In an online discussion on “amphoras” in winemaking, wine enthusiast Peter Harvey drew my attention to a vessel I failed to mention in my earlier blog post on the various types of clay pots in winemaking: the botija, as used in Peru. I am very grateful to Peter for the information and photographs, which I use with permission.
He saw botijas in use at three wineries in the Ica Valley – Vinos Intipalka, Bodega Tres Esquinas and Bodega Lazo – and La Reyna de Lunahuaná, in the Lunahuaná valley.
Unlike most clay winemaking vessels, botijas seem to me to be true amphoras. They are the right size for amphoras, and the shape looks correct too. There is a narrow opening at the top, meaning the contents must be poured out rather than scooped. And they have a pointed bottom which, in common with classical common-use amphoras means they can be stuck into the earth to help keep them upright, as shown above at La Reyna de Lunahuaná. They do not have the usual long narrow neck, but are more like the belly amphoras from 640-450 BC, and although the name amphora implies something that can be lifted from both sides using two handles, handles were not always present.
The framed picture above is of the actual press still in use at Bodega Tres Esquinas, and their winemaking process is described by Peter Harvey:
The grapes are trodden Portuguese style, and the juice from the treading floor and the press runs directly into the botija which is carried in a wooden frame and plonked in lines under cover but otherwise in the open, loosely covered by hessian or suchlike. When the fermentation’s over they’re stopped off with a bung and cloth to settle the contents. After use they are simply washed out with water.
He also points out that
The Botijas were mainly used of course to make the base wine to be made into Pisco. Like the Georgians they seem to be “rediscovering” this technique for table wine and I know that the big Ica player Intipalka are sourcing old ones and re-using them.
While the use of botijas in Peru is currently of no direct relevance to UK wine drinkers, botija wines may eventually arrive over here, and in the meantime I feel reassured that the Peruvian winemaking traditions are being maintained.
This edition of The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson, is published by Academie du Vin Library. The headline price is £30 from both Amazon and direct from the publisher, but at the publisher’s you can use this £3 discount code: WINENOUS3. I’ll leave it to you to juggle shipping charges against any possible in-principle objections to Amazon. Mine was a review copy.
If the title of the book sounds familiar, that is because it has been around since 1989, published by Mitchell Beazley. As far as I can tell the text is identical to the Mitchell Beazley edition I have from 1999, so I will start by comparing the 1999 edition with this one. Firstly, this book has the same wonderful soft-covered binding as the Sherry book from the same publisher, but the paper, rather than being bright and shiny, is a good quality matt. It is 240 x 170 mm, and comprises 496 sides. The text is clear and well laid-out, and with no illustrations the page design is a lot less busy.
I think one of the major selling points of the Mitchell Beazley edition was the sumptuous quality of the book, with its rich colour illustrations, but personally I can see the attractions of the new edition. Basically, I find this version a lot more inviting to read – it’s considerably lighter to hold, the text is not broken up by illustrations, and it still feels sumptuous (but in a different sort of way). These are not minor points. In the last few years when I got interested in the origins of wine after having visited Georgia, I intended to reread the earlier edition, but somehow it just seemed too much like hard work due to its look and feel. Yet I now feel motivated to try again with this edition. But perhaps that is just me?
Regarding the illustrations, I have just checked a few places in the 1999 edition, and I cannot see any place where they are particularly closely related to the text, let alone essential for understanding it. Admittedly they do sometimes add information, but my overall impression is that Johnson wrote his book with the intention that the text should stand by itself.
It was a while since the last time I read the text and, irrespective of my new-found enthusiasm, I am realistically not going to reread it in the immediate future, so what follows here are a just few observations about the text. I’ll maybe write a follow-up post with more detail.
The first thing to note is the author’s intention to write this book as a story, hence the title of the book. He does not pretend to be a historian, and Hugh Johnson’s classic style of prose is unencumbered by footnotes, though there is a bibliography for each chapter. And as a story, it starts in the mists of time, and ends in the late 20th century, in the decades when Hugh is getting engrossed in the subject of wine. As such, the story is complete, and did not did to be updated since it was first written, he explains in his preface. Hmmm… that sounds like a pretty thin excuse to me, and I immediately spot some details in chapter 2 that could do with updating in the light of more recent archaeology, and I also consider how wine has changed in the last 30 years or so. But I could just about be prepared to treat it as a story on its own terms – a story reflecting its time of writing.
As for the subject matter of the book, I don’t think I could do better than reproduce the contents pages. (Try clicking on the image to make the text legible.)
If illustrations in a book are important to you, try to find an older edition – Google reveals there are still new copies kicking about waiting to be purchased. Otherwise, for sheer reading pleasure, I’d recommend you get this new Academie du Vin Library edition.
Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! by Ben Howkins, is published by Academie du Vin Library. The headline price is £23 from both Amazon and direct from the publisher, but at the publisher’s you can use this £3 discount code: WINENOUS3. I’ll leave it to you to juggle shipping charges against any possible in-principle objections to Amazon. Mine was a review copy.
In a couple of sentences… It’s an attractive book, both visually and tactually, and if you like an easy-going style of writing I think you’ll enjoy it. It covers a broad range of topics and, irrespective of other factors, will be of particular interest to anyone who wants to know more about the trend towards en rama styles and the new generation of boutique bodegas.
The book is 240 x 170 mm, and comprises 223 sides on a heavy glossy paper, in high-quality soft covers. The pages are nicely bound, so the book will open flat, and comfortably stay open. From a sample so far of two, the quality of the binding, seems to be common to all the Academie du Vin Library publications. These may sound like superficial details, but I am increasingly realising that a book’s touch and feel is important – in the same way perhaps that a wine glass is to the wine it contains.
The book is well-illustrated in colour throughout, the illustrations complementing the text without being too intrusive. But as usual with most wine books, I found the maps lacking – I think there was only one created for the book, and it had little detail. Old maps were also reproduced in places, but were so small as to be impossible to read. On the positive side from a practical point of view, the book did at least have a decent index.
The major topics covered are: history, vineyards, wine styles, and bodegas. Those are followed by a miscellaneous group of smaller chapters on various subjects: Ruiz-Mateos (the man who broke the Sherry bank), the general culture of the region, non-local cultural references to Sherry, tasting and tasting notes, related food and drink, and finally a collection of reflections on Sherry from 50 wine notables.
The author aptly describes his book as “a personal take on the current sherry scene”, seemingly contrasting it with “Julian Jeffs’ classic book Sherry“. I see what he means. Jeffs’ book is indeed excellent in its scholarship and detail, and Howkins is wise not to attempt to emulate it. Nevertheless, in my 2016 review of Jeffs’ book I did note that it failed to communicate the current excitement for Sherry. Also there was no mention by Jeff of the trend towards en rama bottlings, and only slight coverage of the newer boutique bodegas. Howkins’ book certainly addresses well all of those aspects.
But what is implied by what he says is his “personal take”? Well, he has spent a lifetime in the wine trade, including a period working specifically with Sherry, and that gives him rich insights into developments in the region over the last 50 years or so and, through personal contacts, further back into the 20th century. It also gives him a good understanding of attitudes to Sherry in its export markets. However, one thing that struck me, was that this perspective is rather privileged, as there are numerous stories of being entertained by owners and directors of Sherry companies – glasses of Sherry in meetings, late and long lunches, late and long dinners, home visits, flamenco evenings, bullfights.
Don’t get me wrong – the experiences are interesting and entertaining, as Howkins writes well, and it gives a good insight into how Sherry fits in with that kind of lifestyle. But my recent personal experience of Sherry as a tourist in Sanlúcar, was very different. I found that Manzanilla, while important, was viewed by locals as a rather ordinary everyday experience. I was told they used it for cooking, and you could buy it in any bar very cheaply. But each bar and restaurant I came across obtained all its wine from a single bodega and, while delicious, they were all basic level wines, so the vast range of exciting Sherry styles and bodegas mentioned in the book was not readily available to me. I am not complaining, as I had a good holiday, but it was not the wine-geek and cultural nirvana the book might lead one to expect.
When I started reading I was a bit unsure about the book, as I think I am naturally more attuned to Jeffs’ drier formal writing, rather than Howkins’ prose that is more relaxed, wordy and effusive. But as I continued, I got more and more into the style and subject matter, really enjoying the Sherry company chapters, and especially the one on boutique bodegas. I also found it very interesting to learn more about the cream styles of Sherry, which tend to get overlooked in more recent accounts. I was aware of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, and must have drunk a few glasses in my time, but had no idea how important that one brand was to the British wine trade, and to the Sherry region.
After the bodega chapters however, I thought they got more piecemeal, disconnected, and of variable interest. In particular, I really did not understand the need for the final chapter of 50 personal reflections on Sherry. Each piece individually may have been interesting, but after the first 20 or so, many started to sound a bit samey.
Despite its weak finish, the book’s engaging mid-palate literally whetted my appetite for Sherry, and led me to crack open a half-bottle of Manzanilla brought back from Sanlúcar. I think the author would mark that down as a success.
“Any fool can have a subjective opinion about wine” is one of the arguments I occasionally see in favour of objectivity in winetasting, and that can be followed by “but experts have invested a lot of time in learning to taste objectively”. There are so many assumptions built into that line of argument I hardly know where to start, but my main counter-argument would be that objectivity in winetasting simply does not exist. However, here I would like to focus on debunking the idea that subjective views are necessarily trivial and to be lightly dismissed. We subjectivists do not all take a swig of wine that hardly touches the sides, and immediately pronounce on its quality.
For me, the ideal person to assess a wine is someone who acknowledges the subjectivity of taste, and yet is happy to give an opinion nevertheless. That person would understand the objective properties of wine, i.e. its physical properties and chemical composition, but also know how those elements translate into the perception of flavour, depending on the environment and individual differences. And of course personal preferences.
In its simplest form, a subjective approach might not be too dissimilar to what is thought to be objective tasting, according to the WSET Systematic Approaches to Tasting Wine for example, but without claiming any objectivity in the final quality assessment. The taster might also like to comment on their sensitivity to the different dimensions of the wine, and how factors other than the wine itself might be influencing its perception. Of course this is not easy – in fact it is very difficult to do well. But that is really my main point here. A serious subjective approach to winetasting is far from trivial. If anything, the problem is that it is too complex if done well. But that is no excuse for us to stick our heads in the sand and pretend the complexities don’t exist.
Finally, I would add that I think it is important for the taster to say how much they actually enjoy drinking the wine. To me, a quality score, perhaps arrived at by totting up the scores for intensity, balance, persistence etc, is pretty meaningless, and I’d much rather know a taster’s finger-in-the-air feeling about a wine. That is how I score wines, and to be honest I sometimes find that subjective assessments can be hard to arrive at. With conventional wines from classic regions it is a lot easier, because you know more what to expect, and you understand your preferences a lot better. But with more weird stuff (natural wines, I am mainly looking at you) I find it can be more difficult to decide. The problem is in being able to understand the good and enjoyable aspects of an unexpected wine, and when one would best drink it. For example which dishes to match it with. Occasionally I find that a wine that seems promising on initial tasting does not work that well with food, and vice-versa, and established wisdom and accumulated experience with more-conventional wines does not always work.
But I usually get there in the end with my subjective opinion – if not before, then when deciding whether or not to buy more of the same wine.
(In the above, by concentrating on the complexity of subjectivity I have ignored other important aspects. For more on subjectivity and wine, my World of Fine Wine article is a good place to start)
Just a quick post to remind you of my Georgian PDO mini-series, and also help you get a better overview of it – something otherwise hampered by the reverse-chronological order on my home page.
My first post aims to give a quick practical guide to the Georgian PDOs you are most likely to come across in the UK – Tsinandali, Mukuzani, Kindzmarauli and Khvanchkara . Arguably, these are also the most important PDOs in general. In outline at least, this covers pretty much everything that most wine drinkers will need to know about Georgian PDOs, while the other two posts in the series are more hardcore.
After the practical guide, I dive into more detail, listing and summarising all the current PDOs, and giving a bit of background. Here I try to stick to the facts.
Finally, I express opinions about the Georgian PDO system and labelling requirements, and offer a few suggestions for improvement.
I understand absolutely why Georgia feels the need to try to protect names in its own country, and perhaps even more importantly in Russia, which has a bit of a history in wines fraud and is still an important market. I also think, when selling to foreign markets where Georgian wines are less understood, including the UK and the EU, it is a good idea to have a solid PDO system in place before it is absolutely necessary. And it is probably a shrewd move to make that system compatible with the EU’s.
The legal framework for Georgia’s PDO system looks sound to me. I won’t bore you more than necessary, but there is a law that bans the misleading use of PDO names on labels, and in advertising and related documents. It does leave open the question as to what could be construed as misleading, but is otherwise clear.
Additionally, each PDO registration document carries a paragraph that says how, for foreign language labels etc, the PDO name should be spelled using the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, and that is should be followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” and/or “PDO” (in English) or the Cyrillic alphabet equivalent (presumably in Russian). The main point of these paragraphs seems to be the spelling of the PDO name, rather the circumstances in which it should be followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” and/or “PDO”. The lack of clarity is not helped by the very different ways that this clause is rendered into English in the official translation of each PDO registration document; the Georgian versions of the same documents seem to be much more consistent.
Sadly, I think the lack of clarity on labelling requirements has opened to way to some confusion. Here are a few examples of wine labels, which incidentally are not at all meant as criticism of the particular producers concerned.
On the left we have a Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi wine, with Kakheti at the bottom of its label. Is this just saying that it’s grown and made in Kakheti, or is it claiming the PDO of Kakheti? If it is the former, does that make it misleading? Then the middle label also has Kakheti at the bottom, but this cannot be Kakheti PDO because the wine contains many non-compliant grape varieties. Is that misleading? Finally, the one on the right has Kartli at the bottom of the label, which is not a PDO, so that is fine. But that does suggest the two other labels do not represent PDO claims either.
Moving on to another set of labels, the above Teliani Valley one actually has three PDO names on it: Teliani, Tsinandali and Kakheti. I think most people familiar with Georgian wines would assume that it is Tsinandali PDO. But is that actually correct? And what are other people to think? Teliani Valley is actually a producer’s name but it looks geographical, and Kakheti would be more recognisable for someone who knows Georgian regions but not wine. And for those smarty-pants who thought the Teliani Valley wine was Tsinandali PDO, what about the label on the right. Tsinandali too? Nope, I don’t think so – look more carefully – in smaller letters it says Kakheti AOC. To be fair, I think this is an old label, which is also indicated by the use of AOC rather than PDO, but at the very least this is very confusing.
Actually, it is quite common for Georgian producer names to include the name of a PDO. Apart from Teliani Valley, examples that spring to mind are Tsinandali Estate, Vazisubani Estate and Royal Khvanchkara. OK, it happens in other countries too, but that does not make it any less confusing.
To be constructive, and with all due humility and the perspective of a foreign drinker of Georgian wines, I would suggest a couple of additional PDO labelling regulations:
1) PDO wines should have the PDO name clearly displayed on the label, followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” or “PDO”. This is not unusual for other countries with PDO and PDO-like systems. In some cases there is also some uncertainty about, or discrepancy between, the name of the PDO and what should appear on the label (Ateni, I am looking at you). Why not make it crystal clear and consistent?
2) Also, any other word on the label that is a PDO, but not the wine’s actual PDO, should have a clearly defined context. So, for example, a Tsinandali PDO wine may additionally say “Wine of Kakheti”; Kakheti PDO wines may say “Made from grapes harvested near the village of Tsinandali” on the back label (if that is true, of course); and producer names that incorporate a PDO name should usually be preceded by “Produced by”.
Additionally, moving away from the subject of PDOs, it might be worth seeking to protect the use of “qvevri wine” on wine labels, restricting its usage to defined production methods – I would suggest limiting it to methods that are traditional in the region of origin. Also, it would not hurt to standardise on “qvevri” or “kvevri” as the transliteration for wine labels. By all means, avoid the mess that Armenia got into with “karas” and “karasi”.
Is all this really so important? Well, it’s hardly a life or death issue, but I believe clarity is the key to communicate Georgian PDOs to wine-drinkers, especially in markets where the wines are little known. It is effectively a type of branding – one that deserves care and attention over a long period of time.
I will explain in this post some of the formal details of what Georgian wines PDOs are all about, and how to get further information about each of them, but firstly here is a summary table of the 24 PDOs currently registered. (The table will probably display better on phones if your screen is horizontal.)
The links in the table take you to the official English translations of the Sakpatenti PDO registration documents, which include quite a lot of detail, including maps. I recently printed them to PDF files, because I could find no other way of linking to the individual PDO documents – this means that they will not necessarily be the latest versions, so check the registration and printing dates in the PDF files if in doubt.
There are issues with the Sakpatenti English translations. In particular, note that the Georgian originals consistently say “up to 15%” when specifying a grape variety percentage, but in the English translation this becomes simply “15%”. More on Sakpatenti and its website later.
Note also that in some places the information in my table differ may differ from other published summaries of the PDO. The obvious example is the entry for Kakheti, for which the PDO rules changed at some point. I do not remember the change being announced, but in 2010 it was a PDO for dry white wines only; now it is a lot broader. I am not sure about the reason for all the discrepancies, but I believe my version to be correct at the time of writing.
Anyway, now for a bit of background, and how to get further information…
While Georgia is not part of the EU, it has an equivalent system to regulate and protect its wines, and has chosen to use EU terminology. So initially, back in 2005, it called the protected categories Appellations of Origin. Now they are Protected Designations of Origin, though you will still see the older term in some official contexts. Incidentally, following usage in the EU, Georgia also has PDOs for goods other than wine. Additionally, there is protection through Geographical Indications for other goods, but currently not for wine.
Sakpatenti, the National Intellectual Property Center of Georgia, is the body responsible for registering PDOs, and applications for new ones must be made to Sakpatenti. Registration of a PDO confers legal protection within Georgia, and Georgia seeks protection by treaty for its PDOs in foreign countries. The Sakpatenti website lists the Georgian GIs (here including PDOs) recognised abroad by treaty, and the foreign ones recognised by Georgia. Apparently, only the first 18 Georgian PDOs are currently recognised by the EU. They are the ones described in this Sakpatenti publication of 2010, and shown on the above map. Note that the PDO descriptions in this book are different to the ones referred to in my table, and are quite vague about aspects like mandated grape varieties.
For the definitive and up-to-date list of Georgian PDOs and GIs, and the registration documents with details about each one, see the State Registry in English or in Georgian. The Georgian documents are the definitive versions, and some of the English translations are dodgy. So if in doubt, I would recommend running the Georgian through Google Translate to get a second opinion. It is not too difficult if you use the registration numbers, and document section numbers, to help you orient yourself in the Georgian space.
So far in this mini-series on Georgian PDOs, I have tried to stick to objective facts. But next time, I shall conclude my series with opinion.
Edit 24/07/20: Due to some confusion on my part I was unfairly scathing about the English translations. Sorry! I have now moderated my criticism.
Most Georgian wines are marketed by grape variety and the reputation of the winemaker, so as far as the consumer is concerned the country’s PDOs (the equivalent of French Appellations) are often of little relevance. However, there are a few that you might come across in the UK, and here I briefly describe the four that immediately sprang to mind when I was thinking of compiling a shortlist. Later checking showed that they also happen to be the Georgian PDOs most readily available in the UK. And, as they were all in the first six PDOs to be registered, it seems that they were considered to be amongst the most important in Georgia.
These PDOs come from the regions of Kakheti and Racha, and the maps below show you immediately where those regions are within Georgia, but you need to click a few times to get to hi-res maps that show you the location of the PDOs. The maps do not show physical geography, but it is worth noting that the Alazani river in Kakheti flows in a wide plain, while the Racha vineyard area is more mountainous.
Tsinandali PDO is named after a village in Kakheti, the region where the majority of Georgian wine comes from. This is a dry white (i.e. not orange) wine from the area around the village, made using the Rkatsiteli grape variety with up to 15% Kakhuri Mtsvane. Rkatsiteli is the most common Georgian grape variety, and Kakhuri Mtsvane is also quite popular, and sometimes simply called Mtsvane. The Tsinandali wines that make it to the UK are often relatively inexpensive, and I find them to be straightforward and refreshing. They could perhaps be compared to Chablis, though I would say Tsinandali is more aromatic. I would most naturally think of serving them with white fish.
Mukuzani PDO is also named after a Kakheti village, but this is a dry red wine, and made solely from Saperavi, the most common Georgian red grape. Saperavi wines are usually very dark, an almost opaque purple, and often have a dark and brooding taste profile to match, with smokey fruit. They can also have a fair whack of tannin. Beyond that though, I cannot say I have noticed anything distinctive specifically about the Saperavi from Mukuzani, though as with Tsinandali I have mainly tried cheaper examples imported into the UK. These are wines that can stand up to strong flavours – spices, and beef.
The final two PDOs in my shortlist are Kindzmarauli and Khvanchkara. Frankly, I think the only thing most UK wine drinkers need to know is that these are unfortified semi-sweet red wines, and thus are vini non grata (excuse my, er, Latin) because they do not conform to modern so-called good taste. But please do not dismiss them out of hand. Served at cellar temperature, I find the ones with good balancing acidity and/or tannins very attractive, and they can work very well with grilled meats. But do be aware that they are not sweet enough to function as pudding wines. Kindzmarauli is another Kakheti Saperavi wine, but from the other side of the Alazani river from Tsinandali and Mukuzani. Its name suggests that it comes from somewhere called Kindzmara, but I cannot find such a place on the map. Khvanchkara is made from two lesser-known varieties, Aleksandrouli and Mujuretuli, and is named after the village of Khvanchkara in Racha. Traditionally, these semi-sweet wines were made from ripe late-harvested grapes, which gave a fermentation that naturally arrested due to cold winter temperatures and high alcohol content. That method is sometimes still employed, but these days stopping the fermentation with artificial refrigeration is a lot more common.
So those are my top 4 Georgian PDOs. In my next post, I intend to take a more formal look at Georgian wine PDOs in general, and briefly mention all 24 of them, with links to their official registration documentation.
You may already know that Txakoli, Txakolina and Chacolí are names used for the light and sharp white wines of the Spanish Basque country. But can they be used interchangeably, or are there subtle differences to be aware of? I have been confused about this issue for some time, and if you have too, you are now in luck – I am about to explain. (But if you really don’t care, feel free to get on with the rest of your life.)
The Basque noun for the wine could be either Txakoli or Txakolin (with an n). However the Basque nationalist Sabino Arana, in his spelling reform of 1895, proposed standardisation on Txakoli, so that is what you normally see now as the wine’s unadorned name in Basque.
The a at the end of the Txakolinais actually the Basque definite article, but you will note that it is not added to Txakoli, but Txakolin, which is the only reason why I bothered telling you about the Txakolin spelling at all. So Txakolina could be translated into English as the Txakoli. You will see Txakolina in the Basque PDO names Bizkaiko Txakolina, Getariako Txakolina and Arabako Txakolina. In these names the ko endings signify the genitive, like the apostrophe s does in English. So you might translate the PDOs into English as The Txakoli of Bizkai, The Txakoli of Getaria and The Txakoli of Araba.
Chacolí is simply the Spanish (i.e. Castillian) version of the Basque Txakoli, and I believe the two words would be pronounced very similarly in their respective languages. Hence, you also get the official Spanish names for the PDOs: Chacolí de Bizkaia, Chacolí de Getaria and Chacolí de Álava.
Incidentally, while Txakoli is the base word, and it often appears on wine bottle labels, it does not seem to be protected as an EU traditional term (it is not listed in Commission Regulation (EC) No 607/2009 Part B), while Chacolí-Txakolina does have protection.
I’m going to bow-out here while I still feel on safe ground, but if you want more information about the linguistics of Txakoli, and the wine itself, you could try the Txakoli Wikipedia article. And, if you can read Spanish, or are prepared to muddle through with an automatic translation, you might be interested in part 1 and part 2 of Del vino chacolín al txakoli on the euskonews website. I am also very grateful for help received on the WordReference Language Forums.
Wines not bottled at source have a bit of a bad reputation for many people, and it seems the main reason is the lack of guarantee of origin and quality, something that is supposedly conferred by the producer’s bottle and label.
A moment’s thought however reveals that any guarantee is far from absolute. Bottles and labels can be faked, and they offer no protection from rogue producers. Also, wine can now be transported efficiently and safely in bulk, with traceability afforded by documentation and information technology.
The guarantee is really only required when there are significant distances between production and consumption – in wine-producing regions empty containers are often taken to a nearby producer for refill. The locals are of course in a great position to know the seller’s reputation, and may even make wine themselves.
As far as small producers are concerned, selling to locals is one thing, but bottling their wine is often the key to getting better prices from large cities, and possibly other countries. And once in a bottle with a label, wine can take a very different position in society. It is no longer a lightly processed agricultural product, only of local significance, but an international lifestyle product. The larger and cheaper brands are designed for the mass market, while more expensive wines available in smaller quantities become desirable luxury goods. At the luxury end of the market, connoisseurship is enabled by bottles and labels. They allow critics to write about a particular wine and vintage, and punters that are possibly in another part of the world can then buy what purports to be the same wine. Even if it is common knowledge that wine can vary considerably between bottles of the same lot, particularly for older vintages, somehow that variation is conveniently forgotten by connoisseurs when obsessing over wine. Thus, labels change how the product is regarded, and they can so easily mislead.
The culture surrounding natural wines largely ignores conventional wine connoisseurship, and I think in many ways it would be more at home with the idea of bulk wine – something meant to be quaffed rather than sipped. Is not bottling one of the most unnatural things you can do to a wine? Even if you leave out the preliminary steps of fining, filtering and dosing with sulphites, squeezing wine into a closed space with little oxygen cramps its style. However, bottling is important to reach the more lucrative market city markets and their natural wine bars. Best not use a traditional wine label though – rather get a mate to design something funky and rebellious, so those connoisseur types know to stay away.
There are comparisons to be drawn between en rama Sherries and natural wines. Strictly speaking an en rama Sherry is taken directly from a solera cask, and valued for its fresh and lively character. Which is all very well if you have access to casks in a Sherry bodega, but not so handy if you live in another country. So Sherry houses now offer the en rama experience oxymoronically from a bottle, where its contents have only minimal processing – perhaps a little fining, only coarse filtration, and minimal sulphite usage. And in doing so, unlike many natural wine producers, it seems they have a product with connoisseur-appeal.
If only for environmental reasons, we need to explore alternatives to bottling wine at source, even if there are huge image problems to overcome for most customers. The romance of drinking unbottled wine in situ might, just might, be a starting point to convince some people. It would work for me, but then I am a far-from-typical wine drinker.