to the regions of Georgia. Each region gets a general introduction, including restaurants, shops, museums and other places that would be of interest to wine lovers. This is followed by profiles of its wineries, each profile typically taking a page or so of text. At the end of the book are winery contact details and GPS coordinates.

Given that whenever Georgian wines are mentioned the focus is so often on kvevri and natural wines, it is perhaps worth stressing that producers of all styles of wine are covered. It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of Georgian wine is what we might call conventional, and that this too can also have considerable interest for wine lovers.

So what did I not like? Well, map quality in wine books is a constant gripe for me. Here the problem is that the maps are so schematic, and literally devoid of scale, that they give no impression at all of the country and regions. You see items of interest associated with towns, villages and areas of Tbilisi, but that’s about it. For borders of the regions that are discussed, and the physical geography that is so important to wine, you really need to have access to additional maps. You could get them online, but shouldn’t the purpose of the book be to provide such things?

Also, in the winery profiles I think most readers would appreciate a stronger indication of the types of wine made, and their quality. A lot of opinion I have come across so far seems to basically consist of praising all natural kvevri wines and demonising everything else. I am sure a more nuanced approach is called for, and in this book a terrific opportunity has been lost.

My final gripe would be about the clunkiness of some of the language. Occasionally I found myself struggling to figure out what was being said, wondering if some critical words were missing for example. Even if the vast majority of the text was fine and there there was little loss of overall meaning, at times I really did find the difficult sentences got a bit tiresome. Maybe it was just me and my earnest quest for information, and a more casual reader would gloss over such things?

But enough negativity. Despite any awkwardness of language, I enjoyed reading my copy in a couple of days, and shall doubtless continue to use it for reference. I repeat that this is pretty much the only book that brings together such a complete range of information about Georgian wine, and the authors are to be congratulated for having the enterprise to make it available in such an accessible way.

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Online information about Georgian wine

As Georgian wine gets more popular, there is an increasing number of easily digestible online summary articles, and if you want to seek those out I shall leave you in the capable hands of Google. But more surprising for me is the large amount detailed and authoritative information out there. In English too. Here I point out some of the best of these pages, images and documents.

Wine maps

Vinoge.com has arguably the best overview wine map of Georgia, showing the locations of many wine producers, and the main viticultural regions. It is displayed in a rather annoying way in the top right of all pages of the website, but by right-clicking you can open the entire map at high resolution, as seen here.

The same site also has a good set of more detailed maps for individual regions, which can all be accessed from this page. You may need to scroll down a bit to find the first one, then keep clicking on the map you are interested in until you eventually you get the map as a high-resolution image.

From hvino.com, you may also find this map of interest. The information given is a mixed bag, with various items of interest for Georgian wine tourists. Personally I don’t think it works well as an overview, but is perhaps more useful if you are after something in particular.

Appellations of Origin

There is an official document available as PDF that describes the Georgian Appellations of Origin in English. Each delimited region is shown on its own detailed map, but you will need a more general map to understand where those regions are within Georgia. I found searching for village names on Google maps was a good way to get that context.

The soils and climate of each zone are described in mind-numbing detail, but the requirements on grape varieties are only very vaguely expressed. The varieties are listed and described, but then you are usually left to assume that it is those grapes that are allowed in some proportion or other, and others are prohibited.

Georgian producers do not seem to be using these AOC names as enthusiastically as they might, but you do occasionally see them on labels so it can be good to know what they mean. Indeed it is good merely to know which AOC names exist, so you do not confuse them for grape varieties.

Grape varieties

When you have the Georgian AOCs under your belt, you might want to download the 456 page PDF tome Georgian Ampelography for further reading material. There are over 500 Georgian grapes mentioned in the list at the end of this book, but it focusses on the detailed ampelography of only 59, including 4 from France, the remainder all being native to Georgia. In the 1960 edition the main entries were restricted to 57 varieties – a nod to Heinz perhaps? – including 5 French ones.

Sadly for wine drinkers, the ampelographic descriptions include little comment on the style and quality of the wine produced by the various varieties. But if you need to grow or identify vines in a Georgian vineyard – or are a card-holding wine geek – this is definitely a book for you. Somehow, even if I am unlikely to read more than a small fraction of it, I feel my life is enhanced by this scholarly work.

Qvevri

Finally, for information about qvevri, including regional variations in usage, it is hard to beat the short PDF book Making Wine in Qvevri – a Unique Georgian Tradition.

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Telavi Wine Cellar, and their Marani and Satrapezo wines

This place is big. Huge. It’s quite possibly the largest wine-producing outfit I have ever visited, and seems only the larger for the contrast with most of the other Georgian producers on this trip. I cannot find volume production figures, but using Google maps I would estimate its buildings, car park and outside storage tanks cover around 1 ha. That would be more like the vineyard area of some producers we visited, the wine production area being a small room containing several qvevri. The company is Telavi Wine Cellar, and they are located just outside the Georgian city of Telavi, the administrative capital of Kakheti. But you will not see the company name on labels unless you look carefully. The main brand they sell under is Marani, which translates as cellar, while their top-end qvevri wines are branded as Satrapezo, which is what Georgian call the small quantities of particularly good quality wine that would be used for liturgical purposes.Perhaps these images also give some idea of the size of the place. I believe they show practically all their barrels and qvevri, but there is a lot more stainless steel, and two large rooms each with a bottling line. The company was founded in 1915, and was under state ownership for a lot of its history, but is now a private company. Again unlike most of the places we visited, there was no mention of organic viticulture or, with only one exception, any natural wine credentials, the exception being that the Satrapezo wines are fermented by natural yeasts. However, after a period in qvevri these wines are also aged in oak barrels, to the disapprobation of traditionalists. But putting wine-making philosophy aside, a possible sacrilege in itself I realise, how much does this matter? What does the wine taste like?

I was not particularly keen on any of the red wines. I am not sure why exactly but they just did not appeal. For any producer I generally preferred the white and orange wines to the red, so that was probably a big factor, and nothing to do with Telavi Wine Cellar in particular. As far as the whites were concerned, I thought they were all enjoyable, and the wine quality definitely increased as we moved upwards through the nominal quality levels. The Marani Kakheti Mtsvane 2016 was a good basic aromatic wine that I would be happy to drink, but was in an international style and not particularly distinctive. The Marani Tsinandali 2014 was a step up – dry, good acidity, and with citrus and apple aromas. Note that Tsinandali is a delimited subzone of Kakheti, around Televi where the winery is, and any wine so-labelled must be at least 85% Rkatsiteli, the remainder being Mtsvane. Then there was another step up with the Marani Kondoli Vineyards Rkatsiteli 2014, also from Kakheti, and from the Kondoli vineyards which are within the Tsinandali area. This too had good acidity and was dry, but the ripeness of the fruit gave a slightly sweet impression and I was reminded of the petrol notes one can get in Riesling – a very good thing a far as I am concerned. All three of those wines were made with no skin contact, while the final wine is a skin-contact orange wine, and does not use the Marani brand: Satrapezo 10 Kvevri Rkatsiteli 2013. It has an annual production of 14,000 bottles, or about 10 qvevris, which might sound very little, but it amounts to roughly to the total output of some places we visited. After 20-25 days of skin maceration in qvevri, the wine is transferred to small oak barrels for 10 months. This too was a lovely wine with sharp fresh apricot notes, and having moderate to low tannins this was one of the more delicate orange wines.

I would happily have bought one bottle of each of the last three wines to bring back with me from the winery, but it did not yet have the facility for retail sales. However, I found them in the Tbilisi airport duty-free shop, and took the opportunity to use my remaining Georgian Lari to buy them. It turned out that I could also have got them in the UK, and for about the same price.

(Update 19/07/17: See comments on this post if you are interested in production volumes.)

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Iago Bitarishvili and Iago’s Wine

As we left our minibus for lunch at Iago’s place, two things became apparent. One was the beauty of his horticultural garden, the other being the surprisingly large size of his restaurant. Iago only uses 2 ha of vineyard, but people certainly have an appetite to see what he is doing with it. Perhaps his proximity to Tbilisi, less than an hour by car to the village of Chardakhi, encourages wine tourism. That and the quality of the food and wine of course, and the fact that Iago was one of the pioneers of bottling natural qvevri wine, making it available to a much wider audience.

Before getting to the restaurant we were diverted into the cellar building on the left, where Iago gave a very clear presentation of qvevri winemaking. Have you ever wondered how wine is removed from the qvevri after fermentation and ageing? Well, the traditional method is to lower into the qvevri a gourd tied to the end of a stick. These devices are quite often found leaning in the corner of qvevri cellars, more for decoration than practical reasons these days one suspects, along with long sticks used for punching down and stirring. In this image, you can see such a gourd to the left, placed on top of a qvevri lid for display purposes. The basket thingy to the right is a totally separate device, and part of Iago’s modern solution to the problem of how to get the wine out. While a gourd may be all well and good for getting wine to supply yourself and guests for an evening, you can appreciate that if you want to empty a qvevri of, say, 2,500 li for modern-day bottling, then a gourd on a stick is not very effective. Indeed, considering the average per capita wine consumption at a Georgian wedding is supposed to be 3 li, you do wonder about how practical a gourd ever was. Anyway, Iago now uses a pump, and the basket slips around the end of the hose to filter out all the gunk – grape skins, stalks etc – that collects at the bottom of the qvervi, preventing it from getting sucked up along with the wine. So, the next time you are told that natural wines are unfiltered, that might not be strictly speaking true!

The food was very good, and seemingly bathed in the beauty radiating from the adjacent garden. It arrived in the traditional order I was now used to: cold veggie dishes followed by hot, then meat, in this case dumplings, quails and barbequed pork. I sat next to our coach driver and, judging by the way he tucked into the dumplings, they in particular got a big thumbs-up from him. He looked concerned as I ate one, and then demonstrated that I should be adding black pepper. While good without, the addition of pepper did improve them. With all this was served Iago’s skin-contact Chinuri 2015, and a Saperavi 2014 from decanter. I understand Iago is a Chinuri specialist, his wines being mainly of that variety, with and without skin contact, and a Pet Nat. The Saperavi was a bit of an oddity: a mere 1,500 bottles are made, and it is only available directly from Iago. To take back with me, I purchased some of the Chinuri we were drinking and a bottle of the Saperavi. On getting home I noticed that, despite the Saperavi label looking very much like the Chinuri one, it did not proclaim itself as Iago’s Wine – so maybe the Saperavi came from the qvevri of a friend in the village and was just bottled by Iago?

The mere fact that these wines were selected to join the select few bottles on my return flight meant I liked them a lot. As with Okro’s Wines, these too were quite light on tannic structure. For what it is worth, aromatically I would characterise the Chinuri as pear, orange and apricot, while the Saperavi had rich but tangy dark fruit. I have already cracked open a Chinuri back home. It did not seem to be as good as I remembered it, but that could well be because I was drinking it with a British roast chicken dinner rather than its native food. I’ll find something more adventurous for the next bottle.

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