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.
In Caroline Gilby’s recent book The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova, she is rather scathing of homemade wine. She explains how it is estimated to account for up to half the wine consumption of Bulgaria, and is regarded by the locals as an authentic product, from the heart, and free from nasty chemicals. And, as such, it is often thought to be superior to commercially produced wines. But she goes on to say that anyone from the international world of wine would see it as a horrible, faulty liquid that bears little resemblance to proper wine. Caroline proposes that drinkers of homemade wines need to be educated about how faulty they are, and persuaded to switch to entry-level commercial wines in the hope that they will eventually move on to a higher quality premium product. The story seems to be very similar for Romania and Moldova.However, my experience of homemade wine in ex-communist and ex-Soviet countries is rather different, albeit more limited than Caroline’s. Also I seem to have managed to arrive at very different conclusions – perhaps due to my different exposure to homemade wine, but I suspect also a fundamentally different attitude to wine. I have only tried one Romanian homemade wine. It was pinkish grey and had a sweet aromatic smell – perhaps rosehip and clove – with low acidity and high alcohol. It was certainly not a style I am used to, but was pleasant enough, and not faulty in any way. When in Georgia though I tried several homemade wines, in restaurants mainly, but also in one of those encounters that is probably unique to that country, where a group of builders were taking a refreshment break with a large plastic bottle of wine, and insisted on offering some to us.
Was the Georgian homemade wine good? I thought the closest comparison was with their commercial artisanal natural qvevri wines – which for brevity I shall refer to below simply as natural wine. The worst homemade wine was as horrible as the worst natural wine, while at the other end of the scale the best homemade wine was good, but not nearly as good as the best natural wine. Hardly a ringing endorsement you might think, but given a common restaurant choice between homemade wine and a cheap wine made in industrial quantities, I would go for homemade every time, and I think most Georgians would do the same. Homemade wine is at the very least more interesting. And to the extent that authenticity and soul means anything at all I see that as a positive too. It would be interesting to know what Caroline’s view is of the commercial artisanal natural qvevri wines of Georgia. I suspect she might be quite critical of those too, so perhaps our views on homemade wines differ because I have a greater acceptance wines that do not conform to western stereotypes, and wines that we say are technically faulty.
But has the presence of homemade wine held back the development of the commercial wine sector in Georgia, in the way that Caroline implies is the case in Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova? My impression is that during Soviet times, under-the-radar winemaking in homes and farms is to be credited with keeping traditional Georgian qvevri winemaking practice alive. It probably also helped preserve a broad range of grape varieties that would otherwise have died out. In that sense, homemade wine has had a hugely positive influence at a time when the Soviet Union seemed hell-bent on destroying local tradition by concentrating production in a few large wine factories, using only a handful of productive and easy-to-grow grape varieties. And I think the positive influence continues today, as experience of home winemaking seems to be a factor in giving people the confidence to try their hand at more commercial small-scale natural wine production. Even if that type of wine makes only a small direct contribution to the Georgian economy, it is still important in raising the profile of the country internationally and attracting western tourists.
And what of the future? I do not see any reason to discourage homemade wine. Moving economic activity from the home to the commercial sector might increase GDP, but does not necessarily improve quality of life. Rather than encouraging the growth of the commercial sector at the expense of homemade, I would rather see wine quality improvements across the board. I am not sure green harvests are the answer, but attention to cellar hygiene must be a good thing. I suspect that Georgian winemakers at all levels already know how important that is, as there are millennia-old methods and tools for keeping qvevri clean, but the actual practice is probably lacking in some places. Not selling their wine in clear plastic bottles in bright sunshine (as in the picture above) would also help!
In summary, I find the idea of homemade wine rather comforting and reassuring. I take it as a sign that there is still a real grass-roots wine culture – not one that is imposed by, or developed for, international markets. Is that so bad?
A few years ago I wrote about wine snobs, but I am not entirely happy with that post. It was mainly a mini-rant about how the media bandies the term around. That still annoys me, and it is increasingly done by wine merchants too – Naked Wines, I’m looking at you. On reflection though, while I still don’t think I have met anyone I would call a wine snob, wine-snobbery does exist to a greater or lesser degree in many wine drinkers. Call it prejudice if you will – maybe that is actually a better word – a refusal to drink any wine under £10, anything that does not come from France, or any wine that is not natural. I think that is part of being human, though many of us have red lines that are drawn in a more nuanced way than the above examples.
There is however another type of snobbery, which harks back to an older usage of the word. It is not to do with someone looking down on people with less-refined taste; but rather someone of lower status pretending to be above their station. Using British TV comedy cultural references, think more Hyacinth Bucket than Margot Leadbetter.
The world of wine can be very intimidating, and it does not help when wine educators selling their services play on those fears by offering solutions to deal with problem situations: when you are entertaining clients in a restaurant and are handed the wine list, for example. Then, as part of your wine education, you are given a set of tools to use in those situations, and many other rules and facts for good measure. I think what we are doing here carries the danger of actually creating more wine-related social anxiety, and more wine snobbery – snobbery in the sense of encouraging people to pretend they are better than they are. And there is always the possibility that, those novices actually mistake what they have learned for deeper knowledge, and acquire snobbery in the more modern sense of the word, looking down on (or at least askance at) others who do not understand wine.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am all in favour of wine education, but for people who have a genuine desire for knowledge; not for the allayment of social anxiety. However, it is a long road to acquire what I would call real knowledge about wine, and in my opinion the most important thing is to convey to novices that they should not worry. Wine is to be enjoyed, not stressed about. Learn how to enjoy wine, and in the meantime if you need to select from a wine list, ask for advice from the restaurant.
If you do not want to promote wine snobbery, take a relaxed attitude to wine and encourage others to do the same.
A week ago we returned from a week in Split, Croatia, and I share here some of our food and wine experiences. This break was not particularly wine-focussed, and we did not visit any local producers, but we did drink wines made from local varieties with meals. I’ll kick off with three of our favourite restaurants, the first two being suggested by the owner of our rooms as places he likes to eat.
Villa Spiza is just outside the Palace (the area in the centre of town where Diocletian’s Palace stood). They buy in fresh food every day, and as it starts to run out it they cross dishes off the menu, and close the restaurant when it has all gone. No reservations, so you have to just turn up and be prepared to queue for a table. When we were there we waited around 30 mins, but the queue soon grew to an hour. Both from the perspective of getting a good choice of dishes, and minimising queuing, it is perhaps best to go for lunch or an early evening meal. You will also have to accept that seating can be cramped. So what is so great about it? The food was simultaneously the best and the cheapest we found in Split, and although the staff were busy, they were also attentive and friendly. This is where we got the Dingač mentioned below, which we had with steak. It was served at room temperature (mid-to-high 20s Centigrade) but when I asked for a bucket of ice and water the bucket appeared unquestioningly, and within the minute of my asking. We only visited once because we did not feel like queuing on other occasions, wanting a more relaxing evening.
Konoba Fetivi is bit further out, but still only 10 or 15 mins walk from the Palace. Nothing fancy, but good quality food and reasonably priced, and we had two evening meals there. Best known for the fish and sea food, but they serve meat too. This is where we got the house white mentioned below. When we were there a couple of weeks ago, we needed to book to get in for dinner.
Gallerija is actually in the Palace area, and a bit hidden away down a side alley from an already very narrow street, in a small courtyard. Good food at a decent price, with good service and a very pleasant location. We were staying so close to this place that we could use our rooms’ WiFi, so perhaps we were a bit biased, but we had dinner there twice, and a few breakfasts too. Not as busy at the other two places above, but probably still worth booking for dinner to be on the safe side. The image above is the view from the restaurant courtyard, towards the building where we stayed on the second floor.
The above three restaurants I would recommend with confidence, but now for some other places you might be tempted by if you use the Internet to check out wine places in Split. Zinfandel had great service and food, but it was expensive, e.g. the steak was about twice the price it was in most places. And the hasselback potato on their menu to accompany the steak was not at all like a hasselback. Despite the price and the un-hasselback potato, I must admit we came away feeling we had a good experience, so if you are feeling flush maybe you should give it a try. In contrast, the lunch we had at Uje Oil was very disappointing considering the praise it seems to get online. There were many minor annoyances with the place and the service, which together gave a bad impression, and the food we ordered was average at best. Maybe we caught them on a bad day, but I can only report what we experienced, and we were not tempted to return. Booking was needed for both these two places also. In fact, on two occasions we tried booking Uje Oil around midday for dinner, and failed both times.
Now, a couple of wines that made an impression in very different ways.
Anticević Dingač Traditional 2015, with a mere 16% ABV. HKR 410 at Villa Spiza. Intense purple ruby. Intense aromas. Mainly savoury, but with hints of sweet dark fruit. Spicy. Medium high acidity. Off dry. Medium high tannin. Savoury and slightly bitter on finish. Good now, but could well improve with some more age. Excellent with the steak we were eating *****
Gospoja Dry White Wine, 12% ABV. This was the house white at Konoba Fetivi, and we were told the variety was Žlahtina. The wine was taken from a 10 li catering bag-in-box, and served in carafe at HRK 90 for 75cl. It was what the waiter recommended, and most people in the restaurant were drinking it. Pale straw. Stone fruit and citrus – lemon and lime? Medium high acid. Dry. Tad astringent maybe. Tingly finish. Drink now. A lot better than other cheaper wines we drank in Split, and better than some that were more expensive. Surprisingly good, and worked well with fish *****
Finally, a wine merchant. Looking online the best one in Split seemed to be Vinoteka Terra. It’s in a sort of courtyard just off the road prilaz braće Kaliterna, down some stairs, and in a cellar that it shares with a restaurant. The sign for the shop is a very small plate on the door, and easy to miss – the restaurant signs being a lot more prominent. The picture you might find on the Web, of an alcove with wine shelves, is the whole shop interior, and is not nearly as big as some online reviews make out. Nevertheless, it is still the best selection of Croatian wine I have seen in one place, taking up about half of the shop’s shelf space. Top marks for the help I was given by the lady in the shop in my quest to find 6 bottles to bring back in checked-in luggage. No idea how competitive the prices are for Split.
This is a review of Vineyards, Rocks, & Soils – The Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology, by Alex Maltman, a book published earlier this year, by Oxford University Press which probably explains the unnecessary comma in the title. I picked it up recently from Wordery for just over £20.
My first impressions were very favourable. It is what I have come to think of as a classic-style book: with text organised in a logical sequence and designed to be read linearly from beginning to end. And the illustrations support the text rather than being the main focus of the book. Call me old-fashioned, but that is the way I like the world, and I already have more than enough books for the coffee table thank you. My only criticisms about the presentation is that the text on some of the illustrations is difficult to read due to its size and/or poor contrast, and that the colour illustrations are bound as plates in the centre for the book. I appreciate this is done to keep costs down, but it nevertheless makes the book less convenient to use. Close to the relevant bit of text, there are also grey-scale versions of the plate illustrations, but the grey-scale figure captions do not reference the plates, so I was more than a little bemused to see a grey-scale image used to illustrate the “striking red color” of the terra rossa soil, without realising the image also existed in colour elsewhere. Neither do the colour images reference the grey scale versions, or even duplicate the figure captions, so if you try browsing the colour plates you have no idea what you are looking at. (In case you are wondering, if there is a colour version of the figure it is the main text that links the two versions, by referencing both of them.)
The book starts at the atomic level, and works its way up in scale through two chapters about minerals (the chemical compounds that comprise rocks), then moves on to the three types of rock (sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic). That is followed by a couple of chapters about folds, faults and joints in rock, and how geology influences landscape. In this initial two-thirds or so of the book, there is little mention of how the geology influences wine, but the author does take pains to give examples of the minerals, rocks and landscape features under discussion in well-known wine regions and vineyards, and also notes how the geological terms are used on wine labels and in promoting the wines.
Building on that basis, the rubber then makes firmer contact with the road as we learn about how this geology affects vines and wines. Largely it is indirectly through the soil, so we look at how soils are created, mineral nutrients, minerals in wine, and a more general look and the concept of terroir. This is followed by a chapter on geological time, and the names of the geological periods. This seems like an odd place to discuss geological time, and to an extent the author seems reluctant to discuss it at all, as he maintains the age of the rocks has no bearing on the soils, vines and wines. But it is nevertheless a favourite topic of wine-writers, and of people promoting wines and wine regions, so he thought it should be mentioned. Finally, the book ends with an epilogue discussion of the how the geology of the vineyard affects its wine’s taste.
At the end of the book, I felt I had grasped the broad thrust of the main geological content, but I must admit I skipped through some of the detail, and very quickly forgot some detail I did concentrate on. But I still have the book, and with its excellent index, and use of a bold typeface to indicate where new concepts are explained, it will be good as a reference work to help keep myself geologically sound in my writing.
Maltman seems to have become a bit of a bête noir amongst proponents of minerality and terroir, at least those who see things in black and white terms. But I think his attitude as expressed in this book strikes the right balance in a very measured and tolerant way. Nevertheless, and quite reasonably in my opinion, he does maintain a degree of scientific scepticism. I tend to agree with him on most of these issues of debate.
Also, while pointing out that wine people often do not use geological terms correctly, I think he is also very understanding, admitting that the subject can be very confusing, and that even geologists change their minds and do not always agree amongst themselves. However, when he sees important geological errors in the wine world he is keen to flag them up. A good example is the common confusion between the very different rocks called tuff (volcanic) and tufa (precipitated from cold water).
My final point is that Alex Maltman is an academic who has a wealth of experience in the teaching of geology, and it shows. He knows how to develop the subject in a logical way, how to explain topics that are likely to confuse, and how to lighten the mood with the odd anecdote. And he writes with authority. This is in marked contrast to the more journalistic style of writing where the author travels the world to “find out”, recording interviews with experts en route, and often requiring the reader to fill in the gaps and assemble everything to make a coherent whole. That journalistic style appears to be increasingly popular – but it is not for me.
From listening to what other wine lovers say, and from personal experience, there really is something special about the country of Georgia and its wine. But I find it tricky to put my finger on exactly what that something is. Different people may have different ideas, but for me Georgia’s authenticity is very important – somehow the place is very real and true when compared with the artifice, spin and posturing in the world I am more used to. That and the hospitality of the Georgians, which goes along with their love of food and wine, and other ways of having a good time like singing and dancing. And it is also important to me that their love of wine is so closely integrated into their culture. Yeah, yeah, I hear you say, but isn’t that the case with many other wine countries and regions? Well yes, to an extent, but Georgia takes it to a whole new level.
Georgia is not just a country of wine drinkers; it is a country of wine makers. It is estimated that the home-made product accounts for around two-thirds of all wine consumption in Georgia. And it is not regarded as inferior – quite the reverse in fact, as with products like home-made cake and jam in Britain. Of course, not all home-made wine is natural and made in qvevri, but that is certainly considered by many to be the ideal, and from what I have been able to establish a substantial proportion of it is made that way.
That base of home-made wine, together with very small-scale winemaking for local markets, forms the foundation for the commercial-end of artisanal qvevri wine production in Georgia. Bottling and labelling being the key additional process to enable it to be sold abroad, and alongside its peers in Tbilisi wine bars. This is the trendy stuff that gets most talked-about here, even if it represents only a few percent of commercial wine production in Georgia. To me, it is these cultural roots that make Georgian wines interesting and authentic – they are more than a mere fashion that could disappear as quickly as it arrives on the scene. You may have heard stories about the Soviet Union wiping out traditional Georgian winemaking in Georgia for decades. Well, it didn’t disappear even then – it lived on in people’s homes and on farms, and is now flourishing again.
I am not here saying that all natural qvevri wine production started as I described above; I know it didn’t. Equally, I am not saying that all such wine is superior. I am merely trying to explain what is special about it to me, and any hint of authenticity and rural tradition, however small, certainly adds to my enjoyment of Georgian wines. If that doesn’t impress you, fair enough, but please do not let it lead you to be dismissive about Georgian wines. You may find other things to like – the hundreds of native varieties for example, or the new generation of dynamic winemakers with innovative ideas. Or you might just like the way they taste, which I often do too!
Beyond wine, it starts to get a lot more difficult for me to describe why Georgia is so special, mainly because I have thought about it less. Perhaps it lies in its people getting their priorities straight: relatives, friends, food and drink, more or less in that order. Oh, and patriotism, and God and the Church, are up there in the list too. A lot further down seems to be political correctness and health and safety, also materialism I think. I am not saying I agree with all those priorities, but somehow it is refreshing to see them so clearly visible anyway. Or at least they seem to be clear – maybe I am getting it all wrong, in which case I apologise. I would not be the first tourist to base my liking, or hatred, of another country on a misconception.
Finally, Georgia makes me feel at home in a strange sort of way. Even if the people and countryside can be very different from their British counterparts, I feel a shared humanity, and the soft greens of the landscape feel familiar. Somehow I belong.
On our tour of South and West Georgia, returning to Tbilisi from Kutaisi we turned off the main road just after Gori, and headed South through the beautiful Ateni Valley for around 6 km. Just past the Sion Church, you will find a footpath on your left hand side. Take that path for a further kilometre or so, across the footbridge over the river, and you arrive at Nika Vacheishvili’s marani and guesthouse. As evidenced by the 4×4 parked there, you can drive right up to the house if you approach from another direction and know your way, but ours was the more obvious route. Here we see vineyards in front of the church, and behind that a hint of the landscape of the valley.
We were welcomed by Nika (centre), and joined briefly by his wife Diana when eating lunch. Nika used to be the Georgian Minister for Culture, Heritage and Sport, and decided to create the wine cellar and guesthouse in this location while working on the restoration of the Sion Church.
Wine production is small-scale, organic and natural, but it does not, as you may expect if you have been reading my blog, involve qvevri. Nika decided to start his winemaking in stainless steel, but has plans to use qvevri in the future. It would be interesting to see how the switch to qvevri will impact his wines.
Unfortunately I cannot remember many details of the lunch, but it was all good. However, one thing I do remember as being particularly impressive was actually one of the more modest dishes: sliced beetroot. In England I am used to having this served in a little watered-down vinegar, but here the Georgian sour plum sauce (tkemali) took the vinegar role, and brought it to a whole new level.
We had three wines served at lunch. Putting together my scrappy notes and information from the web, I believe we had the 2017 and 2016 vintages of the Atenuri – a wine from the Ateni Valley of 80% Chinuri and 20% Gorula Mtsvane. And the third wine was 2015 Koshkebis Chinebuli – made from 50 years old Chinuri vines – Koshkebis is Georgian for towers, and Chinebuli is a another name for Chinuri. To be honest, I am afraid to say I did not like these wines very much. I found the two Atenuri wines to be out of balance, in that they were too alcoholic for the body and aromatics. And the Koshkebis Chinebuli, although it had developed some interesting Riesling-like petrol notes, was a little musty. But I am a big believer in the subjectivity of wine appreciation, and my wife, whose opinions I respect, thought the wines were good. Maybe my palate was having an off-day.
Regardless, if you are looking for good food, and a quiet place to relax for a few days in beautiful countryside, Nika’s guesthouse should fit the bill.
As another stop on our tour of South and West Georgia, we visited Oda, the family home of Keto Ninidze. Beneath the living-quarters of the house is the family winery managed by Keto, and there is also a restaurant business there. The restaurant is where we had lunch, except we were the only guests at the time, and Keto stayed with us at the table after showing us around her cellar and vineyards. So where does Vino Martville come into the picture? Well, Keto is married to Zaza Gagua who is a partner in that winery. (It is sometimes styled as M’artville with the “art” bit in another font and/or colour, I shall stick with Martville!) Vino Martville is currently better established than Oda Family Winery, so you are more likely to have heard of it, and the wines drank with lunch were Vino Martville.
Oda Family Winery lies in the village of Martvili, in the region of Samegrelo. Not only is Oda the name of this house and winery, but the word also describes this style of traditional Megrelian house, with pillars to keep out the damp and a shady veranda. Zaza and Keto moved here from Tbilisi, but the house belonged to Zaza’s great-grandfather, who built it around 100 years ago.
As is sometimes the case with oda houses, part of the ground floor has been walled-off to create a cellar space, and here the cellar contains qvevri and other winemaking equipment. I didn’t notice it when we were visiting, but that wooden thing to the left under the house, looks like a trough for treading grapes. Inside the cellar there is one small 50 li and few 500 li qvevri, along with a small basket press and stainless steel tank, and a storage room for bottled wine. Keto is shown here with one of her qvevri. Close to the house is a vineyard recently planted with the Ojalashi and Chviriluri varieties, but it is still too young to produce grapes for wine, so the first couple of vintages of Oda were made from grapes brought in.
In front of the house across the grass is a separate building for the kitchen, which I think is a traditional arrangement in Samegrelo but this was over-sized to cater for the restaurant, and a wooden canopy to shelter the restaurant tables.
The food was amazing – quite possibly the best we have had in Georgia, though some of that enthusiasm may be due to my love of spice, which is one of the defining features of Megrelian food. We started with pickled jonjoli flowers in a corn bread tart-casing, which was a great combination. Also show below, looking like a tomato-free pizza, is Megrelian khachapuri. Unlike the perhaps more common Imeretian style of khachapuri, here the bread is not only filled with cheese but is also covered with toasted cheese. Mmmm, cheese – if I wanted to invest in a street food business in the UK, it would specialise in khachapuri. Also shown are pieces of chicken with a light brown walnut(?) sauce and, just visible bottom right, two types of adjika, which is a paste of chili and other spices.
I believe the rolls shown below are gebjalia, which is also mainly cheese, the structural bit being heated cheese and milk rolled out when it has acquired the correct elastic texture, with a herby filling, and a soft cheese on the side and in the sauce. Cheese too is an important ingredient in the elarji, another Megrelian speciality, being pulled out of the pot to demonstrate that it has the right consistency. The basis is ghomi, which is a sort of porridge very similar to a soft polenta, and can be eaten as it is as the carbohydrate part of a meal. But if you stir in a type of cheese, and keep stirring and stir some more, you get a delicious cheesy stodge, which was served with an equally delicious and spicy stew. I think the meat was veal, and it was in a thick and slightly grainy sauce that I suspect got its consistency from nuts. Whatever it was it was good, and worked well with the elarji.
Was there something else? Ah, yes, the wines. Sorry, but again I have very brief descriptions and very enthusiastic ratings. I am not sure if the paucity of description is just a weakness on my part, or if there is something about these wines that discourages verbiage – as in many ways the appeal of these wines lies in their immediacy and simplicity. It may be some sort of vinous heresy, but in my opinion complexity is overrated. Philosophy aside, here are my tasting notes:
Vino Martville, Krakhuna, 2017
Medium greenish gold. Slightly cloudy. Intense, fresh, orange aromas. High acid. Medium high tannin. Mouthwatering. As nose. Drink now ******
Vino Martville, Aladasturi, 2017
Medium purple. Intense, sweet, dark berry fruit on the nose. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now *****
Finally, a few words about Keto. She was a philologist in Tbilisi and, in addition to making wine and looking after her family, intends to continue writing – about wine, and life at Oda. Judging by our conversations I am sure she will write from a thoughtful and interesting perspective, and I look forward to reading anything that might appear in English.
Like all the producers we visited on this trip, the location of Gotsa Family Wines is rural and idyllic. Unlike the other locations however, it is readily accessible from Tbilisi by car – under an hour’s drive to the south, in the Asureti Valley. On arrival, we met the winemaker Beka Gotsadze and took a tour of his cellars, but first let’s take a look at the three wines we drank with lunch. Here they are with pre-lunch nibbles.All three were 2016 wines from Asureti Valley vineyards. Below I have identified all the wines by their grapes, but I think the one with five grapes might just be called Asureti White or something similar. My ratings may seem very high, but no claim of objectivity is made, and that is what you get when drinking outside in the shade with a great lunch and in a beautiful environment. Nevertheless, the Chinuri was my clear favourite, even if tasting note could have been more eloquent, and I was more than happy to fill the final 4 remaining bottle-shaped holes in our suitcases with wines purchased from Beka.
Medium gold. Intense, fresh, apricot. Phenolic. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. As nose. Drink now ******
Mtsvane, Khikhvi, Kisi, Mtsviani, Chitisvala Bodburi
Darker brownish amber. Intense, fig, raisins. Probably a little oxidised. Medium acid. High tannin. Refreshing, despite all the dried fruit flavours. Drink now *****
This is labelled as a rosé wine, but I would rather describe it as a lightish red wine, like a less-serious red Beaujolais for example. Medium pale purple. Intense, soft strawberry aromas. Medium acid. Off-dry effect, but that could be from ripe fruit aromas. Low but noticeable tannin. Drink now ****
Beka was fun company, over lunch and during the tour. He was opinionated, but didn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and was willing to listen to other ideas too. He is definitely in the natural camp of winemakers, with certified-organic vineyards and low-intervention winemaking, and he is traditional to the extent that he uses qvevri and Georgian grape varieties. However, that is really where tradition ends and his desire to tinker and innovate kicks in.
Rather than using wood or stone to seal the neck of the qvevri, Beka prefers stainless steel. That is now quite a common thing in Georgia, but he has also devised a large insulating cap for the qvevri that hold maturing wine, to help keep the temperature constant. He also dangles electric heating elements in his qvevri to sterilise them before use. The insulating cap and sterilisation device are illustrated above. The long baskety thing, also illustrated, is a coarse filter that you drop into the qvevri to remove the heaviest crud from the wine you take out from within the basket.
But perhaps the most impressive innovation is that the fermentation qvevri have tubing coiled around them underground, enabling Beka to cool or heat the wine in the qvevri by pumping water through the tubing. The alcoholic fermentation produces heat, so to keep the temperature lower Beka pumps through cold spring water, and the resulting warm water goes into his swimming pool. And to encourage malolactic fermentation by warming the wine, the direction of flow is reversed, taking warm water from the pool. Beka shows us the controls for this temperature control system in the above image. Before becoming a winemaker, Beka used to be an architect, and his company designed heating systems for buildings – presumably this was the inspiration for his qvevri temperature-control ideas. The usual story you get in Georgia is that the qvevri is an ideal winemaking vessel perfected over millennia, and that the earth around the qvevri works perfectly to moderate its temperature. So I am sure Beka’s ideas are not without controversy, but how do you know how perfect the basic qvevri is until you explore alternatives?
Another practice frowned on in some Georgian circles is that Beka matures his red wines in flavour-neutral old oak barrels to allow small amounts of oxygen into the wine. The frowns are because traditionally, i.e. before the 19th century, wood was not used to hold wine in Georgia winemaking, everything being in qvevri. Regardless of the vessel used, it is noteworthy that Beka sees fit to age his wine for up to two years before release, as he thinks is important for the wines to stabilise, especially if they are to be exported and experience less-than-ideal conditions in transit.
Overall, a great visit – certainly something to consider if you are a wine-lover staying in Tbilisi for a while.
My first visit to Georgia was mainly in Kakheti – the Eastern part of Georgia, where most of its wine is made. It made a big impression on me, and since then I have spent a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about Georgia. I had to return, and this time headed South and West from Tbilisi, spending one night near Vardzia and three in Kutaisi. The remaining three nights, immediately after and before our flights, were in Tbilisi. This time there was just the two of us in a car with a guide, on a private tour organised by Living Roots, which was a very much more intimate experience compared to the Arblaster and Clarke trip last time, and considerably cheaper. The number of wines we got to try was a considerably less, and we generally drank the wine, as God intended, rather than tasting it. But that was no bad thing. In addition to natural qvevri wines bottled for sale, we drank undocumented homemade restaurant house wines probably made the same way, and a couple of examples of cheap factory wines (as the Georgians sneeringly call them).
Just to be clear from a disclosure point of view for anything I might write about this trip – we paid for everything we received. It was a holiday; not a press trip.
Some of the many highlights…
In the South we visited the cave-city of Vardzia. Established in the 12th century as a place to hide from invading armies, it grew to a man-made cave complex on 13 levels suitable for permanent inhabitation. A series of earthquakes later exposed the cave-city in section, which is what we see now. Further North, and much close to Kutaisi, we visited the Gelati Monastery. It was founded in 1106, and became one of the most important cultural and intellectual centres in Georgia.
Travelling North-West from Kutaisi, in the Samegrelo region of Georgia, we saw the beautiful Martvili Canyon, and rafted in a more gently flowing part of the river, also visiting the large limestone Prometheus Cave on our return journey.
The wine producers we visited were: Archil Guniava Wine Cellar, Nikoladzeebis Marani, Oda and Vino Martville, Nika Vacheishvili’s Marani, and Gotsa Family Wines. I’ll try to write more about them in later posts, but right now I would just like to say what wonderful lunches we had in those places. Our visit to Archil was late in the afternoon, and even there we were offered delicious khachapuri, tomato, cucumber and nuts.
Apart from lunches at winemakers, there were a few other foodie highlights. On our first evening we had great food and wine at g.Vino in Tbilisi. Here, there was a good selection of natural qvevri wine, and the staff were very friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. For lunch the next day we were in Poka Nunnery, in a cosy dining room with a wood stove. The whole meal was good, but I particularly remember the river trout, boned, and stuffed with onion, and the selection of hand-made nunnery cheeses to finish. Another meal that stood out was a dinner in the Kutaisi restaurant Sapere. The delicate spicing of the food was wonderful, and I also remember we drank a particularly good bottle of wine.
The final meal of the trip was back in Tbilisi at the restaurant Barbarestan, which was significantly more up-market than any other place we visited in Georgia. All the recipes were taken from a 19th century cookbook written by Barbare Jorjadze, so every dish is traditionally Georgian, but not necessarily commonly eaten in modern Georgia. The decor and crockery is also perhaps how you might imagine things to have been back in 19th century Georgia. The food was good, and interesting, but I think the extra Lari we spend to eat in a place like this mainly went towards providing a very polished level of service. It was fun to try, but personally I prefer a more laid-back atmosphere.