Tag: Georgia

What terroir? Finding authenticity in wine



Tree in vineyard in Georgia


It’s that French word that’s regularly brandished left and right by wine folk when they want to talk about a wine’s sense of place. It’s a word that embodies everything from geography, geology to climate. It’s all encompassing when it comes to the identity of wine.

Terroir is certainly helpful when a wine is too boring to stand up on its own two legs. It’s definitely useful when creating individuality out of homogeny. And it’s all too easy to throw out there as a catch-all when you have nothing else to say about the wine.

Of course every wine has to come from somewhere but the reality of modern wine making means that, like this word which didn’t exist in wine lexicon several centuries past, a wine’s roots have become obscured.


A brief vine history

Purple grapes

With the collaborative efforts of archaeologists and grape geneticists, we have come to a conclusion that the original vines came from the Caucasus. It’s a vast region that includes modern day Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. It’s said to be the first place in the world where wild vines were domesticated, cultivated and made into wines.

Indeed, there is the only place that you will find indigenous grape varieties too numerous to count. It’s in the thousands in case you’re interested. For everywhere else, the first vines were introduced through colonisation or trade.

Whether it was by accident or on purpose, we began making wines for ourselves and according to our own tastes. When Pliny the Elder wrote about wines from a certain place, he meant it could have come from nowhere else. Such is the distinctive style.

These ancient wines were nothing like the sort we see today. Mixed grapes, berries, herbs, spices and a multitude of other “preservatives” were added to these “wines” which would then be cut with fresh or sea water and sweetened with honey before consumption.

With so little manipulation in the vineyard and in the winery, and no talk of international grape varieties, or indeed grape varieties at all, these wines really did have terroir. Even if the resulting liquids were highly adulterated and nothing like their modern day equivalent.


Wine making in the modern day

Wine cellar in Georgia


Wine making today is much more sophisticated, not least in grape varietal selection but also in the actual wine making process. Gone is the art of wine making, it’s the era of science now.

For the modern wine maker, there’s a myriad of ways in which they can make the sort of wine they want, almost anywhere in the world.

While a grape’s variety and growing conditions will affect the resulting wine, so too will careful planting (selecting the right location and direction of planted vine), vine training (manipulating the vine’s direction of growth) and canopy management (trimming of the shoots and green grapes). In fact, there are so many things that you could do in the vineyard before you come to making the actual wine that even grapes from the same plot of land could produce very different styles of wines.

Before getting to the actual vinification process (wine making), decisions have to be made about when the grapes are harvested; how or whether they’re pressed; and whether the berries are sorted, from unripe to ripe and from leaves and stems.

Finally, in the winery, there are choices about whether the wine is fermented in a barrel or tank; what kind of barrel and what kind of tank; do you add yeast and if so what strain; does it go through secondary fermentation; is the wine aged, how and for how long; do you add additional wines, acid or sugar etc.


Losing terroir?

Blending experiment, Talisker, Isle of Skye

The choices available to winemakers have increased the wines available to us today. The wide spectrum gives us the choice that we’ve always craved, enabling us to match wine to food, occasion and even mood.

But this choice has also taken something away. A wine’s sense of place. Or its terroir, if you will.

There’s no longer just one place that could and does produce any particular style of wine. Why else would we get confused about Old World and New World wines in blind tastings?

The names of the wine regions may be protected but the actual wine styles are not so how can we talk of terroir when two almost identical wines could be found on opposite sides of the planet?

Choice, it seems, exists but it’s two of a kind.


Romancing terroir

Man by grape crusher at Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in Georgia

There is something to be said about terroir though – the idea of it is terribly romantic.

In Georgia, I had a fling with terroir.

There, the wines, made with indigenous grape varieties in Qvevris (clay vessels with a pointy base) buried up to the rim, were as close as to the ancient wines as they come.

After harvest the hand-picked grapes would be crushed and placed into the vessels, stem and all. The opening of the Qvevri would then be covered with a slate slab that’s sealed with wet sand, ensuring close to air-tight conditions inside the container. The grape juice, skin, stem and pips are left to macerate and ferment for up to six months, and often longer, until wine is produced. The result is an ultra-natural wine with nothing added and nothing taken away.

At the Pheasant’s Tears’ “cellar”, I had my first taste of Qvevri wines – a red wine made with Saperavi grapes.

It was confusing. And surreal.

Outside were undulating rows of vines, laden heavily with bunches of fruit, vying for the soft glow of the setting sun. Small plots of vineyards were interspersed with pomegranate trees bejewelled with ruby fruit, ripe to the point of splitting.

Inside, a sealed Qvevri, some months into fermentation, was carefully pried open revealing a heavy purple crown. The mass of grape skin and stems had to be pushed down with a wooden cross paddle attached to a long stick to reveal the wine. The wine itself was made according to thousands of years of tradition with indigenous grapes. No fashionable international grape varieties, no fancy wine making equipment, no talk of terroir. All very laissez faire.

Bending down and holding on to the sides, and with great fear of falling in, I managed to scoop up a little of the wine in a shallow clay bowl. Despite being careful to push away the skin, a little had gotten in.

I had a weary sip, conscious of other unseen foreign objects that might be floating around in the wine. Evidently I was more familiar with the hyper-sterile conditions in modern wine making than this rustic approach to things.

The wine had an intensity that I couldn’t have imagined. The perfume was an intoxicating blend of fruit and floral while the dark, cool liquid tasted distinctively of grape juice with uncanny layers of berry and structure that could only come from wine. It was vibrant. And alive.

What gave this wine an incredible sense of “terroir” was not geography, geology or climate but a sense of place. A sense of here, now, this.

Right there and then, it was undeniable was that this wine could be made nowhere else.

And yet, what if I had sampled it in a sterile tasting room with polished tasting glass where I could discern the colour as deep purple, the bouquet as blackberry with a hint of spice and its lengthy finish as carried all the way to the end by copious amounts of fruit and, at the time, low tannins?

I imagine I would probably have said that it was a very distinguished wine but without the wow factor. At least not the kind I experienced in the midst of all the action in Georgia. After all, Qvevri wines are now made in Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland amongst others.


It’s time to get real

Laurent Perrier Tous Les Sense at Massimo, The Corinthia, London

Wine making today is too market driven for the sort of authenticity of terroir that Pliny wrote about.

Vines are planted in regions that would have been impossible without modern viticulture. Grapes are selected not because they have any connection with their locale but because they are popular on dining tables on the other side of the globe. Wines are made according to a brief that will sit comfortably anywhere in the world and not just its immediate environs.

The wines themselves are all too often approaching homogeny because individual styles of a region are forsaken in pursuit of a common goal – fame on the world’s stage. With increasing globalisation, terroir should no longer be taken to mean a sense of place but rather, a wine making style because that’s the only thing left that really distinguishes one wine from another.

The romantic terroir, the mark of authenticity, that we so enjoyed embracing? It can only be found when we rediscover our own identities and our own wine styles.

Georgia on my mind, Georgia for the wine

Man by grape crusher at Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in Georgia

Somewhere in the back of my mind was always the idea that knowledge should have solid foundations; maybe it’s a philosophical thing about justified true beliefs or maybe it’s the way I’ve always been taught. But when I began exploring wines more extensively, it seemed apt to start from its origins – Anatolia.

Often referred to as Asia Minor, Anatolia is the ancient region comprising the modern day countries of Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. A place that’s fertile in soil, accommodating in climate and rich in cultural history, Anatolia has been shown by scientists and archaeologists alike to be the oldest region in the world where grapes have been cultivated and wines produced.

With hundreds of varietals and thousands of years of wine making history, where do I start?

I travelled to Georgia to begin my journey.

Hailed as the cradle of wine, and that of natural wines in particular, Georgia claims to boast some 8,000 years of history in wine making. With a plethora of indigenous varietals and a landscape of terroirs, the scope for interesting and unique wines is a connoisseur’s dream. Wine is also an integral part of Georgian culture and economy and the thing which links the country’s history to its present day affairs.

The majority of Georgians make wine at home for personal consumption but it also helps to ease the economic burden of regular toastings during Supras (Georgian feasts). After all, no guest is truly welcomed until they’ve experienced the hospitality of a Georgian fare complete with toasts made by the Tamada (toastmaster). Naturally, no toast would be complete without wine and Georgians are very hospitable people.

As a nation, Georgia also made wines for export. In fact, wine was consistently one of the top three products for export. During the Soviet era, its wines were distributed across the rest of the USSR and was recognised as being of the highest quality. After the dissolution of the USSR, Georgian wines continued their popularity in Russia and Central Asia. Over 80% of the wines exported from Georgia went to Russia so it came as no surprise that when Russia banned all import and sale of Georgian wines, the two came to blows.

Georgia is no stranger to conflict of course – its history is peppered with battles. It is said that the statue of Kartlis Deda in the capital Tblisi bears a bowl of wine in her left hand to greet those who come as friends and a sword in her right for those who come as enemies – the perfect personification of Georgian character.

But it was really the traditional Georgian method of wine production that caught my eye and enticed me to learn more.

Qvevris, giant handmade vessels of rounded clay amphora with a pointed base and no handles, are buried up to the rim in the earth. Crushed grapes – stems, pips, skins and juice all go straight into the qvevri which is then covered by a stone slab and sealed with wet sand. The subterranean conditions maintain a stable temperature in the qvevri and fermentation occurs thanks to the natural yeast found on the grapes.

Six months to a year later, occasionally even longer, natural wine is produced – nothing added, nothing taken away.

Wines produced in this way are very different to its European-style counterparts. Red wines, typically made with Saperavi grapes, produce a deep plum stain. White wines, made with Rkatsiteli grapes alone or blended with Mtsvani grapes, take on an auburn hue. Then of course there’s the spectrum of colours created by the other indigenous varietals. Tasting the wines straight out of the qvevri at the Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in Kakheti, it’s impossible to deny the vibrancy of the fruit and natural sweetness of the wine. And there’s really few phrases which would describe that feeling well, except perhaps “the overwhelming sense of being alive”.

Is it just because it’s a natural wine? Having tasted a sizeable selection of other natural wines and  non-qvevri Georgian wines, I’m not so sure. There was definitely something about the qvevri which gave the wine its special characteristic, unrepresented anywhere else. Perhaps that’s why qvevri wine production has gained increasing popularity outside of Georgia with Josko Gravner in Italy being one of the most well known amongst the international wine crowd. Sadly, production and export is so limited that it’s extremely rare to find qvevri wines for sale.

Returning from Georgia, my mind was filled with abstract ideas on wine – the trip has certainly whetted my appetite. Tours around Pheasant’s Tears vineyard, Schuchmann Winery, Twins Old Cellar and Alaverdi Monastery all offered detail and perspective on the Georgian wine story. But have I found the wine grounding I was looking for? Perhaps a little, but mostly on natural wines.

I was sure of one thing though – my next learning destination will be Turkey, a lesser known wine destination offering even more indigenous varietals.

See more photos from Georgia here

(First seen on BespokeRSVP)

Terroirs Wine Bar, Covent Garden, Review

5 William IV Street, London WC2N 4DW www.terroirswinebar.com

Terroirs menu

Terroirs is the sort of place that you’re warned away from if someone you know despises natural wines. That’s the only sort of wine it serves you see. The determined deterrence is not necessarily because the wine is bad but rather, it’s out of principle and perhaps ignorance. The truth of it is that wine, whether natural or not, can be good or bad. Terroirs, equally, offered a sizeable selection of wines, some of which shone brilliantly whilst others were much less impressive.

Having recently returned from a wine trip to Georgia, the cradle of wine, and in particular, natural wines, I’ve found myself gaining an affinity for this contentious product. Listening to the likes of Alice Feiring and Isabelle Legeron talk about their love of natural wines, how of the hundreds of thousands of wines they have tasted during their careers, the natural ones were the most vibrant and limitless, I couldn’t help but be impressed by their enthusiasm.

While it’s true that a natural wine will never stand the test of ageing because of the ultra-low levels of preservatives present, it is also true that the minimal chemical intervention helps the characteristics of the grape, the terroir, the weather and numerous other contributing factors in the wine making process to develop in the final wine. There’s a market for fine vintages with complex characteristics but there’s also a market for wines for drinking right now, which equally deserves to be something other than bland and homogeneous. And that is what the appreciation for natural wines is largely about, and perhaps Terroirs too.

Back to the restaurant – it’s more of a wine establishment than a restaurant really but a fellow journalist with a love of natural wines suggested it for dinner. Partly owned by Les Caves de Pyrène, the biggest importer of natural wines to the UK, Terroirs always gave me the impression that it was just a wine bar. While there is a bar in the restaurant to lean to with your drink and bar snack, they also have space on three levels for diners who are looking for something a bit more substantial.

A bit more is probably the operative phrase here though – the food is more or less a side serving to the wine with majority of the menu made up of cheeses, charcuterie and small plates. The food was good though. Really good. And seasonal too.

Dining with a reasonable appetite, we opted for a serving of pumpkin, chestnut and parmesan soup each plus duck rillette and pigs trotters with celeriac remoulade to share. The pumpkin soup was lusciously smooth, richly creamy and well contrasted with the nutty, sweet crumble of the chestnut. Pigs trotters, perhaps a little too rich as the last thing to arrive, made for sumptuous comfort eating. The thing that really excited, though, was the duck rillette. Intensely flavoured and well textured, it wholly satisfied the game rillette craving which I’ve been harbouring for some two weeks.

The wines we sipped as we supped was a selection of white and sparkling, all available by the glass. The 2009 Thierry Germain Bulles de Roches Saumur Brut was a particular favourite while the 2010 Cascna degli Ulivi Bellotti Bianco didn’t fare so well. The other two wines, 2010 Domaine du Moulin Pet Nat Bulles Rosé and 2010 Bodegas Ameztoi Txacoli de Guetaria, lied somewhere in the middle of the two, towards the positive. There it was, the good and not so good of natural wines.

With talk of wines, food and juxtapositions of the two, we could have happily stayed and indulged in our romantically framed window seats for a few more glasses. But with a running tab of some £60 and adventures with a travelling bar planned, it was time to pay up. Besides, the elegant service allowed a young night of interesting landscapes to navigate for a pair of girls in the most fabulous of heels.

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