In the past I have sensed that some people assume I only write reviews of wines I would unconditionally recommend. But that is not the case, so please read on – it’s not a long blog post.
I recently noticed a few recommendations for Toro Loco wines at Aldi, and as my local store had a couple of their shelves, I thought it would be interesting to compare them side-by-side. Both were initially tasted, and drunk with food, at a middle-eastern BYO restaurant. Here are my tasting notes…
Superior 12.5% 2018 £4.00
(Tempranillo and Bobal)
Medium ruby. Thin, austere fruit. Cherry. Medium acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now **
Orgánico 12.5% 2018 £5.00 (70% Bobal, 20% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon)
Medium ruby. Tad more purple. Dark fruit. More full and soft. Cherry again. Medium acid. Medium tannin. Drink now. A good solid ***
Firstly – kudos to Aldi for stocking wines from the little known Utiel-Requena region near Valencia, and with the little known Bobal grape as a major component. Bobal has a reputation for being a rustic variety but, as is so often the case, if it respected with careful winemaking it can deliver characterful and high quality wines.
To be frank, I would question the quality of the first of these wines, and neither would be my first choice if I wanted a crowd-pleasing fruity red wine, but with food their character made them a pleasant alternative to those crowd-pleasers. The Orgánico was a much better wine all-round when viewed critically, and well worth a fiver, but for quaffing with food the so-called Superior worked too. Feint praise perhaps, but I think I am being fair.
If you are tempted to try Bobal at a more serious level, I would suggest Aranleón Sólo (£9 at The Wine Society), or Cien y Pico En Vaso (available at a few places for a similar price). Some might find these wines a little challenging – dark, heavy and tannic – but if you occasionally like that sort of thing they will not disappoint.
On the afternoon before a Château Ksara wine-trade dinner at Comptoir Libanais, I was invited by Rachel Davey to drop by at the same venue to taste some Ksara wine. There I had the pleasure of meeting George Sara, co-owner and board member of Ksara, and Michael Karam, the author of Wines of Lebanon, and enthusiastic champion of Lebanese wine. George (leftmost in the image) very clearly, yet with a soft touch, communicated his pride in what Ksara had to offer, while Michael enthusiastically contributed with a broad range of views, opinions and insights into Lebanon and its wines, from the very general, to the specific wines we had in front of us.
Château Ksara is the oldest and largest winery in Lebanon. It dates back to 1857, when Jesuit monks inherited some land and started to farm it. In the 1860s the monks made their first dry red wines there; prior to that it was only sweet wine for sacramental purposes. Under the Jesuits, the business grew to the point where it was producing the vast majority of Lebanese wine, and in 1973 Ksara was sold to a consortium of Lebanese investors lead by Jean-Pierre Sara. The winery lies in the Bekaa Valley, which is more of a mountain plateau than what most of us would think of as a valley, and the grapes for most wines (with one exception, mentioned below) also come from the Bekaa Valley region.
I describe the wines below in groupings suggested by George after the tasting, disregarding the order in which they were actually tasted which followed the usual progression of white wines, through rosé, to red. The prices are rough UK retail prices gleaned from Wine-Searcher, but I was unaware of the prices when tasting and making notes.
Lebanese heritage wines
These are all made from varieties that have been in Lebanon for a long time. Not all of them are native to the country but, if not native, they have most definitely been adopted by the country, and can produce wines that are distinctively Lebanese.
Blanc de l’Observatoire, 2018, 13.0%, £12 Obeidy 30%, Muscat 30%, Clairette 30%, Sauvignon 10%.
Fresh. Citrus and apple. High acidity. Dry. Aromatic. Drink now ****
Merwah, 2018, 12.5%, £15
There is no other varietal Merwah wine in commercial production, and 2018 is only its second vintage, and the first one to be imported into the UK. The 60-year-old low-yield vines are grown on the slopes above Douma in north Lebanon (not the Bekaa Valley) at an altitude of over 1,500m. The grapes are hand-harvested, and the wine is made with low intervention techniques.
Complex nose. Citrus, violets, biscuity. Medium-high acidity. Dry. Drink now *****
According to Michael, DNA analysis has shown that the Obeidy variety used in the Blanc de l’Observatoire is not, as thought by some, the same as Chardonnay, or any other grape. However, tests on Merwah to confirm or deny its identity with Semillon are still ongoing. For what it is worth, I recognised a fleeting aroma on the Merwah that I find quite distinctive and have before found only on Semillon wines. I can best describe it as Nez du Vin – the smell you get when you open the box of a Nez du Vin kit. What more proof does one need?
Edit 06/11/19: On the jancisrobinson.com forum José Vouillamoz has just confirmed that he has DNA-profiled samples of Merwah, as well as Obaideh (AKA Obeidy), and that neither is identical to any other known variety. However, studies are ongoing, and nothing is officially published yet.
One more comment on the Merwah, which occurred to me only after the tasting: why is it bottled in clear glass? There seems to be an increasing awareness of lightstrike faults and, even if the wine has been kept in the dark, the clear glass bottle will be sounding alarm bells for some consumers. Is the wine’s colour really such a strong selling point, as it is supposed to be for rosé wines?
Gris de Gris, 2018, £13
Carignan and Grenache Gris.
Pale salmon. Strawberry. And something else a bit more punchy – spice or rubber? Medium acidity. Drink now ***
I wasn’t too keen on the Gris de Gris, and rosé is not my favourite style anyway, but George persuaded me to try some with a mouthful of Fattoush. I must admit it seemed to improve the wine for whatever reason. As with all the wines, I find it difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions after only a brief taste.
Le Prieuré, 2017, 13.5%, £12
Cinsault and Carignan, with some Grenache and Mourvedre. Fermented in concrete tanks that were installed at the time the monks ran the winery.
Medium pale violet. Soft berry fruit reminiscent of Beaujolais. Medium acidity. Low but detectable astringency. Drink now *****
Michael enthused about Le Prieuré being the taste of the Bekaa valley. So if you’ve ever wondered about typicity for Bekka Valley wines, you could do worse than try some of this.
Lebanon meets Bordeaux
In these wines we have a nod towards Bordeaux, but the wines are not intended to be imitations, and include non-Bordeaux grape varieties.
Blanc de Blancs, 2018, 13.0%, £13 Sauvignon 55%, Semillon 25%, Chardonnay 20%.
Refreshing. Medium-high acidity. Reminded me very much of white Bordeaux.
Drink now *****
Reserve du Couvent, 2016, 13.5%, £13.00
Syrah 40%, Cabernet Franc 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 30%. Oak-aged for 12 months.
Medium purple. Seemed to have some of the same quality of fruit as Le Prieuré, but with spice, and a bigger tannin kick on the palate. Medium-high acidity. Drink now *****
Reserve du Couvent is Ksara’s flagship wine, and a bestseller in Lebanon. I thought it was good now, but was told it should keep 5-10 years
French-style from Lebanon
These wines are intended to be true to their French originals of White Burgundy and Claret.
Chardonnay, Cuvée du Pape, 2017, £20 Aged in oak barrels.
Medium pale gold. Medium acid. Oak. I could easily believe this was a white Burgundy. Drink now *****
Château, 2016, 13.5%, £21
Veilles vignes. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot. 12 months ageing in oak, old and new in equal parts.
Medium pale purple. Dark berry fruit. Pencil box. Medium acidity. High tannin. Good fruit and spice. Needs more time. Was told would keep 10-20 years *****
While I have tasted quite a wide range of Lebanese wine in the past, for some reason the only Ksara wine I had tried prior to this tasting was the Reserve du Couvent, so I was pleased to get to know Ksara better. Overall it was a good and varied set of wines, and all were showing well. I see I gave most of them very good star ratings and wonder, as I often do, if I was not over-generous. However, they fairly represented my subjective opinion at the time, so I will not go back to adjust the ratings.
And generally the wines were very reasonably priced too in my opinion. However, while the Chardonnay Cuvée du Pape and Château wines may have been fairly priced, I am not sure what they offered that could not be bought from Bordeaux or Burgundy for similar money or less. George commented that Ksara’s cheaper wines tended to sell best to export markets, which I think will continue to be the case, while the more prestigious French variety wines were more favoured in Lebanon.
I really must try to revisit some of these wines to gain a better appreciation, but from my exposure to them so far I think the Merwah was the most interesting and attractive white, while the Reserve du Couvent was my favourite red, for being a good all-round solid performer.
You may remember I have already posted about our visit to Gotsa Family Wines, and I mentioned in that post we were able to bring four bottles back with us. It is often the case that wines taste so much better in their place of origin (see image below), so how well did those four perform in a Manchester winter? Not so bad, it turned out.
Tsitska, 2016, 11.3% (tasted 20/11/18)
Medium pale amber. Intense. Slightly phenolic on the nose. Smokey, and some apricot I think. Medium high acidity. Dry. Saline perhaps. Gives a bracing impression. A serious wine. On initial tasting scored it higher, but for some reason it did not keep my interest when drinking with food so ****
Chinuri, 2016, 12.0% (tasted 12/01/19)
Medium amber gold. Delicate. Fresh. Dried apricots. Phenolic. High acidity. Bone dry. Intense on the palate. Medium-low astringency. Excellent length. Mouth-filling finish. Drink now. My favourite of these four wines, and it was my favourite of the three we drank at the producer’s in Georgia *****
Saperavi, 2015, 13.2% (tasted 12/01/19)
Tasted 12/01/19. Opaque purple. Intense, smoke, leather. Brett. High acidity. Medium high tannin. Intense, sharp blackberry and blackcurrant. Acidity and fruit largely obscures any brett on the palate. Good now, but could well improve. Just about ****
Rkatsiteli Mtsvane, 2016, 14.0% (tasted 15/01/19)
Copper hues. This is described as an amber wine on the label, unlike the Tsitska and Chinuri, which were called white. Intense, phenolic and bracing on the nose, with dried apricot and nut. Medium high acid. High, rasping, astringency – not at all a bad thing as far as I am concerned. As nose. excellent length. Good now, but would doubtless keep a few years at least ****
Sadly, as far as I know the wines are not available in the UK, but they would probably retail at a little over £20.
I first came across Thymiopoulos in 2015, on a press trip in Northern Greece. They had a modest table in the corner of a walk-around tasting of Naoussa producers. At the end of a long day of eating well, drinking and tasting, my palate was jaded, and the rest of me felt a bit out of sorts too. Yet somehow the Thymiopoulos wines grabbed my attention. In contrast to most Xinomavro wines in the room, which seemed hard work for me at the time, those of Thymiopoulos stood out for their approachability. Under other circumstances, the other wines may well have been more appealing – I am certainly not averse to austere and astringent wines – but, in my fragile condition that evening, no thank you.
According to The Wine Society, the Thymiopoulos family has been growing grapes for generations, but only in 2003 did they start making their own wine. Since then they have considerably expanded their range and have converted to biodynamic viticulture, all the time building up an excellent reputation for quality. In The Vineyards and Wines of Greece 2017 by Yiannis Karakasis MW, the winemaker Apostolos Thymiopoulos is said to be considered “one of the stars of Greek winemaking” and “is credited with having shifted the flavour tone in Naoussa with his wine Earth and Sky by achieving that elusive combination of a strong tannin structure with a rich palate and fruity depth”. In the same book, Thymiopoulos is listed as one of the 6 best producers in Greece, and Earth and Sky is one of the top 10 indigenous Greek red wines. Jancis Robinson has also recently been praising Thymiopoulos wines, selecting the Jeunes Vignes in her recent Wine of the Week feature (only available to subscribers).
Back in the time I visited Northern Greece, even though Thymiopoulos were making a cheaper Naoussa for Marks and Spencer, the availability of their wine in the UK was quite restricted. But now things are looking up, and currently The Wine Society stock a particularly good range. So, for a local tasting group, a couple of weeks ago I bought five Thymiopoulos wines made exclusively from the Xinomavro grape – four reds of the Naoussa PDO, and one rosé. Also two Rapsani PDO wines, red wines made from roughly equal parts of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto. Here is the bottle line-up (click on the image to enlarge and see the labels more clearly).
I was pleased to note that most of these wines were sealed using Diam corks. Only Earth and Sky and Karavas, the most expensive wines of each PDO, used natural cork, and as far as I know they were also the only two oak-aged wines. I double-decanted all wines a couple of hours before tasting. They all had some fine sediment that was difficult to remove by decanting, but the sediment was so fine, and there was so little of it, that it was not noticeable when tasting. As usual, the scores below are indicative solely of how much I liked the wine at the time of tasting.
Rosé de Xinomavro, Macedonia IGP, 2017, £10.95 Late harvest and unfiltered. Quite intense for a rosé. Pink, verging on a copper-amber colour. Sharp and fresh. Almost vegetal. The fruit on the nose reminded me of a childhood fizzy drink, but I am not sure which. Pleasant, but not classy or classic. Medium high acidity. Dry. Aromatics assertive and intense, and very much as nose. Considering the tannic nature of the grape, I thought there may be some astringency, but no. A strange one. I am not usually a rosé drinker, but I think I liked it ****
Xinomavro, Jeunes Vignes, Naoussa PDO, 2017, £10.95 Medium pale garnet. Intense, mature and complex. Was this really as young as 2017? Medium acidity. Medium astringency. Aromas as nose. Elegant and understated. Drink now. Very pleasant drink. It might have got 5 stars, but initially it felt a tad watery ****
Kayafaz, Single Terroir, Naoussa PDO, 2016, £15.50 According to TWS, a tiny-batch experiment. Medium ruby garnet. Intense. Tar and violets that I associate with Nebbiolo. More primary than the Jeunes Vignes. Medium high acid. High astringency. Intense, as nose. Excellent length. Young and punchy. Good now, but will easily keep going for a few years *****
Earth and Sky, Xinomavro, Naoussa PDO, 2016, £21.00 Old vines, 18 months in large oak barrels, and unfiltered. Another medium ruby garnet wine, but more ruby than the Kayafaz. Medium intense. Hints of one of the components of the Kayafaz aroma, but not the full range. Some oak and coffee. Medium high acid. High astringency. Intense aromatically on the palate. Probably will be better in a few years time, or if I had decanted the bottle earlier. But as it was – ****
Xinomavro Nature, Naoussa PDO, 2016, £14.50 Another experiment according to TWS, this time in low-intervention winemaking, with minimal sulphur and filtration. But I do wonder how that is to be contrasted with the other wines, some of which claim not to be filtered at all. Medium ruby garnet. Nose very similar profile to the Kayafaz. Medium high acid. High astringency. Aromatically, if anything maybe a bit more elegant and supple than the Kayafaz. Note that although this is apparently marketed as a natural wine, it has none of the characteristics you might associate with that; neither weirdness nor vibrant fruit. Nevertheless this is a beautiful wine, and I think my favourite so far. Drink now *****
Terra Petra, Rapsani PDO, 2016, £20.00 Grown on schist, and unfiltered. Medium ruby garnet. Intense tar and violets. Medium acid. Sweet, soft and gentle aromatically. Medium high astringency. As nose. Drink now *****
Karavas, Single Terroir, Rapsani PDO, 2016, £28.00 Indigenous yeasts, and 18 months in French oak. Medium ruby garnet. Tar and violets again, but this time with noticeable oak. Medium acid. Smooth. Vanilla. Medium astringency. Classy wine, with the mark of oak. Good now, but considering the price I hope it will improve. Pleasant enough, but I think I prefer the grape to shine more clearly through the oak ****
All the red wines showed aromas that I associate with the Xinomavro grape – aromas that also remind me of Nebbiolo and which I think of as “tar and violet”. I am however prepared to concede that the description is my rather lazy shorthand for something I have difficulty putting into words. The “violet” bit seems relatively accurate, even if I believe other people use “rose” for the same thing. But the “tar” metaphor is rather over-the-top for a slightly piercing mineral (i.e. not animal or vegetal) note. Another similarity between Xinomavro and Nebbiolo is that, to my taste at least, both share a certain savoury nature, and show relatively little fruit. If all that sounds negative, it is not meant to be. I like both grape varieties very much.
Naoussa wines must be 100% Xinomavro, but Rapsani additionally has Krassato and Stavroto – normally all three varieties in roughly equal parts I believe. I am not sure about the varietal percentages in these particular Rapsani wines, but I cannot say I particularly noticed the influence of the non-Xinomavro varieties.
My notes were written as I tasted the wines, and shown above in that order. But I did return to taste and drink the wines a few times, and on the return tastings I must admit I got more and more uncertain about the differences between them. However a few differences continued to stand out. It was clear that the Earth and Sky remained tight and unyielding. Also that both the Earth and Sky and the Karavas showed oaky notes, and they remained the wines I liked least for current drinking. The other three Naoussas seemed to get more similar to each other, becoming equally delicious, with the Jeunes Vignes standing out in terms of value for money.
Overall it should be emphasised that we all enjoyed all these wines when tasting them, and later when we drank them with food. Perhaps there is something to be learned about the relative popularity of each wine from the left-over quantities? Well, the rosé remains were taken home by someone, but on the basis of the left-over volumes the order of popularity for the reds (most popular first) was: Karavas, Jeunes Vignes, Kayafaz, Nature, Terra Petra, Earth and Sky. The people have spoken!
For several reasons I found this wine both interesting and distinctive. Delicious too.
The first impression is the striking label, presumably depicting a tsigani gogo (gypsy girl), and the unusual blue bottle with a red wax seal. Now blue is not a bottle colour I associate with good quality wines – quite the reverse in fact – but I must admit the overall effect is rather classy. Then you might notice that the wine is the result of a collaboration between Laura Siebel, of Domaine de la Pinte in the Jura, and Niki Atadze and his winery in the Georgian region of Kakheti. Turn the bottle round, and you will see that the combination of grapes varieties used in this wine is as unlikely as the winemaker partnership. It is in fact a blend of the red variety Saperavi, and the white Mtsvane. Well, I say Saperavi is red, but it is a teinturier variety and often gives wines that are so dark as to be nearly opaque.
I do not know the percentage of Mtsvane used, but judging by the wine’s medium-pale red and its aromatics I would guess it is substantial – a lot closer to 50% than the 5 to 10% of Viognier that is typically added to Syrah for example. Neither do I know the degree of skin contact this wine had, but if either Saperavi or Mtsvane is made in the traditional Kakheti style, with the must fermenting and ageing on all the stalks and skins, you can get an extremely astringent wine. While Tsigani Gogo did have fair degree of astringency, it was not extremely high, so I would guess the stalks were discarded after crushing, perhaps along with some of the skins. What I do know about the production from the UK importer Caves de Pyrene: “Fermentation, vinification and ageing in qvevri. No punchdown, no press wine, all wild and ambient. No filtration and no sulphur”. The absence of punching-down is another departure from traditional Kakheti practice, and that too would reduce the wine’s astringency. Caves de Pyrene also say that the Antadze Winery has organic vineyards, so I guess all together that means this is a natural wine – should you care about that sort of thing. Tasting note follows…
Tsgani Gogo, Laura Siebel & Niki Antadze, Pomegranate-color wine from Saperavi and Mtsvane, 12.5% It is apparently from the 2016 vintage, but not stated on the label. I paid £28.44 from Caves de Pyrene, including a 10% discount. Medium pale ruby. Intense, fresh, and aromatic. The nose reminds me a lot more of Mtsvane than Saperavi. Medium high acidity. Maybe slightly sweet? Tingly on tongue, from both acidity and I think dissolved CO2. Lazy bubbles on the side of the glass also indicated a high CO2 content. Medium astringency. Very bracing from the acidity, and astringency. Fresh red berry aromatics, and sharp apricot perhaps from the Mtsvane. Drink now. Instantly likeable for me, and what I think is called glou glou. This is not a wine for serious and respectful sipping, but its structure makes it nevertheless feel quite grown-up *****
After having written quite a bit recently about Georgian wines that are not easy to get hold of in the UK, and sometimes frankly impossible, I thought I should investigate two that you can pick up in supermarkets. In fact, as far as I know these are the only Georgian wines you can buy UK supermarkets. And I was very impressed by them. As with any country really, there is a lot of low-end Georgian wine that I find unpalatable, but here the buyers seem to have done a pretty good job at finding decent quality at a sensible price.
Let’s start with Tbilvino Qvevris 2015 12.0%, which was £10.00 from Marks & Spencer.
Perhaps the first thing to point out is the remarkably low price. OK, there are no claims made about organic viticulture or low-intervention winemaking, and Tbilvino makes wine on an industrial scale. But even so, this particular wine was according to the label made from grapes fermented in qvevri – large clay pots buried in the ground – and that itself is a relatively expensive small-scale batch process. The next cheapest qvevri wine in the UK is over £12.00, and most are closer to twenty.
This is an orange wine, the colour being due to the must of white grapes being fermented on their skins. It was made in Kakheti (Eastern Georgia) where the tradition is to add stalks as well as skins, and to keep punching down and agitating the skins and stalks in the fermenting wine, all of which usually results in robust tannins. But this wine is altogether much more gentle, and while definitely having the character of an orange wine it is a lot more approachable than many, thus serving as a good introduction to the style. The grape is the Georgian variety Rkatsiteli, which is the most common white variety in Georgia, and highly regarded.
Medium pale amber. No obvious sediment. Slightly phenolic. Vague bitter orange notes on the nose. Highish acidity. Medium low astringency. A very slight apparent sweetness that might just be ripe fruit aromas. Whatever it is, it takes a little off the edge of the acidity and astringency, whilst still leaving the wine relatively fresh and bracing. A pleasant and undemanding wine ****
The next wine, Orovela Saperavi 2008 13.0%, is available from Waitrose for £16.79.
Orovela is a smaller producer than Tbilivino. They certainly used to make several different wines but now, according to their website and social media at least, seem to be focussing more on their Saperavi sales at Waitrose. Like Rkatsiteli, Saperavi is a common and highly regarded variety in Georgia. However it is a red grape, or to be more precise an extremely dark purple one, and also has red flesh, so it often gives very dark wines.
No qvevris used here – it’s conventional winemaking with oak ageing. But the special thing about this wine as far as I am concerned is the considerable bottle age. In fact, at 10 years, I think it is the oldest Georgian wine I have ever tried. Georgian wines are often said to age well, but my impression is that in practice they are usually drunk young – by English standards at least.
Intense purple ruby. Intense nose. Some dark fruit. Also a little vegetal, in a good way, which I think here is the first hint at the complexity of age. Highish acidity. Medium tannin. Excellent length. The maturity imparts some lightness and freshness to what could otherwise be a wine with a very heavy feel, and it is starting to soften and round with age too. It seemed to improve during the time it took to drink with a meal. An all-round, somewhat mature, good wine *****
Nero Oro, Appassimento, Nero d’Avola, Sicilia DOC, The Wine People, 2017, 14.0%.
This is available from Majestic for around £9 if you “mix six”, otherwise £10. Oh, and it really is a Sicilia DOC wine as stated above, rather than the IGP designation shown in the image. The Wine People market it as part of their range, but the wine is actually made by Santa Tresa, an estate in South East Sicily near Vittoria.
Appassimento means that before winemaking the grapes are partially dried, which concentrates their sugar, acidity and flavour. In this case the enhanced sugar content of the grapes ferments to give a wine with a highish alcohol content, and with some sugar left over after the fermentation to give a slightly sweet wine. Together with low astringency, this gives a smooth easy drinking wine with some classy fruit, and the wine’s sweetness is moderated by balancing acidity.
This will doubtless have broad appeal, and it is well made for what it is, even if it is not a style I would usually drink myself. I suggest drinking it slightly chilled – maybe at around 17-18ºC. And remember it will warm up quickly if left out of the fridge in the hot weather we have been having recently, so probably best to bring it out a bit cooler than that. See here for advice on adjusting the temperature of wine bottles. I reckon it would work well with pork and duck, and pretty much any barbequed meat. Also with cheeses like Cheddar and Stilton, as a lighter alternative to Port.
Medium pale ruby. Intense fresh fruit – cherry and damson. A delicate fragrance, and aromas that somehow reminds me of Aussie Shiraz. Medium high acidity. Off dry. Low astringency, but there is some present. You can feel the alcohol on the palate, but it is not hot. The sweetness and acidity are nicely balanced, and the wine finishes sharp. A pretty and straightforward wine. Drink now ***
(Unlike the vast majority of wines I mention on my blog, I did not pay for this wine. It was offered to me as a sample, which I accepted because I thought the wine sounded interestingly different to a lot of wines on the market.)
Nikoladzeebis Marani, which translates as Nikoladzes’ Wine Cellar, is the producer name you will see on wine bottles, but a lot of people will be more familiar with the name of the winemaker-owner Ramaz Nikoladze. Like Archil Guniava and his family, who we had visited previously on of our tour, Ramaz is a man of Imereti, and was making and selling wine locally before it occurred to him to bottle it and sell further afield. But Ramaz went a bit further. He was a bit of ringleader in persuading his fellow Imereti winemakers to set their sights on Tbilisi and beyond, and was also one of the founding members of the co-operative that kicked off the Tbilisi wine bar Ghvino Underground, a place that gave these wines showcase and market.
It was his wife, Nestan, who warmly welcomed us, showed us the new marani in an outhouse, and gave us lunch. We only got to see Ramaz briefly, as he was busy dealing with urgent business most of the day: he had to spray his vines, but there was a problem with the equipment. Archil had been spraying Bordeaux mixture, so presumably the same task was what Ramaz had in mind.
The new marani was created a few years ago with new qvevri, as shown in the film Our Blood is Wine. Indeed, I included a still from the documentary in my review, showing Ramaz helping to roll one of the qvevri into place. But when we were visiting, the qvevri were full, sealed with glass discs and covered in sand, the smaller pots above ground being for temporary storage of wine. We were told that bottling would take place in a few weeks’ time.
Then we were invited into the cool and spacious dining room of Nestan and Ramaz’s house, for lunch and the opportunity to try four different Nikoladzeebis Marani wines.
I think all wines were from 2016, and below I have identified the wines by their varieties. More very brief notes I am afraid, but the wines I liked most are clearly indicated by my star ratings.
No skin contact. The grapes came from Ramaz’ uncle’s vineyard. Pale gold. Intense, fresh, aromatically grapey. Medium acid. No tannin. Delicate ***
3 months skin contact. Pale gold. Intense, fresh, aromatically grapey. Medium acid. Medium low tannin. Fresh and vibrant. Aromas more intense on the palate *****
90% Aladasturi, 10% Dzelshavi
Not yet bottled. Medium purple. Intense fresh dark fruit. Medium high acid. Medium tannin ******
Not yet bottled. Medium purple ruby. Intense and fresh. Medium acid. Low tannin ***
We stopped off at Archil Guniava Wine Cellar on our way from the south of Georgia to Kutaisi. This was the first producer visit on our tour of South and West Georgia and we did not know what to expect. Archil’s place is located a few kilometres from the town of Zestafoni, off on a narrow road with rural houses strung out on both sides, and part of a settlement that goes under the name of Kvaliti. The already narrow road got even narrower. At one point our driver asked for directions and was told “keep going until the road ends, and it’s on your right”. This is about as rural as you could get whilst still being in the presence of houses.
On arrival, we were invited into the marani, a qvevri-containing cellar. It was the afternoon, and we had had a heavy lunch, but of course we were offered more food – enough to have served as a lunch on any normal day. In addition to the obvious cucumber and tomato shown below, there is a bowl of hazelnuts, and the bread you see at the front of the image is khachapuri. Sadly, after the lunch even I was not able to make much of an impact on what we were given.
Although Archil worked in forestry, and still does, he comes from a family that was in previous generations well known for selling wine locally. So Archil now uses the family marani and qvevri, and his daughter makes wine there too. Compared with artisinal winemakers we met who have lived and worked in Tbilisi, Archil seems to be much more rooted in his village and his family’s winemaking heritage, and is maybe less subject to external influences. I read for example that he first learned about cultured yeast for winemaking only a few years ago (not that he uses it now, of course), and he still finds it strange that people like us want to visit and buy his wine. It is indeed strange when you think about it, but what of the wines we tasted?
They were all from 2017, and moved directly from qvevri to tasting-glass using a pipette. They are identified below by grape variety.
This was made with no skin contact, and will be ready in August. Very pale. Intense, fresh, and grapey. Low acid, and maybe a little off dry. Spritzy. Low tannin. Bitter finish. Pleasant enough, but this was too light and watery for my taste ***
Spent 4 months on 15% of the skins, and was then transferred to new qvevri. Will be ready in August. Light gold. Intense, slightly vegetal, broad bean shells. Medium acid. Medium low tannin. I liked this better ****
60% Tsitska, 20% Krakhuna, 20% Tsolikouri
Contact with 100% of the skins for 4 months. This is the first time Archil has made this wine. Light gold. Intense, aromatic, a bit cheesy. Medium acid. Medium high tannin. Excellent length. My favourite so far, and this should get better. A successful experiment *****
80% Tsolikouri, 20% Otskhanuri Sapere
Contact only with the Otskhanuri Sapere skins. Palish red colour. Intense Beaujolais-like fruit. Medium high acidity. Medium tannin ****
Contact with 100% of the skins for 9 days. Made by Archil’s daughter. Medium pale red colour. Intense, sweet yet fresh red berry fruit. High acid. Sharp red fruit on palate. High tannin *****
These wines are not yet available in the UK, but will be imported by Proper Natural Wine. I personally imported one bottle each of Mgaloblishvili and a Tsolikouri Tsitska Krakhuna blend, both 2016.
The Mtsvane and Krakhuna were served to us at g.Vino in Tbilisi, and Sapere in Kutaisi. We enjoyed evening meals there, but equally I have seen both places described as wine bars. Certainly you can pop into g.Vino for just a drink, and I presume the same applies to Sapere. They both focus on artisanal, natural, qvevri wine, g.Vino’s selection being pretty impressive, while Sapere is a smaller place with more limited choice. Actually, when we were at Sapere it was even more limited than normal – I asked for an orange wine and was offered only one option as they had used up most of their stock and were waiting for the 2017 harvest. Nevertheless, that wine turned out to be excellent, and Sapere had the edge over g.Vino when it came to food. Nowhere in Georgia did I eat badly, but Sapere was particularly good. Anyway, more on the two specific wines…
At g.Vino I said I’d like a bottle of Mtsvane, and was given a taster of Chona’s Marani Mtsvane 2016. Mtsvane simply means green, and actually there are a few different Mtsvane varieties in Georgia, the most common one coming from Kakheti, where Chona’s Marani is located. So this was the Kakhetian Mtsvane – Mtsvane Kakhuri in Georgian – which is what I am used to drinking. But this was different. I was expecting something bright, lively, phenolic, astringent and aromatic, but this was more soft and gentle. Its appearance was not pretty – a cloudy muddy brown colour, depicted well in the image above. But I was not planning to sit and look at it all evening, and the nose was a lot more attractive – intense, fresh, fruity and spicy – and on the palate it had moderate amounts of acidity and tannin, giving that lip-smacking quality that works so well with food, without being too dominant. On the palate I noticed a slight lactic character, which also tended to give it a more rounded impression. Overall I liked it a lot (*****), so we took the rest of the bottle for 50 GEL. As far as I can tell it is not available in the UK, but if it was I guess it would retail for around £20 – the price most Georgian natural qvervi wines seem to sell for.
The wine we were offered at Sapere was the Giorgi Shalamberidze Wine Cellar Krakhuna 2015. According to the back label, it comes from the “Zestafoni district of Imereti, in the village of Tskhratskaro”, but that is pretty much all I can find out about the producer. Krakhuna is the grape variety, which I had not tasted before, but this wine was one of two really stunningly good examples we came across on the trip. It was pale gold, with an intense nose – honeyed and mildly spiced. Immediately after opening it was very slightly fizzy. There was a slightly off dry effect on the palate, which together with the honey on the nose could indicate a small amount of botrytis. Sadly, I realise this tasting note fails to explain why, but the wine was absolutely delicious. It hit the spot, and I gave it a doubtless hyperbolic ******. You had to be there to understand!