Iago Bitarishvili and Iago’s Wine

As we left our minibus for lunch at Iago’s place, two things became apparent. One was the beauty of his horticultural garden, the other being the surprisingly large size of his restaurant. Iago only uses 2 ha of vineyard, but people certainly have an appetite to see what he is doing with it. Perhaps his proximity to Tbilisi, less than an hour by car to the village of Chardakhi, encourages wine tourism. That and the quality of the food and wine of course, and the fact that Iago was one of the pioneers of bottling natural qvevri wine, making it available to a much wider audience.

Before getting to the restaurant we were diverted into the cellar building on the left, where Iago gave a very clear presentation of qvevri winemaking. Have you ever wondered how wine is removed from the qvevri after fermentation and ageing? Well, the traditional method is to lower into the qvevri a gourd tied to the end of a stick. These devices are quite often found leaning in the corner of qvevri cellars, more for decoration than practical reasons these days one suspects, along with long sticks used for punching down and stirring. In this image, you can see such a gourd to the left, placed on top of a qvevri lid for display purposes. The basket thingy to the right is a totally separate device, and part of Iago’s modern solution to the problem of how to get the wine out. While a gourd may be all well and good for getting wine to supply yourself and guests for an evening, you can appreciate that if you want to empty a qvevri of, say, 2,500 li for modern-day bottling, then a gourd on a stick is not very effective. Indeed, considering the average per capita wine consumption at a Georgian wedding is supposed to be 3 li, you do wonder about how practical a gourd ever was. Anyway, Iago now uses a pump, and the basket slips around the end of the hose to filter out all the gunk – grape skins, stalks etc – that collects at the bottom of the qvervi, preventing it from getting sucked up along with the wine. So, the next time you are told that natural wines are unfiltered, that might not be strictly speaking true!

The food was very good, and seemingly bathed in the beauty radiating from the adjacent garden. It arrived in the traditional order I was now used to: cold veggie dishes followed by hot, then meat, in this case dumplings, quails and barbequed pork. I sat next to our coach driver and, judging by the way he tucked into the dumplings, they in particular got a big thumbs-up from him. He looked concerned as I ate one, and then demonstrated that I should be adding black pepper. While good without, the addition of pepper did improve them. With all this was served Iago’s skin-contact Chinuri 2015, and a Saperavi 2014 from decanter. I understand Iago is a Chinuri specialist, his wines being mainly of that variety, with and without skin contact, and a Pet Nat. The Saperavi was a bit of an oddity: a mere 1,500 bottles are made, and it is only available directly from Iago. To take back with me, I purchased some of the Chinuri we were drinking and a bottle of the Saperavi. On getting home I noticed that, despite the Saperavi label looking very much like the Chinuri one, it did not proclaim itself as Iago’s Wine – so maybe the Saperavi came from the qvevri of a friend in the village and was just bottled by Iago?

The mere fact that these wines were selected to join the select few bottles on my return flight meant I liked them a lot. As with Okro’s Wines, these too were quite light on tannic structure. For what it is worth, aromatically I would characterise the Chinuri as pear, orange and apricot, while the Saperavi had rich but tangy dark fruit. I have already cracked open a Chinuri back home. It did not seem to be as good as I remembered it, but that could well be because I was drinking it with a British roast chicken dinner rather than its native food. I’ll find something more adventurous for the next bottle.

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John Okruashvili and Okro’s Wines

John Okruashvili’s restaurant was not far from our hotel in Sighnaghi, but up a very steep cobbled street. My first encounter with the man himself was just before we entered the restaurant proper, when we were invited into his qvevri room. Immediately it was clear that this was a smaller winemaking operation than Pheasant’s Tears, but John is now increasing his production, with a new cellar located a few kilometres outside Sighnaghi. His vineyards are located in various places, but mainly above Sighnaghi at relatively high altitudes of around 800m – we passed this area as we drove from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi and stopped for fantastic views over our destination town and the Alazani Valley with the Caucasus mountain range in the distance. But he also has wine from Tibaani, a little below and to the South East of Sighnaghi, and from Imreti in Western Georgia.

Over dinner, on the top floor of the restaurant, we tasted six of Okro’s Wines, Okro being an abbreviation of John’s surname. There seemed to be a few places that used this style of branding, Iago’s Wine being another – it sounds so much more straightforward and friendly than, for example, Domaine or Château Okruashvili. Not all wines were made in the main style of the Kakheti region: with skin contact. And those did have skin contact were made with a lighter touch that I found very appealing. After dinner, the ladies decided it was a good thing to dance to dodgy pop music from the 70s and 80s, while we gentlemen retired to the balcony, where we could shut out the noise with a double-glazed door and continue drinking. Here I reinforced my original impression that, yes, I did like these wines a lot – see, all in the name of science. With dinner we had a no skin contact Tsitska varietal, Mtsvane wines with and without skin contact, and a skin contact Rkatsiteli. These were followed by two reds: a Saperavi Budeshuri – a variety which, unlike proper Saperavi, has white flesh – and a Saperavi. All from 2015. I vaguely remember that a sparkling wine also appeared while we were on the balcony, which even for me was by that time far too late for proper recording, but whatever it was I preferred the still wines. Quite possibly Chacha was being passed around too. Predictably from what I earlier said about my favourite Georgian variety, the Mtsvane wines were my favourites – both the rather vegetal (in a good way) no skin contact version, and the ginger spicy skin contact one. Those were the bottles that made it into my suitcase home.

John joined us out on the balcony. His path to wine and the restaurant business could hardly have been more different from John Wurdeman’s. Very much unlike the other John, with his hippy and artistic background, Okro was initially a scientist and software engineer, and Georgian of course. As a young man he worked at Southampton University writing computer programs for physics experiments. And through collaboration with scientists in Manchester, he was also familiar with the city where I now live. (I later read in Carla Capalbo’s book that he was subsequently a telecoms network consultant until his Baghdad hotel was blown up in 2004, after which he returned to Georgia and developed his interest in good wine.) Thus the fates weave their web.

Anyway, was that the time? We left the restaurant apologising for keeping the staff so late, and were in return told that it was a pleasure for them to see their guests enjoying themselves so much. Were we in Britain this would just have been out of politeness, but from what I know of Georgian hospitality I suspect the sentiment was genuine.

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John Wurdeman and Pheasant’s Tears

John Wurdeman with the Pheasant’s Tears qvevris

The fact that John Wurdeman was to be the wine guide was a big factor in deciding to go on this trip. I was already familiar with some of his Pheasant’s Tears wines. and had seen him on a number of YouTube videos so I knew he was very articulate, and knowledgeable about Georgian wines. It was shortly afterwards that I realised what a large part he had in supporting the authors of the two books on Georgia I have recently reviewed, and discovered he also spends a lot of time promoting Georgian natural wine in other ways. It makes absolute sense that an American who has spent so long living as a wine maker in Georgia should be so influential in communicating Georgian wine to the rest of the world, but he is well-known also in the Georgian media. And it is not only wine making and communication where he makes an impact – he has a string of business interests besides Pheasant’s Tears wines, including the tour company Living Roots, restaurants in Tbilisi and Sighnaghi, and plans to open another restaurant and a boutique hotel. All high quality operations from my experience on this trip, and ethical businesses that respect the environment and natural ingredients, but businesses nevertheless.

Enjoying polyphonic singing at Azarpesha – one of John’s restaurant in Tbilisi

The story of how John came to be making wine in Georgia has been told already in various places, so I shall only give a brief summary here. His first passion was art, which he studied in America and later in Moscow. From Moscow he moved to Georgia, where he painted and sought out traditional Georgian music, eventually staying in Sighnaghi where he met his wife Ketevan, a folk singer and dancer. When painting out in the open one day, he had his fateful encounter with Gela Patalishvili, who eventually persuaded him to make wine. Eventually they became partners in Pheasant’s Tears, with their first vintage in 2007. But still John paints, and has still has a strong interest in Georgian music and Georgian culture more generally.

But what of the Pheasant’s Tears wines? We tasted over 20 altogether, spread over 3 meals, one meal being preceded by a tasting, so I got a pretty fair impression of the range even if I would not feel totally comfortable pronouncing in detail on any one of them. Indeed, I am not sure these are wine to be pronounced on at all. I don’t think I do them a disservice at all to say they are meant to be drunk and enjoyed, and I think John would agree with that sentiment. They are all made in qvevri, and most are in the long skin-contact style generally favoured in the Kakheti region where Pheasant’s Tears is based. So most of the non-red wines were orange, or amber as Pheasant’s Tears style it, and both the red and orange wines had very noticeable astringency. If I had to quantify the astringency of these skin contact wines, I would say it varies from medium high to off the scale.

The varietals we tried most, and the ones I suspect Pheasant’s Tear produces in the larger volumes, were the one I enjoyed most. The Rkatsiteli vintages for example were good. If I had to characterise them, I would say apricot and orange, good acidity, and highish astringency. And dry, like all the wines we tasted on this trip. Then there were the various Mtsvane wines we tried, which I also liked – more than the Rkatsiteli in fact. That was pretty much true for every producer, so I concluded that it was a variety that suited me better, even if it seem that Rkatsiteli is generally regarded as the better grape. Mtsvane is more aromatic than Rkatsiteli, and I think John’s were also lower in acidity whilst still maintaining freshness, both aspects which I think mitigated the astringency a little, even if it was still very high. I never really formed a stable characterisation of Mtsvane aromas, but all my attempts seemed to be red, but not berry-related. So things like rose, rosehip and red lips (a type of confectionery). Mtsvane simply means green in Georgian, distinguishing the colour of the grapes from the more golden-yellow shades of other so-called white grapes. And it is used for at least two distinct varieties, one of which is Kakhuri Mtsvivani – Mtsvane from Kakheti. Pheasant’s Tears has a wine that is 100% Kakhuri Mtsvivani, and labelled as such, and one that has different types of Mtsvane, which labelled simply as Mtsvane. I liked them both. However I was not so keen on the Mtsvane Pet Nat, which from the colour seemed to have little or no skin contact, and was rather thin and sherbetty. The other orange wine I liked a lot was the the Kisi varietal, which again I thought had more moderate acidity, and marmalade and apricot flavours that suggested botrytis to me. We also tried a few vintages of Saperavi, which is probably the best regarded Georgian red grape, and certainly the best known. I am really not sure about Saperavi in general. Sure it makes decent wines, but nothing that really excites me – as Pinot Noir and Barolo might for example. Nevertheless, I did like the Pheasant’s Tears examples.

I am not sure how edifying it is to list the wines I did not like so much. In principle I am of the opinion that is a good thing to do, but here I fear it may give a false impression, as the descriptions would be small snapshots of several wines while the ones I liked we drank a lot of. I will just comment on two more wines – but out of interest rather than because I disliked them. Firstly, there was the massively tannic Shavkapito varietal. This was the wine that was off the scale in terms of astringency. It definitely had some good fruit lurking, but finding it beneath the tannins was a challenge. I would certainly drink it again if it was offered, but not seek it out. Finally I was able to geek-out on the Pheasant’s Tears Polyphonia, a wine made from the 417 different Georgian varieties in John’s experimental vineyard. Sadly though, the pleasure was pretty much all of the geeky type as the wine was quite insipid – as perhaps you might expect from 417 red and white varieties that were never meant to be blended. If only I knew all the names, I could swell my train-spotting list of varieties tried quite considerably.

Anyway, the overall memory was that of greatly enjoying these wines with good food. Beyond that, the most concrete expression of my preference within the Pheasant’s Tears range was the two wines that made it back home on our flight in checked-in luggage. They were both amber wines: Mtsvane 2016 and Kisi 2016.

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A week of Georgian wine and culture

Here, I try to set the scene for the next few blog posts, which will be about Georgian wine. In this one I just want to let you know how we, my wife and I, came to be in Georgia, and very briefly relate what we got up to there.

Map of Georgia (click to enlarge)

In case there should be any doubt, I am writing here about a recent trip to Georgia the country; not the US state. It lies 4 time zones to the East of the UK, which translates to 3hrs in the summer as they do not have daylight saving time, and around 6 hours of actual flying on two flight. Its location is a lot better defined by physical geography than I first imagined, with the Black Sea to the West, and along the Northern border is the spectacular Greater Caucasus mountain range, the Lesser Causasus range being a much less distinct feature in Georgia’s South. To the East though, Georgia slips gently into Azerbaijan, with no obvious geographical feature to separate the two countries.

Initially we stayed a couple of nights in the capital, Tbilisi. Then two nights in the town of Sighnaghi and two at the Lapoto Lake Resort in the Easternmost region of Georgia, Kakheti – the largest wine producing region. And finally back to Tbilisi for a night before our return flight. This was not a press trip, but booked with the specialist wine tour company Arblaster and Clarke, and once in Georgia the 10 us on the trip were looked after by Living Roots. In practice, that was John Wurdeman, also of Pheasant’s Tears Winery, who was our wine guide for one evening in Tbilisi and most of our time in Kakheti, and Tamara Natanadze. She was with us for the rest of the tour, and guided us around Tbilisi and some monasteries, as well as accompanying us on a couple of wine tastings and the qvevri maker visit. Feel free to contact me if you think my views could help you plan a visit to Georgia, but I don’t intend to write much here about the tour companies, hotels, restaurant etc. Suffice to say that as a whole we had a jolly good time.

Looking back, just over a week after having returned, I still don’t think I have totally absorbed the rich experiences of the trip. The main impressions are perhaps of the beauty and humanity of the country, closely followed by the generous food and wine, and singing and dancing. It’s difficult to fully express these impressions in words or pictures, especially the humanity, but here at least are a couple of images that might help: a moment towards the end of a supra at the Pheasant’s Tears restaurant, the table still groaning under the weight of food; and the view over Sighnaghi and the Alazani valley, with the snow-capped Causasus mountains in the distance.

As usual here, in the blog posts that follow I shall not be giving a blow-by-blow account of my encounters with Georgian wine, but will give a very personal selection of experiences and thoughts, and also some more general aspects of Georgian wine that do not generally get much coverage.

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Tasting Georgia – book review

This is Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia – A food and wine journey in the Caucasus, hardback, £30. 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 I understand 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 also reads very well. I could easily imagine going through it linearly from cover to cover, without the 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: 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.

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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!

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Scheu… aber Geil 2016 – a dry Scheurebe, Emil Bauer

“Sheu aber geil” translates as “shy but horny”. Scheu also being the surname of the German viticulturalist who in 1916 created Scheurebe by crossing Riesling and another variety. Wine Grapes describes it as underrated, and from my limited experience I have to agree. I am not sure about horny, but this wine, and Scheurebe in general, is certainly not shy and retiring.

It is dry and tingly, with good acidity and powerful aromas. I found it difficult to describe them, but eventually settled on “intense, pungent, apricot, lime and gooseberry”. If you don’t worry about the details of that list but try to imagine the overall effect, I think you should get the general idea. It’s a jump-out-of-the-glass-and-whack-you-round-the-face sort of wine. This is not something to drink with subtly favoured food, but it stood up well to a meze of deli counter nibbles – olives, anchovies, ricotta-stuffed cherry peppers – food that would normally have me reaching a bottle of Sherry. Excellent in the right context *****

So this wine was Scheu… aber Geil, Scheurebe, trocken, Weingut Emil Bauer & Söhne, Qualitätswein, Pfalz, Germany, 2016, 12.5%. I bought mine from Red Squirrel Wines for £15.50. As I write it is still in stock, but the price is now £18.00.

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More on aroma perception by sniff and sip

I am again writing here about comparing orthonasal and retronasal olfaction – smelling things through the nostrils, compared with through back of the mouth. If having two modes of smelling is a new concept for you, you might like to refer to an earlier post on the subject where I explain it in more detail. I started to get interested in the subject when I realised that a number of studies on wine aroma perception only looked at orthonasal olfaction, i.e. sniffing the wine, and wondered how much difference it would make if retronasal olfaction was studied instead. One of those studies was the relatively well-known one where a red dye was added to white wine, leading tasters to describe it in terms of red wine aromas (Morrot, Brochet and Dubourdieu, 2001, The color of odors, Brain Lang, 79 , 309-320). Another was a series of studies with the conclusion that we can reliably identify a maximum of four aromas in a multi-aroma mixture. Reading the recently published books by Gordon Shepherd and Jamie Goode has given me a few new insights, which I shall share here.

The most general point is that the smell of a wine is never perceived in isolation. It is part of what we might call the wine’s overall flavour, and it is impossible to totally separate smell from what we perceive through other senses. With retronasal olfaction, we are simultaneously tasting the wine on our tongue, and also feeling it in our mouth as possible astringency and alcoholic heat. Orthonasally, the interference from other senses is maybe less obvious, but we before we sniff the wine we still normally see it, and that affects expectations. This was in fact the point of the Morrot et al experiment mentioned above. Additionally we can also experience chemicals in our nostrils through our sense of touch, for example as alcoholic heat, or the pungency of hydrogen sulphide. These non-smell sense modalities are not only confusable with smells, but they can also affect our sensitivity to true smells

We should also note that we never smell the wine itself, but the volatile molecules that escape from it. In the glass, however much we may swirl and sniff, we have relatively little control over how the volatile molecules escape and reach our nasal cavity. But once in the mouth, the processes acting on the wine can be complex, and vary a lot from time to time, and person to person, even if we are largely unconscious of what is going on – the wine is mixed with saliva, warmed towards body temperature, moved around the mouth to a greater or lesser extent, and allowed to coat the mouth and throat, and its molecules enter the nose when we breathe out.

Then, there are the effects of background smells. You can become so used to a background smell that you no longer notice it. Normally this is an advantage when it comes to wine tasting. It will, for example, filter out the smell on your hands of cigarettes or mildly scented soap. But what if that background smell also happens to be a component of the wine? IN that case your desensitisation to the background smell will affect how you perceive the wine. There is also the possibility of cross-adaption, where one odour affects your sensitivity to other one. The most obvious example is perhaps how the TCA of a corked wine mutes its fruity aromas. If background smells may be important from the environment, retronasal olfaction must be affected by non-wine smells inside your mouth. Apart from the possible remnants of lunch, coffee and cigarettes, there are also the normal odours of your mouth and throat to consider. Unpalatable to think about perhaps, but perfectly natural, and a potential source of desensitisation and cross-adaption when tasting wine.

There have, by the way been a number of studies that have concluded that odour detection thresholds are higher for retronasal that orthonasal olfaction – in other words that we are more sensitive to smells when sniffing through our nostrils. But we need to be careful about drawing false conclusions from these results. In the experiments, the samples are presented to subjects as gases containing an odour, through a tube that goes either to the nostrils or to the back of the mouth, so it is difficult to see what direct relevance these results have to wine tasting.

Finally I would draw your attention to a 2006 study, not discussed in the above-mentioned books, that pursues the question of how many flavour components we can identify in a mixture, but unlike earlier studies that have looked at orthonasal olfaction alone, this one concerns how we perform with a liquid in the mouth, and involves both odourants and tastants – things we detect using both the nose and taste buds. Thus, it is more applicable to the question of how many component we can detect when tasting wine. I won’t give a detailed description of the results here, but just mention that they were very much in line which the findings of the orthonasal olfaction studies. To quote from the authors: “In conclusion, the present study has shown that humans have great difficulty identifying the components of odor–taste mixtures when more than two components are present”.

In summary, I would say that there are many potential reasons why orthonasal and retronasal olfaction might lead to different perceptions in wine tasting, but it is still far from clear how important the differences are in practical terms.

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Neuroenology, and I Taste Red – two book reviews

Here I review two recently published books that cover similar ground. Both describe the science of how we perceive wine. As is made abundantly clear in both books, we use all our senses in wine perception, not just smell and taste, and we integrate this information in our brain, together with memories of other wines, and what we think we know about the wine, to create the impression of what the wine “tastes like”. It is an important point.

Both books were worthwhile reading for me, and yet I found both annoying in places. They are a nice pair of books to read at roughly the same time, as Jamie Goode’s is written from the perspective of a wine writer who has read up on the science of tasting wine, while Gordon Shepherd writes as a neuroscientist making research findings relevant to wine lovers. As you might expect, the books are very different in style.

First off, let’s take a look at I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine, by Jamie Goode. I got it for £10.77 including postage from Books Please, who seem currently to have the best price for books – well below Amazon prices. If I buy the book myself, I always quote the street price rather than the usually irrelevant RRP.

This is a generally very readable book, which will appeal to a lot of wine lovers, and covers the ground well, with a good emphasis on the importance of multimodal perception on wine tasting.

In my opinion though, some of this readability was at the cost of understanding the basis for a some of the information we are presented with. Jamie did explain that, in order to make the book more accessible, he did not want to include references in the text, but this meant I that I was unable to check out the evidence for a few statements that I thought questionable. In a similar way, Jamie did tend to talk about things that were assumed by wine experts as if they were facts, and I think a more critical examination of the assumptions would have been good.

Sometimes, I felt that the ground was covered a bit too broadly, in that the topics strayed well away from wine tasting, into the importance of smell for sexual attraction for example. It was interesting in a way, and I am sure deliberate, but I would have preferred a bit more focus.

Another criticism – and this seems to be increasingly common in wine writing, and journalism in general – is that there was a lot of reporting of what other people say and think, with little analysis and reflection. I would like to have seen more of an attempt to establish a consistent and reasoned view of where the truth lies.

Get this if you want an accessible book that has a broad mainstream overview of the subject.

Now on to Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, by Gordon M Shepherd, also bought from Books Please, this time for £13.85.

This book is tougher going, reflecting perhaps that it is written by a neuroscientist, and there is a lot more hardcore science, which might put off a lot of people. It starts at a ponderous pace, mainly telling us what we are going to be told about later, but picks up momentum as you get into the book. I found most of it clear, but I did get a bit lost trying to follow the pathways of information in the brain. I think I took a wrong turn at the Amygdala. Perhaps clearer diagrams might have helped? As with Jamie’s book, there is no formal referencing system, but I felt the informal system in this book would by-and-large make it possible for me to chase up the original research if I wanted to.

This book covers the ground very well too. Perhaps in a bit too much detail in places – I am not sure, for example, that we really need to know so much about the aerodynamics of the inside of the nose. In other places however, the detailed scientific explanations are both relevant and fascinating.

The author does not pretend to be a wine expert but he has clearly spoken to some, and one in particular: Jean-Claude Berrouet of Petrus, the meeting with whom is described in an interesting appendix. But I do wonder if that meeting was a little too influential in the image of The Wine Professional painted in the book. A lot of professionals taste a lot more informally than Gordon describes.

And in a way, that leads on to a general gripe. Gordon is always at pains to emphasise the importance of each stage of wine perception – from the first sight, sniff and sip, through the mouth and nasal cavity, and within the brain – but there does not seem to be any attempt to get a handle on the relative importance of all these factors. Thus, as everything is soooo important, the wine taster is advised to do all manner of things to get the maximum sensory input from the wine. However, I am far from convinced that this turning-up-the-volume approach is a good idea when tasting, and think that it may finish up emphasising aspects of the wine that are far less noticeable when drinking properly, and not necessarily in a good way. I personally have discovered, for example, that swilling young Barolos round the mouth causes the astringency to mask the fruit, which is more evident under normal drinking conditions.

You may not know, but the same author also wrote a book call Neurogastronomy, which I reviewed a few years ago. So one obvious question is: should I buy Neuroenologly if I already have the older one? And if I were only to buy one book which one should I get? While they share some material, they are very different books. Neuroenology being very much organised around tasting wine. It certainly would not hurt to get both books, but if you really want only one, I would say wine lovers should get the older Neurogastronomy. But do note that this is a big thumbs-up to Neurogastronomy, rather than a strong criticism of the new book. You might have to do a bit more work to relate it to wine, but Neurogastronomy gives a bigger picture, some of the additional information being relevant to wine too.

Posted in Tasting and taste | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

How important is a rich soil ecology?

Intuitively for most people, a vineyard with grass and wild flowers between the vines is regarded as a Good Thing. It looks pretty, and is indicative of a healthy ecology that has not been destroyed by pesticides. A vineyard soil teeming with life can be an end in itself, and an important benefit of sustainable viticulture. But however good for the environment it may be, is a rich soil ecology critical for good wine?

By way of example, here are images of vineyards that have a lot in common, and yet are totally different. They are both on islands in Southern Europe, and both have volcanic soils. The first one is a vine on the island of Santorini, where the soil has been created by man tilling tuff (a rock of compacted volcanic ash) to a depth of half a metre or so. I only show a small area of the vineyard in the image, but it is typical of the island in that there is little or no vegetation, and the soil has very little organic matter. Lack of water, not over-use of pesticides, is the reason for this barren soil. The other image is from the Northern slopes of Mount Etna. Here there is more water, and nature has had more time to work after the most recent lava flow in the area. So there on Etna, the organic farming methods employed in the vineyard result in a much richer biodiversity – which would also be expected in most parts of Europe.

As for the wines from both these places, I think most people would agree that they are good if not excellent. I do not know where the grapes from that particular Santorini vine would finish up, but the soil is typical of the island and Santorini wine is generally of high quality, and the vineyard on the right is owned by Tenuta delle Terre Nere, one of the most highly regarded Etna producers.

So from these examples can we conclude that organic matter in vineyard soil is not necessarily so important? And that good wine can result from soils both rich and meagre? More contentiously, perhaps even soils poor from the over-use of pesticides can result in good wine? Or could, for example, Santorini wine be vastly improved by applying compost, most of the ingredients for which would need to be imported? These are not totally rhetorical questions – I would genuinely like to know, and I suspect the answers are not as clear-cut as some would have us believe.

Posted in General | Tagged | 4 Comments