The Importance of Being Bottled

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 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 here 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.

The Wines of Georgia – book review

The Wines of Georgia by Lisa Granik MW, is published by Infinite Ideas in the Classic Wine Library series, with a recommended price of £30. I couldn’t find it cheaper at the usual discounting online booksellers, but it is worth googling for a discount code to buy directly from the publishers. As I write, there are substantial reductions available for WSET, MW and CMS students and/or alumni. By way of disclosure, I should point out that I was given a review copy.

In broad terms, the organisation follows the pattern of many wine books whose topic is a country or major region. Firstly there is background information, separated into chapters on geology, history, wine culture, and a rather large one on local grape varieties. Then, apart from some closing thoughts, each subsequent chapter takes a Georgian region as its subject. The size of each region’s chapter reflects the extent of its winemaking activity, so the Kakheti chapter is another large one, as Kakheti is responsible for the majority of wine production in the country.

My second reviewer disclosure is to declare how much of the book I actually read. Most background chapters were read carefully, but I skipped through the grape variety and regional chapters to get a general impression, pausing only to read in more detail where I was more familiar with the subject matter, or where something in particular otherwise caught my attention. I suspect this reading pattern would not be untypical, as the later chapters would be heavy-going if read in a linear fashion, and are a lot more suited for reference material.

My general impression is that the book is well-researched and detailed. Not only has Lisa travelled extensively in the country, but she has consulted organisational authorities, and read in some depth on the subjects she writes about. Thus for example, she avoids the retelling of Georgian history according to folk memory, and offers a more nuanced interpretation of Georgia’s Soviet period. There are but a handful of comments in the text that I find questionable, but they could be largely put down to emphasis and interpretation, and are certainly not significant enough to merit analysis here.

The tone is generally formal and serious, so you have to be on your guard or you will miss the occasional flashes of dry humour. One consequence of this tone is that Georgia’s romance is downplayed, along with its people, food and countryside. But that’s fair enough, the main topic after all is wine, and a single book cannot be expected to cover everything.

The regional chapters, which comprise around half the book, are packed with solid and interesting information. However, they might be easier to navigate if more structure were imposed on them. Thus, while they contained solid information on the geography, geology, PDOs, and producers, it was not always obvious where to find it. If structure  does exist in the regional chapters, then it is perhaps more a criticism of the publisher’s layout and typography than the author. A finer level of detail in the table of contents would have helped, as would a better index.  For example if you want to know about Kindzmarauli, a word you may find on a Georgian wine label, it does not have its own top level index entry; you have to know to look under Protected Designations of Origin, and then Kakheti.

Better maps would also have helped in some of the explanations in the regional chapters. Map quality in wine books is a constant complaint of mine, and actually the ones in this book are better than most. It is really only the Upper Kakheti map that attempts to cram in far too much information – but this is sadly the one that covers most of the country’s wine production.

On the positive side, I was very pleasantly surprised to see what I thought was a very balanced approach in any discussion of homemade and natural wines. This subject is usually divisive, and while a fair amount of writing on Georgian wine has come from cheerleaders of the natural wine movement, MWs seem to often adopt the opposite, very disdainful, stance. The cheerleaders may make my eyes roll, but it the disdain irritates me more. Anyway, I finished up unirritated, with eyeballs intact, and just a little curious as to exactly where Lisa draws the line between faultiness and acceptability in natural wines.

The blurb on the back cover claims that this is the definitive book on Georgian wine. I am not sure I agree, if only because I am not sure a definitive book can exist for a subject matter that is changing so rapidly. But I would go so far as to say it is the best book to date, without a shadow of a doubt. So if you want to learn about Georgian wine, this should be your first port of call.

New decade – new look

The theme that determined the look of my blog a few moments ago was 10 years old, and deemed to be obsolescent by various 3rd parties. Hence, I was pushed very much towards an update of my website’s appearance, and I have a new theme. It is now Responsive, which is considered to be a Good Thing – not least by Google apparently when it calculates the weightings to use for page rankings. Personally, on smaller devices I think it now looks a lot better than it used to, but worse on laptop and desktop machines. That’s progress.

Anyway, I know there are a few niggles with some older posts, but otherwise everything seems to be working. However, if you notice any problems please do let me know. Meanwhile, I’ll try to get working on new content.

Happy New Year!

Sulphites in wine

Over the last few weeks I published a mini-series of posts on sulphites in wine, trying to go into a bit more depth than is usually found, and referring to my evidence base where possible. It is also perhaps a bit technical in places, but I hope it strikes the right balance at least for some winelovers.

The main thread of the posts starts with introductory material, including sulphite allergies, and a bit about typical sulphite concentrations, and limits specified by the various regulatory bodies. Then, after brief discussion of sulphite-induced headaches, which I see as a bit of a side-issue, I move on to the effect of sulphites on flavour. My posts are linked to below:

Clearing up a few points

Maximum and typical concentrations

Headaches

Effect on flavour

I must admit that when I started writing about sulphites, my view was that the issue was quite cut-and-dried, and they got far too much attention in the wine-world. I now see that sulphites are a lot more important than I thought, and not only for  wine-preservation and health reasons. The extent to which sulphites are good or bad is now not entirely clear to me, but I am convinced that sulphite-usage decisions are not to be taken lightly.

Sulphites in wine – headaches

Before I get back to posting more techy-stuff about sulphites in wine, here’s a brief diversion into the question of whether sulphites in wine can cause headaches.

Two things are clear. One is that, as far as I know, there is no scientific evidence that they do – we know that sulphites may result in a number of various symptoms in a small section of the population, but headaches is not one of them. The second is, despite that, quite a few people do believe that sulphites cause headaches, and have anecdotal evidence to support their belief. And of course a lack of scientific evidence for a proposition does not mean it is wrong.

The main problem with the anecdotal evidence is that wine contains another chemical, one that we know for sure causes headaches: alcohol. And there are also other chemicals that could conceivably do the same. So if you suffer from wine-related headaches how might you attempt to identify what is the culprit?

An easy first step would be to establish which wines are more likely to give you the worst headaches. Are sweet ones the worst? Followed by dry whites, and with red wines least likely to give you headaches? If so, that pattern is consistent with sulphites being to blame, because sweet wines are likely to contain more sulphites than dry ones, and white wines more than reds. On the other hand, if red wines are the worst, then it is more likely to be due to a chemical extracted from grape skins. A possible culprit is histamine – you could test for that by seeing if an antihistamine helps (but do check first that it is OK to consume alcohol with the drug). Or of course red wines might be giving you more headaches simply because they tend to contain more alcohol.

You could also compare your normal wines with ones that have particularly low sulphite levels. Generally speaking, a better quality wine, or something natural, biodynamic or natural, will be likely to have lower sulphite levels. But to be sure that you are comparing with a low sulphite wine you could go to the Raw Wine website and search for wines with levels under, say, 20 ppm. If lower sulphite wines give you fewer headaches it may still not be the sulphites themselves that are making the difference, as wines with low sulphite levels are probably low on other additives too. But on the other hand, if you like the low sulphite wine you might consider your problem solved anyway, so who cares?

Another approach would be to note if other sulphite-containing food and drink gives you headaches. Bright orange dried apricots are said to contain up to 1,000 ppm of sulphites. That’s a lot more than would be allowed in any wine, though to be fair you are likely to consume more wine in one session than apricots. Here’s a list I found of food and drink containing more than 100 ppm sulphites:

Dried fruits (excluding dark raisins and prunes)
Bottled lemon juice (non-frozen)
Bottled lime juice (non-frozen)
Wine
Molasses
Sauerkraut (and its juice)
Grape juices (white, white sparkling, pink sparkling, red sparkling)
Pickled cocktail onions

I feel a bit ill reading that list, but if you can pig-out on dried apricots, molasses, sauerkraut (and its juice) and pickled onions without getting a headache, probably sulphites are not responsible for your hangovers.

All the above suggestions are as unscientific as any assertion that sulphites cause headaches. The best they can achieve is to give you a little more understanding of how you personally react to sulphite additives, and I’m afraid that’s the best I can offer.

Sulphites in wine – maximum and typical concentrations

In pretty much all wine-producing countries, there are regulations to limit the sulphite content of wine. The limits are always expressed nominally in terms of total sulphur dioxide, but I suspect they all assume an analysis method that fails to account for some of the bound sulphur dioxide, as discussed in my previous post.

Let’s start by taking a look at sulphite limits in the European Union. The rather complex set of limits are very nicely summarised in a table in the document EU rules for organic wine production: Background, Evaluation and Further Sector Development:

If you feel motivated to check these various EU limits or get more details, the table provides you with the relevant document numbers, which can be found by a web search. But it is not a task to be tackled lightly – I once set out to extract the various sulphite limits from the 1999 regulations and nearly lost the will to live.

The US regulations on the other hand have the advantage of simplicity: for wines with no organic-credentials the limit is 350 ppm (or mg/l – the units are practically identical). That figure is widely quoted, but I am afraid I have not been able to track down the actual regulatory document. I had more success with finding an authoritative-looking document for organic wines in the USA: Organic Wine: Oversight, Labeling & Trade. That document covers two categories: wine made with organic grapes and organic wine, where organic wine has stricter rules. For organic wine, added sulphites are not allowed at all – though the wine will still contain naturally occurring sulphites, and probably need a sulphites warning on the label, as discussed in my previous post. However, for wine made with organic grapes sulphite additions are allowed, providing there is no more than 100 ppm sulphur dioxide in the finished wine. In the EU by the way, wine made with organic grapes is not a special category: the grapes must be farmed organically as claimed, but all winemaking regulations are as for conventional wines in the above table.

For allowable sulphite levels in other countries, The Oxford Companion to Wine reads: “In South Africa, the limit is 150 mg/l for dry reds, 160 mg/l for dry white, rosé, and sparkling, and between 200 and 300 mg/l for sweet wines depending on style and level of sweetness. Argentina: 130 mg/l for dry reds, 180 mg/l for dry white and rosé wines and sweet reds, 210 mg/l for sweet white and rosé. Chile: 300 mg/l for all dry wines and 400 mg/l for sweet wines.”

As far as biodynamic wine is concerned, Demeter certifies it internationally, and their document Standards for Demeter/Biodynamic Wine regulates the use of sulphites. The stated aim is that sulphur dioxide be restricted to the absolute minimum, but then the document proceeds to specify limits that are more lax than the US organic regulations. For different types of wine, the maximum allowable total sulphur dioxide at bottling in mg/l is:

But what about so-called natural wines? As you probably know there is no official definition or certifying body, but we can take a look at the list of wines made by the accredited growers and makers of Raw Wine – Isabel Legeron’s platform for the promotion of natural wines. By searching the list using filters provided on the website, it is possible to get a feeling for sulphite levels in wines deemed to be natural. The database also records which wines have added sulphites, but sadly you cannot use that as a search criterion. Here are the results of a search on 6th June 2019:

NATURAL WINES
Total sulphur dioxide (ppm) Number of wines
0 468
1-10 925
11-20 929
21-30 957
31-40 739
41-50 504
51-60 341
61-70 196
71-80 5
81-90 2
91-100 2

I think some of the quoted sulphur dioxide analysis results in this table need to be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, when you look at the data in more detail it is obvious that some testing laboratories round the concentrations to the nearest integer multiple of 5 or 10 ppm. Note also the high number of wines with precisely zero sulphites, despite it being commonly stated that fermentation necessarily creates sulphites in all wines. I have seen 10 ppm referred to as a detectable level, implying that measuring anything less than that is problematic, so perhaps that explains all the wines at 0 ppm? But regardless of such quibbling, I think we can conclude from the table that most natural wines contain less than 40 ppm, and that there are fewer and fewer natural wines at levels increasing from 40 to 70 ppm.

So now we know some the sulphite concentrations in some natural wines, thanks largely to sulphites being one of the obsessions of the natural wine community, but getting sulphite concentrations for wines in general seems to be more difficult. The assumption is often that the makers of cheap wines zap their wines with as much sulphite as they can get away with, to compensate for poor fruit quality, and for closer control of the winemaking process to create a consistent product that meets an expected flavour profile. On the other hand, higher quality producers are expected use less sulphites, as they take more care to select healthy fruit, are willing to put more effort into low-intervention winemaking, and are also more tolerant of variation in the end product. I personally think there must be some truth in that characterisation, but sadly cannot demonstrate it with numbers. More certainly, it is the case that red wines need less added sulphites than white, because the tannin in red wines will also provide protection against oxidation, and sweeter wines will tend to need more added sulphites, because the sugar binds sulphur dioxide, rendering it a lot less effective.

To get some feeling for typical sulphite concentrations in wines that are not claimed to be natural, I think we could do a lot worse than look at the maximums in the first table of this post. EU regulations are typically designed to reflect existing practice rather than to effect change, so I think it is reasonable to assume that most wines have sulphite levels approaching, but comfortably within, the specified limits for the different styles of wine. On the other hand, producers who particularly favour low-intervention methods (even if they do not identify with the natural wine movement) would be closer to around 30 ppm, and other high-quality wines would have intermediate concentrations.

So what are we to make of all this? To be honest I am not at all sure. One might hope that maximum sulphite levels were specified according to some sort of objective assessment of health risk, but I am not convinced we know enough about sulphite allergies to do that – there is not even agreement about what proportion of people are affected by sulphites (as mentioned in my previous post). So what we have are rules based on a mish-mash of current practice and ideology. In my opinion, the best that can be said for the current situation is that consumers can exercise a degree of choice about their exposure to sulphites – based on their world-view and how they personally perceive health risks.

Sulphites in wine – clearing up a few points

I studied a bit of chemistry at university so I know what a sulphite is, I thought. It’s an ion that has a single sulphur atom, three oxygens and a double negative charge. And I most definitely would not make the common error of confusing sulphite with sulphate, which is spelled with an a rather than an i, and has four oxygen atoms – a totally different beast.

The usual story with sulphites is that they are added to wine to work against oxidation, and kill yeast and bacteria, but the downside is that some people are allergic to them, and in the US and EU they require a warning label if present at 10 ppm (parts per million – very similar to mg/l) or more. They are also anecdotally associated with headaches, and thought by some to be a Bad Thing simply because they are not Natural. However, at the next level of sophistication you might also be aware that some sulphite content actually is natural, as it is a fermentation product, and thus present in every wine even if not added artificially.

So far so good, but when you start poking around a bit more, asking what sulphite concentrations actually mean, and how many of us are allergic to sulphites, it suddenly gets rather more murky. What people call sulphites are not necessarily the sulphites a chemistry undergraduate is confident about, and it is not clear precisely what people are allergic to. I don’t claim to have a complete overview of all these issues, but will try here to clarify what I can.

The sulphite ion (top left), sulphur dioxide molecule (top right), and the two tautomers of the bisulphite ion (bottom)

Let me start by talking through some of the points made on Ben Rotter’s excellent webpage on sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide can be introduced into wine using any of a number of approved additives but, regardless of which one is used, the same set of sulphur-related entities will result:

  1. Sulphur dioxide – gas molecules in solutions
  2. Sulphite ions – as described at the start of this post
  3. Bisulphite ions – like sulphite but with a hydrogen, and less charge
  4. Unstable compounds – formed by bonding with various other chemicals
  5. Stable compounds – notably the product of reacting with acetaldehyde

Even though only number 1 in the list is actually sulphur dioxide, 1-3 are often referred to as free sulphur dioxide, and 4 and 5 as bound sulphur dioxide. The total sulphur dioxide includes both the free and the bound forms. Any protective properties are largely lost in the bound forms, with free sulphur dioxide doing the vast majority of the good work. In fact, it is the molecular sulphur dioxide that is most effective form but, depending on the pH, there may not be much of it present as a fraction of the total.

You may have noticed that from talking about sulphites we quietly slid into the subject of sulphur dioxide. You will find that is quite common in discussions of this subject, and the two are often seen as being practically synonymous. It does not help that when someone says sulphur dioxide they could be referring to

  1. Actual sulphur dioxide molecules,
  2. Free sulphur dioxide,
  3. Bound sulphur dioxide (unlikely perhaps),
  4. Total sulphur dioxide

In fact you could add a fifth, which is the sulphur dioxide measured by a specific procedure. More on this later, but let’s first take a look at sulphur compound allergies.

The first point to make on the subject of allergies is that people can have adverse reactions to several different sulphur compounds, and just because you have problems with one does not mean you need to avoid contact with all of them. In the food and drink industry it is common to talk about adding sulphites, and the product as containing sulphites. Accordingly, from a medical point of view, what is of interest to us here is usually referred to as a sulphite allergy or intolerance, as it is a reaction to food or drink that contains these sulphites. Also, my impression is that people take the practical view that all sulphited products finish up containing the same range of chemicals, as listed above, and do not bother to distinguish between the individual chemicals when gathering data about allergies.

There are many possible reactions to sulphites, both true allergies (due to an over-sensitive immune response) and other intolerances. The most severe response is anaphylaxis, which is rare but very serious and possibly lethal, while the most common is the worsening of any asthma symptoms, also potentially lethal in some cases. Other less serious possible reactions are hives and allergic rhinitis. But as far as I know there is no hard evidence that sulphites cause headaches. Estimates of the numbers of people affected by adverse reactions vary a lot. One estimate is that 1% of the population is affected, of which 5% also suffer from asthma; while another source says 5% of asthmatics are sensitive to sulphites, compared with 1% of the rest of the populations; and a third source claims that in America less than 0.05% of the whole population is affected.

Speaking of inconsistency in terminology, you might also note that although food scientists and medical people tend to talk about sulphites, and the warning text on wine labels reads “contains sulphites”, the threshold level for warnings is defined in terms of total sulphur dioxide content, a label warning being required for 10 ppm or more. In fact a specific procedure (or one that gives similar results) is mandated for measuring sulphur dioxide: the optimised Monier-Williams distillation-titration procedure.

Looking at methods similar to optimised Monier-Williams (here and here), it seems that the first step is to acidify, which converts all the free sulphur dioxide, and also a fixed proportion of bound sulphur dioxide, to the molecular form of sulphur dioxide, and then the sulphur dioxide gas content is measured. So it seems likely that the concentration levels determined for comparison with the 10 ppm limit, are expressed in terms of molecular sulphur dioxide gas, rather than the ionic forms. Another conclusion is that, as not all the bound sulphur dioxide is converted to the molecular form for measurement, the procedure will not actually give the true total sulphur dioxide content – it will be somewhat less, but greater than the amount of free sulphur dioxide.

Why is the limit set to 10 ppm? I could not find a definitive answer, but 10 ppm is referred to as being a detectable amount, so it seems that it is linked to the practicalities of measurement, rather than the level at which some people might react badly. As the mandated procedure under-measures, it would anyway seem silly to start fretting too much about the science behind the limit of 10 ppm. Perhaps the best that can be said about the regulations is that they are capable of being enforced consistently, and offer a degree of protection to those who are allergic.

I can only assume that the sulphite concentrations often bandied about by natural wine advocates also refer to sulphur dioxide as measured by the optimised Monier-Williams method, but I have never seen it stated. You will typically see sulphite concentrations quoted if a low-intervention producer choses to add sulphites, but otherwise an informal description of a low-intervention wine will often only say “no added sulphites”. Just remember that there will still be sulphites in a no-added-sulphites wines, and quite likely more than 10 ppm. This may be fine if you are mainly concerned about the natural-credentials of the wine, but is definitely something to bear in mind if you have a serious sulphite allergy.

So that is my best shot at explaining more precisely what sulphites actually are, how they are regulated, and to what extent they are responsible for allergies. I have done my best to stick to facts to the extent I could establish them, and keep my opinions to myself, but I might be more indulgent in future posts now I know a bit more what I am talking about. If I’ve got something wrong, or could have explained something better, please let me know, and I will try to correct or improve what I have written.

Untamed: 8000 Vintages of Georgian Wine – book review

Untamed: 8000 Vintages of Georgian Wine by Anna Saldadze, hardback, available online from various places for £25.

My initial impression on opening the book was very favourable. It is not exactly what I would call a coffee-table book, as its dimensions (24.5 x 19.5 x 2 cm) are too modest, the images not dominating enough, and the text is too good. But it is certainly beautifully designed in a quiet sort of way, with the text nicely laid out, and excellent photographs and illustrations to complement the text. Even the maps, one of my biggest bugbears in most wine books, are both attractive and useful. The text also reads well, in a gentle and relaxed style, leisurely almost, in keeping with the general feel of the book.

The named sections cover the topics outlined here… The Quest gives background cultural information on Georgia and its wine. The Modern Pioneers is about the recent trend towards commercialising natural qvevri wines. Strangely, this section ends with a selection of label images from many different types of wine – not just the natural qvevri ones – each with a  short winery profile. The Qvevri is unsurprisingly about qvevri, and qvevri winemaking, and A Joyful Spirit is, less obviously perhaps, about the Georgian supra feasting tradition. This is followed by what for me was the most interesting section, as it covered ground I was less familiar with – The Estates describes the history of three large wine estates that were established in the 19th century when Georgia was part of the Russian empire, and tells how they introduced modern European wine technology into the country. The final main section is the longest –  Regions, Grapes and Wines, looks at the regions of Georgia, some of which are PDOs as the book calls them, or appellations if you prefer. This is where you will find the maps I referred to above, along with high quality ampelographic images of the vines most typically associated with each regions, and accompanying text. There follows 5 annexes, which seem to contain bits and pieces that were deemed not to fit into any of the other sections, and then a massive list of Georgian grape varieties, in both Latin and Georgian script. Presumably the point of this list is to ram home the vast number of native grape varieties Georgia has – 525 according to this book and many other sources, but it has never been made clear to me where this precise number comes from. And I am still none the wiser as to the source of that number, nor where the list in this book comes from. I note that it is not the same as the list at the back of Georgian Ampelography, and neither is it the same as the list of native Georgian grapes you get from the Vitis International Variety Catalogue database.

At the end of the author’s introduction, she writes “This book is a humble introduction to a complex wine culture. It is neither an ethnological study nor an œnological treatise, nor does it claim to be exhaustive. It merely aims to arouse curiosity, and to encourage the discovery of something which is at the some time very old, and yet also very new”. Those goals are certainly successfully achieved, and with a degree of aplomb.  I do wonder though if you, as a reader of my blog, might be expecting more of the œnological treatise that the book was never intended to be. But take it on its own terms, as an introduction to a complex wine culture, and you will not be disappointed.

The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova – book review

This is a review of The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova by Caroline Gilby, published by Infinite Ideas. The RRP is £30.00 and it doesn’t seem easy to get it cheaper than that now, but I bought mine with a (now expired) 35%-off discount code from The Wine Society.

The single word that springs to mind to describe this book is professional. It is thoroughly researched, carefully and precisely written in a rather dry style, and I think largely aimed at other professionals – wine buyers, and winemakers and investors in those three countries, potential or actual. I suspect however there is little of direct interest to end-user drinkers of wine in the UK, as there are no opinions on specific on wines available over here. Nor is there anything about how we might go about visiting the countries to find out more, should our interest be piqued. Little of interest in a direct way perhaps, but I did find the history sections worthwhile, as they provided good insights into how the current state of wine production came to be what it is, and I expect a lot of the rest of the book to prove useful for reference. As a wine geek, I am more than happy to own this book, even if it does not enthuse me as much as I might have hoped.

I have already commented negatively on the author’s short sections in this book on homemade wines, and I think those comments also indicate Caroline’s professional and industry perspective. While I am naturally inclined to defend homemade wines, I can absolutely understand that someone who wishes to encourage the development of commercial local wine production might see things differently.

The book’s major division is by parts dealing with each of the three countries. Then for each country there are chapters devoted to history, the current situation and possible futures. And those are followed chapters on grape varieties, wine regions, and producer profiles. At the end of the book are three appendices of statistics, a glossary, bibliography, and index. All the text is very thorough. But illustrations, grey-tone and colour plates, are sparse, and in my opinion of very limited value. And as with practically every wine book I read and review, the maps are particularly lacking. I know good cartography is not cheap, but it could contribute so much to a subject where geography is so important to understanding.

So definitely a book to get if you have a professional wine interest in Bulgaria, Romania or Moldova, or if you are particularly geeky in your interest in wine. But probably not if you have a more casual interest in the wines of those countries.

How I got hooked on wine

Origins are often shrouded in the mists of time, and alternative versions of the origin narrative develop. My love of wine is no different, and two stories emerge from the vinous haze.

The first is more outward-looking.  I started going to wine tastings as I had friends who were already enthusiastic about wine, and I was persuaded to join them. Eventually, so much of my social life involved tasting and drinking wine that I decided I wanted to learn a lot more about the subject. It was then that I started reading widely about wine, eventually focussing on what was necessary for a WSET qualification, but not stopping there. Neither did the social aspect of my love of wine ever stop. There are few greater pleasures than sharing food and wine with friends.

The second story is more introverted, more focussed on a single event and, to be honest, the significance of the key moment only became clear with the benefit of hindsight. To give too many details would involve fabrication, but I distinctly remember the taste of the wine concerned, and I remember the effect it had. Its flavour was not complex or profound, but it knocked me round the mouth and made me sit up and pay attention. The flavour was petrol, the petrol of a mature Hugel Riesling. Oddbins’ shelf-talker had tried to warn me what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me adequately. The wine I usually drank at the time was pretty mainstream – probably New World, and at the posh end of what you could get in a supermarket. But petrol? Wine could taste like that too? And people sell and buy the stuff, and drink it? It took me some time to get used to the idea, but as I worked my way towards the end of my share of the bottle I realised I really liked it, and wanted more.

And I still want more. I want more petrolly Rieslings, and I want other interesting and weird flavours. I want to challenge my preconceptions about what wine can and should taste like. It may come as no surprise to you that I like exploring natural wine. I find the apple flavours you can often get in natural wines rather boring, but I like the fresh bright fruit, and often the volatility and Brett too. I like home-made, skin-contact, slightly cloudy Rkatsiteli, served from a jug in an outdoor restaurant in Georgia (see above image). Those wines remind me of when the whole gamut of wine was opening up to me for the first time.