The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova – book revew

This is a review of The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova by Caroline Gilby, published by Infinite Ideas. The RRP is £30.00 and it doesn’t seem easy to get it cheaper than that now, but I bought mine with a (now expired) 35%-off discount code from The Wine Society.

The single word that springs to mind to describe this book is professional. It is thoroughly researched, carefully and precisely written in a rather dry style, and I think largely aimed at other professionals – wine buyers, and winemakers and investors in those three countries, potential or actual. I suspect however there is little of direct interest to end-user drinkers of wine in the UK, as there are no opinions on specific on wines available over here. Nor is there anything about how we might go about visiting the countries to find out more, should our interest be piqued. Little of interest in a direct way perhaps, but I did find the history sections worthwhile, as they provided good insights into how the current state of wine production came to be what it is, and I expect a lot of the rest of the book to prove useful for reference. As a wine geek, I am more than happy to own this book, even if it does not enthuse me as much as I might have hoped.

I have already commented negatively on the author’s short sections in this book on homemade wines, and I think those comments also indicate Caroline’s professional and industry perspective. While I am naturally inclined to defend homemade wines, I can absolutely understand that someone who wishes to encourage the development of commercial local wine production might see things differently.

The book’s major division is by parts dealing with each of the three countries. Then for each country there are chapters devoted to history, the current situation and possible futures. And those are followed chapters on grape varieties, wine regions, and producer profiles. At the end of the book are three appendices of statistics, a glossary, bibliography, and index. All the text is very thorough. But illustrations, grey-tone and colour plates, are sparse, and in my opinion of very limited value. And as with practically every wine book I read and review, the maps are particularly lacking. I know good cartography is not cheap, but it could contribute so much to a subject where geography is so important to understanding.

So definitely a book to get if you have a professional wine interest in Bulgaria, Romania or Moldova, or if you are particularly geeky in your interest in wine. But probably not if you have a more casual interest in the wines of those countries.

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Intrinsic wine faults – do they exist?

As discussed by Jamie Goode in his book Flawless, a wine flaw may be said to be a characteristic of wine that is present to such an extent that it impacts on quality – it causes a wine to be less attractive either to an individual or to an average taster, depending on whether you want a more subjective or objective definition. Clearly though, if you want to use the more objective version you will also need to define average taster. From the attendees in a recent workshop I attended, the concept of the average taster would have been very hard to pin down. There was a wide range of sensitivities to the various flaws we were exposed to, and when detectable they gave rise to different perceptions, both in terms of what they most resembled and how pleasant or unpleasant they were.

As explained in my previous post, I think it is helpful to distinguish between two types of wine flaws: faults, which result from the vine growing and winemaking process, and taints, which come from external sources. In that post I also took a quick look at taints, but below I focus exclusively on wine faults.

Faults like brett and volatile acidity are thought by many tasters to be attractive in low or moderate concentrations, and this is also true of some reductive notes, which may be regarded as minerality and not considered to be a fault at all. In fact Jamie goes a step further in his book and, referring to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, points out that even if a fault is recognised as such, there is an aesthetic view that it can still enhance beauty, or even be part of it. Whether attractive or not, substances that give rise to faults will always be present in wine to a greater or lesser degree. It is also undeniable that whether large concentrations of the substance are acceptable or not can depend on the style of wine. For example, Sherry would not be Sherry without its oxidative whiff of acetaldehyde, but the same nose on a white Burgundy would cause the wine to be sent back in a restaurant.

And yet, despite all this, people talk about faults as if they have some sort of objective existence that is distinct from all the good wholesome stuff in wine. The reality of the situation is of course that winemaking gives rise to many chemicals that individually are neither good nor bad, but together create a wine that may be liked more or less by different people depending on the balance between the chemicals, personal taste, context, and expectation. Put bluntly, in the normal usage of the term, wine faults do not exist. Or, to be less blunt: I struggle to see why the concept of wine faults is useful. As discussed above, acetaldehyde may or may not a pleasurable aspect of wine, depending on many factors. But is that not also true of acidity, sugar and alcohol for example when out of balance, or any individual fruit flavour? So why is acetaldehyde then regarded as a potential fault while many other components of wine get away with it?

Of course, I am not denying the existence of oxidation, reduction and brett, nor the related chemical compounds that impact on flavour. I am just saying that it is often not helpful to describe them as faults. This is not mere semantic quibbling – the issue runs deeper than that.

To declare a wine faulty is to claim a degree of wine expertise, and pronounce a judgement on the wine. Sometimes that is a call that wine professionals may be required to make in the course of their work. And consumers occasionally need to do the same too, when deciding whether to accept a wine in a restaurant for example. Whether or not a wine is faulty also has legal implications in consumer-protection legislation in the UK, as the consumer can claim against retailers for faulty goods – but not, it seems, for a wine that is unpleasantly tannic for example. But those are merely formal and legal aspects, based on the conventional way in which so-called faults are traditionally viewed in our wine culture. The important thing is how much we like a wine, irrespective of whether the cause of our pleasure or displeasure is a fault or not.

Your attitude to wine faults will inevitably influence your views on, for example, homemade and natural wines. If you believe in faults, and in your expert opinion you detect them in homemade wines, then you are going to dismiss the wines and work towards replacing them with their less faulty commercial counterparts. But on the other hand, if you refuse to judge a wine by faults and see people preferring homemade to commercial wines, you are more likely to respect the taste of those people and celebrate diversity in wine. Similarly with natural wines. As a non-believer, you do not need to fret about whether a natural wine is faulty or not. Do you like it or not? That is the important thing. Well, it is certainly one important thing, and to me the most important. Of course you may also be influenced one way or the other by the philosophy of natural wines, but that is a different issue – one I try not to get involved with.

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When is a flaw not a fault? When it’s a taint

I have been doing a lot of thinking about wine faults recently – firstly as a result of attending a wine faults workshop organised by Jancis Robinson and her team, then through considering some comments about homemade wines in Eastern Europe and Georgia, and most recently from reading Jamie Goode’s book Flawless – and I have a few personal conclusions on the matter I’d like to share.

Although there are one or two grey areas, I agree with those who think it is helpful to divide wine flaws into faults and taints. In this classification, faults have their origins in the basic aspects of growing grapes and making wine. It is possible to avoid them only by using high-intervention viticulture and vinification, and even then vestiges will remain in some form or other. Faults include reduction, oxidation, volatile acidity, and brett. Taints on the other hand come from external sources that do not necessarily have anything at all to do with wine. An example is TCA contamination from corks; also smoke, ladybirds and eucalyptus, all of which can taint grapes in the vineyard.

Let’s take a brief look at taints here, and I’ll cover faults in my next post. To be called a taint, the added flavour cannot be entirely intentional and, if in large enough concentrations that can easily be attained, it negatively impacts the quality of the wine. Some taints are pretty much universally regarded as bad if they can be detected – cork taint is a clear example of this. Others, like eucalyptus, can be seen as a positive if not too strong, and can even be regarded as part of terroir. Note also, that the concentration of eucalyptus in the finished product is sometimes managed by the winemaker, by blending wines from grapes at different distances from the trees.

Essentially, what I am saying is that each type of taint should be considered individually, depending on how much it is liked or reviled. I would argue that, although each individual taint may have its own complexities and management issue, taints are straightforward in principle: they do not really belong in wine, but not all of them are unpleasant and some can be even desirable.

On the other hand, I think faults – flaws which are intrinsic to wine, remember – are more complex, and more controversial. If you disagree that flaws are controversial, wait until you read my next post 😉

Update 06/01/19: It now occurs to me that, in addition to faults and taints, there is a third class of flaw: one that results from poor post-bottling storage. Examples of this are heat damage, lightstrike, and oxidation due to a poor cork. I think these are closer to taints than faults, as they do not have a direct cause in the winemaking process, and if we call them taints my arguments should still work.

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How I got hooked on wine

Origins are often shrouded in the mists of time, and alternative versions of the origin narrative develop. My love of wine is no different, and two stories emerge from the vinous haze.

The first is more outward-looking.  I started going to wine tastings as I had friends who were already enthusiastic about wine, and I was persuaded to join them. Eventually, so much of my social life involved tasting and drinking wine that I decided I wanted to learn a lot more about the subject. It was then that I started reading widely about wine, eventually focussing on what was necessary for a WSET qualification, but not stopping there. Neither did the social aspect of my love of wine ever stop. There are few greater pleasures than sharing food and wine with friends.

The second story is more introverted, more focussed on a single event and, to be honest, the significance of the key moment only became clear with the benefit of hindsight. To give too many details would involve fabrication, but I distinctly remember the taste of the wine concerned, and I remember the effect it had. Its flavour was not complex or profound, but it knocked me round the mouth and made me sit up and pay attention. The flavour was petrol, the petrol of a mature Hugel Riesling. Oddbins’ shelf-talker had tried to warn me what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me adequately. The wine I usually drank at the time was pretty mainstream – probably New World, and at the posh end of what you could get in a supermarket. But petrol? Wine could taste like that too? And people sell and buy the stuff, and drink it? It took me some time to get used to the idea, but as I worked my way towards the end of my share of the bottle I realised I really liked it, and wanted more.

And I still want more. I want more petrolly Rieslings, and I want other interesting and weird flavours. I want to challenge my preconceptions about what wine can and should taste like. It may come as no surprise to you that I like exploring natural wine. I find the apple flavours you can often get in natural wines rather boring, but I like the fresh bright fruit, and often the volatility and Brett too. I like home-made, skin-contact, slightly cloudy Rkatsiteli, served from a jug in an outdoor restaurant in Georgia (see above image). Those wines remind me of when the whole gamut of wine was opening up to me for the first time.

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Homemade wine – eliminate or celebrate?

In Caroline Gilby’s recent book The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova, she is rather scathing of homemade wine. She explains how it is estimated to account for up to half the wine consumption of Bulgaria, and is regarded by the locals as an authentic product, from the heart, and free from nasty chemicals. And, as such, it is often thought to be superior to commercially produced wines. But she goes on to say that anyone from the international world of wine would see it as a horrible, faulty liquid that bears little resemblance to proper wine. Caroline proposes that drinkers of homemade wines need to be educated about how faulty they are, and persuaded to switch to entry-level commercial wines in the hope that they will eventually move on to a higher quality premium product. The story seems to be very similar for Romania and Moldova.However, my experience of homemade wine in ex-communist and ex-Soviet countries is rather different, albeit more limited than Caroline’s. Also I seem to have managed to arrive at very different conclusions – perhaps due to my different exposure to homemade wine, but I suspect also a fundamentally different attitude to wine. I have only tried one Romanian homemade wine. It was pinkish grey and had a sweet aromatic smell – perhaps rosehip and clove – with low acidity and high alcohol. It was certainly not a style I am used to, but was pleasant enough, and not faulty in any way. When in Georgia though I tried several homemade wines, in restaurants mainly, but also in one of those encounters that is probably unique to that country, where a group of builders were taking a refreshment break with a large plastic bottle of wine, and insisted on offering some to us.

Was the Georgian homemade wine good? I thought the closest comparison was with their commercial artisanal natural qvevri wines – which for brevity I shall refer to below simply as natural wine. The worst homemade wine was as horrible as the worst natural wine, while at the other end of the scale the best homemade wine was good, but not nearly as good as the best natural wine. Hardly a ringing endorsement you might think, but given a common restaurant choice between homemade wine and a cheap wine made in industrial quantities, I would go for homemade every time, and I think most Georgians would do the same. Homemade wine is at the very least more interesting. And to the extent that authenticity and soul means anything at all I see that as a positive too. It would be interesting to know what Caroline’s view is of the commercial artisanal natural qvevri wines of Georgia. I suspect she might be quite critical of those too, so perhaps our views on homemade wines differ because I have a greater acceptance wines that do not conform to western stereotypes, and wines that we say are technically faulty.

But has the presence of homemade wine held back the development of the commercial wine sector in Georgia, in the way that Caroline implies is the case in Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova? My impression is that during Soviet times, under-the-radar winemaking in homes and farms is to be credited with keeping traditional Georgian qvevri winemaking practice alive. It probably also helped preserve a broad range of grape varieties that would otherwise have died out. In that sense, homemade wine has had a hugely positive influence at a time when the Soviet Union seemed hell-bent on destroying local tradition by concentrating production in a few large wine factories, using only a handful of productive and easy-to-grow grape varieties. And I think the positive influence continues today, as experience of home winemaking seems to be a factor in giving people the confidence to try their hand at more commercial small-scale natural wine production. Even if that type of wine makes only a small direct contribution to the Georgian economy, it is still important in raising the profile of the country internationally and attracting western tourists.

And what of the future? I do not see any reason to discourage homemade wine. Moving economic activity from the home to the commercial sector might increase GDP, but does not necessarily improve quality of life. Rather than encouraging the growth of the commercial sector at the expense of homemade, I would rather see wine quality improvements across the board. I am not sure green harvests are the answer, but attention to cellar hygiene must be a good thing. I suspect that Georgian winemakers at all levels already know how important that is, as there are millennia-old methods and tools for keeping qvevri clean, but the actual practice is probably lacking in some places. Not selling their wine in clear plastic bottles in bright sunshine (as in the picture above) would also help!

In summary, I find the idea of homemade wine rather comforting and reassuring. I take it as a sign that there is still a real grass-roots wine culture – not one that is imposed by, or developed for, international markets. Is that so bad?

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Wine snobbery, and how to discourage it

A few years ago I wrote about wine snobs, but I am not entirely happy with that post. It was mainly a mini-rant about how the media bandies the term around. That still annoys me, and it is increasingly done by wine merchants too – Naked Wines, I’m looking at you. On reflection though, while I still don’t think I have met anyone I would call a wine snob, wine-snobbery does exist to a greater or lesser degree in many wine drinkers. Call it prejudice if you will – maybe that is actually a better word – a refusal to drink any wine under £10, anything that does not come from France, or any wine that is not natural. I think that is part of being human, though many of us have red lines that are drawn in a more nuanced way than the above examples.

There is however another type of snobbery, which harks back to an older usage of the word. It is not to do with someone looking down on people with less-refined taste; but rather someone of lower status pretending to be above their station. Using British TV comedy cultural references, think more Hyacinth Bucket than Margot Leadbetter.

The world of wine can be very intimidating, and it does not help when wine educators selling their services play on those fears by offering solutions to deal with problem situations: when you are entertaining clients in a restaurant and are handed the wine list, for example. Then, as part of your wine education, you are given a set of tools to use in those situations, and many other rules and facts for good measure. I think what we are doing here carries the danger of actually creating more wine-related social anxiety, and more wine snobbery – snobbery in the sense of encouraging people to pretend they are better than they are. And there is always the possibility that, those novices actually mistake what they have learned for deeper knowledge, and acquire snobbery in the more modern sense of the word, looking down on (or at least askance at) others who do not understand wine.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am all in favour of wine education, but for people who have a genuine desire for knowledge; not for the allayment of social anxiety. However, it is a long road to acquire what I would call real knowledge about wine, and in my opinion the most important thing is to convey to novices that they should not worry. Wine is to be enjoyed, not stressed about. Learn how to enjoy wine, and in the meantime if you need to select from a wine list, ask for advice from the restaurant.

If you do not want to promote wine snobbery, take a relaxed attitude to wine and encourage others to do the same.

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Tsigani Gogo, a Georgian wine by Laura Siebel & Niki Antadze

For several reasons I found this wine both interesting and distinctive. Delicious too.

The first impression is the striking label, presumably depicting a tsigani gogo (gypsy girl), and the unusual blue bottle with a red wax seal. Now blue is not a bottle colour I associate with good quality wines – quite the reverse in fact – but I must admit the overall effect is rather classy. Then you might notice that the wine is the result of a collaboration between Laura Siebel, of Domaine de la Pinte in the Jura, and Niki Atadze and his winery in the Georgian region of Kakheti. Turn the bottle round, and you will see that the combination of grapes varieties used in this wine is as unlikely as the winemaker partnership. It is in fact a blend of the red variety Saperavi, and the white Mtsvane. Well, I say Saperavi is red, but it is a teinturier variety and often gives wines that are so dark as to be nearly opaque.

I do not know the percentage of Mtsvane used, but judging by the wine’s medium-pale red and its aromatics I would guess it is substantial – a lot closer to 50% than the 5 to 10% of Viognier that is typically added to Syrah for example. Neither do I know the degree of skin contact this wine had, but if either Saperavi or Mtsvane is made in the traditional Kakheti style, with the must fermenting and ageing on all the stalks and skins, you can get an extremely astringent wine. While Tsigani Gogo did have fair degree of astringency, it was not extremely high, so I would guess the stalks were discarded after crushing, perhaps along with some of the skins. What I do know about the production from the UK importer Caves de Pyrene: “Fermentation, vinification and ageing in qvevri. No punchdown, no press wine, all wild and ambient. No filtration and no sulphur”. The absence of punching-down is another departure from traditional Kakheti practice, and that too would reduce the wine’s astringency. Caves de Pyrene also say that the Antadze Winery has organic vineyards, so I guess all together that means this is a natural wine – should you care about that sort of thing. Tasting note follows…

Tsgani Gogo, Laura Siebel & Niki Antadze, Pomegranate-color wine from Saperavi and Mtsvane, 12.5%
It is apparently from the 2016 vintage, but not stated on the label. I paid £28.44 from Caves de Pyrene, including a 10% discount. Medium pale ruby. Intense, fresh, and aromatic. The nose reminds me a lot more of Mtsvane than Saperavi. Medium high acidity. Maybe slightly sweet? Tingly on tongue, from both acidity and I think dissolved CO2. Lazy bubbles on the side of the glass also indicated a high CO2 content. Medium astringency. Very bracing from the acidity, and astringency. Fresh red berry aromatics, and sharp apricot perhaps from the Mtsvane. Drink now. Instantly likeable for me, and what I think is called glou glou. This is not a wine for serious and respectful sipping, but its structure makes it nevertheless feel quite grown-up *****

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A week of food and wine in Split, Croatia

A week ago we returned from a week in Split, Croatia, and I share here some of our food and wine experiences. This break was not particularly wine-focussed, and we did not visit any local producers, but we did drink wines made from local varieties with meals. I’ll kick off with three of our favourite restaurants, the first two being suggested by the owner of our rooms as places he likes to eat.

Villa Spiza is just outside the Palace (the area in the centre of town where Diocletian’s Palace stood). They buy in fresh food every day, and as it starts to run out it they cross dishes off the menu, and close the restaurant when it has all gone. No reservations, so you have to just turn up and be prepared to queue for a table. When we were there we waited around 30 mins, but the queue soon grew to an hour. Both from the perspective of getting a good choice of dishes, and minimising queuing, it is perhaps best to go for lunch or an early evening meal. You will also have to accept that seating can be cramped. So what is so great about it? The food was simultaneously the best and the cheapest we found in Split, and although the staff were busy, they were also attentive and friendly. This is where we got the Dingač mentioned below, which we had with steak. It was served at room temperature (mid-to-high 20s Centigrade) but when I asked for a bucket of ice and water the bucket appeared unquestioningly, and within the minute of my asking. We only visited once because we did not feel like queuing on other occasions, wanting a more relaxing evening.

Konoba Fetivi is bit further out, but still only 10 or 15 mins walk from the Palace. Nothing fancy, but good quality food and reasonably priced, and we had two evening meals there. Best known for the fish and sea food, but they serve meat too. This is where we got the house white mentioned below. When we were there a couple of weeks ago, we needed to book to get in for dinner.

Gallerija is actually in the Palace area, and a bit hidden away down a side alley from an already very narrow street, in a small courtyard. Good food at a decent price, with good service and a very pleasant location. We were staying so close to this place that we could use our rooms’ WiFi, so perhaps we were a bit biased, but we had dinner there twice, and a few breakfasts too. Not as busy at the other two places above, but probably still worth booking for dinner to be on the safe side. The image above is the view from the restaurant courtyard, towards the building where we stayed on the second floor.

The above three restaurants I would recommend with confidence, but now for some other places you might be tempted by if you use the Internet to check out wine places in Split. Zinfandel had great service and food, but it was expensive, e.g. the steak was about twice the price it was in most places. And the hasselback potato on their menu to accompany the steak was not at all like a hasselback. Despite the price and the un-hasselback potato, I must admit we came away feeling we had a good experience, so if you are feeling flush maybe you should give it a try. In contrast, the lunch we had at Uje Oil was very disappointing considering the praise it seems to get online. There were many minor annoyances with the place and the service, which together gave a bad impression, and the food we ordered was average at best. Maybe we caught them on a bad day, but I can only report what we experienced, and we were not tempted to return. Booking was needed for both these two places also. In fact, on two occasions we tried booking Uje Oil around midday for dinner, and failed both times.

Now, a couple of wines that made an impression in very different ways.

Anticević Dingač Traditional 2015,  with a mere 16% ABV. HKR 410 at Villa Spiza. Intense purple ruby. Intense aromas. Mainly savoury, but with hints of sweet dark fruit. Spicy. Medium high acidity. Off dry. Medium high tannin. Savoury and slightly bitter on finish. Good now, but could well improve with some more age. Excellent with the steak we were eating *****

Gospoja Dry White Wine, 12% ABV. This was the house white at Konoba Fetivi, and we were told the variety was Žlahtina. The wine was taken from a 10 li catering bag-in-box, and served in carafe at HRK 90 for 75cl. It was what the waiter recommended, and most people in the restaurant were drinking it. Pale straw. Stone fruit and citrus – lemon and lime? Medium high acid. Dry. Tad astringent maybe. Tingly finish. Drink now. A lot better than other cheaper wines we drank in Split, and better than some that were more expensive. Surprisingly good, and worked well with fish *****

Finally, a wine merchant. Looking online the best one in Split seemed to be Vinoteka Terra. It’s in a sort of courtyard just off the road prilaz braće Kaliterna, down some stairs, and in a cellar that it shares with a restaurant. The sign for the shop is a very small plate on the door, and easy to miss – the restaurant signs being a lot more prominent. The picture you might find on the Web, of an alcove with wine shelves, is the whole shop interior, and is not nearly as big as some online reviews make out. Nevertheless, it is still the best selection of Croatian wine I have seen in one place, taking up about half of the shop’s shelf space. Top marks for the help I was given by the lady in the shop in my quest to find 6 bottles to bring back in checked-in luggage. No idea how competitive the prices are for Split.

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Georgian wines from M&S and Waitrose

After having written quite a bit recently about Georgian wines that are not easy to get hold of in the UK, and sometimes frankly impossible, I thought I should investigate two Georgian wines that you can pick up in supermarkets. In fact, as far as I know these are the only Georgian wines you can buy UK supermarkets. And I was very impressed by them. As with any country really, there is a lot of low-end Georgian wine that I find unpalatable, but here the buyers seem to have done a pretty good job at finding decent quality at a sensible price.

Let’s start with Tbilvino Qvevris 2015 12.0%, which was £10.00 from Marks & Spencer.

Perhaps the first thing to point out is the remarkably low price. OK, there are no claims made about organic viticulture or low-intervention winemaking, and Tbilvino makes wine on an industrial scale. But even so, this particular wine was fermented in qvevri – large clay pots buried in the ground – and that itself is a relatively expensive small-scale batch process. The next cheapest qvevri wine in the UK is over £12.00, and most are closer to twenty.

This is an orange wine, the colour being due to the must of white grapes being fermented on their skins. It was made in Kakheti (Eastern Georgia) where the tradition is to add stalks as well as skins, and to keep punching down and agitating the skins and stalks in the fermenting wine, all of which usually results in robust tannins. But this wine is altogether much more gentle, and while definitely having the character of an orange wine it is a lot more approachable than many, thus serving as a good introduction to the style. The grape is the Georgian variety Rkatsiteli, which is the most common white variety in Georgia, and highly regarded.

Medium pale amber. No obvious sediment. Slightly phenolic. Vague bitter orange notes on the nose. Highish acidity. Medium low astringency. A very slight apparent sweetness that might just be ripe fruit aromas. Whatever it is, it takes a little off the edge of the acidity and astringency, whilst still leaving the wine relatively fresh and bracing. A pleasant and undemanding wine ****

The next wine, Orovela Saperavi 2008 13.0%, is available from Waitrose for £16.79.

Orovela is a smaller producer than Tbilivino. They certainly used to make several different wines but now, according to their website and social media at least, seem to be focussing more on their Saperavi sales at Waitrose. Like Rkatsiteli, Saperavi is a common and highly regarded variety in Georgia. However it is a red grape, or to be more precise an extremely dark purple one, and also has red flesh, so it often gives very dark wines.

No qvevris used here – it’s conventional winemaking with oak ageing. But the special thing about this wine as far as I am concerned is the considerable bottle age. In fact, at 10 years, I think it is the oldest Georgian wine I have ever tried. Georgian wines are often said to age well, but my impression is that in practice they are usually drunk young – by English standards at least.

Intense purple ruby. Intense nose. Some dark fruit. Also a little vegetal, in a good way, which I think here is the first hint at the complexity of age. Highish acidity. Medium tannin. Excellent length. The maturity imparts some lightness and freshness to what could otherwise be a wine with a very heavy feel, and it is starting to soften and round with age too. It seemed to improve during the time it took to drink with a meal. An all-round, somewhat mature, good wine *****

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Wine experts, and the wisdom of crowds

It’s a strange thing, expertise. In many areas, I think to call yourself an expert in a very broad subject would sound rather silly. I used to work in engineering research and I don’t recall anyone calling themselves an engineering expert, but there were certainly people regarded as experts in much narrower specialities. Until I came across wine experts I thought an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less. However, wine experts (and here I mean the ones the public see, rather than industry consultants and oenologists) often seem to have knowledge that spans across most of the vast subject of wine – vintage variations, grape varieties, where it’s grown, how it’s made, how to store and serve it, what to drink it with etc etc. Some may specialise to an extent, but even then the areas of speciality are usually quite large. Their depth of knowledge in wine varies tremendously from person to person, but what they have in common is the ability to communicate their wine knowledge – they are essentially critics, writers, broadcasters and teachers.

So are these wine experts to be trusted, or should we listen more to the wisdom of crowds? That is the dichotomy often presented to us, but my answer is no in both cases. We should not trust wine experts per se, just because they are hailed as experts. And I am not even sure what the wisdom of crowds means in the context of wine – I can only imagine it would involve averaging the score of a lot of people you don’t know, who all work with their own rating system. Something which in my book is wrong at many levels.

To me, the only sensible approach is to treat each expert individually, and to do exactly the same for anyone you might regard as a member of the crowd. Each will have a level of knowledge in the subject they are pronouncing on, each will have their own palate and preferences, and each will express their likes and dislikes differently. All those factors are important, whether they are making factual statements about wine or offering opinions. If you do not know the person well, what evidence do they give for any assertions they make? Do they simply assert, or do they refer to another authority, or science? If they talk only from their own experience, how reliable do you think that is? Remember it is very easy to extrapolate way too far from very limited data, and palates and opinions vary a lot.

Personally, if I want factual information, Wikipedia is one of my first ports of call. In one sense it is a wisdom of crowds sort of work, but it is distinguished by the ethos of referencing sources. So if you doubt the article, or if it is important to you to get a particular detail right, you can check the source. Check if that detail is correctly derived from the source, and does the source in turn look reliable? Often it is not possible to do this with the pronouncements of wine experts, and even the best are fallible.

For matters of taste, I trust my own palate mainly, not because it is particularly wonderful, but simply because it is mine. Beyond that, I am most influenced by friends. As we often share and discuss wines I think a lot of that influence is subliminal and ours view tend to merge, but I am also very aware where our tastes are different.

So don’t trust experts just because they claim expertise, and don’t trust crowds just because they are crowds. First and foremost, consider the individuals offering the advice, and the evidence they have. It makes sense – trust me.

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