The Importance of Being Bottled

Wines not bottled at source have a bit of a bad reputation for many people, and it seems the main reason is the lack of guarantee of origin and quality, something that is supposedly conferred by the producer’s bottle and label.

A moment’s thought however reveals that any guarantee is far from absolute. Bottles and labels can be faked, and they offer no protection from rogue producers. Also, wine can now be transported efficiently and safely in bulk, with traceability afforded by documentation and information technology.

The guarantee is really only required when there are significant distances between production and consumption – in wine-producing regions empty containers are often taken to a nearby producer for refill. The locals are of course in a great position to know the seller’s reputation, and may even make wine themselves.

As far as small producers are concerned, selling to locals is one thing, but bottling their wine is often the key to getting better prices from large cities, and possibly other countries. And once in a bottle with a label, wine can take a very different position in society. It is no longer a lightly processed agricultural product, only of local significance, but an international lifestyle product. The larger and cheaper brands are designed for the mass market, while more expensive wines available in smaller quantities become desirable luxury goods. At the luxury end of the market, connoisseurship is enabled by bottles and labels. They allow critics to write about a particular wine and vintage, and punters that are possibly in another part of the world can then buy what purports to be the same wine. Even if it is common knowledge that wine can vary considerably between bottles of the same lot, particularly for older vintages, somehow that variation is conveniently forgotten by connoisseurs when obsessing over wine. Thus, labels change how the product is regarded, and they can so easily mislead.

The culture surrounding natural wines largely ignores conventional wine connoisseurship, and I think in many ways would be more at home with the idea of bulk wine – something meant to be quaffed rather than sipped. Is not bottling one of the most unnatural things you can do to a wine? Even if you leave out the preliminary steps of fining, filtering and dosing with sulphites, squeezing wine into a closed space with little oxygen cramps its style. However, bottling is important to reach the more lucrative market city markets and their natural wine bars. Best not use a traditional wine label though – rather get a mate to design something funky and rebellious, so those connoisseur types know to stay away.

There are comparisons to be drawn here between en rama Sherries and natural wines. Strictly speaking an en rama Sherry is taken directly from a solera cask, and valued for its fresh and lively character. Which is all very well if you have access to casks in a Sherry bodega, but not so handy if you live in another country. So Sherry houses now offer the en rama experience oxymoronically from a bottle, where its contents have only minimal processing – perhaps a little fining, only coarse filtration, and minimal sulphite usage. And in doing so, unlike many natural wine producers, it seems they have a product with connoisseur-appeal.

If only for environmental reasons, we need to explore alternatives to bottling wine at source, even if there are huge image problems to overcome for most customers. The romance of drinking unbottled wine in situ might, just might, be a starting point to convince some people. It would work for me, but then I am a far-from-typical wine drinker.

Sulphites in wine – maximum and typical concentrations

In pretty much all wine-producing countries, there are regulations to limit the sulphite content of wine. The limits are always expressed nominally in terms of total sulphur dioxide, but I suspect they all assume an analysis method that fails to account for some of the bound sulphur dioxide, as discussed in my previous post.

Let’s start by taking a look at sulphite limits in the European Union. The rather complex set of limits are very nicely summarised in a table in the document EU rules for organic wine production: Background, Evaluation and Further Sector Development:

If you feel motivated to check these various EU limits or get more details, the table provides you with the relevant document numbers, which can be found by a web search. But it is not a task to be tackled lightly – I once set out to extract the various sulphite limits from the 1999 regulations and nearly lost the will to live.

The US regulations on the other hand have the advantage of simplicity: for wines with no organic-credentials the limit is 350 ppm (or mg/l – the units are practically identical). That figure is widely quoted, but I am afraid I have not been able to track down the actual regulatory document. I had more success with finding an authoritative-looking document for organic wines in the USA: Organic Wine: Oversight, Labeling & Trade. That document covers two categories: wine made with organic grapes and organic wine, where organic wine has stricter rules. For organic wine, added sulphites are not allowed at all – though the wine will still contain naturally occurring sulphites, and probably need a sulphites warning on the label, as discussed in my previous post. However, for wine made with organic grapes sulphite additions are allowed, providing there is no more than 100 ppm sulphur dioxide in the finished wine. In the EU by the way, wine made with organic grapes is not a special category: the grapes must be farmed organically as claimed, but all winemaking regulations are as for conventional wines in the above table.

For allowable sulphite levels in other countries, The Oxford Companion to Wine reads: “In South Africa, the limit is 150 mg/l for dry reds, 160 mg/l for dry white, rosé, and sparkling, and between 200 and 300 mg/l for sweet wines depending on style and level of sweetness. Argentina: 130 mg/l for dry reds, 180 mg/l for dry white and rosé wines and sweet reds, 210 mg/l for sweet white and rosé. Chile: 300 mg/l for all dry wines and 400 mg/l for sweet wines.”

As far as biodynamic wine is concerned, Demeter certifies it internationally, and their document Standards for Demeter/Biodynamic Wine regulates the use of sulphites. The stated aim is that sulphur dioxide be restricted to the absolute minimum, but then the document proceeds to specify limits that are more lax than the US organic regulations. For different types of wine, the maximum allowable total sulphur dioxide at bottling in mg/l is:

But what about so-called natural wines? As you probably know there is no official definition or certifying body, but we can take a look at the list of wines made by the accredited growers and makers of Raw Wine – Isabel Legeron’s platform for the promotion of natural wines. By searching the list using filters provided on the website, it is possible to get a feeling for sulphite levels in wines deemed to be natural. The database also records which wines have added sulphites, but sadly you cannot use that as a search criterion. Here are the results of a search on 6th June 2019:

NATURAL WINES
Total sulphur dioxide (ppm) Number of wines
0 468
1-10 925
11-20 929
21-30 957
31-40 739
41-50 504
51-60 341
61-70 196
71-80 5
81-90 2
91-100 2

I think some of the quoted sulphur dioxide analysis results in this table need to be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, when you look at the data in more detail it is obvious that some testing laboratories round the concentrations to the nearest integer multiple of 5 or 10 ppm. Note also the high number of wines with precisely zero sulphites, despite it being commonly stated that fermentation necessarily creates sulphites in all wines. I have seen 10 ppm referred to as a detectable level, implying that measuring anything less than that is problematic, so perhaps that explains all the wines at 0 ppm? But regardless of such quibbling, I think we can conclude from the table that most natural wines contain less than 40 ppm, and that there are fewer and fewer natural wines at levels increasing from 40 to 70 ppm.

So now we know some the sulphite concentrations in some natural wines, thanks largely to sulphites being one of the obsessions of the natural wine community, but getting sulphite concentrations for wines in general seems to be more difficult. The assumption is often that the makers of cheap wines zap their wines with as much sulphite as they can get away with, to compensate for poor fruit quality, and for closer control of the winemaking process to create a consistent product that meets an expected flavour profile. On the other hand, higher quality producers are expected use less sulphites, as they take more care to select healthy fruit, are willing to put more effort into low-intervention winemaking, and are also more tolerant of variation in the end product. I personally think there must be some truth in that characterisation, but sadly cannot demonstrate it with numbers. More certainly, it is the case that red wines need less added sulphites than white, because the tannin in red wines will also provide protection against oxidation, and sweeter wines will tend to need more added sulphites, because the sugar binds sulphur dioxide, rendering it a lot less effective.

To get some feeling for typical sulphite concentrations in wines that are not claimed to be natural, I think we could do a lot worse than look at the maximums in the first table of this post. EU regulations are typically designed to reflect existing practice rather than to effect change, so I think it is reasonable to assume that most wines have sulphite levels approaching, but comfortably within, the specified limits for the different styles of wine. On the other hand, producers who particularly favour low-intervention methods (even if they do not identify with the natural wine movement) would be closer to around 30 ppm, and other high-quality wines would have intermediate concentrations.

So what are we to make of all this? To be honest I am not at all sure. One might hope that maximum sulphite levels were specified according to some sort of objective assessment of health risk, but I am not convinced we know enough about sulphite allergies to do that – there is not even agreement about what proportion of people are affected by sulphites (as mentioned in my previous post). So what we have are rules based on a mish-mash of current practice and ideology. In my opinion, the best that can be said for the current situation is that consumers can exercise a degree of choice about their exposure to sulphites – based on their world-view and how they personally perceive health risks.

Sulphites in wine – clearing up a few points

I studied a bit of chemistry at university so I know what a sulphite is, I thought. It’s an ion that has a single sulphur atom, three oxygens and a double negative charge. And I most definitely would not make the common error of confusing sulphite with sulphate, which is spelled with an a rather than an i, and has four oxygen atoms – a totally different beast.

The usual story with sulphites is that they are added to wine to work against oxidation, and kill yeast and bacteria, but the downside is that some people are allergic to them, and in the US and EU they require a warning label if present at 10 ppm (parts per million – very similar to mg/l) or more. They are also anecdotally associated with headaches, and thought by some to be a Bad Thing simply because they are not Natural. However, at the next level of sophistication you might also be aware that some sulphite content actually is natural, as it is a fermentation product, and thus present in every wine even if not added artificially.

So far so good, but when you start poking around a bit more, asking what sulphite concentrations actually mean, and how many of us are allergic to sulphites, it suddenly gets rather more murky. What people call sulphites are not necessarily the sulphites a chemistry undergraduate is confident about, and it is not clear precisely what people are allergic to. I don’t claim to have a complete overview of all these issues, but will try here to clarify what I can.

The sulphite ion (top left), sulphur dioxide molecule (top right), and the two tautomers of the bisulphite ion (bottom)

Let me start by talking through some of the points made on Ben Rotter’s excellent webpage on sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide can be introduced into wine using any of a number of approved additives but, regardless of which one is used, the same set of sulphur-related entities will result:

  1. Sulphur dioxide – gas molecules in solutions
  2. Sulphite ions – as described at the start of this post
  3. Bisulphite ions – like sulphite but with a hydrogen, and less charge
  4. Unstable compounds – formed by bonding with various other chemicals
  5. Stable compounds – notably the product of reacting with acetaldehyde

Even though only number 1 in the list is actually sulphur dioxide, 1-3 are often referred to as free sulphur dioxide, and 4 and 5 as bound sulphur dioxide. The total sulphur dioxide includes both the free and the bound forms. Any protective properties are largely lost in the bound forms, with free sulphur dioxide doing the vast majority of the good work. In fact, it is the molecular sulphur dioxide that is most effective form but, depending on the pH, there may not be much of it present as a fraction of the total.

You may have noticed that from talking about sulphites we quietly slid into the subject of sulphur dioxide. You will find that is quite common in discussions of this subject, and the two are often seen as being practically synonymous. It does not help that when someone says sulphur dioxide they could be referring to

  1. Actual sulphur dioxide molecules,
  2. Free sulphur dioxide,
  3. Bound sulphur dioxide (unlikely perhaps),
  4. Total sulphur dioxide

In fact you could add a fifth, which is the sulphur dioxide measured by a specific procedure. More on this later, but let’s first take a look at sulphur compound allergies.

The first point to make on the subject of allergies is that people can have adverse reactions to several different sulphur compounds, and just because you have problems with one does not mean you need to avoid contact with all of them. In the food and drink industry it is common to talk about adding sulphites, and the product as containing sulphites. Accordingly, from a medical point of view, what is of interest to us here is usually referred to as a sulphite allergy or intolerance, as it is a reaction to food or drink that contains these sulphites. Also, my impression is that people take the practical view that all sulphited products finish up containing the same range of chemicals, as listed above, and do not bother to distinguish between the individual chemicals when gathering data about allergies.

There are many possible reactions to sulphites, both true allergies (due to an over-sensitive immune response) and other intolerances. The most severe response is anaphylaxis, which is rare but very serious and possibly lethal, while the most common is the worsening of any asthma symptoms, also potentially lethal in some cases. Other less serious possible reactions are hives and allergic rhinitis. But as far as I know there is no hard evidence that sulphites cause headaches. Estimates of the numbers of people affected by adverse reactions vary a lot. One estimate is that 1% of the population is affected, of which 5% also suffer from asthma; while another source says 5% of asthmatics are sensitive to sulphites, compared with 1% of the rest of the populations; and a third source claims that in America less than 0.05% of the whole population is affected.

Speaking of inconsistency in terminology, you might also note that although food scientists and medical people tend to talk about sulphites, and the warning text on wine labels reads “contains sulphites”, the threshold level for warnings is defined in terms of total sulphur dioxide content, a label warning being required for 10 ppm or more. In fact a specific procedure (or one that gives similar results) is mandated for measuring sulphur dioxide: the optimised Monier-Williams distillation-titration procedure.

Looking at methods similar to optimised Monier-Williams (here and here), it seems that the first step is to acidify, which converts all the free sulphur dioxide, and also a fixed proportion of bound sulphur dioxide, to the molecular form of sulphur dioxide, and then the sulphur dioxide gas content is measured. So it seems likely that the concentration levels determined for comparison with the 10 ppm limit, are expressed in terms of molecular sulphur dioxide gas, rather than the ionic forms. Another conclusion is that, as not all the bound sulphur dioxide is converted to the molecular form for measurement, the procedure will not actually give the true total sulphur dioxide content – it will be somewhat less, but greater than the amount of free sulphur dioxide.

Why is the limit set to 10 ppm? I could not find a definitive answer, but 10 ppm is referred to as being a detectable amount, so it seems that it is linked to the practicalities of measurement, rather than the level at which some people might react badly. As the mandated procedure under-measures, it would anyway seem silly to start fretting too much about the science behind the limit of 10 ppm. Perhaps the best that can be said about the regulations is that they are capable of being enforced consistently, and offer a degree of protection to those who are allergic.

I can only assume that the sulphite concentrations often bandied about by natural wine advocates also refer to sulphur dioxide as measured by the optimised Monier-Williams method, but I have never seen it stated. You will typically see sulphite concentrations quoted if a low-intervention producer choses to add sulphites, but otherwise an informal description of a low-intervention wine will often only say “no added sulphites”. Just remember that there will still be sulphites in a no-added-sulphites wines, and quite likely more than 10 ppm. This may be fine if you are mainly concerned about the natural-credentials of the wine, but is definitely something to bear in mind if you have a serious sulphite allergy.

So that is my best shot at explaining more precisely what sulphites actually are, how they are regulated, and to what extent they are responsible for allergies. I have done my best to stick to facts to the extent I could establish them, and keep my opinions to myself, but I might be more indulgent in future posts now I know a bit more what I am talking about. If I’ve got something wrong, or could have explained something better, please let me know, and I will try to correct or improve what I have written.

Nika Vacheishvili’s Marani and Wine Guest House

On our tour of South and West Georgia, returning to Tbilisi from Kutaisi we turned off the main road just after Gori, and headed South through the beautiful Ateni Valley for around 6 km. Just past the Sion Church, you will find a footpath on your left hand side. Take that path for a further kilometre or so, across the footbridge over the river, and you arrive at Nika Vacheishvili’s marani and guesthouse. As evidenced by the 4×4 parked there, you can drive right up to the house if you approach from another direction and know your way, but ours was the more obvious route. Here we see vineyards in front of the church, and behind that a hint of the landscape of the valley.


We were welcomed by Nika (centre), and joined briefly by his wife Diana when eating lunch. Nika used to be the Georgian Minister for Culture, Heritage and Sport, and decided to create the wine cellar and guesthouse in this location while working on the restoration of the Sion Church.

Wine production is small-scale, organic and natural, but it does not, as you may expect if you have been reading my blog, involve qvevri. Nika decided to start his winemaking in stainless steel, but has plans to use qvevri in the future. It would be interesting to see how the switch to qvevri will impact his wines.

Unfortunately I cannot remember many details of the lunch, but it was all good. However, one thing I do remember as being particularly impressive was actually one of the more modest dishes: sliced beetroot. In England I am used to having this served in a little watered-down vinegar, but here the Georgian sour plum sauce (tkemali) took the vinegar role, and brought it to a whole new level.

We had three wines served at lunch. Putting together my scrappy notes and information from the web, I believe we had the 2017 and 2016 vintages of the Atenuri – a wine from the Ateni Valley of 80% Chinuri and 20% Gorula Mtsvane. And the third wine was 2015 Koshkebis Chinebuli – made from 50 years old Chinuri vines – Koshkebis is Georgian for towers, and Chinebuli is a another name for Chinuri. To be honest, I am afraid to say I did not like these wines very much. I found the two Atenuri wines to be out of balance, in that they were too alcoholic for the body and aromatics. And the Koshkebis Chinebuli, although it had developed some interesting Riesling-like petrol notes, was a little musty. But I am a big believer in the subjectivity of wine appreciation, and my wife, whose opinions I respect, thought the wines were good. Maybe my palate was having an off-day.

Regardless, if you are looking for good food, and a quiet place to relax for a few days in beautiful countryside, Nika’s guesthouse should fit the bill.

Oda Family Winery and Vino Martville

As another stop on our tour of South and West Georgia, we visited Oda, the family home of Keto Ninidze. Beneath the living-quarters of the house is the family winery managed by Keto, and there is also a restaurant business there. The restaurant is where we had lunch, except we were the only guests at the time, and Keto stayed with us at the table after showing us around her cellar and vineyards. So where does Vino Martville come into the picture? Well, Keto is married to Zaza Gagua who is a partner in that winery. (It is sometimes styled as M’artville with the “art” bit in another font and/or colour, I shall stick with Martville!) Vino Martville is currently better established than Oda Family Winery, so you are more likely to have heard of it, and the wines drank with lunch were Vino Martville.

Oda Family Winery lies in the village of Martvili, in the region of Samegrelo. Not only is Oda the name of this house and winery, but the word also describes this style of traditional Megrelian house, with pillars to keep out the damp and a shady veranda. Zaza and Keto moved here from Tbilisi, but the house belonged to Zaza’s great-grandfather, who built it around 100 years ago.

As is sometimes the case with oda houses, part of the ground floor has been walled-off to create a cellar space, and here the cellar contains qvevri and other winemaking equipment. I didn’t notice it when we were visiting, but that wooden thing to the left under the house, looks like a trough for treading grapes. Inside the cellar there is one small 50 li and few 500 li qvevri, along with a small basket press and stainless steel tank, and a storage room for bottled wine. Keto is shown here with one of her qvevri. Close to the house is a vineyard recently planted with the Ojalashi and Chviriluri varieties, but it is still too young to produce grapes for wine, so the first couple of vintages of Oda were made from grapes brought in.

In front of the house across the grass is a separate building for the kitchen, which I think is a traditional arrangement in Samegrelo but this was over-sized to cater for the restaurant, and a wooden canopy to shelter the restaurant tables.

The food was amazing – quite possibly the best we have had in Georgia, though some of that enthusiasm may be due to my love of spice, which is one of the defining features of Megrelian food. We started with pickled jonjoli flowers in a corn bread tart-casing, which was a great combination. Also show below, looking like a tomato-free pizza, is Megrelian khachapuri. Unlike the perhaps more common Imeretian style of khachapuri, here the bread is not only filled with cheese but is also covered with toasted cheese. Mmmm, cheese – if I wanted to invest in a street food business in the UK, it would specialise in khachapuri. Also shown are pieces of chicken with a light brown walnut(?) sauce and, just visible bottom right, two types of adjika, which is a paste of chili and other spices.

I believe the rolls shown below are gebjalia, which is also mainly cheese, the structural bit being heated cheese and milk rolled out when it has acquired the correct elastic texture, with a herby filling, and a soft cheese on the side and in the sauce. Cheese too is an important ingredient in the elarji, another Megrelian speciality, being pulled out of the pot to demonstrate that it has the right consistency. The basis is ghomi, which is a sort of porridge very similar to a soft polenta, and can be eaten as it is as the carbohydrate part of a meal. But if you stir in a type of cheese, and keep stirring and stir some more, you get a delicious cheesy stodge, which was served with an equally delicious and spicy stew. I think the meat was veal, and it was in a thick and slightly grainy sauce that I suspect got its consistency from nuts. Whatever it was it was good, and worked well with the elarji.

Was there something else? Ah, yes, the wines. Sorry, but again I have very brief descriptions and very enthusiastic ratings. I am not sure if the paucity of description is just a weakness on my part, or if there is something about these wines that discourages verbiage – as in many ways the appeal of these wines lies in their immediacy and simplicity. It may be some sort of vinous heresy, but in my opinion complexity is overrated. Philosophy aside, here are my tasting notes:

Vino Martville, Krakhuna, 2017
Medium greenish gold. Slightly cloudy. Intense, fresh, orange aromas. High acid. Medium high tannin. Mouthwatering. As nose. Drink now ******

Vino Martville, Aladasturi, 2017
Medium purple. Intense, sweet, dark berry fruit on the nose. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now *****

Finally, a few words about Keto. She was a philologist in Tbilisi and, in addition to making wine and looking after her family, intends to continue writing – about wine, and life at Oda. Judging by our conversations I am sure she will write from a thoughtful and interesting perspective, and I look forward to reading anything that might appear in English.

Gotsa Family Wines

Like all the producers we visited on this trip, the location of Gotsa Family Wines  is rural and idyllic. Unlike the other locations however, it is readily accessible from Tbilisi by car – under an hour’s drive to the south, in the Asureti Valley. On arrival, we met the winemaker Beka Gotsadze and took a tour of his cellars, but first let’s take a look at the three wines we drank with lunch. Here they are with pre-lunch nibbles.All three were 2016 wines from Asureti Valley vineyards. Below I have identified all the wines by their grapes, but I think the one with five grapes might just be called Asureti White or something similar. My ratings may seem very high, but no claim of objectivity is made, and that is what you get when drinking outside in the shade with a great lunch and in a beautiful environment. Nevertheless, the Chinuri was my clear favourite, even if tasting note could have been more eloquent, and I was more than happy to fill the final 4 remaining bottle-shaped holes in our suitcases with wines purchased from Beka.

Chinuri
Medium gold. Intense, fresh, apricot. Phenolic. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. As nose. Drink now ******

Mtsvane, Khikhvi, Kisi, Mtsviani, Chitisvala Bodburi
Darker brownish amber. Intense, fig, raisins. Probably a little oxidised. Medium acid. High tannin. Refreshing, despite all the dried fruit flavours. Drink now *****

Tavkveri
This is labelled as a rosé wine, but I would rather describe it as a lightish red wine, like a less-serious red Beaujolais for example. Medium pale purple. Intense, soft strawberry aromas. Medium acid. Off-dry effect, but that could be from ripe fruit aromas. Low but noticeable tannin. Drink now ****
Beka was fun company, over lunch and during the tour. He was opinionated, but didn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and was willing to listen to other ideas too. He is definitely in the natural camp of winemakers, with certified-organic vineyards and low-intervention winemaking, and he is traditional to the extent that he uses qvevri and Georgian grape varieties. However, that is really where tradition ends and his desire to tinker and innovate kicks in.

Rather than using wood or stone to seal the neck of the qvevri, Beka prefers stainless steel. That is now quite a common thing in Georgia, but he has also devised a large insulating cap for the qvevri that hold maturing wine, to help keep the temperature constant. He also dangles electric heating elements in his qvevri to sterilise them before use. The insulating cap and sterilisation device are illustrated above. The long baskety thing, also illustrated, is a coarse filter that you drop into the qvevri to remove the heaviest crud from the wine you take out from within the basket.

But perhaps the most impressive innovation is that the fermentation qvevri have tubing coiled around them underground, enabling Beka to cool or heat the wine in the qvevri by pumping water through the tubing. The alcoholic fermentation produces heat, so to keep the temperature lower Beka pumps through cold spring water, and the resulting warm water goes into his swimming pool. And to encourage malolactic fermentation by warming the wine, the direction of flow is reversed, taking warm water from the pool. Beka shows us the controls for this temperature control system in the above image. Before becoming a winemaker, Beka used to be an architect, and his company designed heating systems for buildings – presumably this was the inspiration for his qvevri temperature-control ideas. The usual story you get in Georgia is that the qvevri is an ideal winemaking vessel perfected over millennia, and that the earth around the qvevri works perfectly to moderate its temperature.  So I am sure Beka’s ideas are not without controversy, but how do you know how perfect the basic qvevri is until you explore alternatives?

Another practice frowned on in some Georgian circles is that Beka matures his red wines in flavour-neutral old oak barrels to allow small amounts of oxygen into the wine. The frowns are because traditionally, i.e. before the 19th century, wood was not used to hold wine in Georgia winemaking, everything being in qvevri. Regardless of the vessel used, it is noteworthy that Beka sees fit to age his wine for up to two years before release, as he thinks is important for the wines to stabilise, especially if they are to be exported and experience less-than-ideal conditions in transit.

Overall, a great visit – certainly something to consider if you are a wine-lover staying in Tbilisi for a while.

An Amazing Mtsvane and a Cracking Krakhuna

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!

A trip to South and West Georgia

My first visit to Georgia was mainly in Kakheti – the Eastern part of Georgia, where most of its wine is made. It made a big impression on me, and since then I have spent a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about Georgia. I had to return, and this time headed South and West from Tbilisi, spending one night near Vardzia and three in Kutaisi. The remaining three nights, immediately after and before our flights, were in Tbilisi. This time there was just the two of us in a car with a guide, on a private tour organised by Living Roots, which was a very much more intimate experience compared to the Arblaster and Clarke trip last time, and considerably cheaper. The number of wines we got to try was a considerably less, and we generally drank the wine, as God intended, rather than tasting it. But that was no bad thing. In addition to natural qvevri wines bottled for sale, we drank undocumented homemade restaurant house wines probably made the same way, and a couple of examples of cheap factory wines (as the Georgians sneeringly call them).

Just to be clear from a disclosure point of view for anything I might write about this trip –  we paid for everything we received. It was a holiday; not a press trip.

Some of the many highlights…

Part of the Vardzia cave-city to the right, overlooking its valley

In the South we visited the cave-city of Vardzia. Established in the 12th century as a place to hide from invading armies, it grew to a man-made cave complex on 13 levels suitable for permanent inhabitation. A series of earthquakes later exposed the cave-city in section, which is what we see now. Further North, and much close to Kutaisi, we visited the Gelati Monastery. It was founded in 1106, and became one of the most important cultural and intellectual centres in Georgia.

Gelati Monastery

Travelling North-West from Kutaisi, in the Samegrelo region of Georgia, we saw the beautiful Martvili Canyon, and rafted in a more gently flowing part of the river, also visiting the large limestone Prometheus Cave on our return journey.

The wine producers we visited were: Archil Guniava Wine Cellar, Nikoladzeebis Marani, Oda and Vino Martville, Nika Vacheishvili’s Marani, and Gotsa Family Wines. I’ll try to write more about them in later posts, but right now I would just like to say what wonderful lunches we had in those places. Our visit to Archil was late in the afternoon, and even there we were offered delicious khachapuri, tomato, cucumber and nuts.

Lunch at Nika Vacheishvili’s place in the Ateni Valley

Apart from lunches at winemakers, there were a few other foodie highlights. On our first evening we had great food and wine at g.Vino in Tbilisi. Here, there was a good selection of natural qvevri wine, and the staff were very friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. For lunch the next day we were in Poka Nunnery, in a cosy dining room with a wood stove. The whole meal was good, but I particularly remember the river trout, boned, and stuffed with onion, and the selection of hand-made nunnery cheeses to finish. Another meal that stood out was a dinner in the Kutaisi restaurant Sapere. The delicate spicing of the food was wonderful, and I also remember we drank a particularly good bottle of wine.

Barbare Jorjadze (left) at the Tbilisi restaurant Barbarestan. Clearly someone not to be messed with

The final meal of the trip was back in Tbilisi at the restaurant Barbarestan, which was significantly more up-market than any other place we visited in Georgia. All the recipes were taken from a 19th century cookbook written by Barbare Jorjadze, so every dish is traditionally Georgian, but not necessarily commonly eaten in modern Georgia. The decor and crockery is also perhaps how you might imagine things to have been back in 19th century Georgia. The food was good, and interesting, but I think the extra Lari we spend to eat in a place like this mainly went towards providing a very polished level of service. It was fun to try, but personally I prefer a more laid-back atmosphere.

Natural, orange, and amphora wines – busting the myths

I would have hoped by now all these issues concerning natural, orange and amphora wines were clear, but quite regularly I come across someone online who has failed to grasp the facts. Normally that person is someone who doesn’t like these wines – it is just that they are a bit hazy about what they don’t like, and why. Yesterday, Someone Who Should Know Better apparently conflated natural and orange wines in his disdain for stuff he didn’t like, and that provided the final push to me to try and put a few things straight.

Natural wines are often criticised for not being clearly defined. OK, In a way it is a fair criticism, but the broad concept of natural wine is generally understood regardless. Also, even if natural wines were defined and certified, as Demeter does for biodynamics wines for example, would that really mean much to consumers? How many know, even in outline, what Demeter’s rules are? I did read them several years ago, and for me there were quite a lot of surprises. Anyway, for the record, the broad concept for natural wine is: the viticulture is organic or biodynamic, though not necessary certified as such; fermentation takes place without inoculation of bought-in yeasts; minimal or no use of sulphur; minimal or no fining and filtration; no other additives. People argue about some of the details, but that is basically it.

Natural wines do not all taste weird or faulty. It is true that some might, and such wines may be controversial – depending on the extent of the weirdness, they may be regarded as more or less attractive by different people. But some natural wines taste completely clean, horses remaining unfrightened. Everyone is entitled to their opinions about specific wines, but why write off a whole category of wine just because someone has called them natural?

Amphora wines are simply made, partly or entirely, in an amphora. And that is that, apart from to mention that the term amphora is usually incorrectly used used to cover all types of clay jar (but that is pedantry, not myth-busting). So amphora wines are not necessarily natural, and natural wines are certainly not necessarily made in amphora. Neither is an amphora wine necessarily oxidised. Of course, like any other wine, it may be oxidised, but it is perfectly possible to seal the neck of an amphora to exclude oxygen, and the porosity of clay will not inevitably result in oxidation. Oh, and while on the subject, amphora wines are not necessarily orange either. The amphora is just the vessel, like a barrel or stainless steel tank, and wines of all colours can be made in any vessel.

Orange wines get their colour from the skin-maceration of white grapes, by which I mean those usually used for white wine – their colour will actually be green, golden or very slightly pink. Badly oxidised white wines are also orange, but orange wines as a category are not oxidised. In fact the tannins in orange wines tend to protect against oxidation, and consequently they often taste very fresh and vigorous. By now I hope it is hardly worth saying, but orange wines are not necessarily natural, and natural wines are not necessarily orange. That Someone Who Should Know Better – the one that prompted this post – was wrong.

Lemoss sparkling Glera – a Marmite wine

A true Marmite wine, not only did this split opinion around the table, but the nose actually had a whiff of yeast extract. For better or for worse, I thought this was a great example of what the natural wine experience is all about.

Lemoss, Ca’ di Rajo, Vino Frizzante Bianco, Non Filtrato, NV, 10.5%. Around £15 retail. This is a sparkling wine made from Glera grapes grown in the Prosecco region. So if it were produced differently it could bear the Prosecco name but, as it is, it is a mere sparkling white wine from Italy.

Rather than undergoing the Prosecco production method of sealed-tank fermentation, this wine was given an initial skin maceration for 12hrs at 4ºC, fermented for 7-10 days at 15-17ºC using indigenous yeasts, then was put into a bottle, sealed with a crown cap, and allowed to ferment dry. Malolactic fermentation also took place in-bottle. The wine is cloudy, as there is no filtration, and no disgorging after the secondary fermentation.

After the cloudiness, the next obvious impression was on the nose. And the impression was sulphur – struck matches – which is surprising considering the sulphite content is claimed to be only 25mg/l. However, it blows off eventually, leaving what is basically a rather neutral fresh smell, but with the slight whiff of Marmite I mentioned at the top of this post. As Marmite is a yeast extract, I presume the nose was due to dead yeast cells? On the palate it had medium acidity, and was dry. Again, quite neutral aromatically, but it was refreshing, with the acidity being sour rather than sharp. The mousse was fine. Overall, I found it a very pleasant drink, but it seemed to lack what I can only call vinosity. There was little body and fruit, and in many ways seemed more like beer than a wine.

It was interesting to compare it with a proper Prosecco that was served at the same time, in fact a decent quality Valdobbiadene Prosecco from Adami called Vigneto Giardino. That had, I think, a touch of fennel on the nose, and ripe fruit on the palate with some leesy character. It was about the same acidity as the Lemoss, but a tad sweeter. The bubbles were coarser. It seemed to have more body, perhaps from the sugar as it had only another half percentage point more alcohol. Unsurprisingly, it was very much like Prosecco. This was good too, but it certainly lacked the interest of the Lemoss.

In the end I decided I liked them both roughly equally (****), but in very different ways. If I were offered a straight choice of bottles to drink tomorrow, I would go for the Lemoss, as I feel I have unfinished business understanding it. But if I had the same choice next week as well, who knows?