Lost In Qvevriland: My Story On Georgian Wine & Food Culture In MUNCHIES

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My feature on traveling around the Republic of Georgia, learning about the world’s oldest wine culture and qvevri winemaking and gorging on incredible, homemade food and orange wines–and the famous local grape brandy, cha cha–is up now on MUNCHIES. You can read it here. I’ve also got a blog post up with more extensive tasting notes from that trip.

Have a great weekend!

xRachel

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Notes On The Natural Wine Revolution In Georgia

There is so much happening in the natural wine scene in Georgia, it’s impossible to recount it all here, but I’m going to share some of my tasting notes. Briefly, if you’re not familiar with Georgian wines: the country has been making wine continuously for about 8000 years, and there are shards of qvevri (the clay amphorae vessels, used to ferment wine underground, beloved for their neutral effects on the wine and natural temperature control) dating back to the 6th millennium BC.

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During Soviet times, winemaking was both industrialized and policed, as it was throughout the Soviet Union (I’ve written about this in the case of Hungary). Only four out of Georgia’s 525 known grape varieties were permitted–Rkatsiteli, Mstvane, Tsolikouri, and Saperavi–and winemakers who defied the boundaries were thrown in prison.

Fortunately, despite 70 years of Soviet rule, the Georgians managed to keep their winemaking culture alive, and both qvevri production and grape biodiversity have survived, although many varieties are certainly at risk of extinction now. Hopefully, the natural wine revolution that’s happening there in full force can assist in propagating some of these varieties, and not just for the sake of science–there are some really delicious wines made from extremely unique, heritage varieties in Georgia.

There’s really nothing out there quite like Georgian wines; they have entirely unique flavor profiles. The whites are typically made with skin contact, lending them tannic structure and texture, and the reds can be powerful, especially the teinturier (red-fleshed) variety Saperavi, which produces inky dark wine. And it’s important to note that these wines are best when experienced with the country’s incredible cuisines, which vary from region to region (and by household, where family recipes are passed down over generations), but generally feature lots of sautéed vegetables, the flaky warm cheese bread khachapuri, rich and tender roasted meat dishes, lamb stews, and fresh fish, all served family style.

I am not an expert on Georgian wines; the writer Alice Feiring’s book For the Love of Wine is an essential primer on the country’s natural wine revolution, told with Alice’s unparalleled narrative skill, and the MW Lisa Granik is another great resource. But I’ll share some tasting notes here for those who want to learn, and seek out Georgian wines. Many of these wines were tasted at the winemakers’ homes/cellars, while others were tasted at the fantastic natural wine event Zero Compromise, organized by John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears and held in Tbilisi. For American wine buyers looking to find these wines, I recommend reaching out to the New York-based importer Chris Terrell and to Blue Danube.

ARCHIL GUNIAVA

In the Imereti region of Western Georgia, Archil makes a wide range of whites, some with no skin contact, others with about 15 percent of skin contact (traditional in that region, according to him) and reds, all in qvevri. He began bottling his wines about 7 years ago, although winemaking goes back many generations in the family; his vineyards are in rich clay soil, on a slope. We tasted in Archil’s cellar. I really enjoyed his 2015 Krakhuna, which sees 4 months of 15 percent skin contact before racking to another qvevri for elevage (most of Archil’s wines follow this approach). There was a nice fruitiness to the wine, and soft tannins; I found all of Archil’s whites to be very drinkable, with wonderful texture. I was also a huge fan of a blend made from Otskanuri Sapere (red grape) and Tsoulikouri (white grape); we tasted ’16 from qvevri and ’15 in bottle and the latter was exceptional, with notes of fresh ripe cherries and fresh acidity. Archil’s daughter Nino also makes excellent wines; we tried her first vintage of a beautiful, dark orange blend of two white grapes.

GOGITA MAKARIDZE

 

Gogita is Archil’s neighbor, so he works with many of the same grapes and blends. I loved his Aladasturi, a light, perfumed red wine, ringing in at about 10 percent alcohol, redolent of crushed roses, tasting of blackberries. Georgian glou glou! That’s his Tsitska (white grape) pictured; he makes it without any skin contact and it’s very approachable.

RAMAZ NIKOLADZE

Ramaz’s vineyard in Imereti is a special place, less than half a hectare. He has not cultivated it in 15 years–no tilling, no weeding, absolutely no chemicals–and it is a beautiful, wild thing, filled with medicinal plants, the rich clay soils so alive. Tsistska and Tsoulikouri, both white grapes, are planted here.

Ramaz’s father-in-law was making the “I am Didimi” wines, but now that he’s quite elderly Ramaz makes them; we tasted a few of these. The Aladasturi grape appeared again, and again it was wonderfully light and pretty, with notes of crushed roses on the nose, and fresh cherries on the palate (that was a 2016 wine). We also tasted Ramaz’s wines, of which I was most impressed by his 2016 qvevri sample of Tsolikouri, made with 3 months of skin contact; it was richly textured and perfectly tannic, just a great example of this style of wine. I also loved the 2015 Tsitska-Tsolikouri blend (a fairly traditional blend in Imereti); made with whole cluster grapes fermented on the skins for several months, it was dark orange, and tasted powerfully of citrus and stonefruits, with medium-plus tannins that lingered on my tongue in a way that the best food wines tend to.

MANDILI & IAGO’S WINE

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In Georgia, gender roles are still fairly traditional: men make the wine and deal with public/business affairs, while women cook and care for the home and children. But in winemaking, at least, this is changing.

The first commercially available wine made by Georgian women was the “Mandili,” a skin contact Mtsvane made by Marina Kurtanidze (who is married to the well-known winemaker Iago Bitarishvili), along with her friend Tea Melanashvili, using purchased fruit. I tasted it at their winery/home, and it was incredible: perfect balance of stonefruits, acidity, and tannin.

Iago makes wine only from the high-acid white grape Chinuri, one with skin contact and one without, in qvevri that are centuries old. I liked his skin contact one better; it was saline with nice, soft tannins, and had a beautiful bright orange color. (Upon returning from Georgia, I drank this wine here in New York, at Four Horsemen, and again found it extremely pleasant and balanced.)

ZAZA GAGUA & KATI NINIDZE

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Another example of women taking up their own winemaking projects. At the home of Zaza Gagua and Kati Ninidze, in the M’artville Gorge of Western Georgia, we are shown first to Kati’s newly planted vineyards, and to the space she is building out as her wine cellar. She beams with pride as her husband explains with a shrug, “She said she wanted her own space to make wine, so.”

Zaza and Kati make very different wines. It may be a cliché to simply say that one is masculine and one is feminine, but they do express their own voices. They have a unique and rare grape in their area called Ojaleshi, which Kati uses in two wines—one is made from a white variant of the grape, and she calls it “Naked Wine.” On the label, two nude women’s bodies are depicted; one is in full splendor, a goddess, free and unencumbered, and self-loving, while the other is literally in a cage. As we tasted the wine—not made in qvevri, but instead produced in stainless steel, a more modern approach—Kati explained that women in Georgia were often taught to hide themselves, and be prudent, but she was for self-expression, and thought women should be able to show their bodies if they felt like it. Kati also poured for us her fresh and fruity rosé, made of Orberluri Ojaleshi. “Somm crack juice,” is the very accurate tasting note that one woman from Minneapolis gave for Kati’s wines. Her husband’s wines featured the somewhat more common white grapes Tsolikouri and Krakhuna, made in qvevri with skin contact, and two robust and sultry red wines. Their two distinct styles compliment each other.

ZERO COMPROMISE TASTING

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We attended the second iteration of Zero Compromise, spread out across three locations in Tbilisi, featuring natural winemakers from around the country. It was a fantastic event, and if you’re thinking to go to Georgia for wine purposes, I would definitely suggest timing your trip to coincide with this event. Why is it called “Zero Compromise?” As John Wurdeman put it: “If you’re going to do anything, do it all the way, give it your full heart. The heart has to be vulnerable in order to always be full.”

Some of the “usual suspects” like Pheasant’s Tears and Okro’s were present, as well as somewhat newer labels, including Niki Antadze in Kakheti, whose wines I first tasted (and loved) at La Dive in France earlier this year; and there were some upstarts like Niki’s partner, a French woman from the Jura named Laura Seibel, who has two delicious bottlings. From another upstart winemaker, Mariam Iosebidze–pictured above–I loved the first vintage Tavkveri (a pretty and light red grape, kind of like a Poulsard). Tavkveri is a wonderful, lively grape in every case I’ve tried.

One of the most interesting wines for me was a 35-variety field blend of heritage grapes from Kortavebis Marani. I found this light red enticing, beautiful and difficult to describe; the flavors were very complex and nuanced.

PHEASANT’S TEARS 

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For some time now, the Pheasant’s Tears label from John Wurdeman and Gela Patavishlivi in Kakheti have been all I knew of Georgian wines. John, an American artist who fell in love with Georgia while there making paintings, and became a winemaker, has been very instrumental in getting the word out about Georgia’s natural wine movement, through travels and wine fairs. I got to taste through the Pheasant’s Tears line-up at the vineyard in Kakheti, while trying some dishes from the restaurant they are opening there, Crazy Pomegranate. John’s wife Keti is the chef, and the menu is highly vegetable-centric (John himself is vegetarian), although there were some beautiful meat dishes, too.

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Of the Pheasant’s Tears wines, the most exciting to me were: the Vardisperi Rkatsiteli, made from a rare (less than 2 hectares in all Georgia exist) pink-skinned variety of Rkatsiteli; it was light and savory and very pretty; the Poliphonia, a field blend of hundreds of grapes, which like the 35-grape wine shown above I found immensely complex and difficult to describe concretely, but full of flavor; and the Saperavi from Tibaani in Kakheti, with intense, sapid black fruits, lithe tannins, and lively acidity. I have always loved the Rkatsiteli, and it was showing beautifully–fresh and soft, energetic, tannic. All wines tasted were 2016.

Later that night, at John’s other restaurant in town, we tasted the first Pheasant’s Tears vintage of Saperavi, from 2007. The bottle we opened was incredibly reduced and basically undrinkable. But then we found a batch of the ’08 Saperavi; I blind tasted a few people on it and they immediately guessed the variety and vintage. It was stunning–still not very mature, powerful and structured but rounder with age, and incredibly drinkable given the age. These wines can age. These wines, seemingly, can do anything–go with any food, any situation. I cannot wait to return to Georgia and explore more.

Parisian Love Affairs & A New Wave Of Right Bank Bordeaux In April’s Wine Enthusiast

Guilhaume at Chateau Roland la Garde shows off their biodynamics manual

I have two (very different) pieces in this month’s Wine Enthusiast Magazine. First, there’s a short feature about producers in the Right Bank of Bordeaux, where the Côtes de Bordeaux appellation (created in 2009) is trying to establish itself as a new benchmark of quality–meaning, they are working toward healthier vineyards, and in some cases turning to biodynamic farming, or even, in the case of Chateau Roland la Garde, experimenting with amphorae winemaking. There’s a link to this feature online.

Then, in the back of the issue is a personal essay about a friendship with an American woman living in Paris, who wanted me to teach her about wine, or maybe just needed an ear to divulge about her unhappy marriage. At the moment, this one’s only in print. When there’s a link, I’ll tweet it out.

Thanks for reading!

“Everything But Barrel” Winemaking (aka Wherever You Go, There Amphora Is)

I wrote for Wine Enthusiast magazine about all the ways to ferment wine–besides using barrels or stainless steel tanks. Of course, clay amphorae are featured, but also glass carboys, and concrete. Quotes from some pretty awesome winemakers. Check out the story here! And if you’re interested to learn more about amphorae wine, stay tuned for my trip to the Republic of Georgia in May! Thanks for reading.

Wherever You Go, There Amphora Is–Even In Bordeaux

A lot of people ask me: “Rachel, how the hell do you manage to travel so much for wine journalism?” I sort of cringe at this, because I’m aware that it may look as if I’m constantly on vacation, enjoying fancy meals and sipping wine in a beautiful vineyards. The trips are occasionally luxurious, but most of the time they involve a tough working schedule: interviewing, tasting, and shooting photos from 9am to 7pm, basically non-stop (the meals are working meals).

Being freelance rather than tied down to a full-time job means I can accept wine press trips and use them as an opportunity to learn about winemaking and regional histories. I reject the term “junket” for these kinds of trips–they are windows into a culture, curated but no less real. And I can use the flight to another country to do my own exploring, as I did recently in the Loire Valley. It would be impossible to afford this all on my own, since I live off writing–not the most lucrative vocation, alas. (Some wine writers have an entirely separate career and journalism is their hobby, but not me.)

I get a lot of trip offers, and they are generally of two sorts:

(1) our winery / spirits brand would like to fly you out to our property and treat you exceptionally well, but you have to confirm a story assignment before we can do this;

(2) our appellation / region is hosting a group of journalists to tour a wide range of properties, and you may join us.

If you know me at all, it should go without saying that the second one is a much more compelling choice for me. I’m in the business of telling stories, not promoting brands. (When publicists e-mail me suggesting that their Champagne brand would be a wonderful choice for a Vogue feature, I write back that it would make for a great advertisement, and they should contact the Condé Nast ad sales department.)

When I accept a press trip invite, I only do so if I am sure that it will, at least to some extent, match my interests. I’ve begun suggesting producers, rather than just letting the organizer make the itinerary. I don’t promise a story unless I can do so in a flexible way, determining the exact angle later, but in almost every case it’s very easy to find something to write about during an appellation or region tour, because so much change is happening in the wine industry, all the time, and it’s simply a matter of having one’s finger on the pulse to find the narrative.

I wanted to share all that because I’ve been traveling so much, and perhaps some of you have wondered about it. It’s a brave new world in media, as well as in wine, and I personally always strive to be transparent and ethical in my work. I have a few more trips coming up, but for the moment I’m holding off on accepting more because I want to actually focus on writing. I have many stories to tell!

Such as: last month’s visit to the Côtes de Bordeaux, a recently (2009) re-branded appellation on Bordeaux’s Right Bank.

I have never been a huge lover of Bordeaux, for several reasons: it’s generally too expensive for me; the old-school culture of the Grand Cru chateaux isn’t where I feel most at home; the heaviness of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot aged in new oak doesn’t entice my palate. That said, I thought it would be good to visit the region and learn something firsthand.

carte_cotes_de_bordeaux__029241400_1847_01122015The Côtes de Bordeaux encompasses four distinct, historic terroirs, all on the Right Bank: Blaye, Castillon, Francs, and Cadillac. They make mostly red wine, generally featuring Merlot, with Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc playing a supporting role. Winemaking has a long, long history here going back to Roman times, and there are many impressive chateaux with beautiful vineyards. In some cases, these vineyards might be just a stone’s throw away from the Grand Crus, as with Francs, which borders on St-Emilion.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece for Food Republic about Bordeaux’s new marketing strategy, which attempts to reach Millennials by emphasizing the family-owned properties in the region, and those working biodynamically or organically. Bordeaux has definitely lost out on the “cool factor,” while the Loire Valley and the Jura have come up. Palates, too, have changed–and I’m exemplary of this–as today’s drinkers shy away from oak and intense tannin, looking instead for the rich texture of an unfiltered Beaujolais, or the brightness of a Loire Valley Romorantin. And then there’s the price tag, of course. Baby boomers have cash to invest in their wine cellars. Millennials do not–and therefore, want to drink younger wines.

I wasn’t able to glean much information from producers in the Côtes de Bordeaux about whether they have lost any ground in the U.S. market since the financial crash, or in more recent years. I asked, and they shirked–perhaps thinking it would be bad PR. The numbers probably exist out there, if I wanted to look.

But beyond commercial questions, the Côtes de Bordeaux is home to quite a few organic and biodynamic producers, and this is what interests me most–because it’s not the region where you’d expect to find this. We visited a small biodynamic family estate called Chateau Roland la Garde, in Blaye, where a father and son have begun experimenting with amphora aging.

Amphora winemaking is traced back to the Romans, and also to Georgia, where terra cotta clay vessels called quevri are buried underground, where grapes ferment and become wine. Alice Feiring has a new book out on the subject, and I’ve never been to Georgia and neither have I adequately studied the history of amphora, so I’ll refer you to her expertise at the moment. Winemakers in France, Portugal, and the U.S. who are working with amphora have told me they love it because of its neutrality, in terms of imparting flavor on the wine. The purity of the fruit can shine through, perhaps more than with barrels, thanks to the unique porosity of the terra cotta.

Guilhaume Martin tasting us on his amphora wines
Guilhaume Martin tasting us on his amphora wines

Guilhaume Martin, the 8th generation winemaker at his family estate, Chateau Roland la Garde, which is farmed biodynamically since 2008 and organically before that, was eager to show us the amphorae in his cellar. They heard about amphora winemaking through the biodynamic community in Bordeaux, and tried it out for the first time in 2015. Since they already worked in a non-interventionist way, not adding yeasts or enzymes, or artificially stopping malolactic fermentation, they of course applied this philosophy to the amphorae wines. The wines were fermented in vats and went through malo before racking into the amphorae for aging. “The aim is to see the difference between this wine and barrels,” he told us as he siphoned Malbec from one of the terra cotta amphorae.

The vessels themselves came from a ceramicist near Narbonne, in the Languedoc, and they are unlined (sometimes beeswax lining is applied on the inside). Guilhaume and his father Bruno Martin are currently aging Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Maria Thun's lunar calendar guidebook
Maria Thun’s lunar calendar guidebook

“When people taste the wines, they can’t place it as Bordeaux,” said Guilhaume, “but my father and I feel that you have to experiment, each year.” For this family, working biodynamically means listening to the vintage, and experimenting in a natural way. “It’s just following the wine, tasting it every day. In biodynamics, you earn that each year will give you different things. Sometimes good things, sometimes bad things. But you have to do what you can with it.” There is a small group of biodynamic producers in Bordeaux, Guilhaume told us–really just a handful–and they actually collaborate to produce their preparations (herbal tinctures sprayed on the plants to prevent sickness and mildew).

The wines tasted absolutely fantastic. The purity of the fruit was undeniable, and to me there was certainly a sunny, southern French character to the juice, but as well there was a beautiful through-line of acidity that uplifted the wines. I loved the Malbec, which had a nose full of blueberries, and an earthy texture with excellent freshness and tingly tannins. To me, it was proof that Malbec is not the inferior grape as many industry professionals have come to see it, thanks to some overly oaked styles. The Cabernet Sauvignon was also spectacular: the nose was peppery, with crushed roses, and on the palate the wine was bright, racy, with fine tannins and great freshness–it reminded me of a Cru Beaujolais. The Merlot was, to me, the least interesting, perhaps because it had had slightly less time in the vessels.

Recently, Guilhaume told us, the family had discovered pieces of a 5000-year old clay amphora on the property, which they interpret as an affirmation of their experiment. Surely, there is a lot of romanticism in amphora winemaking, and perhaps our view of the past is a bit rose-colored. We like to imagine a time before this intense commercialization, when wine was a household or community good, and each block shared an acre of vines and a few primitive fermenting and aging vessels. Wine was local and natural, untouched by global preferences and marketing trends. When I see winemakers experimenting with amphora, I sense a nostalgia for this pre-modern culture, and I completely respect the drive to recreate it in the now, to showcase the potential of older materials and styles. Bordeaux has a lot of wine that’s made in a very New World style, and it’s brave of the La Garde estate to be an outlier. Hopefully we’ll see their amphora wines in the U.S. soon!