"Georgians never say they make wine: they say they are simply resurrecting it so it can walk alone on its own two feet." John Wurdeman, founder of Pheasant's Tears, Kakheti, Georgia
There are wineries, and, well, there are wineries.
With memories of my recent tour around some of the western Cape's most splendid wine estates still fresh, I was expecting the vineyards in Georgia (the former Soviet republic not the home state of Newt Gingrich) would be different. But not this different.
.I am standing amongst the vines in Nika's vineyard in Anaga in the Kakheti wine region in eastern Georgia and to be truthful, it is hard to conceive of a more desolate place. Behind me is a ramshackle village with roads so bad they devastated the minibus that was carrying me. In front are some forlorn-looking mountains though I am assured that they don't look quite so ominous when the sun is shining.
New, unused kvevri awaiting delivery
The winery itself? No start of the art steel tanks or new French oak here; instead in a shed not much bigger than the average suburban garage, huge ceramic amphorae, known as kvevri, or quevri, are buried in the ground to hold and mature the wine. This is one of the oldest and most traditional forms of wine-making in Georgia, one of the countries that lays claim to being the cradle of wine-making and a technique now making a comeback. For natural wine-makers, kvevri are perfect because in essence you put the wine into the kvevri - for several months or indeed years - without doing anything to it except maybe add a tiny bit of sulphur to prevent it going off.
I'm not the only one who finds this place tough. Vineyard owner and artist Nika Bakhia has suffered mysterious fires amongst his vines no fewer than five times. Who did it? One doesn't want to cast blame but the fact he is the only (natural) wine maker in this otherwise basic crop area and that he comes originally from western Georgia and is thus viewed as an outsider might have something to do with it. The fact he insists on using the ancient kveri method might also be a factor because Nika makes wine much better than most natural winemakers in the Kakheti region.
"Everything I make is ecological; I believe winemaking should a natural, human process, like painting or sculpture," says Nika, handing across a sample of his white Rkatsiteli - along with Mtsvane, the most widely grown white grape in Georgia) from the kvevri. The result is a raw, delicious, fresh if highly tannic wine. This last because Nika makes his whites orange: that is to say he makes them as if they were reds, with skins, pips and (occasionally) stems as well left to macerate in their own juice for months. His red (Saperavi, Georgia's best known variety) is much more approachable, but still raw and vital.
A few minutes later, when I taste the previous vintage - the Nika Saperavi 2009 - in bottle, I can see where it is going. This is a full-bodied, dark (almost black) but smooth-tannin wine that really gives a sense of where it has come from, and quite unlike anything you might buy in your local Tesco. Remarkably, this wine is made with almost zero human interference: after being left in the kvevri for a period of up to two years, it ferments naturally before being put totally unfiltered into bottles, with tiny amounts of sulphur added to prevent the wine spoiling.
Showing how its done: often grapes, stems and stalks all macerate together in the kvevri
It may seem hard to believe but Nika, who now makes 15,000 bottles a year, is almost a large professional producer by the standards of Georgia's garage-style natural wine industry, not lest because he exports to Germany and Britain, amongst other countries.
An hour or so away, near Telavi (the home of Georgia's wine-industry) Kakha's Place looks about as ideal for a natural winemaker as you could imagine, nestling by the southern slopes of the Caucasus mountains, with a river running close-by. Kakha Berishvili's Saparevi of Artana is made purely with organically grown and hard-harvested grapes. Production may be tiny but it is well regarded: his wine won top medal last year at the Tbilisi International Wine Fair.
For controversial natural wines proponent Isabelle Legeron (AKA that crazy Frenchwoman, and the only French woman to become a MW), this is all exactly how it should be. Legeron works closely with many of Georgia's natural winemakers - and is creating her own, rather good, kvevri-based Saperavi - and feels they have much to teach the broader wine world.
"This is wine as it should be - a natural living thing made with minimal human interference," she says, admitting that her views have been completely transformed since she was won over to natural wine.
"When you buy a wine from a top chateau you are led to believe you are buying terroir, a dream, but instead you are buying a manufactured thing, a concoction. I can no longer regard these great estate wines as fine wines," she says, pointing to the long list of additives that are used to do such things as speed or slow maloactic fermentation.
As one of the most vocal cheerleaders for natural wines, Legeron has attracted her fair share of critics. So too has the whole natural wine movement: Robert Parker famously called it "one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers" whilst Andrew Jefford has accused some natural winemakers of a fundamental "perversion of the ideas of naturalness" sacrificing drinkability for an ideal.
Yet the movement is now uber-fashionable: last year's Natural Wine Fair held (where else) in Borough Market was a major success. This month in London sees two natural wine fairs: RAW (organised by Legeron) and the Real Wine Fair are being held at exactly the same time (May 21-22) suggesting a fallout amongst those who organised last year's fair. Presumably, aside from personalities, presumptions about what constitutes natural wine lie at the heart of this. A glance at the wineries represented suggests RAW will feature a wider range of small, independent natural winemakers, some of which might be deemed not commercially viable by importers, whilst the Real Wine Fair is more mainstream (by natural wine standards).
Georgia will be well represented at RAW which is as it should be, because this really is natural wine making at its most fundamental.
In the village of Kardanakhi, Soliko's Place makes just 13,00 bottles of five different wines, again mostly using Rkatsiteli and Saperavi grapes. The wines here are harder going than at Nika's as they are in another natural wine-making winery I visit in a garden just outside Georgia's capital Tbilisi.
Tasting times at Soliko's Place
Again using the ancient kvevri method, with no human interference, this is winemaking at its most boutique. These are almost entirely orange wines, which really are the hardcore of the natural wine industry; no concessions are made to modernity at all. It's not so much the rough tannins, though these don't help, but the lack of finesse and the saminess that make them so hard going. I guess this is part of the deal when you are making a natural product with which you have (deliberately) not interfered, but it still seems to me a far cry from drinking wine for pleasure. My view of natural wines based on my Georgia experience? Some are interesting and accessible whilst others - particularly the orange wines - are less so, lending some truth to Parker and Jefford's accusations. But I'll be attending at least one of this month's natural wine fairs to get a broader picture of what is still very much a growing movement, particularly in France.
Below: A bend in the river: looking down on Tbilisi's old town.
Cyprus - a new star rises
Greek wine is having its moment in the sun right now, with wine lovers everywhere warming to an industry transformed, characterised by quality wines made in small volume with often rare indigenous grapes. All a far cry from the cheap Demestica and retsina that once characterised Greek wine.
But what of Cypriot wines? These used to be notorious for being large volume and not very good, aimed mainly at undiscriminating British tourists also keen on “Cyprus sherry” and were often exported in bulk to other European markets. The high points were Othello red and Aphrodite white, bland, rather thin offerings made by Keo, one of the big four volume producers on the island and responsible for its equally lacklustre beer.
Well, a tasting of Cyprus wines in London last week demonstrated that things have moved on. A lot. Three of the Big 4 were there (Keo, SODAP and Etko: the fourth, Loel, was mercifully absent) and demonstrated that their penchant for making underwhelming wine has not deserted them – though, to be fair, some of Keo and particularly SODAP's offerings are decent and represent good value for money.
But fortunately their influence within the industry is much less than it was, thanks to the EU, which has paid Cyprus to pull up many of its uneconomic vineyards. This has encouraged producers to make better wine, a shift reinforced by the rising cost of coastal land, which has forced production into the hills where growing conditions are much better, and the fierce heat of mid-summer much less intense. Producers such as Keo and Sodap used to base their operations on or near the coast: no longer, and their wines are better for it.
But the stars of this show were not the old guard, but the dynamic, well-travelled and adventurous new guard, though you had to cut through chaff to find them. The Cyprus government's decision to pay for the wineries attendance at this event, rather than making them pay for themselves, meant there were producers present who frankly shouldn't have been, including one who cheerfully told me he made his rose by blending his white and red wines.
The wine industry in Cyprus is still evolving, which means the writing is on the wall for some of these producers, as the flight towards quality continues. But there are still challenges: the dull variety Mavro still accounts for almost 50% of the grapes grown. Reassuringly, some 25% of grapes are Xinisteri, Cyprus' signature white, but just 2.5% are Maratheftiko, the signature, hard to grow red, whose cultivation is made all the more difficult because it doesn't self pollinate. However any producer concerned with quality will make a Maratheftiko, and not just because it rhymes with Cyprus's signature lamb dish, kleftiko. Used properly, this indigenous variety can produce a deep rich and complex wine with pretty decent ageing potential. Lovers of native varieties are in for another treat here, because a few of the top producers have started cultivating an entirely new – but in fact very old variety that was thought extinct – called Yiannoudi. Another plus: Commanderia, Cyprus's legendary dark sweet “communion” wine beloved by such historic notables as Richard the Lionheart, is still going strong with many of the newer producers making lighter, more aromatic examples to contrast against traditional heavy favourites as made by the likes of Keo.
So what are the names of producers and wines to look out for?
Of the former, there were five stand outs. Argyrides Vineyards, who make a zingy, full-flavored Viognier and an equally decent Maratheftiko but which are currently unavailable here; the Vasilikon Winery, whose Xynisteri and bold, full-bodied multigrape blend Agios Onoufrios are well worth seeking out (wines are imported by Ampeli); Kyperounda, whose Petritis Xynisteri was one of the best wine on show (aging for three months in small oak barrels gives this grape a great opportunity to show its full potential; and Zambertas, which like Kyperounda, is imported by Berry Bros, but had a wider range of its wines on show including the impressive Zambertas Marathetiko and a full on, fruit driven blend of Lefkada (another local grape) and Shiraz. This winery, founded 10 years ago by Akis Zambertas, but now run largely by his well-travelled son Marcos and his wife Marleen, and based in the Troodos Mountains, now makes 80,000 bottles of well-packaged but well made wine that should be a benchmark for other producers.
Slightly larger is the Tsiakkas Winery, run by former banker Costas Tsiakas and imported into the UK by Amathus Drinks. Although mainly focused on white – the Xynisteri here is a full on example of the grape – for me the most impressive wine on show was the Yiannoudi 2013, a full-bodied, multi-layered wine that suggests this rediscovered variety does have ageing potential.
So is it worth hunting out these wines? There are real points of difference in the Xynisteri, the Maratheftiko wines and the two Yiannoudis I tasted (the other, a 2015 was produced by the Vlassides Winery). All generally well made, with good tannins, fruit and some serious complexity, they suggest that Cyprus' long-anticipated viticultural renaissance is definitely ongoing, and well worth checking out.
Revisiting Cyprus Wine
"I'll have a glass of Xinisteri, she'll have some Spourtico and we'll follow with a bottle of your finest Maratheftiko."
OK, this isn't something you often hear in Cyprus restaurants - the names of the island's best indigenous grape varieties are hard to pronounce even before you've tasted them and restaurants are still relatively ignorant about wine- but if you want to taste the best Cyprus's fast improving wine industry has to offer, start practising now.
Not long ago Cyprus wine meant one of the adequate but rather dull mass produced offferings of the four big producers Loel, Etko, Sodap and Keo (whose red Othello and white Aphrodite were probably the best of the bunch) or a glass of the famous sweet desert wine Commanderia, whose fame dates back to the Crusades; the wine was reputedly Richard the Lionheart's favorite.
However things have moved on and wine makers - inspired by the revolution in Greece, which saw a mass move away from Retsina and Demestica in the 1990s - have woken up to the potential that lies in their grapes, and in their soil. The big four all now make boutique wines, many of them excellent (Keo's Cabernet Sauvignon and its Heritage Maratheftiko, made by its Ktima Mallia winery are examples).
There are now some 60 wineries in Cyprus, including tiny producers who make wine from free run juice out of their own farm or house, although most larger quality wine producers are based near Paphos and Limassol. Many - notably the beautifully located Vouni Panayia winery, located just down from Paniya, Archbishop Makarios's home town and near the must-see Chrysorrpgiatissa Monastery (which also makes wine) - do tastings in a big way, with lunch and snacks also on offer. Others operate from more modest surroundings: the Fikardos Winery - which produces a range of some 15 wines - is based in an industrial park in Paphos, whilst the Antoniades winery in Mandria operates out of tiny premises in the lower Troodos. Not one to miss a trick, the Cyprus Tourism Organisation has just produced a new booklet promoting six delineated wine trails, all supported by signs along the roads.
So where to start? The Limassol wine festival - held early September - has become an annual fixture in the tourist calender and is well worth visiting, although the Big Four producers dominate here. If time permits, get into a car - preferably with someone else driving - and follow a route. If not, start tasting some wine. Winemakers make blends and single varietal wines from most intenational grape varieties, including chardonnay, semillion, carignan, shiraz and mouvedre (mataro) all of which do well under the hot Cyprus sun.
However to get a proper feel of what makes Cyprus wine distinct, stick with the indigenous varieties: Kanella, Ophtalmo and Promara are all used, usually in blends. Mavro, a high yielding, rather average quality red grape, is more common, used along with white Xinesteri, in Commanderia, but quality-conscious producers are increasingly dumping it in favout of Maratheftiko, Cyprus's red answer to Chilean Carmenere or Argentinian Malbec. Hard to handle and often tough to get really good results, at its best this grape produces rich, deeply textured wine with plenty of rich berry fruit, warn spice and liquorice. Fine examples are made by Fikardos, although its current 2008 vintage is still too young, Zambartas (whose 2009 was amongst the best I tasted) Ezouza Winery's Eros - actually a rose made from 100% Maratheftiko - and Vouni Panayia's Baba Yiannis Maratheftiko 2004 grown at 1000 metres and a superb, full bodied example. The wine is actually named after the wineries founder Andreas Kyriakides who previously spent 15 years as head of oenology in the government's wine standards commission and reportedly rediscovered this ancient grape some 20 years ago. Xinisteri, a white grape which produces wines akin to a Semillon-Sauvignon blend, is easier to find, and many wineries make pretty acceptable examples. Again, Fikardos and Vouni Panayia do well though, the former with its market leading Amalthia, blended with 15% Semillon. The other indigenous grape worth seeking out is Spourtico, which makes light, mildly perfumed, low alcohol wines ideally suited to Cyprus climate. The downside though is that it is so temperamental few winemakers want to work with it. Cyprus wines remain good value, with decent bottles costing around Euro 10 a bottle, retail. Consider taking some home: most of these wines are produced in such small quantities that they are rarely available outside the island. You can also have lots of fun getting guests to pronounce the grape varieties.