Godforsaken Grapes – book review

Godforsaken Grapes – a slightly tipsy journey through the world of strange, obscure and underappreciated wine, by Jason Wilson. I got my copy from Blackwell’s a few days ago, as soon as it became available in the UK, for £17.60.

The title of the book is a reference to one of Robert Parker’s more infamous pronouncements, this time about how godforsaken grapes like Trousseau, Savagnin, Grand Noir, Negrette, Lignan Blanc, Peloursin, Auban, Calet, Fongoneu and Blaufrankisch produce wines that are rarely palatable unless lost in a larger blend. Parker’s actual sentence was rather long and rambling, but can be found here if you are interested. With the title of Godforsaken Grapes, Jason Wilson seemingly throws down the gauntlet in Parker’s direction, but in the book itself he generally avoids direct confrontation, and the focus is not always on the actual grapes. The book’s subtitle is a much fairer reflection of its contents: a slightly tipsy journey through the world of strange, obscure and underappreciated wine.

Wilson’s slightly tipsy meanderings mainly take him to producers in Switzerland, Austria and Northern Italy, but they also touch on France and Portugal, and towards the end he moves home to the USA to discuss people’s attitudes to unusual grapes and wines there. The geographical focus seemed a bit strange to me, but as the book progressed, I realised that it was essentially based on some of the more left-field trips and visits he got invited on in the course of being a wine journalist. And that leads me on to my main criticism – the book does not explore these godforsaken grapes in any sort of systematic way.

The descriptions of the locations and people he meets are often detailed and evocative, which is good in itself I guess. Although I don’t always buy into the idea, journalists and other writers are often encouraged to tell a story or paint a picture. But in this book I felt the background detail often overwhelmed the meat of the subject, and was not enthralling enough to stop me skipping through paragraphs, or even over them. But perhaps that is just me?

On the positive side, I found Wilson’s opinions to be balanced and well reasoned. He does not adopt an evangelistic tone, so more conservative wine-lovers would find the content inoffensive. And as someone who tends to seek out unusual wine anyway I was not embarrassed by how he fought my corner, as I am often by the preachers in the natural wine movement. I was also impressed that he addressed so many issues concerning these less well known grapes and wines. Some points I felt could have been made a bit more forcibly, but most were covered. For example, we were told: how the quality of the grape is not necessarily the reason it came to be a minor player; how some grapes seem obscure, but that is only from our Western perspective; how the even the names of some grapes can dissuade consumers in some countries; and how the popularity of different grapes and wines can be mere fashion. All this was of course in addition to describing his experiences with particular grapes and wines.

If you want a book to sit down and read, and are looking for something to pique your interest in more unusual wines, this might be for you. On the other hand, if you expect a reference book, or more structured presentation, to feed an existing passion for godforsaken grapes, you could be disappointed. I probably fall into the later category, and am a indeed little disappointed. But I still appreciate the good aspects of Wilson’s book, and will probably be referring back to it from time to time. It does at least have an index, which will be useful in that regard. Overall I certainly do not regret buying it.

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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.

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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?

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Falling Leaves – Georgian wine under the Soviets

The documentary Our Blood is Wine, mentioned in my previous post, has a couple of clips from the 1966 Georgian film Falling Leaves, showing scenes of winemaking in Soviet Georgia. I was motivated to find out more about this film, and discovered it on YouTube with (sadly rather sparse) English subtitles:

At a simplistic level, Falling Leaves can be used to illustrate the way that Soviet industrial winemaking trampled over Georgian rural traditions, and that might be all that is required of it by a wine-lover with an interest in Georgia. However, the themes of the film run deeper, and if you are interested in exploring the extremes of those depths I can only refer you to the analysis given in an this essay. Or you could just watch the film and enjoy what you can.

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Our Blood is Wine – film review

This recently released documentary is about the revival of ancient winemaking traditions in Georgia, traditions that never disappeared despite suppression by Georgia’s Soviet rulers in the last century. There is now something of a renaissance, riding the wave of enthusiasm for so-called natural wine, and the ancient is now hip.

Georgian winemakers rebuilding their wine cellar. ©EmilyRailsback c/o Music Box Films

The two key people associated with the making of the documentary are its director Emily Railsback, and sommelier Jeremy Quinn, who narrates and features on-screen. Neither Emily nor Jeremy stamp their egos on the project too hard, allowing their subjects plenty of space to take centre-stage. The action meanders across Georgia, introducing us to those involved with small-scale qvevri wine production one way or another, mainly the winemakers themselves and their families, but also potters who make the qvevri, and more-academic experts such as archaeologists and ethnographers.

But even if winemaking is overtly the subject of the documentary, the winemaking details are not delved into too deeply, and that is fair enough in a way I suppose – to concentrate on the technical would be to miss the most essential message of wine’s cultural significance in Georgia. To quote Emily Railsback from the press blurb: “Things don’t always make sense in Georgia, but the hospitality and love that people show each other through eating and drinking is transformative. Jeremy and I had worked in the restaurant industry for years, and never experienced anything remotely similar. My first meal in Tbilisi was at a traditional restaurant where Jeremy was the sommelier. When guests were moved by their food, or by the company of their friends, they would break into song; the deep, heart­‐felt polyphonic song of their ancestors. It brought me to tears. I had never been around a culture that felt their highs and lows so vividly, and in community over toasting and song.”

So far, so good, but I was still left wanting more detail. Was that a qvevri base we saw being made? I thought qvevri bases were thrown, but that one did not seem to be made like that? Where is that archaeological site we visited, where the Soviets sliced the tops off buried qvevri? How did all the wines taste? What, if any, are the links between the people we met? Etc, etc. But maybe those concerns are specific to me – someone who is a bit geeky and already knows a bit about the subject matter, and who is eager to know more. If you are less bothered about that sort of thing, and are prepared just allow the impressions wash over you, I am sure you will get on better with the documentary. Either way, it undeniably gives a good general feel for the country and its culture – wine culture in particular.

If you wish to see the documentary, and are based in the USA, for screenings click on theaters here. The documentary will also be available there on demand (iTunes etc) from 20th March 2018, and on DVD from 22nd May. For more details, and other countries, announcements will be made on the film’s website and Facebook page in the next few weeks.

I was given free access to see it online as a member of the press. More significantly, I must disclose that I am totally biased as, even before seeing the documentary, I was irredeemably enthusiastic about Georgia and these wines 🙂

Update 16/03/18: Here’s a trailer for the film, published as I was writing this post

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How to create flat rectangular images of wine bottle labels

I am writing here about digital images that look like the labels before they were stuck onto wine bottles. Apart from sometimes looking cool, they have the advantage that they show all the information – nothing is hiding on the edge of the label as it disappears round the back of the bottle. My main interest in this style is for blog posts, but you might want label images for an e-commerce website, or to maintain a record of wines you have enjoyed.

One technique is of course to remove the label from the bottle before you photograph or scan it, but here are a couple of ways of doing it all digitally. Neither of them were invented by me, but as they do not seem to be widely known I thought it was worth describing them here.

Smartphone camera panorama mode

The basic idea is that you rotate the bottle in front of the lens to trick your phone camera into thinking you are taking a panorama. The camera software then stitches together images taken at different times, and you finish up with a single image of a flat label. I found it was just about possible to do this with a hand-held phone resting on a table, while rotating the bottle with the other hand, but the results were poor. To get something more presentable, you ideally need a tripod for your phone, a turntable for the bottle, and decent lighting. Fortunately, the hardware need not be expensive. If you have a record turntable or a Lazy Susan, you could press that into service. Alternatively you could buy a bottle-sized bearing for a Lazy Susan. I found one for just over £2.50 including postage, which was ideal. Also, for a couple of quid I bought a clip that enabled me to mount my phone onto an ordinary camera tripod I already owned. Here are both bits of kit:

I was using a Samsung Note 4, and sadly failed to get any label images I thought would be suitable for use on my blog, but I know people that have had much better success with iPhone cameras. So something for iPhone owners only perhaps? (Though for real panoramic landscapes I have had great results with my Note 4, so don’t let that put you off the Samsung camera.)

In more detail, here were the problems I encountered… I frequently got a glitch at the side of the label that I started from, which I assume is due to some issue with the camera realising too late that the panorama shooting had started. Also I usually got at least one vertical slice of the label missing. Both these faults are illustrated in the two images here – click on them to see at full resolution. You will also notice that the upper and lower edges of the labels are uneven and not perfectly horizontal, which I think is due to the wide-angle nature of the phone lens. Those edges are even worse when I tried without turntable and tripod.

Flatbed scanner

With this method, as the scanner is operating, you need to roll the bottle so the bit in touch with the scanner glass is always where strip of light is. You might think that sounds tricky, but in fact you do not have to be very precise in your rolling, and it is not difficult to get right. In this picture, the bottle is in a good starting position to scan the main label. When the scanning starts, the scanning light strip will move from right to left, and the bottle must be rolled in the same direction.

It is worth playing with the scanner resolution. Apart from its obvious effect on the quality of the scan, it will also affect its speed, and I found that with moderate speeds it was a lot easier to track the bottle. Too fast or too slow and it is either too tricky or too tiresome. Perhaps due to the accuracy of rolling with faster speeds, I also found that with lower resolutions I got barely visible vertical bands on the lighter parts of the label – you can just about see them on the images in my previous blog post. With a slighty higher resolution though, they go away completely, as can be seen here. Again, click to see the full-sized image.

With my scanner, the resolution that gave an easy speed to track, resulted in a lot coarser image than my mobile phone camera. But for my purposes that resolution is adequate, and the scanner method is very easy and reliable – a lot more reliable than using the panorama mode on my Note 4 at least. The top and bottom edges of the label image are also nicely horizontal and straight.

I think your choice of method will most likely depend on what kit you already have available. For me, with no iPhone, and a flatbed scanner already sitting by my desk, the choice is clear, and the reliability of the scanner method is the deciding factor.

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Saperavi made in qvevri – examples of contrasting styles

A couple of months ago I organised a tasting of Georgian qvevri wines, and published the tasting notes here. I then reordered multiple bottles of some of my favourites from that tasting, so I could drink more substantial pours over the course of an evening, and write more-detailed tasting notes. The two Saperavi wines I reordered were very different, and made an interesting comparison.

Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Kakheti, 2016, 14.0%, £20.35  from Les Caves de Pyrene
This has an almost opaque purple ruby colour, and an intense nose of dark fruit. The smell also reminds me of ink – the stuff I used in fountain pens at school. Already the fruit seems to have a hint of maturity. High acidity and medium-high astringency on the palate, and all aromatic elements noticed on the nose are still present. Excellent length. Good to drink now. I have no experience of how this wine might age, but if I had to decide I wouldn’t keep it for more than a few years further. However it might be fun to try. *****

I see this as a wine made in the tannic style typical of the Kakheti region, which is the main wine-producing region of Georgia, and in the East of the country. However you look at it, it is a big wine, with colour and tannins resulting from prolonged skin contact. It certainly makes its presence felt, and I think its vigour is what I like so much about the wine.

Zurab Topuridze, Saperavi, 2015, 13.0%, £23.55  from Les Caves de Pyrene
Pale ruby garnet in colour. On the nose, intense and fresh, with sharp red berry fruit. Cranberry and raspberry I think. Also some complex high-toned notes. My mouth waters just from the smell. High acidity, and low but detectable astringency in the mouth. Intense aromatically. Aromas on palate as on nose. Maybe a touch of Band-Aid brettiness as it warms slightly but, as with the high-toned notes, it is not obtrusive and adds to the complexity. There is sweetness from the fruit, giving a subtle underlying caramel nature. Excellent and delicious length. Drink now I think, but I would like to know how it ages. This wine is too sharp to be called balanced, but I don’t worry about that too much as I think balance is over-rated – drink with food. ******

Unlike the vast majority of red grape varieties, with Saperavi, not only is the skin coloured, but also its flesh. Following the French, we normally say these are teinturier varieties, and teinturier is practically a direct translation of the Georgian word saperavi – in English, the word is dye. So this Saperavi wine may have seen no skin contact at all, as it only had a pale red colour, and very little astringency. Both those factors are in marked contrast to the Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi. Note also that this wine comes from Guria in Western Georgia, where a lot of skin contact is less typical than it is in Kakheti. It is a lot more of a crowd-pleaser than the austere Kakhetian one with its hair-shirt manliness. On the whole, I too prefer it, for its delicate nature and its complexity. Yes, I know I also said I liked the vigour of the Pheasant’s Tears wine – it is possible to appreciate both styles.

So… two excellent wines, and an interesting comparison. Nevertheless, for me a there was a clear favourite. But you might feel differently, and I would encourage you to try both.

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The New Wine Rules – book review

The New Wine Rules – a genuinely helpful guide to everything you need to know, by Jon Bonné. This was just over £9.00 online from Wordery, including postage.

Right from the off I will say that a few parts of this book are obviously written for the US market, in terms of both language and content. But it is not a huge issue for me, and I note that Amazon UK are selling a version with a different cover that will published at the end of May. Perhaps this will be an edition more geared up for  the UK?

The book is of modest size, consisting of 89 “rules”, each one occupying anything from a few lines to two or three pages. I use quotation marks around the word “rule” because many of them are not so much rules as snippets of information about wine. I think it is fair to say that they are aimed at relative newbies to the world of wine. They might well appreciate a lot of the advice, but I was not so impressed, and took issue with a fair proportion of it, to a greater or lesser extent. I feel it is not only important to keep your target audience happy, but also to provide information that is appropriate, good quality, and clear, and although I accept these book was not written for us wine smart-arses, we are still entitled to an opinion on the quality of the content.

I actually thought the book got off to a great start. Rule 1: Drink the rainbow. Absolutely. Be adventurous, explore, and don’t be limited by tradition and traditional advice. At this point, I felt that the book my hands was the one I wanted to write myself, and this Jon Bonné chap had beaten me to it curse him. Rule 2: Forget “the best wines”. Drink the good. Spot on. Jon and me stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

But then things take a turn for the worse. Rule 3: A good wine-store employee is your best friend. This is advice I have often seen, but where are these wine stores, and how do you recognise them if you are a newbie yourself? I know one or two, but they are few and far between, and if you are not careful you can get really lousy advice, and even be lied to. Skipping a few rule now, brings us to … Rule 7: You can have all the corkscrew you need for under $10. Yes, I would agree with that, and the advice to get a waiter’s friend, or at least to try it. But then Jon goes on to slag-off winged (or lever) cork screws. Now I don’t like them either, but I know people that do. Why not simply suggest to try a few types of corkscrew and select your favourite? Then he goes on to say that if you want to go “really pro” buy an ah-so (or butler’s thief) extractor, or “splurge on a pro tool” like a Durand. So is he is really saying: stick to cheap corkscrews unless you want to swank around and pretend that you are a pro? I am really not quite sure. Durand’s are great for extracting old crumbly corks, and my advice would be to get one if you drink a lot of really old wines. But not just because you feel the urge to “splurge on a pro tool”. And I would add that if some bits of cork fall into the wine it is not the end of the world – just fish them out. I have read the whole book. Honest. But I chose to selected those examples from just the first few rules give a general flavour of the book and my objections

Other objections of mine are a bit more factual. For example, Jon implies at one point that white and red wines should be stored at different temperatures. I know some agree with him, but as far as I know (and I have just googled to confirm it) most people think it is fine to use the same cellaring temperature for all wines. Particularly in a book aimed at novices, even if there is some doubt on this issue, I think an author’s instinct should be to keep things simple. Another rather bizarre statement is that, in the 1855 classification, “all 5 levels” are considered Grand Crus. Perhaps by some, but I have not seen it before. I have seen them called Grands Crus Classées in one or two place, but usually they are simply Crus Classées. Also, according to Jon, Großes Gewächs wines no longer have to be dry. Really? It is the first I have heard of it, and I can find nothing about it when I google, but he might be right. But regardless of whether he is right or wrong, do his readers really need to know about this?

More generally, I am far from convinced that the best way to present information about wine is as a set of short rules. On the other hand that structure must be ideal from the point of view of the convenience of the writer, and it is duly noted for my book, which it seems I am going to have to write after all.

Overall, if I were asked to recommend a book for beginners I would suggest something with a more traditional format. I have a very high regard for Michael Schuster’s Essential Winetasting, which I used extensively when getting into wine. And if I return to it now I am still impressed by how accurate it is, even if it is written at an introductory level. So, especially as a new edition of Essential Winetasting was published last year, that is the book I would recommend.

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Cork Dork – book review

Cork Dork – a wine-fuelled journey into the art of sommeliers and the science of taste, by Bianca Bosker. I bought my copy recently online for around £6.50 including postage.

A friend once told me that the best accounts of life in a foreign country were by those who had either recently moved there, or who had lived there a long time. Cork Dork has the advantage of being written after only a year or so of the author throwing herself into the foreign deep-end of wine-geekery. The experience is still very fresh, and its portrayal insightful, clear, vivid and lively.

I found this book enjoyable at two levels. It works well as a personal story of Bianca’s entanglement in the world of high-flying New York sommeliers – a story in which she starts by observing only, but eventually goes native, takes her Certified Sommelier exam, and ultimately works as a sommelier. On this journey she also gains access to La Paulée de New York, and interviews academics and scientists.

But I also liked the other level – where Bianca takes a reflective and sceptical look at wine expertise with its associated rituals and characters. The reflections are perceptive and accurate, and the scepticism is never heavy-handed and often understated. Indeed sometimes is not stated at all, but the mere recounting of a personal experience occasionally seems to function as a questioning comment on her new world of wine. I share all of her scepticism, and have written about it here many times, but this never descends into calling bullshit on wine expertise – neither my scepticism I hope, nor Bianca’s. I think we both agree that what we are looking at are a human responses to a subject that is both intriguing and complex – and this is perhaps the main reason I think wine is such a fascinating subject.

Finally, an observation that the wine world entered by Bianca lies at the geekiest extreme of the spectrum. I know a lot of wine people, but very few of them are at all like her New York sommelier friends and colleagues. We did in the book get a small insight into an out-of-town sommelier desperate to pass her Certified Sommelier exam so she could better support her family, but she was I think the sole example of a more normal wine professional. Also, there are many amateur wine enthusiasts I know who do not indulge, or would even want to,  indulge, in exclusive Paulée debauchery. Neither do we aspire to be PXs (customers worthy of buttering-up and up-selling) at Michelin-starred restaurants. We are not all like that – honest. To that extent, there remain many alternative, more attainable, wine worlds worthy of exploration by anyone wanting to stick their toe in the wine water.

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When and where did winemaking begin?

I starting getting engaged with this topic when reading the November 2017 press stories about new archaeological evidence for winemaking in Georgia 8,000 years ago. We were told that this pre-dates the winemaking remains previously accepted to be the oldest, which were discovered in northern Iran. That confused me because, for several years now, Georgians have been claiming an 8,000 year old unbroken winemaking tradition. And then, to make my confusion worse, I saw articles elsewhere saying that the remains of the oldest winery were in Armenia. It does not help that popular reporting occasionally fails to differentiate different between “BC” and “years ago”, as to most people a couple of millennia here and there does not seem to matter. In the face of all these claims and a smattering of misinformation, what seemed to be lacking was a recent overview of the evidence with no promotional agenda – which is what I aim to provide here.

Firstly, as some say there is archaeological evidence for wine in China in 7,000 BC, let’s take a quick look at that claim. And dismiss it. What was found in China was evidence of a fermented drink. Some people have suggested the drink may have been made partially from grapes, but that is speculation, and seems very unlikely. Even if true, we would normally expect our wine to be made of grapes exclusively.

While individual countries now lay claim to the oldest winemaking tradition, we must remember that modern-day boundaries did not of course apply back in Neolithic times. There was a largish region that included (to mix names from different eras) Northern Mesopotamia, Eastern Turkey, the Zagros mountains in Northern Iran, and the South Caucasus, in which there were many new developments: permanent human settlements, plant domestication for food, and crafts such as weaving, dying, stone working, woodwork and pottery. It was within this context that, not unsurprisingly perhaps, winemaking seems to have emerged.

Archaeological evidence can currently only point to the existence of early winemaking activity in a few isolated instances, each one in a particular place and time. While important, that evidence sadly can say little about the general picture. However, there is also supporting evidence that links this region with the origin of viticulture and winemaking. Genetic diversity in a plant is taken to be an indicator that it has existed for a long time – simply because it has had more time to mutate – and the Eurasian wild grape shows its greatest genetic diversity in the Near Eastern uplands, suggesting that grape vines in their wild form originated there. Also, Western European grape varieties are closer genetically to the wild vine of Anatolia than they are to more local wild vines, meaning that they probably originated close to Anatolia as domesticated forms, and later spread west. This is also consistent with the current indigenous Georgian grape varieties being closely related genetically to those of Western Europe, though by itself that fact does not indicate any particular direction of travel.

The oldest wine-related archaeological sites are in present-day Georgia, just 50km south of Tbilisi. They were two nearby villages, each around 1 ha in area – sites 2 and 3 on the above map – comprising circular mud huts of 1-5 m in diameter. Here sherds of fired-clay jars were found with residues that, when analysed, showed to be very likely to be of a grape product, and which were dated as 6,000-5,800 BC. The jars were up to 1 m high and 1 m in diameter, with a capacity of over 300 li. The jars had small unstable bases, so for stability could have been partly buried when used, but the decoration around the top of the jars suggested that they were not totally buried. Present day Georgian qvevris tend to be larger, and are totally buried, so these ancient jars are perhaps better seen as a forerunner of the Georgian qvevri rather than the first examples. In fact, no direct evidence of winemaking on those site has yet come to light, but pollen samples indicate that there were grapes growing nearby, and considering the wine culture known to exist in that region at later dates, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that wine was actually made in those villages. These are the same sites where for several years Georgians have, with little justification, been claiming an 8,000 year old history of winemaking. But it was a lot more recently that the convincing evidence mentioned above was obtained, and published in November 2017 the PNAS article Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus. Unless credited elsewhere, this PNAS article is the source of pretty much all the information in this blog post, and the map is reproduced from that article, so if you want to chase up more detailed references that is where to go.

Prior to November 2017, the earliest known winemaking site was in the of Northern Iran, site 17 on the map, just south of Lake Urmia. As on the Georgian sites, jars were found in a domestic mud hut with traces of the tartrates that indicated they had contained wine. These remains were dated to around 5,400-5000 BC. There were six partially-buried jars found in one hut, each with a capacity of around 9 li.

This quantity was typical for a hut in the village and indicates winemaking on a sizable scale, but we must go to the Areni-1 cave (site 15 on the map) of present-day Armenia for the earliest evidence of a winery. Unfortunately, because Armenia’s legitimate claim for the earliest known winery is sometimes made in isolation, this can easily give the impression that winemaking itself started here. While in actual fact the winery was dated to 4,000 BC – around two millennia later than the winemaking finds in Georgia. Nevertheless, the Areni-1 cave finds are significant and impressive. In addition to the tartrates, there were found grape-vine fragments, pips, and the red pigment malvidin. Also plaster pressing floors, arranged so the released grape juice would run into buried jars. To put these Armenian finds into a bit of perspective, they are roughly contemporary with early signs of winemaking in Northern Greece at Dikili Tash, yet still considerably earlier than anything in what is now Italy.

So if anyone asks when and where winemaking began, the only honest answer is that we don’t know. However, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that it was in or around the South Caucasus. And there is strong archaeological evidence for winemaking 8,000 years ago at a specific location in what is now Georgia, which is the oldest hard evidence we have at the moment.

More interesting than chronological one-upmanship is perhaps the details of how wine was made in the Neolithic period, and how winemaking evolved into what we see today – but that is another story.

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