Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"Snooth": A reverence for Georgia wines

by Christy Canterbury MW*

20.05.2015. Wine geeks are sometimes told to lighten-up. Wine is “just a drink”; “just a grocery”. When it comes to serving whites at 42 °F versus 47 °F  [5 °C and 8 °C respectively - HN], matching wines to specific glasses and pairing Assyrtiko rather than Sauvignon Blanc with crudo, I agree. However, I suggest you don’t tell a Georgian to chill about wine. In this dramatically rugged Caucasus Mountains country, wine is holy. And not just the communion wine.

Wine is part of the Georgians’ sacred trinity, along with the motherland and the mother language. It is so holy, I feared expectorating (or as lightened-up folk say, spitting) at a wine-producing monastery. When I persisted in doing so later on my eight-day trek through eastern Georgia’s Kakheti region, I received some disapproving looks.

While all wine is revered, those made in qvevri (pronounced kwev-ri) are the most precious. Qvevri are fired clay vessels lined with beeswax that look like super-sized amphora. They are easily 1,000 liters large and are buried in the earth for fermenting and aging wine.

One of the reasons qvevri wines resonate so strongly with Georgians is that this winemaking tradition dates back 8,000 years. That’s a lot of harvests! That’s also the reason Georgia is called the “cradle of wine”, even if neighboring Armenia and Turkey dispute that title.

Modern style wines are made there as well. I like tasting modern wines to see the purer side of local grape varieties. It’s a striking contrast that in modern winemaking we generally think of old, neutral vessels as giving a purer grape expression. With qvevri – whether new or old – both vessel and winemaking can radically change grape expression.

Georgian wines are beginning to trickle into the US. To encourage the flow, pick up a few today!

PS: The two Pheasant’s Tears wines were qvevri fermented.

Bagrationi 1882 NV Semi-Sweet Red
Apparently mentioned in a later edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, this legendary sparkling wine house makes many styles. This deeply-colored bubbly based on the native Saperavi has considerable sweetness that is smartly balanced by bright acidity and a touch of tannin. It was my fave!

Marani 2011 Tsinandali
This white blend of 85% Rkatsitelli and 15% Mtsvane is the best-known Georgian wine in the world. At Marani, this medium-bodied wine is fermented in stainless steel then partially aged in oak barrels. Its nose resembles the wet wool and bruised apples of Chenin Blanc along with yellow peaches and straw.

Pheasant’s Tears 2013 Chinuri Kartli 
This skin-contact white wine is pale gold. Its nose smells of beeswax, honeysuckle and lemon pith. Medium-bodied with a firmly dry finish, it’s a wine for the table rather than aperitivo time. Chinuri means “coming from China”, but this is definitively considered a Caucasus Mountains variety today!

Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Shavkapito Kartli
This unique, charcoal black-colored red shows aromas of mulberries and plum jam along with leathery notes. Its dry tannins and perky acidity make it a bit tight, but that works out well with hearty meat dishes.

* Christy Canterbury MW is a journalist, speaker and judge, based in New York. She also writes for Decanter, Wine Enthusiast, Food Arts, Santé and Sommelier Journal and has contributed to two books (HN)

    Georgian Wine Catalogue      
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