Qvevri – manufacture, use, and rise to fame

Qvevri – a large clay vessel of distinctive shape, used for winemaking.

The Georgian word ქვევრი apparently means that which is buried, and gets transliterated into the Latin alphabet as qvevri or kvevri. The two spellings exist as, while the official transliteration of the first letter is k, many Georgians use q because it has the correct sound and takes the same position in their keyboard as ქ. Most winemakers have now agreed to adopt the spelling qvevri, and it was also used by UNESCO when they gave it Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status. Intangible? I don’t think you would agree if one dropped on your foot. No, actually it is the method of winemaking that was recognised by UNESCO, not the vessel itself. They also have other names in different parts of Georgia, but from here on I shall simply call them qvevri, and drop the italics.

The size of qvevri can vary widely, from a few litres to the largest in current use, which is seven or eight thousand litres, but for winemaking a typical range seems to be several hundred to around three thousand. As 1,000 litres of water weighs a metric tonne, people also talk about qvevri capacity in terms of tons, which has nothing to do with the weight of the qvevri itself. We asked a qvevri maker, Zaza Kbilashvili in the Kakheti village of Vardisubani, how much an empty one weighed. He didn’t know, but it took 8 men to move one of his larger qvevri, and that was the important measure as far as he was concerned.

The pointed qvevri base is thrown on a potter’s wheel, but the rest is made as a coil pot, built up with sausages of clay. No tools or measuring instruments are used, everything being done by hand and eye, with the necessary skills being passed down from father to son. Zaza builds his qvevri in the basement of his house, which would hold around a dozen large ones, and I think he said the maximum size he could make was 2 tons. It takes him around three months to build up a batch of large qvevri, the progress each day depending on the weather – progress being faster on hot dry days, when the clay dries quicker to give a firm base for the next layer. The qvevri are then allowed to dry completely before they are lugged out to the arch-shaped brick kiln in the garden. Here wood is stacked around the qvevri to give correctly distributed heating for the firing, which takes seven days and has to be monitored continually. The final step is to give the insides of the qvevri a treatment of beeswax while they are still warm. This is to make the clay walls less porous to liquids while still allowing air to pass. The wax should soak into the larger pores, and not form a coating that prevents the wine from making contact with the clay.

After manufacture, the qvevri are shipped to the winemaker, who traditionally would be in the same region of Georgia, but now could be anywhere in the world. They are buried alongside each other, with only their openings exposed, to create a marani, or wine cellar. The image shows the small marani in the Pheasant’s Tears restaurant building, which contains just a few qvevri of different sizes. These are used by the restaurant staff, but do not form part of Pheasants Tears’ main production.

In terms of the number of steps involved, natural qvevri winemaking is very simple: at its most basic, you crush the grapes, put them in the qvevri, wait, and take the wine out. However it is also vital to make sure all the leftover gunk is properly removed afterwards, and that the qvevri are  scrupulously cleaned. There are traditional tools for this purpose, but these days cleaning with a high-pressure water jet is a common. With larger qvevri, someone climbs down into the vessel to perform the cleaning operations, very large qvevri needing a small ladder for this purpose.

The final step in the life cycle of the qvevri is usually not destruction. In Georgia, the tradition is to respect old qvevri that have been disinterred by leaving them out on display. The ones shown here are at Alaverdi monastery.

The history of winemaking and the qvevri goes back in Georgia to at least the 6th millennium BC, as from that time qvevri fragments have been found with traces of wine tartrates and surrounded by grape pips. Since then, Georgia has seen 8,000 years of continuous winemaking in qvevri.

The so-called European style of winemaking, using barrels, was introduced into Georgia in the 19th century. For a period European and qvevri methods were both used in Georgia, but I have not seen any analysis of how wine production was structured in terms of method and producer size. However, the Soviet period from 1921 is still within living memory and much more widely discussed. Production was centralised in large state-run wineries, and vineyards were taken into collective ownership. The large wineries, or wine factories as Georgians called them, worked with a very limited number of grape varieties, principally Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, and were geared up to maximise volume at the expense of quality, most of this volume being targeted at the Russian market. Meanwhile, very small-scale qvevri winemaking quietly continued in people’s homes, using grapes taken from their gardens.

In post-independence Georgia, the large state-owned companies were privatised, other  wine-producing companies emerged, and quality improved with an eye on new export markets. Some of these companies even adopted qvevri production for their higher-end wines.

But there is another post-Soviet winemaking story to tell – a lot less important in sheer economic terms, but big in terms of prestige and future potential. Georgian individuals were each given a small plot of ex-collective vineyard, providing small-scale qvevri winemaking with a better supply of grapes, and forming the basis for the vibrant, though still small in percentage terms, natural qvevri wine movement of the 21st century. For some, winemaking ceased to be merely an activity that kept family and friends supplied, and more viable small businesses were created. Even then it seems it was usually necessary to have another source of income, perhaps by working as a professional in Tbilisi, or by running a restaurant or guesthouse alongside the winery. Larger vineyard areas were created by combining the allocations given to family and friends, or perhaps by renting neighbouring plots. And derelict cellars were restored, and new ones built.

However, perhaps the key difference between this new breed of small winemaker and their predecessors is not so much production volume; it is that the wines were being bottled. Thus, rather than being restricted to the limited market of their own village, they could be sold for more money in the shops and wine bars of Tbilisi – notably ღvino Underground – and get international exposure. When you are producing a few thousand bottles per annum, you neither want nor get the attention of supermarket buyers. But with the current cult interest in natural qvevri wines, to catch the eye of a sommelier from a restaurant of international renown is a distinct possibility.

(Follow these links for information on qvevri and the history of Georgian wine. And for stories of small qvevri winemakers, I would recommend Tasting Georgia by Carla Capalbo. In addition to material personally gleaned, those are the main sources for this post.)

Posted in General | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Georgian wine labels – understanding and pronouncing

Understanding

When trying to understand a Georgian wine label, I would first try to locate any bits of text that refer to region or grape variety. Google could help here if it is not obvious from the context, as would having ready access to lists of regions and varieties, online or hardcopy. Once something is identified, it is be relatively easy to drill down to get more detailed information about it.

If the colour of the wine is described as amber or golden, it is a skin maceration wine made from green grapes – Georgian labels tend to avoid use of the more usual term orange wine. White wine on the other hand would indicate that there has been little or no skin contact (usually at least, but I do know at least one exception).

As Georgia still produces medium dry and medium sweet wines, largely for the Russian market, there is also often a sweetness indication of the label. The reassuring word dry is what you will usually find.

If qvevri is not mentioned somewhere on the bottle, not even the back label, you should probably assume that your wine is made in vat, tank or barrel. And conversely, if it actually is a qvevri wine you will usually be informed. Just note that the use of qvevri does not necessarily imply skin contact, and kvevri with a k is simply another transliteration of the same Georgian word.

Any other text writ large, will probably be the producer’s name or brand. In addition to that, it seems that there is now always a producer name in small letters on the back label, which is usually different from the one on the front of the bottle. Presumably this is the producer’s official company name, or the company that bottled the wine, to allow for traceability.

Pronouncing

Why should you even bother trying to pronounce all the weird words you see on Georgian wine labels? Well, apart from the obvious – that it is the only way you are going to be able to communicate verbally about the wine – I think it represents a big step in familiarising yourself with it. The sound of a word is a lot easier to remember than a vague impression of what the word looks like, which is probably what you have without vocalising it.

My first piece of advice is not to be intimidated. Just take new words one syllable at a time, and one letter at a time. How hard can it be?

It can actually be as hard as you want it to be, but there is no point in aiming for perfection. Indeed, if you are going to be using a Georgian word in a sentence of your native language I am not sure perfection is possible, certainly not without sounding very odd. So I would, for example, not fret about distinguishing between the different Georgian versions of the consonants p, t and k – something you have doubtless been losing sleep over prior to this reassurance.

The other Georgian sounds are a lot more straightforward, and the good news is: that every letter is pronounced; it is always pronounced the same way; and in many cases the transliterated version of Georgian is pronounced similar to English. So then just put a slight stress on the first syllable of each word and you are up and running.

If you wish to improve your pronunciation, I think the Georgian alphabet on this page is a great resource. Column 2 of the table gives you the letters you will see in the Georgian transliterations, and you can click the play-buttons to hear how the letter sounds in words. It is probably worth clicking the vowel buttons right away as there are only a few of them. As for the consonants, note that r is rolled, and kh is a bit like the Spanish j or the Scottish pronunciation of ch in loch. And especially note that gh is more like a French r sound than anything else; don’t ask me why the letter combination gh is used in the standard transliteration. It gets even more confusing when some people decide to omit the h from the transliteration – if you suspect that is the case you simply have to check what Georgian character is being used.

When you come across a consonant combination that does not exist in your native language, just try to run the consonants together as quickly as possible, without labouring or stressing them. The Georgian combination kv is really no more difficult than the English cl, and there is no need at all to stick in an extra vowel between the k and the v, as the English media insist on doing in the surname of the tennis player Petra Kvitova for example.

If you need any more help with pronunciation, you could try Forvo. Its Georgian vocabulary is quite limited at the moment, but there are some wine-related words. You can enter the transliterated version of the word, or cut and paste the word in the Georgian alphabet – sometimes one method will work better than the other.

Finally, I feel I have to say that I am very aware that some of what I have said here contradicts what other wine people have said and written about how to pronounce Georgian. In particular I differ in saying that Georgian letters are always pronounced the same way, and that none are silent. I do not wish to set myself up as a linguistic authority, but I base what I say on Georgian language tutorials, discussion with a couple of Georgians, and checking native-speaker pronunciations on Forvo and in YouTube videos. So my advice is doubtless not totally fool proof, but in good conscience it is the best I can give.

That said, I will make one concession that sort-of runs against my own advice: the initial r in Rkatsiteli does indeed seem to be totally silent when spoken by Georgians in everyday conversation. However, even then, when I questioned a Georgian about this, she insisted that the r was actually there, just difficult to hear – so maybe my advice to pronounce everything should still stand..? Besides, sticking the r in front of that grape variety will give you plenty of  r-rolling practice, and stand you in good stead for other words.

Posted in General | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Georgia: a guide to the cradle of wine – book review

Georgia: a guide to the cradle of wine, by Miquel Hudin and Daria Kholodilina, available direct from Vinologue for $26 plus shipping.

Very recently published, I think it is fair to say that this is the only book about Georgian wine to cover the ground with the depth and scope expected by most wine lovers. Quite simply put, if you want a book on Georgian wine this is for you. As the introduction claims, the format hits the middle ground between a heavy coffee-table book and a compact travel guide. There are 300 glossy A5 pages, richly illustrated with pertinent photographs. While the glossy paper does make the book rather heavy to carry around, the robust hardback binding will minimise any damage when you toss it into the back of the car for your Georgian road trip.

As implied above, the book has all the sections you would expect in an introductory guide to a wine region or country, and also has practical information for visitors. There is a General Info part with, among other things, sections on the language, history and cuisine of the country, and notably a substantial section on Georgian grape varieties. The official Georgian appellations are covered the 20-page part 2, with the remaining two-thirds or so of the book being devoted to the regions of Georgia. Each region gets a general introduction, including restaurants, shops, museums and other places that would be of interest to wine lovers. This is followed by profiles of its wineries, each profile typically taking a page or so of text. At the end of the book are winery contact details and GPS coordinates.

Given that whenever Georgian wines are mentioned the focus is so often on kvevri and natural wines, it is perhaps worth stressing that producers of all styles of wine are covered. It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of Georgian wine is what we might call conventional, and that this too can also have considerable interest for wine lovers.

So what did I not like? Well, map quality in wine books is a constant gripe for me. Here the problem is that the maps are so schematic, and literally devoid of scale, that they give no impression at all of the country and regions. You see items of interest associated with towns, villages and areas of Tbilisi, but that’s about it. For borders of the regions that are discussed, and the physical geography that is so important to wine, you really need to have access to additional maps. You could get them online, but shouldn’t the purpose of the book be to provide such things?

Also, in the winery profiles I think most readers would appreciate a stronger indication of the types of wine made, and their quality. A lot of opinion I have come across so far seems to basically consist of praising all natural kvevri wines and demonising everything else. I am sure a more nuanced approach is called for, and in this book a terrific opportunity has been lost.

My final gripe would be about the clunkiness of some of the language. Occasionally I found myself struggling to figure out what was being said, wondering if some critical words were missing for example. Even if the vast majority of the text was fine and there there was little loss of overall meaning, at times I really did find the difficult sentences got a bit tiresome. Maybe it was just me and my earnest quest for information, and a more casual reader would gloss over such things?

But enough negativity. Despite any awkwardness of language, I enjoyed reading my copy in a couple of days, and shall doubtless continue to use it for reference. I repeat that this is pretty much the only book that brings together such a complete range of information about Georgian wine, and the authors are to be congratulated for having the enterprise to make it available in such an accessible way.

Posted in General | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Online information about Georgian wine

As Georgian wine gets more popular, there is an increasing number of easily digestible online summary articles, and if you want to seek those out I shall leave you in the capable hands of Google. But more surprising for me is the large amount detailed and authoritative information out there. In English too. Here I point out some of the best of these pages, images and documents.

Wine maps

Vinoge.com has arguably the best overview wine map of Georgia, showing the locations of many wine producers, and the main viticultural regions. It is displayed in a rather annoying way in the top right of all pages of the website, but by right-clicking you can open the entire map at high resolution, as seen here.

The same site also has a good set of more detailed maps for individual regions, which can all be accessed from this page. You may need to scroll down a bit to find the first one, then keep clicking on the map you are interested in until you eventually you get the map as a high-resolution image.

From hvino.com, you may also find this map of interest. The information given is a mixed bag, with various items of interest for Georgian wine tourists. Personally I don’t think it works well as an overview, but is perhaps more useful if you are after something in particular.

Appellations of Origin

There is an official document available as PDF that describes the Georgian Appellations of Origin in English. Each delimited region is shown on its own detailed map, but you will need a more general map to understand where those regions are within Georgia. I found searching for village names on Google maps was a good way to get that context.

The soils and climate of each zone are described in mind-numbing detail, but the requirements on grape varieties are only very vaguely expressed. The varieties are listed and described, but then you are usually left to assume that it is those grapes that are allowed in some proportion or other, and others are prohibited.

Georgian producers do not seem to be using these AOC names as enthusiastically as they might, but you do occasionally see them on labels so it can be good to know what they mean. Indeed it is good merely to know which AOC names exist, so you do not confuse them for grape varieties.

Grape varieties

When you have the Georgian AOCs under your belt, you might want to download the 456 page PDF tome Georgian Ampelography for further reading material. There are over 500 Georgian grapes mentioned in the list at the end of this book, but it focusses on the detailed ampelography of only 59, including 4 from France, the remainder all being native to Georgia. In the 1960 edition the main entries were restricted to 57 varieties – a nod to Heinz perhaps? – including 5 French ones.

Sadly for wine drinkers, the ampelographic descriptions include little comment on the style and quality of the wine produced by the various varieties. But if you need to grow or identify vines in a Georgian vineyard – or are a card-holding wine geek – this is definitely a book for you. Somehow, even if I am unlikely to read more than a small fraction of it, I feel my life is enhanced by this scholarly work.

Qvevri

Finally, for information about qvevri, including regional variations in usage, it is hard to beat the short PDF book Making Wine in Qvevri – a Unique Georgian Tradition.

Posted in General | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Telavi Wine Cellar, and their Marani and Satrapezo wines

This place is big. Huge. It’s quite possibly the largest wine-producing outfit I have ever visited, and seems only the larger for the contrast with most of the other Georgian producers on this trip. I cannot find volume production figures, but using Google maps I would estimate its buildings, car park and outside storage tanks cover around 1 ha. That would be more like the vineyard area of some producers we visited, the wine production area being a small room containing several qvevri. The company is Telavi Wine Cellar, and they are located just outside the Georgian city of Telavi, the administrative capital of Kakheti. But you will not see the company name on labels unless you look carefully. The main brand they sell under is Marani, which translates as cellar, while their top-end qvevri wines are branded as Satrapezo, which is what Georgian call the small quantities of particularly good quality wine that would be used for liturgical purposes.Perhaps these images also give some idea of the size of the place. I believe they show practically all their barrels and qvevri, but there is a lot more stainless steel, and two large rooms each with a bottling line. The company was founded in 1915, and was under state ownership for a lot of its history, but is now a private company. Again unlike most of the places we visited, there was no mention of organic viticulture or, with only one exception, any natural wine credentials, the exception being that the Satrapezo wines are fermented by natural yeasts. However, after a period in qvevri these wines are also aged in oak barrels, to the disapprobation of traditionalists. But putting wine-making philosophy aside, a possible sacrilege in itself I realise, how much does this matter? What does the wine taste like?

I was not particularly keen on any of the red wines. I am not sure why exactly but they just did not appeal. For any producer I generally preferred the white and orange wines to the red, so that was probably a big factor, and nothing to do with Telavi Wine Cellar in particular. As far as the whites were concerned, I thought they were all enjoyable, and the wine quality definitely increased as we moved upwards through the nominal quality levels. The Marani Kakheti Mtsvane 2016 was a good basic aromatic wine that I would be happy to drink, but was in an international style and not particularly distinctive. The Marani Tsinandali 2014 was a step up – dry, good acidity, and with citrus and apple aromas. Note that Tsinandali is a delimited subzone of Kakheti, around Televi where the winery is, and any wine so-labelled must be at least 85% Rkatsiteli, the remainder being Mtsvane. Then there was another step up with the Marani Kondoli Vineyards Rkatsiteli 2014, also from Kakheti, and from the Kondoli vineyards which are within the Tsinandali area. This too had good acidity and was dry, but the ripeness of the fruit gave a slightly sweet impression and I was reminded of the petrol notes one can get in Riesling – a very good thing a far as I am concerned. All three of those wines were made with no skin contact, while the final wine is a skin-contact orange wine, and does not use the Marani brand: Satrapezo 10 Kvevri Rkatsiteli 2013. It has an annual production of 14,000 bottles, or about 10 qvevris, which might sound very little, but it amounts to roughly to the total output of some places we visited. After 20-25 days of skin maceration in qvevri, the wine is transferred to small oak barrels for 10 months. This too was a lovely wine with sharp fresh apricot notes, and having moderate to low tannins this was one of the more delicate orange wines.

I would happily have bought one bottle of each of the last three wines to bring back with me from the winery, but it did not yet have the facility for retail sales. However, I found them in the Tbilisi airport duty-free shop, and took the opportunity to use my remaining Georgian Lari to buy them. It turned out that I could also have got them in the UK, and for about the same price.

(Update 19/07/17: See comments on this post if you are interested in production volumes.)

Posted in General | Tagged , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in General | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in General | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in General | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in General | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in General | Tagged , , | 2 Comments