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 at least, 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 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 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 by 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.

Homemade wine – eliminate or celebrate?

In Caroline Gilby’s recent book The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova, she is rather scathing of homemade wine. She explains how it is estimated to account for up to half the wine consumption of Bulgaria, and is regarded by the locals as an authentic product, from the heart, and free from nasty chemicals. And, as such, it is often thought to be superior to commercially produced wines. But she goes on to say that anyone from the international world of wine would see it as a horrible, faulty liquid that bears little resemblance to proper wine. Caroline proposes that drinkers of homemade wines need to be educated about how faulty they are, and persuaded to switch to entry-level commercial wines in the hope that they will eventually move on to a higher quality premium product. The story seems to be very similar for Romania and Moldova.However, my experience of homemade wine in ex-communist and ex-Soviet countries is rather different, albeit more limited than Caroline’s. Also I seem to have managed to arrive at very different conclusions – perhaps due to my different exposure to homemade wine, but I suspect also a fundamentally different attitude to wine. I have only tried one Romanian homemade wine. It was pinkish grey and had a sweet aromatic smell – perhaps rosehip and clove – with low acidity and high alcohol. It was certainly not a style I am used to, but was pleasant enough, and not faulty in any way. When in Georgia though I tried several homemade wines, in restaurants mainly, but also in one of those encounters that is probably unique to that country, where a group of builders were taking a refreshment break with a large plastic bottle of wine, and insisted on offering some to us.

Was the Georgian homemade wine good? I thought the closest comparison was with their commercial artisanal natural qvevri wines – which for brevity I shall refer to below simply as natural wine. The worst homemade wine was as horrible as the worst natural wine, while at the other end of the scale the best homemade wine was good, but not nearly as good as the best natural wine. Hardly a ringing endorsement you might think, but given a common restaurant choice between homemade wine and a cheap wine made in industrial quantities, I would go for homemade every time, and I think most Georgians would do the same. Homemade wine is at the very least more interesting. And to the extent that authenticity and soul means anything at all I see that as a positive too. It would be interesting to know what Caroline’s view is of the commercial artisanal natural qvevri wines of Georgia. I suspect she might be quite critical of those too, so perhaps our views on homemade wines differ because I have a greater acceptance wines that do not conform to western stereotypes, and wines that we say are technically faulty.

But has the presence of homemade wine held back the development of the commercial wine sector in Georgia, in the way that Caroline implies is the case in Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova? My impression is that during Soviet times, under-the-radar winemaking in homes and farms is to be credited with keeping traditional Georgian qvevri winemaking practice alive. It probably also helped preserve a broad range of grape varieties that would otherwise have died out. In that sense, homemade wine has had a hugely positive influence at a time when the Soviet Union seemed hell-bent on destroying local tradition by concentrating production in a few large wine factories, using only a handful of productive and easy-to-grow grape varieties. And I think the positive influence continues today, as experience of home winemaking seems to be a factor in giving people the confidence to try their hand at more commercial small-scale natural wine production. Even if that type of wine makes only a small direct contribution to the Georgian economy, it is still important in raising the profile of the country internationally and attracting western tourists.

And what of the future? I do not see any reason to discourage homemade wine. Moving economic activity from the home to the commercial sector might increase GDP, but does not necessarily improve quality of life. Rather than encouraging the growth of the commercial sector at the expense of homemade, I would rather see wine quality improvements across the board. I am not sure green harvests are the answer, but attention to cellar hygiene must be a good thing. I suspect that Georgian winemakers at all levels already know how important that is, as there are millennia-old methods and tools for keeping qvevri clean, but the actual practice is probably lacking in some places. Not selling their wine in clear plastic bottles in bright sunshine (as in the picture above) would also help!

In summary, I find the idea of homemade wine rather comforting and reassuring. I take it as a sign that there is still a real grass-roots wine culture – not one that is imposed by, or developed for, international markets. Is that so bad?

Wine snobbery, and how to discourage it

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 of food and wine in Split, Croatia

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.

Vineyards, Rocks, and Soils – book review

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.

Georgia, Georgian wines, and 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.

Food, wine and song – in the Tbilisi restaurant Azarphesha

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.

Archil Guniava in the family marani

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.

Soft greens of the Vardazia Valley

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.