There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Sunday, 17 August 2014

Tasting Georgian Wine: An Interlude in From the Caspian to the Black Sea

The Georgians are convinced (and they may actually be right) that they invented wine making; there is certainly solid evidence that they were at it 7,000 years ago. Their technique involved treading grapes in stone or wooden vats and then putting everything – juice, skins, stalks and pips - into a clay pot known as a qvervi. The qvervi was buried in the ground for temperature control and covered but not sealed. The juice fermented on the skins and stalks and stayed on them far longer than in the western European tradition. The resulting wines tended to be oxidised and with a flavour of the clay pot - and the whites were brown (the colour of tea was deemed appropriate). Little has changed, though they now refer to their white wines as 'amber'. Their taste is unfamiliar to the western European drinker, though still much appreciated by Georgians, to the extent that they have had the qvervi (almost pronounced querry – there is a nod in the direction of the first ‘v’ and no more than a token effort at the second) inscribed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

A giant qvervi (used as a mini-cinema)
Twins Old Cellar, Napareuli
Georgia has over 500 grape varieties. Most are grown nowhere else, some are so local they are unique to a single village, though only around 40 are used commercially. Subtle differences between grape varieties are of great interest to modern wine makers and wine buffs, though in the past, when wine was made in a qvervi, stored in animal skins and drunk from a horn they could hardly have been noticeable.

Brand new qvervis ready for the new vintage
Twins Old Cellar, Napareuli
Georgian wines are described by region of production, sometimes down to the village and individual vineyard, and grape variety or varieties.

The designated wine regions are

Kakhetti
Kartli
Imereti
Racha and Svaneti
Ajara
 We enjoyed four tastings, all in Kakhetti, though we tasted wines from Imereti and Kartli as well as Kakhetti
1) KHAREBA, Kvareli. 15/08/2014

Khareba is a large company which owns vineyards in several regions, has two wineries and a large storage facility at Kvareli in Kakhetti where our tasting took place

Like most of the larger companies they make both Georgian-style wines and European-style wines. ‘European’, in this context meaning pretty well anywhere in the world that is not Georgia.

I was able to note the grape variety and (mostly) the region, but I do not know how these wines fit into the Khareba range of wines, nor their retail price.


Tasting room, Khareba Winery

Rkatsiteli is one the most widely planted grapes in Georgia. Unlike most of the others it is widespread throughout Eastern Europe. Like many others I have previously drunk Bulgarian Rkatsiteli - it was readily available on the British market in the 1980s. ‘Monastery’ Rkatsiteli is made using Georgian methods. Deep yellow rather than brown, its weight is mouth filling but despite its presence the flavour, slips quickly off the palate leaving only a tug of tannin - mildly disconcerting for a white wine. ‘It is,’ we were told, ‘a good wine for old people at breakfast’. I am not convinced it would be wise for this old person to take up breakfast wine drinking.

Their 'European' Rkatsiteli from western Georgia was light, almost colourless. It had good fresh acidity, light fruit and a real crispness. This wine would sell in Europe where the traditional style would struggle.

Krakhuna is a variety grown almost uniquely in Imereti. Vinified European-style it was a good deal solider than the Rkatsiteli and with slightly more colour but without a great deal of character. Lynne thought it would be a better wine with food, and she is probably right.

 
Oak barrels, Khareba Winery, Kvareli
As the red colour of ‘European’ wines comes from contact with the skins, Georgian-style reds are closer to the mainstream than the whites

Saperavi, the main red grape, has red flesh and juice as well as skin. The wines have a colour so intense it is as much a dye as a wine. Made in Georgian style it is rich and tannic with a fruitiness not unlike Cabernet. It was an impressive wine, but not as impressive as...

….the Premium Saperavi, European style with 20% aged in oak barrels. A step up from the regular Saperavi, this is a wine of real class.

We also tasted an Aladesturi from Imereti. Lighter than the Saperavi, and not just in colour, it had a hint of sparkle and a touch of sweetness. An easy drinking wine, it was reminiscent of an Italian Dolcetto.

A rosé blended from Saperavi, Aladesturi and Ostkhanuri, was clean and fruity, but lacked the acidity to balance its fruit.



Napareuli is not far from Khareba, but this is a much smaller concern.

Saperavi vines (I think)
Twins Old Winery, Napareuli

Georgian-style Rkatsiteli was darker and even heavier than the Khareba version. The level of oxidisation and tannin is such that this was the most ‘alien’ wine we tasted

Their European-style Rkatsiteli may have been taken off the skins and stalks but was fermented in a qvervi, so it still exhibited the flavour of the clay pot. We thought this is a rather clumsy wine, neither one thing nor the other.

Saperavi, Georgian-style Rkatsiteli, European style Rkatsiteli
Twins Old Winery, Napareuli

The Saperavi was more basic than Khareba’s, still rich and tannic but without the extra dimension of fruit. Although it is nothing special, I would thoroughly enjoy this wine with a winter stew.


Kakhuri Vineyard, Tsinandali.
Another qvervi made ‘European-style’ wine blended from Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane. Despite the clay pot they managed to retain the lightness and freshness of the grape, though they lost the nose.

Wine Cellar, Tsinandali Palace

This Georgian-Swedish-American concern aims to produce wines so rare and beautiful you would think you were drinking pheasant's tears. When the Russian market dried up after the 2008 war the owners of Pheasant's Tears decided that for export purposes their USP was that Georgian wine was different, so they have concentrated on making organic Georgian-style wines as well as they possibly can be made. Like many wineries Pheasant’s Tears is run by enthusiasts, and their enthusiasm is infectious. I wish them well with their endeavour.

We had lunch at the winery, accompanied by four wines and finishing with a chacha (which is not a dance).

Standing on a qvervi, Pheasant's Tears Winery, Signaghi

The 2013 Chinuri from Kartli was a traditional amber white. The contact time on the skins had been limited so some of the fruit had been retained. The cleanest, crispest traditional-style wine we tasted.

 Rkatsiteli from the nearby Alazani Valley was also tea coloured. The nose is strong, fresh and distinctive by qvervi standards. It has good acidity but the tannins are so prominent it could pass for a red if tasted blindfold.

 
The vine filled Alazani Valley, Kakhetti
Kartli Tavkveri. Tavkveri is a female vine – most are hermaphrodite – and needs to be planted alongside the male Chinuri to produce grapes. (Does Chinuri also need Tavkveri? No one said that it does. Is this silence unconscious sexism or is there some biological quirk I know nothing of?) The nose was powerful and earthy to start with evolving into plumminess. This is a big deep wine with lots of tannin. Winemaker John Wurdeman says that 6 to 9 months after bottling the tannins resolve into flavours of toasted almonds and cherries. I cannot comment on that, but we did find that red meat tamed the tannin, allowing the fruit and acidity free reign. This is a rather fine wine.

The Kakhetti Saparavi was a touch overshadowed and not, for once, the star of the show. It was a big wine, but lacked the fruit and structure of the Tavkveri.

Pheasant’s Tears Chacha. Chacha is distilled from the residue of winemaking, like grappa in Italy or Bagaceira in Portugal. At 48% this is fiery stuff, but with an intense flavour. It has a touch of the cowshed, as all such spirits have, but it also has real finesse. We bought a bottle. [update 24/02/15 We opened it at Christmas. There is still a little left - it will last to the end of our Lenten abstinence, but not much longer.]


Pheasant's Tears Chacha


That was the end of our wine tasting, though there was plenty of wine drinking during the following week. In restaurants, we learned, bottled wine was relatively expensive. Georgians drink a great deal of wine, most of it brown ‘white’ wine, but very little of it ever sees a bottle. We drank ‘homemade wine’ by the glass at lunchtime and by the litre in the evening and although it was a different wine drinking experience, we found little difficulty in developing a taste for it.

From the Caspian to the Black Sea




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