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?

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

8 thoughts on “Homemade wine – eliminate or celebrate?”

  1. I’m with you. Actually, I’m looking forward to reading Jamie Goode’s book, Flawless. I have a broad mind when it comes to wine faults. I don’t like obviously faulty wine, but I think my idea of a fault is different to the more restrictive “IMW” view, and the one most likely to be held by older wine gammons.

    I also think home made wine not intended for sale can be fruity and wholesome, as indeed my latest batch of Frühburgunder proves…my best yet. I’m also not keen on industrial produce. Wherever it is from.

  2. Thanks, David. I stick to deciding whether I like a wine or not, rather than fretting whether it is faulty or not. But having said that, if there is a whiff of TCA then I most certainly will not like it. Anything else depends on intensity and context – but that is the same with many flavour characteristics that are not normally regarded as faults.

  3. You will never get the Georgians to give up homemade wine. It is a central part of the culture. I realized this when I moved here and wanted to learn a bit of the language, so I picked up a first grade reader, figuring I’d start where the Georgians do. The first chapter was on the grape harvest. First grade. So faulty or not, homemade wine is in their blood.

    There is a well-known trick here for extending a meager harvest of grapes, to make “manufactured” wine at home from the dregs of the first batch. They siphon off most of the good wine, leave the mash and a bit of the original and then add sugar water to the lot and allow it to referment. The result is a headache producing brew much lighter in color than the typical Kakhetian style of skin contact wine, and chances are if you’ve had “bad” homemade wine, this is what you were drinking. Though hygiene is also a problem in places too, and bret goes unrecognized. But largely, this second run is sold for profit and the good stuff kept for family use, unless money is tight. Learning who sells the fake version and who sells the real stuff can take years and several introductions.

  4. Thank you for the interesting insights, Amanda!

    Though I don’t think the bad homemade wine I had was the “manufactured” version – it was musty. If the bottle ever had a cork in it (which I doubt) I’d say it was corked. I’ve also had my fair share of brett in Georgian wine, but do not mind that too much.

  5. I have not read the book, but as a wine professional for over 40 years, with much exposure to the ‘home made’ wines in Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Slovenia etc. I applaud them for their differences and authenticity. I many cases, there are historic and cultural reasons for the style, and frankly, who are we from the ‘west’ to call them ‘flawed’?

    I am not a fan at all of folks from more modern wine regions stepping into these regions to teach them a thing or two. Some of my favorite wine experiences have been with these ‘flawed, natural’ wines in Melnik, Bulgaria and Ayvalic Turkey over dinner with the winemaker.

    If you don’t like these wines, move on to another region. Leave missionary work to others.

  6. 🙂

    Quite. Perhaps I should have expressed myself more strongly. (I did hold back a bit because most of my experience is from Georgia, and Caroline did not cover that country in her book.)

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