Intoxicated by Matrobela?

Serious wine tasters are supposed to spit, to avoid intoxication. However, as this Georgian wine producer chose the name Matrobela (Georgian for intoxicating), I decided to actually drink these wines. Shocking, I know.

Matrobela is a recently established producer from 2015, and I have not been able to find much information about it. But it is based in Kisiskhevi, a village in Eastern Georgia, not far from the Kakheti regional capital of Telavi, and right next door to Tsinandali village. It has a modern winery with large stainless steel tanks, and a so-called château with qvevri and space for tastings and other events – a successful combination of the traditional methods and the best experience of modern wine making, as it says on their website.

I first encountered Matrobela at Georgian wine tastings in the UK organised by Sarah Abbott’s Swirl Wine Group, and always found their wines to be of high quality. So I thought I would buy a few bottles from Taste of Georgia in order to get to know them better.

I give the Taste of Georgia’s normal prices below, but actually got a couple of pounds discount on each bottle, so if you are lucky with the timing of your purchase you might too. You might also note that I mention below the Georgian PDOs of Tsinandali and Mukuzani – if those names are new to you, you might like to take a look here.

Mtsvane, White Dry, 2018, 13.0%, £15.50
The back label says this was grown in Kakheti, which is where most Georgian wines come from.  Mtsvane is the grape variety.
Very pale greenish straw. Herby, and somehow seems to have a heavy low-register nose – unusual and difficult to describe. On the palate, medium-high acidy. Fully dry, but with ripe fruit. Full-bodied, a little hot even, but in an OK sort of way. Intense aromatically, like nose but perhaps with some orange peel or blossom too. Overall it is very flavoursome and makes a big impression. Unusual, but I like it.

Rkatsiteli, Amber Dry, 2018, 13.0%, £17.00
Here the grape variety is Rkatsiteli. On the back label we find that this is fermented and macerated in qvevri, with 6 months skin contact, and unfiltered. Also, amongst the other details, it says that the vineyards are in the Appellation Tsinandali. So is it claiming to be Tsinandali PDO or not? I would guess not. It is also strange that qvevri is not mentioned on the front label. There is something that looks like a qvevri logo there, but the labels of the three other wines have a much more prominent qvevri design element, even the ones that are presumably made in stainless steel.
The wine is a very pale shade of amber, and there is very little sediment. Perhaps, although it had 6 months of skin contact, not all the skins were present? Also, it must have been very carefully racked and fined. The nose is subtle and nicely balanced, with citrus fruit as the main aroma – orange, lemon and lime I think. And gentle phenolics from the skin contact. Medium acidity. Dry, and low but detectable astringency. Drink now. Balanced and nuanced. There is nothing at all here to frighten the horses, and even the most hardened orange-wine sceptic might find something to love about this wine

Mukuzani, Red Dry, 2018, 13.5%, £18.50
This is a Saperavi varietal wine, and aged in oak barrels for 12 months according to the back label. And from the prominent use of the word Mukuzani on the front label, I think we can fairly assume this is Mukuzani PDO.
Intense purple. I have seen more intensely coloured Saperavi, but this is still pretty dark. Intense, fresh, sharp dark fruit. Sweet and fruity blackberry rather than black currant. No obvious oak, which is nice. High acidity. Medium astringency, maybe medium-high. Intense aromatics as per nose. Intense and lip-smacking. Like a slap round the face, in a good way. Good length and a slightly bitter finish – again, something I see as a positive. This is good to go, but I would see no problems keeping it for a few years at least.

Saperavi, Red Dry Qvevri Wine, 2018, 12.5%, £18.50
As with the Rkatsiteli, we are told that the grapes come from the Tsinandali Appellation, which sounds a bit silly. They may well come from the Tsinandali area, but it is a white wine appellation. Also on the back label, it says that this has 4 weeks of skin contact, and is unfiltered.
Intense ruby-garnet with purple tinges. Yes it really does seems to have elements of lot of shades of red! As with the Mukuzani, it is not nearly as dark as many Saperavis. And again, no sediment, which is surprising for an unfiltered wine. Fresh, sharp, dark fruit. Hint of black currant boiled sweet  esters, but also some pleasant complexity. Medium-high acidity. Medium tannin. Nice ripe tannins, but with a texture you can almost chew. Thanks to the texture, this is full-bodied effect despite the moderate alcohol level. The flavours are light though, so it does not feel heavy and brooding.  Some bitterness, especially on finish. Drink now I think. A good, all-round, nicely balanced wine.

Perhaps it does not come out strongly enough in my tasting notes, but I was very impressed with these wines, which each got a ***** rating from me. They are all unusual enough to be interesting to a western palate, and yet they are also of high quality according to international standards, showing good intensity, balance and complexity. They also showed no faults, and neither did the ones I encountered at earlier tastings – something which you certainly cannot say about a lot of Georgian wine production as soon as you move away from the large-scale brands. In my experience, even the prevalence of something as undisputably faulty as cork taint seems to be higher in Georgian wines, so I was pleased to note that Matrobela uses Diam corks.

Having said all that, I do not want to sound too critical of the more artisanal and natural end of the Georgian wine spectrum. There are many such wines with “challenging” flavour profiles that I enjoy, and they can be the wines that give me most pleasure. In that regard, I like many wines that others might dismiss as faulty, and also the massively tannic Saperavis from Kakheti.

But these  Matrobela wines are different – they are easy to like. I have been intoxicated by Matrobela, literally and figuratively.

Georgian Wine PDOs

Just a quick post to remind you of my Georgian PDO mini-series, and also help you get a better overview of it – something otherwise hampered by the reverse-chronological order on my home page.

My first post aims to give a quick practical guide to the Georgian PDOs you are most likely to come across in the UK – Tsinandali, Mukuzani, Kindzmarauli and Khvanchkara . Arguably, these are also the most important PDOs in general. In outline at least, this covers pretty much everything that most wine drinkers will need to know about Georgian PDOs, while the other two posts in the series are more hardcore.

After the practical guide, I dive into more detail, listing and summarising all the current PDOs, and giving a bit of background. Here I try to stick to the facts.

Finally, I express opinions about the Georgian PDO system and labelling requirements, and offer a few suggestions for improvement.

Georgian wine PDOs – an opinion, with suggestions

I understand absolutely why Georgia feels the need to try to protect names in its own country, and perhaps even more importantly in Russia, which has a bit of a history in wines fraud and is still an important market. I also think, when selling to foreign markets where Georgian wines are less understood, including the UK and the EU, it is a good idea to have a solid PDO system in place before it is absolutely necessary. And it is probably a shrewd move to make that system compatible with the EU’s.

The legal framework for Georgia’s PDO system looks sound to me. I won’t bore you more than necessary, but there is a law that bans the misleading use of PDO names on labels, and in advertising and related documents. It does leave open the question as to what could be construed as misleading, but is otherwise clear.

Additionally, each PDO registration document carries a paragraph that says how, for foreign language labels etc, the PDO name should be spelled using the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, and that is should be followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” and/or “PDO” (in English) or the Cyrillic alphabet equivalent (presumably in Russian). The main point of these paragraphs seems to be the spelling of the PDO name, rather the circumstances in which it should be followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” and/or “PDO”. The lack of clarity is not helped by the very different ways that this clause is rendered into English in the official translation of each PDO registration document; the Georgian versions of the same documents seem to be much more consistent.

Sadly, I think the lack of clarity on labelling requirements has opened to way to some confusion. Here are a few examples of wine labels, which incidentally are not at all meant as criticism of the particular producers concerned.

On the left we have a Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi wine, with Kakheti at the bottom of its label. Is this just saying that it’s grown and made in Kakheti, or is it claiming the PDO of Kakheti? If it is the former, does that make it misleading? Then the middle label also has Kakheti at the bottom, but this cannot be Kakheti PDO because the wine contains many non-compliant grape varieties. Is that misleading? Finally, the one on the right has Kartli at the bottom of the label, which is not a PDO, so that is fine. But that does suggest the two other labels do not represent PDO claims either.

Moving on to another set of labels, the above Teliani Valley one actually has three PDO names on it: Teliani, Tsinandali and Kakheti. I think most people familiar with Georgian wines would assume that it is Tsinandali PDO. But is that actually correct? And what are other people to think? Teliani Valley is actually a producer’s name but it looks geographical, and Kakheti would be more recognisable for someone who knows Georgian regions but not wine. And for those smarty-pants who thought the Teliani Valley wine was Tsinandali PDO, what about the label on the right. Tsinandali too? Nope, I don’t think so – look more carefully – in smaller letters it says Kakheti AOC. To be fair, I think this is an old label, which is also indicated by the use of AOC rather than PDO, but at the very least this is very confusing.

Actually, it is quite common for Georgian producer names to include the name of a PDO. Apart from Teliani Valley, examples that spring to mind are Tsinandali Estate, Vazisubani Estate and Royal Khvanchkara. OK, it happens in other countries too, but that does not make it any less confusing.

To be constructive, and with all due humility and the perspective of a foreign drinker of Georgian wines, I would suggest a couple of additional PDO labelling regulations:

1) PDO wines should have the PDO name clearly displayed on the label, followed by “Protected Designation of Origin” or “PDO”. This is not unusual for other countries with PDO and PDO-like systems. In some cases  there is also some uncertainty about, or discrepancy between, the name of the PDO and what should appear on the label (Ateni, I am looking at you). Why not make it crystal clear and consistent?

2) Also, any other word on the label that is a PDO, but not the wine’s actual PDO, should have a clearly defined context.  So, for example, a Tsinandali PDO wine may additionally say “Wine of Kakheti”; Kakheti PDO wines may say “Made from grapes harvested near the village of Tsinandali” on the back label (if that is true, of course); and producer names that incorporate a PDO name should usually be preceded by “Produced by”.

Additionally, moving away from the subject of PDOs, it might be worth seeking to protect the use of “qvevri wine” on wine labels, restricting its usage to defined production methods – I would suggest limiting it to methods that are traditional in the region of origin. Also, it would not hurt to standardise on “qvevri” or “kvevri” as the transliteration for wine labels. By all means, avoid the mess that Armenia got into with “karas” and “karasi”.

Is all this really so important? Well, it’s hardly a life or death issue, but I believe clarity is the key to communicate Georgian PDOs to wine-drinkers, especially in markets where the wines are little known. It is effectively a type of branding – one that deserves care and attention over a long period of time.

Georgian wine PDOs – the details

I will explain in this post some of the formal details of what Georgian wines PDOs are all about, and how to get further information about each of them, but firstly here is a summary table of the 24 PDOs currently registered. (The table will probably display better on phones if your screen is horizontal.)

PDO name Region Style Grape varieties
Akhasheni Kakheti Semi-sweet red Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri
Akhmeta Kakheti Dry, semi-dry or semi-sweet white; or amber Kakhuri Mtsvane, and (for amber wine only) ≤15% Kisi and Khikhvi
Akhoebi Kakheti Dry red Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri
Atenuri Shida Kartli Sparkling or slightly sparkling white; or dry non-sparkling white Chinuri, Goruli Mtsvane, Aligoté
Bolnisi Kvemo Kartli Dry, white, amber, rosé or red Rkatsiteli, Chinuri, Goruli Mtsvane, Saperavi, Tavkveri, Shavkapito, Asuretuli Shavi
Gurjaani Kakheti Dry white Rkatsiteli and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane
Kakheti Kakheti Any sweetness level, and any colour Rkatsiteli, Kakhuri Mtsvane, Kisi, Khikhvi, Mtsvivani Kakhuri, Chitistvala, Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rkatsiteli Vardisperi
Kardenakhi Kakheti Dry amber; or medium-dry fortified white Rkatsiteli, and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane and Khikhvi
Khvanchkara Racha Semi-sweet red Aleksandrouli, Mujuretuli
Kindzmarauli Kakheti Semi-sweet red Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri
Kotekhi Kakheti Dry red; or dry white Saperavi; or Rkatsiteli
Kvareli Kakheti Dry red Saperavi
Manavi Kakheti Dry White Kakhuri Mtsvane
Mukuzani Kakheti Dry red Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri
Napareuli Kakheti Dry red; or dry white Saperavi, Saperavi Budeshuri; or Rkatsiteli and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane
Salkhino Ojaleshi Samegrelo Dry red Ojaleshi
Saperavi Khashmi Kakheti Dry red Saperavi
Sviri Imereti Dry white Tsolikouri, Tsitska, Krakhuna
Teliani Kakheti Dry red Cabernet Sauvignon
Tibaani Kakheti Dry amber Rkatsiteli, and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane and Khikhvi
Tsarapi Kakheti Dry amber Rkatsiteli, and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane and Khikhvi
Tsinandali Kakheti Dry white Rkatsiteli and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane
Tvishi Lechkhumi Semi-sweet white Tsolikouri
Vazisubani Kakheti Dry white Rkatsiteli and ≤15% Kakhuri Mtsvane

The links in the table take you to the official English translations of the Sakpatenti PDO registration documents, which include quite a lot of detail, including maps. I recently printed them to PDF files, because I could find no other way of linking to the individual PDO documents. However, there are issues with the Sakpatenti English translations. In particular, note that the Georgian originals consistently say “up to 15%” when specifying a grape variety percentage, but in the English translation this becomes simply “15%”.  More on Sakpatenti and its website later.

Note also that in some places the information in my table differ may differ from other published summaries of the PDO. The obvious example is the entry for Kakheti, for which the PDO rules changed at some point. I do not remember the change being announced, but in 2010 it was a PDO for dry white wines only; now it is a lot broader. I am not sure about the reason for all the discrepancies, but I believe my version to be correct at the time of writing.

Anyway, now for a bit of background, and how to get further information…

While Georgia is not part of the EU, it has an equivalent system to regulate and protect its wines, and has chosen to use EU terminology. So initially, back in 2005, it called the protected categories Appellations of Origin. Now they are Protected Designations of Origin, though you will still see the older term in some official contexts. Incidentally, following usage in the EU, Georgia also has PDOs for goods other than wine. Additionally, there is protection through Geographical Indications for other goods, but currently not for wine.

Sakpatenti, the National Intellectual Property Center of Georgia, is the body responsible for registering PDOs, and applications for new ones must be made to Sakpatenti. Registration of a PDO confers legal protection within Georgia, and Georgia seeks protection by treaty for its PDOs in foreign countries. The Sakpatenti website lists the Georgian GIs (here including PDOs) recognised abroad by treaty, and the foreign ones recognised by Georgia. Apparently, only the first 18 Georgian PDOs are currently recognised by the EU. They are the ones described in this Sakpatenti publication of 2010, and shown on the above map. Note that the PDO descriptions in this book are different to the ones referred to in my table, and are quite vague about aspects like mandated grape varieties.

For the definitive and up-to-date list of Georgian PDOs and GIs, and the registration documents with details about each one, see the State Registry in English or in Georgian. The Georgian documents are the definitive versions, and some of the English translations are dodgy. So if in doubt, I would recommend running the Georgian through Google Translate to get a second opinion. It is not too difficult if you use the registration numbers, and document section numbers, to help you orient yourself in the Georgian space.

So far in this mini-series on Georgian PDOs, I have tried to stick to objective facts. But next time, I shall conclude my series with opinion.

Edit 24/07/20: Due to some confusion on my part I was unfairly scathing about the English translations. Sorry! I have now moderated my criticism.

Georgian wine PDOs – a quick guide

Most Georgian wines are marketed by grape variety and the reputation of the winemaker, so as far as the consumer is concerned the country’s PDOs (the equivalent of French Appellations) are often of little relevance. However, there are a few that you might come across in the UK, and here I briefly describe the four that immediately sprang to mind when I was thinking of compiling a shortlist. Later checking showed that they also happen to be the Georgian PDOs most readily available in the UK. And, as they were all in the first six PDOs to be registered, it seems that they were considered to be amongst the most important in Georgia.

These PDOs come from the regions of Kakheti and Racha, and the maps below show you immediately where those regions are within Georgia, but you need to click a few times to get to hi-res maps that show you the location of the PDOs.  The maps do not show physical geography, but it is worth noting that the Alazani river in Kakheti flows in a wide plain, while the Racha vineyard area is more mountainous.

Tsinandali PDO is named after a village in Kakheti, the region where the majority of Georgian wine comes from. This is a dry white (i.e. not orange) wine from the area around the village, made using the Rkatsiteli grape variety with up to 15% Kakhuri Mtsvane. Rkatsiteli is the most common Georgian grape variety, and Kakhuri Mtsvane is also quite popular, and sometimes simply called Mtsvane. The Tsinandali wines that make it to the UK are often relatively inexpensive, and I find them to be straightforward and refreshing. They could perhaps be compared to Chablis, though I would say Tsinandali is more aromatic. I would most naturally think of serving them with white fish.

Mukuzani PDO is also named after a Kakheti village, but this is a dry red wine, and made solely from Saperavi, the most common Georgian red grape. Saperavi wines are usually very dark, an almost opaque purple, and often have a dark and brooding taste profile to match, with smokey fruit. They can also have a fair whack of tannin. Beyond that though, I cannot say I have noticed anything distinctive specifically about the Saperavi from Mukuzani, though as with Tsinandali I have mainly tried cheaper examples imported into the UK. These are wines that can stand up to strong flavours – spices, and beef.

The final two PDOs in my shortlist are Kindzmarauli and Khvanchkara. Frankly, I think the only thing most UK wine drinkers need to know is that these are unfortified semi-sweet red wines, and thus are vini non grata (excuse my, er, Latin) because they do not conform to modern so-called good taste. But please do not dismiss them out of hand. Served at cellar temperature, I find the ones with good balancing acidity and/or tannins very attractive, and they can work very well with grilled meats. But do be aware that they are not sweet enough to function as pudding wines. Kindzmarauli is another Kakheti Saperavi wine, but from the other side of the Alazani river from Tsinandali and Mukuzani. Its name suggests that it comes from somewhere called Kindzmara, but I cannot find such a place on the map. Khvanchkara is made from two lesser-known varieties, Aleksandrouli and Mujuretuli, and is named after the village of Khvanchkara in Racha. Traditionally, these semi-sweet wines were made from ripe late-harvested grapes, which gave a fermentation that naturally arrested due to cold winter temperatures and high alcohol content. That method is sometimes still employed, but these days stopping the fermentation with artificial refrigeration is a lot more common.

So those are my top 4 Georgian PDOs. In my next post, I intend to take a more formal look at Georgian wine PDOs in general, and briefly mention all 24 of them, with links to their official registration documentation.

The Wines of Georgia – book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotsa Family Wines back home in Blighty

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.

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.

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?

Tsigani Gogo, a Georgian wine by Laura Siebel & Niki Antadze

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 *****