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? But just in case I managed to hit on an optimal serving regime that you 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 that 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.

Posted in My tasting notes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in General | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in My tasting notes | Tagged , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in General | Tagged , | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in General | Tagged , | 1 Comment

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 termed 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. However, 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 ismelled 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.

Posted in Tasting and taste | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Some wines from Vinnaturo

They first caught my eye at love + labour’s natural wine tasting at Salut Wines the other week. There were several nondescript pouches of wines sitting on one small table, and it was largely that low-key presentation that piqued my interest. As you might perhaps expect from an importer called Vinnaturo, all these wines are natural – at least organic, and using “low intervention” winemaking. They are all packaged by the company in bag-in-box, bag without box, or keg, with the intention of reducing CO₂ emissions from transportation and keeping costs down. Bag alone is currently how they sell most wines.

I shall leave it to others to consider how appropriate it is for natural wines to be packaged in plastic, but it is fine by me. I do however wonder if the presentation could benefit from being more standardised. The three wines I bought after the tasting had slightly different bags, different labels (click to enlarge the picture and read them), and different label positions. I like the idea of simple design, but this was close to just looking like no one cared. The same applied to the way they were delivered. They came in three separate boxes padded out with mountains of plastic chips and bubblewrap. Any one of the boxes would probably have been large enough to hold all three pouches, and the largest of the three boxes certainly would. The smaller boxes were very flimsy, one with a side torn open, and the tape holding the lid of the larger box was coming off. Doubtless most of the packing was reused, so not contributing further to landfill, and the pouches actually arrived in good condition, but it nevertheless did not give a great impression. For natural wines at least, I believe the presentation of the wines in bag is a USP, and I suppose all I am really saying is that a lot more could be made of it. Perhaps the on-trade is their biggest customer, and they do not care about such things?

While in whinge mode, could I also say I would appreciate vintage information on their website? This does exist on some of the labels, and I would appreciate knowing the vintage, if only so that if I reorder I know I am getting the same wine. I was also looking in vain for best-before dates and advice on how long the bags last after opening. Unless things have improved vastly in the last few years, I know deterioration over a period of months can be an issue with this technology.

Anyway, let’s now get down to the important business – the wines themselves.

At the tasting, I tried all five of the Vinnaturo wines on show. Afterwards bought two of the ones I liked best, and additionally their skin-contact Trebbiano as I thought that sounded interesting. The prices given below are for the 1.5 litre bags I bought. Unless I say otherwise, assume they were tasted after pouring from my wine fridge at 12ºC. Also a quick reminder that my star ratings are for enjoyment at the time of tasting or drinking. Reassuringly, I scored the red wines the same in both locations: the love + labour tasting, and drinking at home. It does not always work out that way!

Vinnaturo, #6, Trebbiano, Skin Contact, IGT Toscana Bianco, Biodynamic, Cosimo Maria Masini, San Miniato (Pisa) Italy, 2016, 12.5%, £22.00
The Vinnaturo website says “straw, earth, floral, apricot, delicate.” My tasting note begs to differ. Medium pale orangey caramel colour. Intense tangy smell of sherry-like oxidation. Possibly an walnut nuttiness. Highish acidty. Bone dry. Low but detectable astringecy. Aromatics as nose. Good but mono-dimensional length. Drink now. Not too unpleasant if you want a simple low-alcohol sherry-like experience. Amontillado I think. Little of the phenolic character and astringency that I woud normally associate with skin-contact wines. I tried later straight out of a normal fridge – it had a very subdued nose, and seemed a little more astringent and refreshing. If it were sold as a “normal” wine I would return it as faulty, but given the usual slack accorded to natural wines I would more politely say it is too dominated by the oxidation **

Vinnaturo, #9, Trepat, Catalonia, Spain, NV, 11.0%, £20.00
This one is supposed to be “wild, without being too crazy” according to the website, and the description is pretty spot on.  Medium pale crimson, with violet edge. Intense and fresh on the nose, and bretty in a band-aid sort of way. Blackberry fruit. Highish acidity, and low but detectable astringency. Intense aromatics very much as nose, but with the sharp blackberry fruit being a lot more dominant. refreshing to the last.  Sharp and bitter finish. An excellent food wine that is difficult to tire of. For me this is the epitome of natural wine. Traditionalist still would not like it, but I could drink a lot *****

Vinnaturo, #4, Tempranillo, Fermented and aged in amphora, Dionysus Agricultura Biologica, Castilla La Mancha, Spain, 2016, 13.5%, £20.00
Spicy and dark but still juice on the website for this one. I’m not sure what still juice means, but yes it is spicy and dark.  Medium ruby colour.  On the nose, medium intense dark fruit with a slightly sweet effect, a fresh slightly vegetal quality, and a touch of spice.  Medium acidity. Medium high astringency, and a tannic bitterness with the dark spicy fruit still showing through. And the fruit comes out more as the wine warms. Bitter finish.  This is altogether a much more serious wine, and if it were in bottle I would say it needed another 5 years or so to show its best. You don’t have to be into natural wine to like this one ****

So, a couple of wines I liked, including one I liked a lot, and one I didn’t like, which could easily be the outcome for a selection of three wines from any merchant. But Vinnaturo is very different in terms of image, and in the way it packages its wines. And despite my niggles, I still have a good feeling about their general approach, and I wish them luck, and hope to see them grow and succeed. Will I buy from them again? I think so – I would really love more of that Trepat.

Posted in My tasting notes | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Grand Cork Experiment – stunt or science?

At the end of July, The Grand Cork Experiment was launched with as much fanfare as could be mustered in the wine media. According to an article in The Drinks Business “a space in Soho was transformed into a laboratory to test whether the pop of a cork had a more positive impact on the wine tasting experience than the click of a screwcap.” A few months later, at the end of September, the results were announced with even greater fanfare – this time in the national press. Take The Telegraph headline for example: “The great wine debate: Corks really are better than screw-tops, Oxford study finds”. And how did we conclude that corks are better? The same wine is apparently preferred if, just prior to tasting, the sound of a popping cork is played to the taster through headphones, when compared to the sound of a screwcap being opened. Right, so that is sorted then, and it’s all proved by those boffins at Oxford. Well, not really.

Firstly, let’s take a look who funded the experiment, and who else was involved. The funding body was APCOR, who “exist to promote and value cork as a raw material of excellence, and its products. We work to represent and promote the Portuguese cork industry worldwide.” That’s not a good start for unbiased research, but not necessarily a problem if the researchers are given complete control of the experiment and allowed to publish the results regardless of what they show. Charles Spence of Oxford University has a good reputation as an academic in this field, and we are told in July that he designed the experiment. But I doubt very much that he designed the whole experience that experimental subjects were exposed to. This seems to have been the work of Bompas & Parr, who were employed by APCOR. Whatever this company does in general, it is certainly more akin to marketing and brand-building than it is to science.

In the absence of any scientific report, let alone peer-reviewed paper, it seems that the best description of the experiment is given in another article from The Drinks Business. The event was clearly very showy and expensive, it was viewable through windows opening onto a Soho street, and designed to impress. Certainly it was not how scientific experiments would normally be conducted. The experimental bit comes in slide number 9 of The Drinks Business presentation: Each visitor is “placed in a chair and given headphones, before being asked to rate four wines according to their quality, intensity and how much they invoked a feeling of celebration. Importantly, the wines were served in pairs, and before each one was sampled, the taster was played either the sound of a cork popping, or a screwcap being twisted open.” Ignoring some of the silly headlines, the results seem to be best summarised by Wine Industry Advisor here: “Overall, participants rated the same wine as 15% better quality when served under a cork than a screwcap. The wine under a cork was also rated as more appropriate for a celebration (+20%) and more inciting of a celebratory mood (+16%).” This is actually quite interesting, but not exactly earth-shattering. If you give most people two glasses of the identical wine while implying that they are different they will often manage to find differences that do not exist, and here the sound of a popping cork was sufficient to swing the results a little bit in favour of the wine associated with the cork pop. But we are told nothing of the quantitative scale that was used, so the percentage increases are pretty meaningless. Neither are we told if the reported increases are statistically significant. And if the wines were actually sealed under cork and screwcap, an actual wine difference due to the closure could of course easily swamp any effect of a popping sound.

Strangely, the razzmatazz surrounding The Great Cork Experiment does not get a mention in the media articles that discuss the results – presumably because it was not mentioned in the press release. The fancy event laid on by Bompas and Parr, takes very much a backseat and, again according to The Telegraph, it is now reported that the study was not just designed by Charles Spence, but conducted “by a team at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory headed up by psychologist Professor Charles Spence”. Perhaps this is because APCOR would prefer us to have forgotten the PR stunt aspect, and the details of what happened to the participants before they took part in the actual tasting. Those details I think are rather important. They are given below….

Again referring to The Drinks Business description of the event, slides 1, 2 and 3 say that before the tasting there is “a cork workshop, where visitors can paint and play with cork”, they can “also then see (sic) the sound a cork makes by placing it in the ‘pyramid synth’, which produces different noises depending on the colour and density of the material”, and they were later “invited to partake in a ‘brain scan experiment’, which uses brain activity monitors to test how a person’s senses are triggered by the rituals associated with wine drinking”. This is really not the sort of thing you would expose experimental participants to if you were serious if determining the effect of a cork-popping sound on wine preference. It is known a priming, and I am sure Bombas and Parr knew exactly what they were doing, and how it might bias the results. What Charles Spence’s part in that was, I wouldn’t like to speculate on. Hopefully his input was restricted to the design of the actual sound-playing and tasting. But, the event as a whole was an exercise in sensory branding, to associate the sound of a popping cork with good wine. The popping cork is itself a form of priming where, to quote Wikipedia, “exposure to one stimulus (i.e., perceptual pattern) influences the response to another stimulus”. And the preamble activities seem very much also to be designed to increase the subjects awareness of cork, the popping sound, and its place in wine rituals. Fine as a piece of marketing, but science?

Cynicism aside though, if the pop of a cork really is so important, there are lessons to be learned that are unrelated to the possible superiority of any particular closure. One is that in addition to all the other ritual associated with removing a cork, contrary to current sommelier training the cork should be extracted with such vigour that the blighter does actually make a popping noise. Or perhaps, in cases where the cork is too fragile, or Elfen Safety objects to Champagne corks flying across the restaurant, perhaps the sommelier’s phone could have an app with cork-removal sound effects. Of course, the experiment also suggested that the same app might work equally well with screwcapped wines.

(Despite my best efforts to dig out information from the Internet maybe I am wrong, and the results reported in September were actually taken from a peer-reviewed paper, and based on a proper experiment conducted at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory in Oxford. Do tell me if you know that to be the case.)

Posted in Tasting and taste | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

An embarrassment of wines

The reason these wines are something of an embarrassment for me is that I like them so much. So much in fact, that they all got my top rating at some point in the past year or so. You might think it should not be too embarrassing to occasionally dish out 6 stars, but these are not grand wines. Some of them are very respectable and definitely not to be sniffed at, but I bought the cheapest one for £7.00, and even the expensive ones are by no means the most prestigious wines I have experienced in that period.

So objectively (if you believe in that sort of thing) I liked them too much. But my rating system is based on subjective enjoyment on the night, and I do my best to be honest to that concept. Nevertheless, when I am mightily enjoying a wine and yet I know it is generally regarded as being rather modest, I do some serious soul-searching before it gets my top rating. However embarrassing though, here I lay out my vinous soul for scrutiny. Maybe there are some wines here that will press your buttons too or, failing that, you will at least learn something about what makes me tick.

Kidev Erti Chinuri Petillant Naturel, 2016, 10.0%

Made by Lapati Wines in Georgia, and Chinuri is the grape. Kidev Erti is the brand they give to their sparkling wines, and means “one more”. If this were imported, I guess it would be around £20 in the UK.

I first tried this in Tbilisi, at John Wurdeman’s new restaurant venture, Poliphonia. On the second occasion I was not nearly so impressed, and that is partly what I am trying to illustrate here. It is a natural wine, but I don’t think bottle variation accounted for my differing reactions. Much more likely to be taster variations, or serving temperature perhaps.

Medium pale straw. Intense, deep, rich, petrol notes. Medium acid. Off dry. Not astringent. Drink now. Top marks!

Boutari Naoussa, 2011, 13.0%

£7.00 from Booth’s on special offer in 2016, but the normal price at the time was £11.

This is a Naoussa wine from the North of Greece, of the grape Xinomavro. It is a high quality appellation, but this is right at the bottom end of what you would expect to pay for Naoussa. I gave this wine the big thumbs up on two separate occasions. Both with food of course. Other times I liked it too in a rustic sort of way, but not quite to the same extent. Here are my two very positive tasting notes.

Medium pale tawny garnet. Intense. Caramel dark fruit. Mature notes, and violety high tone. Edgey licorice. Very attractive. Complex. Medium high acidity. Medium tannin. Distinct texture – like a thin paste or fine coffee grounds, or high cocoa-content chocolate. Aromas on the palate as nose, but with more emphasis on the high-toned aspect. And something more savoury or meaty – crispy bits on the side of a roast. Nothing obtrusive, and all in balance. Elegant and not hugely intense on the palate. Excellent length. Refreshingly savoury, slightly bitter finish. Not a stunning wine that whacks you round the face, but it hits the spot.

And here is my note from another occasion. Medium pale tawny garnet. Intense, edgy. Savoury. Spicy dark fruit and violets. Beautiful. Medium high acidity. High tannin. Excellent length. Drink now in my book, but good for another 5 years at least. Great with steak.

So what is my excuse for the stupidly high score? No idea, really. I knew it was rather preposterous, but on those two occasions the wine was just so unbelievably attractive for me. That’s just the way it is.

Bertrand Ambroise Bourgogne Veilles Vignes, 2007, 13.0%

Bought from Christopher Keiller for £15.50. A significant step up in price from the Naoussa, but 6 stars!? I have had quite a few bottles of this and always liked it, but on this occasion the food and my mood seemed to raise it to new heights.

Pale garnet. Intense, mature Burgundy. Complex. Sous-bois. Mature red fruit. Cherry. Highish acidity. Medium low tannin. Excellent length. Beautiful. Drink now. Excellent unpretentious Burgundy. If there is a criticism, it is a perhaps a bit sharp and thin. But with food it is wonderful.

Bertrand Ambroise Nuits Saint Georges, 2005, 13.0%

A Burgundy from the same domaine, this time at village level, and my tasting note sounds suitably more effusive, even if my level of enjoyment peaked with the previous wine. Another favourite wine of mine, but this bottle seemed particularly good. Bought for £30 from a small local merchant that is no longer trading.

Palish tawny garnet. Intense sous-bois and fully mature Burgundy fruit. Oaky, caramel. Medium high acid. Light bodied, but intense aromatically. Low but detectable astringency. Delicate, savoury and long. Perfumed. Drink now.

Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 1999, 13.5%

While we are on the classics, to emphasise that I don’t just enjoy weird shit, how about this one? It’s a rather boring tasting note, but I know from my score how enthused I was by this wine. I bought it from Costco in 2007 for the princely sum of £24.65. I see the 2015 now sells for around £50.

Medium pale garnet. Intense, sweet, dusty, caramel maturity. Medium acid. Low tannin. Viscous and full bodied. Delicate and mature aromatically. Complex. Excellent length. Drink now. Only 5 stars when tasted before eating, but 6 when drinking with food.

Now we continue with the upward trend in price – but we also get more weird.

Max Ferd Richter Graacher Goldwingert feine Spätlese, 1964, half bottle

I didn’t buy this personally, but it was obtained direct from the producer for around £50. There is no alcohol percentage attached to this one because they did not use to put it on labels back in 1964. No grape variety on the label either, and you wouldn’t guess by tasting it, or from my note. But it was of course Riesling.

Medium pale straw. Intense yet muted, smokey. Medium acid. Dry. Smokey on the palate too, and coffee maybe. Drink now. Yes, white wines can taste like this too. Difficult to score, but I went for top marks.

Karaman Prošek Malasija Dubrovacka, 2008, 15.0%, half bottle

Karaman is the winery, which is in the Konavle valley at the Southernmost tip of Croatia. The grape is Malasija Dubrovacka, which translates as Dubrovnik Malvasia, AKA Malvasia di Lipari. And Prošek is the name given to this style of wine. While writing this I learned that this half bottle is around £40 at the cellar door, and it would be considerably more here in the UK if anyone thought they could sell it. I thought it was probably about half that price at the time of drinking.

Medium pale amber. Intense, fresh, sharp, orange, lemon, caramel, spice. Wonderful. You can sense the high alcohol, but in a good way. Medium high acid. Off-dry effect, but it is apparently “dry with sweet impression”. Wonderful (again). Exceptional length. Drink now.

I must explore Prošek wines more. How convenient that I will be in Dubrovnik shortly :)Watch this space.

Posted in My tasting notes | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Wine appreciation and architecture

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from wine recently and catching up on an old interest of mine – architecture – and eventually came across my copy of Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books on Architecture. Here I paused, partly because I was just so impressed by Palladio’s work, and partly because my mind started wandering back to wine. Specifically, I was thinking about well-balanced wines.

All classical architects stress the importance of balance and harmony, but one of the strongest proponents is Palladio. For him there was little compromise. Architecture should follow the precedents laid down by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who in turn seem to have spent a lot of time obsessing about what looks right. And form should be determined by function: columns should look solid, arches unbroken, and the exterior should reflect the interior structure – there is no room for deception and trickery. The Villa Rotunda is perhaps Palladio’s most famous building – see drawings above. I find it difficult to imagine any building more balanced, harmonious, stable and restful. Just looking at the drawings makes me thing of a beautiful well-balanced wine: one with all the correct elements present, but nothing out of place or obtrusive.

OK it’s beautiful, but isn’t this all a bit boring? In both architecture and wine? I’m not sure I would use the word boring. I actually find harmony and balance rather stimulating in a quiet sort of way. But on the other hand I would not want everything to be balanced. Wonkiness, funk, flamboyance and individualism has its place. But it is reassuring to be able to return to the comfort and safety of classicism now and then.

And isn’t the definition of balance rather arbitrary? It is all very well for the ancient Greeks and the wine trade to define balance in their respective fields, but what about the rest of the world? Yes it is arbitrary, but even if there are billions in the world who might disagree there is a broad consensus in our own little corner of Western culture. Sometimes, while not being blind to others, we just have to accept the culture in which we live.

I might return in my blog with further architecture-wine pairs as there must be others if I put my mind to it. But for now I shall stick at this single example – one that occurred to me spontaneously – Palladianism and balanced wine.

Just one final thought. Discussions of music and wine always seem to slip into matching the two, whatever that means. So how about a bit of architecture-wine matching? I have not tried it, but would love to. Of course, architecture is not meant to be enjoyed from drawings any more than wine is from technical specifications, so you should really taste the wine while wandering around the building, inside and out. It would be a lot more difficult to organise than music-wine matching, but if anyone would like to transport me to Villa Rotunda with some nice wine I will happily comply. The idea of enjoying wine in a Palladian villa sounds wonderful!

Posted in Tasting and taste | Tagged , | Leave a comment