Tasting Georgia – book review

This is Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia – A food and wine journey in the Caucasus, hardback, Amazon price is just over £20. It is published by Pallas Athene, and will be available from 6th June. So in the sense that this book has not been published yet, this is more of a preview than a review. It is also a preview in the sense that it is based on a mere 2 hrs or so perusing an almost-final PDF version of the book – sadly I find it hard to read on-screen for longer periods of time.

Firstly, I was struck by the photography, which is also Carla’s work. It is of a very high standard, and the images nicely complement the text to give a feeling for the country and its food and wine. Many of them impacted me emotionally, reflecting the beauty and often-gritty reality of the subject matter. I have recently returned from a visit to Georgia, and my impressions are captured by Carla far better than my own inadequate photographs. At a much more prosaic level, it was also nice to see locations, faces and dishes I recognised.

After a general introduction to the country’s history, wine and food, with emphasis on the food, Carla devotes each major section of the book to a particular region. Each starts with a map and introduction, followed by a number of sections devoted to specific entities in the region – villages, restaurants, food shops, cooks, winemakers and, notably, recipes. There are 70 recipes in total throughout the book, each one attractively presented in a very practical way over a double-page spread, one page to illustrate the dish, the facing page describing how to make it.

The book smacks of good solid, almost classical, design. It is nicely presented in terms of structure and illustrations, and reads very well. A common bugbear of mine is the quality of the mapping in wine books, but I have absolutely no complaints on that score with this book. I could easily imagine going through it linearly from cover to cover – as there is no annoyance of boxes and side-bars to break the flow – and yet the division of the text equally supports diving in to take one section at a time. Finally, it has a comprehensive index. Two in fact, as there is a separate recipe index and meal planner. Am I getting over-excited by the presence of an index? It is something one should expect in a book of this type, but increasingly it is a feature deemed expendable by publishers, and one I miss if absent.

As I am writing on a wine blog, I would add just one note of caution. If you buy this book only for information about Georgian wine you could be disappointed, as Tasting Georgia is certainly no comprehensive guide to its wines and producers, and neither does it claim to be. Nevertheless, I am sure many wine lovers – especially those with foodie tendencies – will find a great deal of interest here.

So, as I said, this is a more preview than a review. I am not sure if I have convinced you about the book, but I have certainly seen enough to know want a paper copy for myself so I can read it properly. In the meantime, I shall be describing my personal experiences of Georgia over the next few blog posts here, so if you are interested in the country please keep in touch.

Update 02/06/17: Carla has added a comment to this post that I think you will find worthwhile reading – some background to the book, her approach to writing, and more about the wine-related sections.

Update 28/11/17: Just a note to say that since writing the above preview, I have read the  physical hardback book in detail, some parts more than once, and have also used a few of the recipes. My respect for the book has only grown, and I still agree with everything I wrote above, though I have just made a few very minor changes, including changing the RRP to an online price. I do however fear that my comment about the book not being a “comprehensive guide to its wines and producers” comes across as too negative. It was not meant to be; but just an indication that it does not follow the standard pattern of wine books, with sections on grape varieties, major producers, and tasting notes. On the other hand the book does cover artisanal qvevri wine production in considerable detail, and profiles many wine producers of that type. I should also point out that I obtained the physical book as a review copy from Carla, but already I have also put my money where my mouth is, and bought a copy of it as a present.

For the Love of Wine – book review

Here I review For the Love of Wine by Alice Feiring. I bought the hardback book online several months ago for just under £11.00. It is verbosely subtitled My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture and yet there is still no mention of the country whose wine culture gets travelled through. The only clue, and a rather cryptic one at that, is the stylised image of a qvevri – yes the country is Georgia.

As hinted at in the book’s subtitle, it is indeed an account of Feiring’s journey through the wine world of Georgia, including some regions that are about at remote as you can get in wine-production terms – ones that hardly produce any wine at all. I am about to embark on a trip to Georgia myself, and am feeling quite excited by the prospect of visiting the town of Sighnaghi in Georgia’s main wine production area of Kakheti, and yet Feiring seems to regard Sighnaghi with the same sort of disdain that I might have for Disneyland. As with a lot of the book, I suspect and hope this says more about Feiring than it does about what is on the ground. We’ll see – I’ll let you know. In terms of laying out the author’s emotional response to the ancient and deeply embedded wine culture of Georgia, this book succeeds admirably, and in a very engaging way. But do not expect any systematic description of the regions, producers and grape varieties. You will need to pick up such information as morsels along the way as you get carried along, something I found to be a difficult and relatively fruitless task. In fact, in places I had difficulty even in keeping track of where Feiring was and where she was going, as the narrative does jump backwards and forwards in time quite a lot. But perhaps that is just me – I seem to have a lot of problems with flashbacks in films too. But to be honest all that doesn’t really matter much, and I return to the fact that I found the book very engaging, and interesting. I am not sure I would agree with or get on with the author in real life, but it was very easy to set that aside when reading the book, and accept at face value that this was one woman’s response to what she saw, heard and tasted.

The main theme of the book is interesting and challenging: ancient wine culture, fought over for millennia, ultimately practically destroyed by the Soviets, but now being revived in the nick of time and yet facing new challenges of globalisation. I must say that I have a lot more respect for the idea of natural wine as part of an ancient culture than I do for its hip tree-hugging image, and certainly for any association it may have with Rudolph Steiner’s 20th century ideas. I really do feel the poetry of wine production being rooted in the past. Yet, at the same time, I do not share Feiring’s fiercely defensive stance when it comes to the introduction of new ideas. It is surely possible to preserve tradition while still allowing some producers to make small accommodations to modernity, and others to work on an even more commercial basis? The free market does not behave in quite such a draconian way as vine-uprooting Ottoman Turks, or the implementation of a Soviet-style five year plan. It might even turn out that the commercially smart solution proves to be the traditional way anyway. Let’s see.

Incidentally, next month a couple of new books on Georgian wine are due to be published: Georgia: A Guide to the Cradle of Wine by Miquel Hudin and Daria Kholodilina, and Tasting Georgia: A food and wine journey in the Caucasus by Carla Capalbo. Looking forward to seeing both of them!

Two wines from Georgia

In preparation for a Georgia wine trip planned for next year, I spent quite a bit of time on the Georgia tables at the Autumn SITT tasting, and now feel I have much better idea of what to expect. For example, I now have expectations about the main red and white grape varieties, Saperavi and Rkatsiteli, and the qualities imparted by qvevri maceration. Some misapprehensions doubtless, but expectations nevertheless.

At the tasting, two producer representatives were kind enough to let me take away bottles of the wines I liked best. Please don’t read too much into my selection – I am always hesitant to judge on a quick sniff and swirl, but for the same reason I was very glad to have the opportunity to re-taste at home, and drink the wines with food. As far as I know, neither producer is represented in the UK, so I do not know for sure what the prices would be here. However, the Maranuli is at the top end of the producer’s range, and the Askaneli towards the bottom. Comparing with the price range for Georgian wines in the UK that could imply retail prices of around £25 and £12.
georgia-sitt
Maranuli
, Rkatsiteli Qvevri, 2014, 13.0%
According to the label, the grapes were grown in Kakheti, which is Georgia’s main wine region, in the East of the country. At SITT, this wine stood out for me as being particularly full, rich and aromatic – a particularly attractive and serious wine. Immediately opening at home I thought it did not live up to what I experienced at SITT, but throughout the meal, and the following evening, it grew on me more and more. It was not complex in the sense that I got different impressions within a few minutes of each other, but it seemed to change over longer periods, becoming more and more intriguing. Medium deep amber in colour. It is what we would call an orange wine, as it was fermented and matured on its skins. On the nose the initial impression was intense, phenolic, and with hint of rose I think, an aroma I now associate with the Rkatsiteli grape variety. Medium acidity. Dry. Medium low astringency when you look for it. Smooth, viscous and full bodied. Notes of incense, with orange blossom and zest. More phenolic on the finish, giving a dry and bitter finish. Decent length. The aromatic profile developed. Later in the evening, aniseed and licorice; and the following day, Seville orange and ginger. The experience of the wine was very temperature dependent. At fridge temperature the rose aromatics were very noticeable, as was the astringency.  Towards room temperature it was more Sherry-like. The tasting notes above were probably made around 14°C, which I thought showed the wine to its best advantage, while the recommendation on the bottle was for a few degrees warmer. Absolutely no idea if this would improve with age, but it is good to drink now *****

Askaneli Brothers, Saperavi, 13.0%
There is no indication of geographic origin or vintage on the bottle, but the website says Kakheti, and the SITT catalogue 2013. There is something that looks like a bottling date on the label: 01.07.2016. It that really consistent with a 2013 vintage? Medium pale purple ruby. Intense nose, with a quality I find difficult to describe. There was definitely cherry fruit, but also a green character – perhaps raw broad beans, melon, peppermint, or even cream – difficult to describe, and something that I found a lot more pleasant than my attempted description might imply. I found it on a few of the Saperavi wines at SITT, and think I shall probably call it sappy in future tasting notes, by way of alliteration. Medium acidity, and an impression of sweetness, which I presume really came from the ripeness of the fruit. Medium low tannin. Excellent length. Drink now I guess. I tasted this very lightly chilled ****

Not all wines on the Georgian table were as good as these two, but that of course would hold true for wines from any country, and on the whole they were attractive and offered a lot of interest for my West European palate. The only wines I could not contemplate drinking were the medium sweet reds, which I was told are now produced mainly for export to ex-Soviet countries, the Georgians themselves preferring dry wines. I doubt very much they would sell well here but, for those that do like that style, Georgia pretty much has the market to itself.

Looking forward to my trip!

Georgian kvevri wines of Pheasant’s Tears, Iago and Lagvini

A kvevri is a large (800-3,500 litre) earthenware vessel, and often also transliterated as qvevri – the Georgian word is ქვევრი.  Sometimes you see them described as amphoras in English texts, but strictly speaking those are smaller vessels with handles, and were used for transportation.

They are lined with beeswax and used in Georgia to ferment and age wine, usually buried underground with only the neck visible.  Traditionally, these wines are fermented on their skins irrespective of the colour of the grape, and little or no sulphur dioxide is used as the natural tannins are reckoned to be sufficient for protection against oxygen.

Back in 2006, when the wines of this country were even less well known than they are now, Tom Cannavan travelled to Georgia to judge a wine competition.  Referring largely to kvevri wines I think, he wrote

It soon became clear that calibration was needed not only of palates, but of expectations and cultural sensitivities. Each judge spoke in turn about wine one. Our eastern European judges all award the wine 18 or 19 points; a gold medal. The western judges scored it 12, 12 and 10, noting winemaking faults.

Reading that was the first time I became aware of the importance of cultural norms in defining wine quality, and it made quite a big impact on how I regard wine.  Eight years on, and Georgia is still making these wines.  I would say they are still weird to Western European taste, though the recent rise in popularity of so-called natural wines has perhaps made us more accepting, and they are more readily available in the UK.

I rate wines by personal enjoyment, so I don’t need to worry too much about cultural norms, but I still found these wine challenging to assess.  It is surprisingly difficult to decide how much you like something when the experience is so different to what you normally encounter.  Whether I do or do not finish up drinking a lot of kvevri wines in the future, I am sure of one thing:  the world of wine would be poorer without this style, and I am pleased it exists.  If you have not done so already I suggest you try at least one white and one red – Pheasant’s Tears is probably the most widely brand available in the UK, and seems to be well-regarded by those who judge such things.

Anyway, here are the wines, bought from different shops so the prices are not directly comparable. In addition to the tasting notes, there is brief information largely taken from the back label.

Iago’s Wine, Chardakhi, Chinuri, White dry, Without skin contact,  2010, 11.4%, £13.50

There was no “contains sulphites” text on the label which, if legal, means the sulphite level was very low. Chinuri is the grape variety, and Chardakhi the village.  The vines are over 50 years old.  This wine was “foot pressed” in wooden containers, and underwent fermentation and initial aging in kvevri.

Pale amber gold.  Intense pear. Medium high acidity.  Has a sour note – as in sour milk but not unpleasant. Dry. Decent length.  Pleasant and interesting, but rather simple.  Can’t remember ever having had a wine like this. The following day it was a tad oxidised ***

Lagvini, Rkatsiteli, Vineyards of the Caucasus, Kakheti, 2011, 12.5%, £22.50

This is an orange wine, fermented and aged in kvevri. Organic and natural.  Lagvini is the producer, Rkatsiteli the grape variety, and Kakheti the region.

Medium amber. Intense. Fresh. Phenolic – a little like carbolic soap. And aromas I would normally associate with light red wines, like raspberry I think, and Beaujolais-like notes. Ripe apple, but not the over-ripe apple you associate with oxidation. Difficult to describe. Medium acid. Fresh, pleasant and interesting. A bit flat on the finish. Medium high tannin. Drink now I guess. Score includes a little for interest factor. But it is short, and somehow did not get drunk much with the middle-eastern meal  ****

Pheasant’s Tears, Unfiltered, Saperavi, Living Black Wine, Kakheti Region, 2007, 12.5%, £18.00

Pheasant’s Tears is the producer, and Saperavi the grape variety. This was hand-pressed into bees wax lined amphoras (sic – that’s what the label said). Macerated for several days. Semi-filtered and lightly sulphured, so drink soon after opening.

Medium garnet. Intense. Smokey wood. High-toned.  Medium high acidity. Dry. Medium tannin. Intense, sharp juicy dark fruit. Mouth-watering. Excellent length. On the palate, less of the smokey character that is on the nose, but it is still there. Drink now probably. Interesting, and I like it. Not sure how often I would want to drink it though ****

Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Dry unfiltered red wine, Kakheti , 2011, 12.5%, £13.00

This is really the same as the previous wine, but a different vintage, and with a revamped label and back-label information.   The vines come from the Tinaani sub-region of Kakheti.  The grapes were pressed into bees wax lined amphoras (sic), where they underwent normal and malolactic fermentation with natural yeasts. Long skin maceration.

Medium inky purple ruby. Intense dark fruit. Volatile and bretty.  High acidity. Medium high tannin. Excellent length. As nose. Band-aid brett noticeable in the mouth, in addition to the farmyard brett on the nose. Overall a cough-mixture effect.  Wierd stuff. Hmmm, let’s see… ****

Pheasant’s Tears, Mtsvane, Dry unfiltered amber wine, Kakheti, 2011, 12.5%, £15.00

The grape is Mtsvane, and the vines are from the Kartilian estate.  Production details are as for the Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Saperavi.

Medium greeny amber gold. Intense smoke, and some rose. Some sharp honey-like notes too I think. Intriguing and exotic. Medium low acidity. Dry, but with the sweet aromas of ripe fruit. Highly astringent. Seems more acidic on the finish, which is refreshing. On the palate, more sharp honey and less rose than on the nose.  Intriguing. No idea how this would age. Would it keep the aromas, but soften? Not easy to score ****

Pheasant’s Tears, Shavkapito, Dry unfiltered red wine, Kakheti, 2011, 12.5%, £15.00

Shavkapito is the grape variety, and this came from the Tinaani sub-region of Kakheti. Production details are as for the Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Saperavi.

Medium ruby with some violet. Vague berry perhaps. Little reductive maybe. Not giving much on the nose. Medium low acidity. Dry. Hard edges. Highly astringent. Some soft berry aroms hidden behind the tannin somewhere – maybe – I think. Needs a decade or so ***

Pheasant’s Tears, Rkatsiteli, Dry unfiltered amber wine, Kakheti ,2011, 12.5%, £14.70

Rkatsiteli is the grape variety, and this comes from Bodbiskevi village, East Alazani Valley. Production details are as for the Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Saperavi.

Medium pale greenish amber gold.  Intense, fresh, slightly medicinal. Could be brett, but I think this is typical of skin-contact white wines. Medicinal note is irritating to my nose. Dried apricots maybe. Medium high acidity. Tannin obvious. High astringency. Excellent length. As nose. Astringent finish.  No idea how this will age. Including the interest factor, I give this… ***

Wines from Lebanon and thereabouts

At last – another event that reminds me of what wine is all about, and why I like writing about it.  A group of wine nuts from Manchester and thereabouts once again descended on the Aladdin BYO restaurant in Withington,  to eat well, and share wines from Lebanon and thereabouts.  The original brief was to bring bottles from the Eastern Mediterranean or the North Coast of Africa.  We finished up with no bottles from Africa, and stretched the concept of Eastern Mediterranean from Greece to Georgia (mercifully not as far as the one in the USA), but it didn’t seem to matter.  Somehow it felt as though we kept within the spirit of the theme.

As usual, Aladdin delivered, and we paid only £20 per person all in, including tip and corkage.  Well actually they did not charge for corkage as we had our own glasses and opened our own wine.  I learned on leaving that they were going to expand to take over the Indian restaurant next door completely – they already have the first floor and will move in on the ground floor too.  Excellent news.  They do a great job, and deserve every success.

Scanning through my star ratings below, I must admit that some do seem very generous. But they are a measure of my enjoyment on the night, and I never pretend to be objective. To recreate the enjoyment, I suggest that you and a group of friends grab a bunch of similarly interesting wines and take them to your local Middle-Eastern restaurant. Perhaps with the exception of the Jars of Cana, if you buy one of the lesser known wines and try it in “the cold light of day” you might not be so impressed.

Domaine des Tourelles, Pierre Louis Brun depuis 1868, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Chardonnay, Viognier and Muscat d’Alexandria – 2011, 13.0%
Peachy. Medium low acid.  Dry. Slightly astringent. Good to drink now ****

Chateau Khoury, Rève Blanc, Dhour Zahleé, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Riesling – 2008, 13.0%
Intensely floral and petrol. Medium acid. Off dry. Good to drink now, but no hurry ****

Massaya, Silver Selection, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – 2004, 13.5%
Flat and Oxidised. Faulty bottle or too old. But a bottle of this vintage was great last year, so if you see one don’t automatically write it off. I have one more, so let’s hope! Still drinkable **

Chateau Musar, White, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Obaideh and Merwah – 2001, 12.5%
Intense. Slightly oxidised. Slightly astringent. Big, and full of flavour. Beautiful. A tasting note of few words because I was struggling to describe it, rather than because it had little to offer. A great wine, and probably the wine of the night. Good to drink now, but no hurry *****

Pirosmani, Medium dry red, Telavi Marani (producer), Kakheti (region), Georgia – Saperavi – 2005, 12.5%
Vaguely raisiny. Medium acid. Medium dry. Medium low tannin. This really was not my cup of tea, but then I rarely like wines that are medium dry or medium sweet. Drink now **

Jawary, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan – 2005, 13.0%
This is the wine behind the label featured in the image for this post. What a fantastic label – nicely expressing the exotic and, I suspect, the flamboyance of the cultural remains of French rule. At Aladdin I found it to be a good all-round wine. Medium acid. Off dry. Medium tannin. Finishing dry due to the tannin. The following evening, it seemed to have transformed into a Pinotage for better and worse – burnt rubber and meat, with a touch of (in the nicest possible way) vomit. ****

Jars of Cana, Clos de Cana, Vallée Lamartine, Lebanon – Petit Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Mouvèdre – 2002, 13.0%
Intense red fruit. Fresh and aromatic. Medium acid. Medium low acid. Another sadly brief note, but a very good and interesting wine with a score that fairly reflects the quality. It was not noted at the time, but I am sure there was some spice in the mix too. Manchester locals can pick up a bottle at the Cheshire Smokehouse. Apparently Petit Cabernet is an synomym for Cabernet Sauvignon.  Good to drink now *****

Chateau Musar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault – 2000, 13.5%
Intense soft red fruit. Spicy and volatile. Medium acid. As nose. Medium tannin. Excellent length. Could drink now, but was surprisingly primary compared to the 1999s I have opened and enjoyed over the last couple of years, so I would definitely keep at least another few years *****

Naturally sweet wine, Karelas (producer), Mavrodaphne (grape) of Patras (region), Greece, NV, 15.0%, 37.5cl
Intense. Raisiny. Medium acid. Sweet. As nose. Low tannin. Bitter. Excellent length. Drink now. You can get this, and other Mavrodaphne of Patras wines, for around a tenner a bottle. I am certainly going to be trying more *****

Chateau Musar, Hochar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Cinsault, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache – 2005, 13.5%
Just when we thought it was all over, we discovered a forgotten wine. For the avoidance of doubt, this is the Hochar “baby Musar” – not the first wine of the Chateau. Intense. VA. Red fruit. Medium acid. A tad thin maybe. Good to drink now, but no hurry ****