John Wurdeman and Pheasant’s Tears

John Wurdeman with the Pheasant’s Tears qvevris

The fact that John Wurdeman was to be the wine guide was a big factor in deciding to go on this trip. I was already familiar with some of his Pheasant’s Tears wines. and had seen him on a number of YouTube videos so I knew he was very articulate, and knowledgeable about Georgian wines. It was shortly afterwards that I realised what a large part he had in supporting the authors of the two books on Georgia I have recently reviewed, and discovered he also spends a lot of time promoting Georgian natural wine in other ways. It makes absolute sense that an American who has spent so long living as a wine maker in Georgia should be so influential in communicating Georgian wine to the rest of the world, but he is well-known also in the Georgian media. And it is not only wine making and communication where he makes an impact – he has a string of business interests besides Pheasant’s Tears wines, including the tour company Living Roots, restaurants in Tbilisi and Sighnaghi, and plans to open another restaurant and a boutique hotel. All high quality operations from my experience on this trip, and ethical businesses that respect the environment and natural ingredients, but businesses nevertheless.

Enjoying polyphonic singing at Azarpesha – one of John’s restaurant in Tbilisi

The story of how John came to be making wine in Georgia has been told already in various places, so I shall only give a brief summary here. His first passion was art, which he studied in America and later in Moscow. From Moscow he moved to Georgia, where he painted and sought out traditional Georgian music, eventually staying in Sighnaghi where he met his wife Ketevan, a folk singer and dancer. When painting out in the open one day, he had his fateful encounter with Gela Patalishvili, who eventually persuaded him to make wine. Eventually they became partners in Pheasant’s Tears, with their first vintage in 2007. But still John paints, and has still has a strong interest in Georgian music and Georgian culture more generally.

But what of the Pheasant’s Tears wines? We tasted over 20 altogether, spread over 3 meals, one meal being preceded by a tasting, so I got a pretty fair impression of the range even if I would not feel totally comfortable pronouncing in detail on any one of them. Indeed, I am not sure these are wine to be pronounced on at all. I don’t think I do them a disservice at all to say they are meant to be drunk and enjoyed, and I think John would agree with that sentiment. They are all made in qvevri, and most are in the long skin-contact style generally favoured in the Kakheti region where Pheasant’s Tears is based. So most of the non-red wines were orange, or amber as Pheasant’s Tears style it, and both the red and orange wines had very noticeable astringency. If I had to quantify the astringency of these skin contact wines, I would say it varies from medium high to off the scale.

The varietals we tried most, and the ones I suspect Pheasant’s Tear produces in the larger volumes, were the one I enjoyed most. The Rkatsiteli vintages for example were good. If I had to characterise them, I would say apricot and orange, good acidity, and highish astringency. And dry, like all the wines we tasted on this trip. Then there were the various Mtsvane wines we tried, which I also liked – more than the Rkatsiteli in fact. That was pretty much true for every producer, so I concluded that it was a variety that suited me better, even if it seem that Rkatsiteli is generally regarded as the better grape. Mtsvane is more aromatic than Rkatsiteli, and I think John’s were also lower in acidity whilst still maintaining freshness, both aspects which I think mitigated the astringency a little, even if it was still very high. I never really formed a stable characterisation of Mtsvane aromas, but all my attempts seemed to be red, but not berry-related. So things like rose, rosehip and red lips (a type of confectionery). Mtsvane simply means green in Georgian, distinguishing the colour of the grapes from the more golden-yellow shades of other so-called white grapes. And it is used for at least two distinct varieties, one of which is Kakhuri Mtsvivani – Mtsvane from Kakheti. Pheasant’s Tears has a wine that is 100% Kakhuri Mtsvivani, and labelled as such, and one that has different types of Mtsvane, which labelled simply as Mtsvane. I liked them both. However I was not so keen on the Mtsvane Pet Nat, which from the colour seemed to have little or no skin contact, and was rather thin and sherbetty. The other orange wine I liked a lot was the the Kisi varietal, which again I thought had more moderate acidity, and marmalade and apricot flavours that suggested botrytis to me. We also tried a few vintages of Saperavi, which is probably the best regarded Georgian red grape, and certainly the best known. I am really not sure about Saperavi in general. Sure it makes decent wines, but nothing that really excites me – as Pinot Noir and Barolo might for example. Nevertheless, I did like the Pheasant’s Tears examples.

I am not sure how edifying it is to list the wines I did not like so much. In principle I am of the opinion that is a good thing to do, but here I fear it may give a false impression, as the descriptions would be small snapshots of several wines while the ones I liked we drank a lot of. I will just comment on two more wines – but out of interest rather than because I disliked them. Firstly, there was the massively tannic Shavkapito varietal. This was the wine that was off the scale in terms of astringency. It definitely had some good fruit lurking, but finding it beneath the tannins was a challenge. I would certainly drink it again if it was offered, but not seek it out. Finally I was able to geek-out on the Pheasant’s Tears Polyphonia, a wine made from the 417 different Georgian varieties in John’s experimental vineyard. Sadly though, the pleasure was pretty much all of the geeky type as the wine was quite insipid – as perhaps you might expect from 417 red and white varieties that were never meant to be blended. If only I knew all the names, I could swell my train-spotting list of varieties tried quite considerably.

Anyway, the overall memory was that of greatly enjoying these wines with good food. Beyond that, the most concrete expression of my preference within the Pheasant’s Tears range was the two wines that made it back home on our flight in checked-in luggage. They were both amber wines: Mtsvane 2016 and Kisi 2016.

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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