Is Georgia truly the Cradle of Wine?

Of course Cradle of Wine is really a metaphor, and thus Georgia’s claim to the title is difficult to confirm or deny. But I think to begin to answer the question, we need to unpick two strands of evidence: the archaeology, and the grapevine DNA.

I have already written about the archaeological studies, and as far as I know there have been no major discoveries since then, so I will summarise them only briefly here. The oldest archaeological evidence of winemaking was found in what is currently now Georgia, and dates back 8,000 years. Also there is other very old evidence not so far away, in Armenia and northern Iran, so taken together, current indications are that winemaking originates in that general region. But of course Georgia did not exist back then. And who knows when even older archaeology might come to light? Over-zealous marketers might also like to note that the clay vessels from 8,000 years ago do not particularly look like qvevri, and the archaeological site was not in Kakheti, the current main winemaking region of Georgia, as is sometimes claimed or implied.

Limited as it is, the archaeological evidence is pretty strong. However, at the time there were various DNA studies that added weight to the general idea that winemaking started in the South Caucasus and spread out from there. I also referred to that DNA evidence in my earlier post. Again to summarise briefly, it seemed the greatest genetic variation in domesticated wine grapes was in the South Caucasus, which indicated that they had existed there longer than anywhere else. Also, wine grapes in Europe were genetically closer to wild grapes in the South Caucasus than they were to the local European wild grapes.

However, the DNA evidence mentioned above has been upturned by a large scale study published around a year ago. This study concludes that there were two independent grapevine domestication events around 11,000 years ago: one in the South Caucasus, and one in the Levant. In the South Caucasus the grapevines were more suited to winemaking, and in the Levant to the production of table grapes. Figure taken from Dual domestications and origin of traits in grapevine evolution, Dong et al., Science 379, 892–901 (2023)However, it was the domesticated grapevine stock from the Levant that spread around the Mediterranean and throughout Europe, where it was crossed with local wild grapevines to create the well-known varieties we use in winemaking today. The grapevines from the South Caucasus domestication event spread to a much more limited extent, up into what is now Russia, and around the north of the Black Sea as far as central Europe.Figure taken from Dual domestications and origin of traits in grapevine evolution, Dong et al., Science 379, 892–901 (2023)So for people that care about these things, assuming that winemaking did start in Georgia, or at least the South Caucasus, the story about how it spread throughout Europe is not as straightforward as it used to be. Did it perhaps spread from Georgia to the Levant, and then to Europe via the Mediterranean, which means that the Georgian varieties did not spread in the same direction as the winemaking? Or did it perhaps pop-up independently in the Levant and/or in Europe? If started independently elsewhere, could Georgia still claim to be the “Cradle of Wine”?

Also we might ask how the new DNA findings could affect the perception of Georgian grape varieties. Is it looked on less favourably because the link with the now famous international varieties is broken, or is it enhanced because the Georgian varieties could now be seen to be a stronger USP (unique selling point), because they are more distinctive? Or maybe Georgian wine marketers are just going to stick their heads in the sand, and pretend the DNA evidence does not exist? So far, one year on from the publication of the research, it looks like they’re taking the head-in-the-sand approach. In any case, the archaeology is always going to make a better story than DNA research.

As a lover of both wine and Georgia, I want its wine to be effectively marketed so it can be enjoyed more widely, and I find the history of wine a fascinating subject. But truthfully, the history of how winemaking and grapevines spread across Europe does not at all affect my enjoyment of Georgian wine. What does though, however irrational it might be, is the idea that winemaking has an unbroken tradition within Georgia that spans several thousand years. That in itself is a great USP.

New Georgian PDOs

Well, actually they were registered between August and December 2022, but I have only just added them to my earlier post that summarises the Georgian wine PDOs. The new ones are Asuretuli Shala, Okami, Okureshis Usakhelouri and Zegaani.

One interesting development is the Zegaani PDO, which I believe is the first Georgian PDO to specify that the wine must be made in qvevri. It also states that Zegaani is a “bio-wine”, but the meaning of that is not defined in the document, so I am not really sure what it signifies. In my opinion these are at least steps in the right direction.

Various artisanal wines from Georgia

I had been wanting to try wines from Oda Family Marani for some time, so when I heard that Sager and Wine had imported some into the UK,  I approached them in August 2022 to get some, and finished up buying a mixed case of interesting artisanal wines from Georgia.

I’m afraid it took me over a year to work my way through the case, so it is unlikely that it is possible to buy more of these vintages – from anywhere actually, considering the small production volumes – but I thought my tasting notes might still be of some interest.

They were all tasted at home, and drunk with evening meals, so each one got a good “road test”. But the downside of course is that they were not compared side-by-side.

Tsolikouri, Oda Family Marani, 2020, 14.5%, £25.00

Dry amber wine. Natural, unfiltered. Grapes from small vineyard in Nakhunavo village (Martvili), in Samegrelo region. Naturally fermented on 50% skins, in qvevri for 7 months. 900 bottles made

Palish amber, or medium pale gold. Shiny and clear. Slight formation of froth in bottle after double-decanting. Intense, complex and peppery, reductive notes. Medium acidity. Dry. Slight astringency. Lip-smacking from the tang, astringency, and pepper notes. Flavours I more normally associate with orange wines, which were not so evident on the nose, came through on the palate. Dry, refreshing finish. Overall feeling of lightness despite the high alcohol content. Drink now. A solid *****

Dzelshavi, Oda Family Marani, 2020, 12.5%, Sager and Wine, £27.00

Dry red wine. Natural, unfiltered. Grapes from small vineyard in Bostana village (Ambrolauri), Racha region. Naturally fermented on all skins, aged in qvevri for 7 months. 900 bottles made

Medium pale ruby, with some hints of purple. Intense, fresh berry primary fruit. Cherry, and blueberry perhaps. Medium acidity. Low astringency. Some sweetness of ripe fruit. Quite edgy, similar to astringency, but I guess it was bitterness. But in a good way, as it helps the wine finish dry, and clean, fresh and grown, while still being lip-smackingly good. Drink now. I liked this a lot on first tasting, but not so much together with a chicken curry. However, another bottle bought at the same time seemed to improve with food throughout the evening. Overall, let’s say *****

Kakhuri Mtsvane, Kortavebis Marani, 2020, 12.7%, £30.00

Amber, dry,  natural qvevri wine. Unfiltered. Gremi village, Kakheti region. Full skin fermentation, age 9 months in qvevri. Made by Tamuna Bidzinashvili

Medium caramel brown. Not very intense. Sharpish, caramel and lemon. High acidity. High astringency. Strange aromatically – like herbal cough drops. Is that some sort of brett? Also quite phenolic. Not yet sure about how much I like this. It’s not what I would expect. As a tentative, uncertain score, I’d say ****

“Mimoza”, Freya’s Marani, 2020, 14.0%, £26.00

Tsolikouri grapes from Tsitelkhevi, Imereti region. Grapes foot crushed and left on all skins and stems for 10 days. Made in qvevri. Made by Ének Freya Peterson

Medium amber. Smoky. Burnt rubber maybe. Medium high acid. Dry. I sense there is intense fruit in there somewhere, but it is clobbered by the smokiness. Maybe with time throughout the evening the smokiness is blowing off and a complex wine is being revealed. I’m going to say ****

“Oh, the wind and the rain”, Freya’s Marani,  2020, 12.0%, £26.00

Tsolikouri and Krakhuna grapes from Persati, Imereti region. Foot crushed and left on all skins and stems for 4 months. Made in qvevri. Produced by Ének Freya Peterson

Medium pale ruddy gold. Fresh, gentle phenolic aromas. Medium high acidity. Dry. Medium high tannin. Intense, as nose, and complex. Bretty bandage notes – not unpleasant to my taste, but others might object to this. Worked well with food *****

“Cuvée Polyamoria”, Gogo Wine, 2019, 13.5%, £31.00

Saperavi, Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli grapes from Artana village, Telavi, Kakheti region. Macerated on skins for 6 months. Made by Keti and Kakha Berishvili

Proper red wine colour – crimson purple – but strangely pale. I guess that’s the blended red and white varieties. Intense, aromatic and spicy. Berry fruit. Medium high acid. Dry. Massive tannins. Intense, as nose. Decent length. Finishes dry. Lip-smacking from the flavour profile and the tannins. I love it, but definitely a food wine *****

Tiamora”, Gogo Wine, 2020, 15.5%, Sager and Wine, £31.00

Rkatsiteli. Amber, dry wine. Macerated with skins for 7 months. Made by Keti and Kakha Berishvili, Artana village, Telavi, Kakheti region

Medium ruddy amber. Intense, sharp, pungent almost, complex fruit. Bitter oranges? Nuts. High acid. Hugely intense, as nose. Massive astringency. Despite the astringency almost, this is a classy wine, and delicious. Why not drink now? Great example of a good hard-core Kakhetian wine in my opinion ******

“Moksa”, Gogo Wine, 2020, 12.5%, Sager and Wine, £31.00

Dry rosé wine. Chinuri, Mtsvane and Danakharuli grapes. Half were foot-crushed, and the remainder with skins maceration. Made by Keti and Kakha Berishvili, Artana village, Telavi, Kakheti region

Pinkish medium pale amber. Intense. Floral, rose perhaps. Phenolic. Medium high acid. Dry. Low but detectable astringency. As nose. Gentle, elegant, yet distinctly an orange wine. Drink now. One for orange-skeptics *****

Saperavi, Artanuli Gvino, 2019, 13.5%, £29.00

Red wine. 12 days skin maceration, qvevri ageing for 8 months. Made by Keti and Kakha Berishvili of Gogo Wine, but the  Artanuli Gvino project was started by their father. Artana village, Telavi, Kakheti region

Intense ruby purple. Intense, rich and brooding, dark fruit. High acidity, and acerbic. High tannins, maybe the root of the acerbic nature. Intense, as nose, the brooding weight being alieviated by the acidity. Big and impressive. Would probably age well to give a completely different wine, but attractive now in its own way if you like that sort of thing. I did, so *****

Chinuri, Samtavisi Marani, 2020, 12.0%, Sager and Wine, £33.00

Amber, dry wine, unfiltered. Made in qvevri with 7 months skin contact. Samtavisi village, Shida Kartli, region

Medium pale amber. Smells mainly of slight oxidation. Medium acid. Dry. Actually, this might be a tad corked too. Either way it’s not very pleasant. No joy to be had from this, but hopefully it is just a faulty bottle *

Goruli Mtsvane, Samtavisi Marani, 2020, 13.5%, Sager and Wine, £31.00

Amber, dry wine, unfiltered. Made in qvevri with 7 months skin contact. Samtavisi village, Shida Kartli region

Medium amber. No sediment, despite it being unfiltered. Medium phenolic. Dry. Alcohol on nose, and also on palate, where it conferred weight, some sweetness, and a slight alcoholic burn notes. Medium low acidity. Medium tannin. Despite the prominent alcohol, in some ways this was smooth and classy, and I quite liked it ****

 

Talha Tales – book review

I first read about talhas (Portuguese clay fermentation vessels) in a World of Fine Wine article written by Paul White back in 2015. On reading it again a few years ago, I decided I’d like to visit the Alentejo myself, and drink Talha wine in situ, but I could find very little information about how I might organise such a trip. What I needed was this book – a few years before it had actually been written. Paul White’s book, Talha Tales, is available from Amazon in Hardcover (£28.13), Paperback (£20.00) and Kindle edition (£9.99).  I was sent the Kindle copy to review and, while very grateful for the opportunity, my first comment would be that if you want to buy this book I suggest you spend a bit extra and get the paperback. As with many books of this type, you quite often want to flick backwards and forwards between pages, and it’s not so easy in Kindle.

And the content? For an overview, I couldn’t put it better than Paul himself:

There are three main sections. The first is full of background information and esoteric geeky wine and cultural stuff I love as a former historian. The second part explores individual producers and their wine in relative detail, to guide readers to the wines they may want to taste or wineries they may want to visit. The third part is more oriented towards the wine tourist. What to eat, where to stay and what to do beyond drinking.

Even as someone who was not a former historian, I think it was the background with “esoteric geeky wine and cultural stuff” I enjoyed most. I loved to hear the story of how the tradition of making wine in talha was saved from the brink of extinction, and is now starting to thrive again – I feel happier and more at home in a world where there is a place for maintaining historical traditions and diversity.

Also, as someone a lot more familiar with Georgian qvevri wine, I found the comparisons of talha and qvevri winemaking fascinating. Despite the historical and geographical points of difference, they have a lot in common. In terms of more recent developments, with both talha and qvevri there is increasing experimentation with the addition of wood ageing, and also of course bottling to allow broader distribution in cities and abroad, when historically the wine was more likely to go straight from clay vessel to the table.

Those were some of the geeky highlights for me (oh, also the bits on how the inside of talha are coated), but there is plenty more to get your teeth into. Paul’s enthusiasm and informal style carried me along through the story, and there is much I’d like to return to when I have more time.

The rest of the book, I must admit I read less avidly. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it difficult to concentrate on reading about producers and lists of wines I know little about. Were I to revive my plans to visit the Alentejo though, perhaps inspired by the 3rd section of the book (actually written by another author, Jenny Mortimer) they would suddenly become a lot more relevant.

The long and short of it is that if you are like me: fascinated by, or even just curious about, ancient winemaking methods and how they persist into modern times, or if you have a specific interest in talha wines, you really need this book. You should also be keeping in touch with Paul on his website Wine Disclosures (and check the archives of my blog). If on the other hand you are not so fascinated…. well, maybe you should be 🙂

Qvevri PGI

There has been a Georgian PGI for qvevri since 21st May 2021. Most web pages announcing the event seemed to be little more than rehashed versions of the same press release. So here, somewhat belatedly, I try to explain a bit of the background, and discuss some of the issues around the Qvevri PGI as I see them.

Originally, the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) was introduced as an EU category that could be used interchangeably with country-specific terms such as Vin de Pays for wines from France, Vino de la Tierra for Spain, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica for Italy, etc. Key differences were that under the new system, the same name for the category was to be used in all countries, albeit possibly translated into a local language, and also that the same PGI category applied across a range of agricultural products and foodstuffs, such as wine, cheese and olive oil. In a similar fashion, the EU Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO) was introduced as an alternative to the old Appellation d’Origine Controllée, Denominación de Origen, Denominazione di Origine Controllata, etc.

Following EU terminology, Georgia also introduced its own list of PGI and PDO goods. Previously it used the term Appellation of Origin, and while you still see that term used on the official website, which is a little confusing, all recent documents refer to the newer terms PGI and PDO.

Georgia’s list is independent of the EU’s, and is primarily only of relevance in Georgia, in the same way that the EU list applies primarily within the EU. However, both the EU and Georgia have entered into treaties with trading partners to gain recognition of their protected names in other countries too. Thus, for example, the USA recognises most EU PGIs and PDOs, though it has negotiated a small number of exceptions. Recognition of Georgian PGIs and PDOs outside of Georgia is however quite a lot more limited. You might like to note for reference that the official list of Georgian protected names is on the Sakpatenti website here, and the names protected by treaty in other countries are linked to from this page. If you are primarily interested in the Georgian wine PDOs, I recommend you take a look at this article first: Georgian Wine PDOs.

You can find the text of the Qvevri PGI document on the Sakpatenti website, which opens as a pop-up from the list of PGIs, but for your convenience I have created a PDF version of its text. The first thing worthy of note, is that the PGI applies to the qvevri itself, not the wine that is made in the vessel. So in that respect it breaks with EU usage, where PGIs and PDOs apply only to agricultural produce and foodstuffs. Also, as far as the geographical element of the PGI is concerned, the only requirements are that the raw materials should come from Georgia and that the qvevri be made in Georgia. I believe this is also inconsistent with EU usage, where PGIs and PDOs typically, if not always, refer to regions within countries.

In the PGI document, there is a lot of historical and cultural detail, but as far as I can see the only documented requirements of the PGI for qvevri seem to be that:

1) The raw materials should come from Georgia, and the qvevri is made in Georgia,

2) The qvevri maker is a member of the Organization of PGI Qvevri Producers/Makers, or other authorised body, and

3) The authorised body needs to certify that the vessel is indeed a qvevri, and make a permanent official mark of the organization on it, to allow traceablity.

The details of what is required to gain certification are not specified in the PGI document, and seem to be totally the responsibility of the certifying body.

I think it is commendable that steps are being taken to protect usage of the term Qvevri, but I am struggling to understand what precisely this PGI achieves. If I understand it correctly the PGI would stop someone in Georgia claiming to sell or own a qvevri if that vessel does not have appropriate marking and associated documentation. It might also prevent a wine producer claiming Qvevri as a trademark, as happened in Armenia with Karas, the Armenian equivalent of the qvevri. However, the PGI seems to exclude any qvevri made before the authorised bodies came into existence. And the chances of any other country recognising the Georgian Qvevri PGI will be pretty slim, as it applies to a clay vessel, rather than an agricultural product or foodstuff.

To me, the important thing is how the qvevri is used in winemaking. If the wine barely touches the insides of the qvevri, why should I care about whether it conforms to the new PGI? I was rather hoping for something on wine labels that would provide a guarantee that the wine was fermented, and aged for a specified period of time, in a qvevri vessel that conforms to a specific definition. To me, the obvious way to achieve this would be to append “Qvevri” to existing PDO names for such wines. And to be totally unambiguous about the claim, the text “PDO” should always be used on the label where it applies, e.g. “Kakheti Qvevri PDO”.

Within Georgia, I guess reputable qvevri winemakers are well known, and in some cases friends or relatives. But those of us that buy exported Georgian wines need a bit more reassurance – a reassurance that Qvevri PGI sadly does not provide.

Thinking inside the qvevri

Firstly, I’d encourage you to read this article by Daria Kholodilina. It gives a great summary of recent wine trends in Georgia, and was the stimulus for the opinions I am about to share here.

Evidence of ancient winemaking in the Vardzia cave complex

Well, have you read it now? Go on – I promise it won’t take you long.

I agree with Daria that the story of Georgian wine can get repetitive for people familiar with it – 8,000 years of wine history – qvevri and orange wine – importance of wine in Georgian culture – Soviet wine production in Georgia (boo) – etc, etc. But we lovers of Georgian wine should remember that most people are still ignorant of that story.

While boring for some, it is still in my opinion vastly important to communicate that story of tradition, because it is a true unique selling point that differentiates Georgia and its wine from the rest of the world. The recent introduction into Georgia of pet nat wines, free-standing qvevri, and concrete eggs, is also interesting, and may make some producers stand out amongst their fellow Georgians, but in the global context they are not so remarkable. Of course underground qvevri are used elsewhere in the world too, but not with all the tradition and experience of Georgia.

If you think traditional qvevri are boring, you should try visiting producers in other countries! I am sure most tourists and importers would much rather see qvevri tops, than yet another array of stainless steel tanks followed by a bottling line. I hasten to add that I personally am sufficiently geeky to find all of the above interesting, so if you have recently shown me your bottling line please don’t be offended 🙂

But to return to the story of Georgian wine, here are some suggestions as to how Georgian producers might seek to differentiate themselves amongst their neighbours within a traditional context:

1) If you use qvevri, talk about the variation in qvevri winemaking throughout the country, and explain how you fit into the national picture, and within your region. I know your wines are not all heavily extracted tannic monsters, but I am not sure how many people understand that yet.

2) Give context to your grape varieties in the same way. Explain how local or widespread they are, and where they are grown. I personally also find it helpful to know how the names translate into English, because they then become more meaningful and easy to remember.

3) I think most people already do this, but tell your backstory. I find the roots of Georgian producers particularly fascinating as they are so diverse – from hobbyist to ex-Soviet wine factory and everything in-between.

4) Finally – terroir. My impression is that this is given very little emphasis in Georgia, but wine people in general seem to love hearing about terroir. So why not do some research on your geology and soils, and your micro- and macro-climates, and explain why they are so important?

I know I cannot speak for everyone, but the above is my opinion as a British drinker of Georgian wine who has so far made a couple of trips to Georgia, and has visited vineyards on both trips. I’d also like to emphasise that I am not against innovation per se -it’s just that it is the Georgian tradition of winemaking that will keep drawing me back to the country and its wine.

Having now completed most of Daria’s bingo card, I shall end with a gaumarjosგაუმარჯოს.

How not to pick a wine

In a nutshell, contrary to the advice and suggestions you might see in some places, do not pick a wine based on how you presume the price is determined. That is how you don’t do it.

Even I have been guilty of offering price-related selection advice to an extent, in that I wrote a version of the common trope that explains how, if you spend a bit more money on your wine, there is a huge increase in the money available for the wine production element of the cost. To be fair to myself, I did add a touch of scepticism that you don’t usually get in those explanations. But these days I would give greater emphasis to the fact that, just because more money is available for wine production, it does not necessarily mean it is spent that way. It could for example go on marketing, to yield more profit, or to subsidise other wines in a producers range. Also, even if more is spent on production, it does not necessarily mean that you are going to like the wine any more. New oak barrels are expensive, but how much do you like oaky wines?

Then there is the idea that people typically go for the second cheapest wine on a restaurant list, to avoid spending too much while not appearing to be a skinflint.  So another piece of advice often given is to avoid the second cheapest wine, because that will be marked up more highly by cunning restaurateurs. That idea was recently debunked a few months ago, and gleefully reported on in the wine press. Apparently, in reality percentage markups are highest on midrange wines. So in these newly enlighted times, presumably those are now the wines to avoid? No, actually not.

All of the above is irrelevant to the consumer. Let people in the wine trade and restaurant business worry about the economics of wine production, mark-ups, and price points. For the wine consumer there are only two relevant considerations: how much the wine costs, and how much pleasure we can derive from it. Of those two factors, cost is a perfectly straightforward, but the concept of pleasure bears more analysis.

It is not just the liquid in the bottle that is important for pleasure, or even the issue of how well it goes with whatever you are eating. For all manner of goods, and wine is no exception, we seem to gain pleasure from all sorts of things. Rarity, for example. How many bottles were produced, and how common is the grape variety? Then some people take pleasure in enjoying expensive items; while others love a bargain. And labels can be as important on wine bottles as on items of clothing. It’s all a question of what works for you, and pleasure is rarely rational. If you are interested in How Pleasure Works, you may like the book with that title, written by Paul Blom – I did.

I admit that it is difficult to know how much pleasure one will get from any particular wine. But at the very least, thinking about pleasure is more pleasurable than fretting about the economics of wine trade.

Botijas – Peruvian winemaking in clay

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.

The Story of Wine – book review

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, the Academie du Vin Library book has a good quality soft-covered binding, and 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 clean and uncluttered. 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 need 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.

Edit: Well, some time after writing this review I did start reading the book again. But I did not get far. I found Johnson’s expansive prose rather annoying, and would have much prepared something terser that concentrated on facts, rather than scene-setting. However, as mentioned above, maybe this is just me. Judge for yourself whether you are like me or not.

Sherry: Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! – book review

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.