Volcanic Wines – You'll Lava them
There's been an eruption of interest in volcanic wines. No really there has, and to prove it the Institute of Masters of Wine this month held a seminar/tasting specifically devoted to them. And what an event it was – some 55 wines from around the world whose only common denominator was that they were all grown in soils defined as volcanic, with the notion being that this imparts a taste, aroma and/or character to the wine that it might not otherwise have.
Wine geeks have to have some understanding of soil, and how different soil-types can influence a wine's character. Anyone who has tasted wines made with identical grape varieties, by the same winemaker, but with one grown in say, alluvial soil and another in granite or limestone will know of the impact soil has on a wine's character. But assessing wines grown on volcanic soil – which is known, amongst other things for its fertility and for being high in such minerals as magnesium, iron and calcium – takes elementary geology to a whole new level.
“Each volcano has its own distinct characteristics which affects the chemical composition of the soil,” says Charles Frankel, a specialist on the geology of vineyards, who has researched the terroir of numerous famous volcanoes. “For example, Santorini's soils are potassium poor whilst those of Vesuvius are potassium rich.”
So just what should you be looking for in a Volcanic wine? Along with a certain salinity (or is that just me?) sulphur seems pretty obvious and Frankel admits that “when I smell sulphur from volcanoes I think about wine and when I smell sulphur in wine I think about volcanoes.”
But there's something rather more than that. I wasn't quite sure what I was expecting from the wines on show at this tasting despite being pretty familiar with some Volcanic wines already, notably Etna DOC wines (Italy enthusiasts will be familiar with the current popularity of Nerello Mascalase and Nerello Cappuccio, from which its reds are made) and Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio (the tears of Christ, grown on the sea-facing side of the famous volcano which wiped out Pompeii in 79 AD). There are also the famous white Assyrtiko wines from Santorini, which many archaeologists argue may have been home to the lost civilisation of Atlantis before it exploded in BC1646. Tokaji wines are also famously grown on volcanic soil, as are many Soave wines from the Veneto.
Jolene Hunter, the South African born winemaker at Domaine Zind Humbrecht in Alsace's southern-most vineyard Rangen – which was classified as a Grand Cru Vineyard in 1983 - says the volcanic terroir of this south-facing vineyard completely dominates whichever wine variety is being grown.
“Wines made here have a higher PH value (typically around 3.6) which brings a greater density to the wines,” she says, pointing to the 2010 Pinot Gris Ranger Clos Saint Urbain in which she also detects flint and a certain peat smokiness.
So would you be able to taste volcanic characteristics in a wine if you hadn't known it came from a volcanic area? Sarah Abbot MW isn't sure.
“In all these wines there are other things going on, which give them character and flavour; the weather, the winemakers skill, lots of things. I'm not so sure you can ascribe everything you are tasting purely to the volcanic soil,” she says.
But the only sure way is to try for yourself. These were some of the most distinctive wineries from the tasting, many of them using indigenous and occasionally resurrected local grapes, although – be warned – some wines are pretty scarce.
Domaine Zind Humbrecht (Alsace) – Almost all the Rangen wines made by this producer are delicious and have wonderful longevity, but the Pinot Gris is in a class of its own. The current, 2010 vintage is already tasting well, with lots of flinty white fruit flavours, but to get an idea of how these wines develop get hold of an earlier vintage: the 2001 already shows wonderful depth.
Domaine Schoffit (Alsace) – One of the region's most exciting producers, the Grand Cru Rangen Riesling 2013, Pinot Gris 2010 and Gewurztraminer 2013 are all strongly recommended with a wonderful sense of terroir and guaranteed longevity.
Antonio Macanita (The Azores) – One of Portugal's most dynamic young winemakers has been producing a range of wines in these windswept island for some years now, most notably reviving an almost extinct variety, Terrantez do Pico to wonderful effect (although just 646 bottles were made in 2014). His Arinto dos Azores 2014 is also delicious.
Hatzidakis Winery (Santorini) – Judging by the speed with which these samples were drunk, and the mutterings from those tasting it, the Assyrtiko de Mylos was the most popular wine here. However its red counterpart, made from the rare Mavrotragano grape (just 2% of the wine produced on the island) is also well worth tracking down.
Suertes del Marques (Tenerife) – Produced in the shadow of Mount Teide, the third largest island volcano in the world, Vidonia, made from 100% Listan Blanco, is a remarkable, characterful and saline wine, as is its wonderfully structured red brother El Circuelo made from (what else) 100% Listan Negro.
Karl H Johner (Baden) – The Pinot Noirs made by this progressive producer in Germany's Kaiserstuhl just get better; the Pinot Noir SJ 2012 is tasting really well, reflecting this region's highly expressive volcanic soil.
Cayuse Vineyards (Washington State) – According to my notes the soil in which these wines are made (at the tasting, the delicious En Cerise Vineyard Syrah and the almost as impressive God Only Knows Armada Vineyard Grenache) sit atop 10,000 feet of pure basalt “one of the largest areas of basalt lava on earth”, in the Walla Walla region: these are wonderfully deep, mature and expressive wines with PH levels around 3.85. Imported by Berry Bros.
Also worth hunting out but not at the tasting is the appropriately named Volcano (2013) a 100% organic viognier from the volcanic Damianitza vineyards in Bulgaria (www.vaskovino.co.uk). Just £11.99, and – apologies for the pun – erupting with flavour. Although nature has lent a hand – this wine has the density that volcanic soil seems to impart – it also demonstrates just how far Bulgarian wine has come in the last few years.
It really is one of the great mysteries of modern wine retailing: why hasn't the huge critical acclaim accorded to Portuguese wines translated into either higher shelf sales or wider recognition amongst the wine-buying public?
The critical acclaim, if anything, gets ever louder. Enthusiasts point to the huge regional diversity (crisp Vinho Verde whites from the north, right down to hefty Alentejo reds from the south with intriguing, complex and well-made wines made in the regions in between), the remarkable value for money (something on which Portugal has always delivered) and of course, the vast array of indigenous grapes used, either in blends or increasingly (in a nod to the new world) as single varietal wines. Last year Wine Spectator made Portugal a major cover-story (“Tradition and Modernity partner on a wine-making frontier”) and three Portuguese wines made the magazine's Top 10 Wines of 2014, including the top spot.
And for their part, Portuguese winemakers have been their damnest to boost their profile here. This year's bustling Wines of Portugal tasting, held earlier in March, was well attended, with more exhibitors than ever before and more visitors – around 750, according to organisers. Portuguese wine exports to the UK grew some 4% last year in a declining market – the overall still wine market contracted by 2% - with consumers buying better: over the last four years, ViniPortugal reckons the overall value of DOC wine exports to the UK rose almost 20% over the past four years.
But figures are figures and the impression remains that amongst the wine-buying public, or most of it, Portugal remains something of a blank slate. Those of a certain age may remember the 1970s ubiquity of Mateus Rose or if they spent time in the US, of Lancer's (though maybe more for the distinctive shaped bottles than the taste of what was inside them). And on rare warm summer days, a crisp, low alcohol lightly fizzy wine from Vinho Verde might be chosen over the inevitable Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc, but that's about it.
So what's the problem? A lack of image, complicated labelling, the fact that the industry used to be coop driven, unpronounceable names on the wine label and a focus on blends that goes against the (new-world driven) trend.
It's pretty hard to argue with any of these, but the real reasons go even deeper. The relatively small scale, low yield nature of most Portuguese wine-making means it can never hope to compete with countries that have large producers able to take advantage of economies of scale, and can then build competitively priced, easy drinking and clearly identifiable brands on the top of this.
“The truth is we cannot produce for the mass market in the same way as Spain; our yields are typically much lower and we have higher production cost levels. Essentially we remain a nation of small vineyards and wineries,” says Jorge Monteiro, President of ViniPortugal.
Nuno Cabral, a senior area manager for the renowned Esporao winery in the Alentejo echoes this, adding that Portugal's small production profile is echoed by its distributional one.
“Most of our international Distribution is based on small Distributors that can work well with on trade and independents but do not have the scale to negotiate with the main retail chains that have a proper dynamic,” he says. “Although our size and strategy is not mass market and the On Trade and Specialists Distribution are the reality, that doesn’t mean that we do not wish to have a presence in the Retail.”
Monteiro says that if the country cannot compete on price then it must compete on quality and on what makes it unique – the fact it is a living museum of indigenous grape varieties, many of which are highly regional within this relatively small country. This explains why ViniPortugal has adopted what at first glance look like quirky marketing messages - “A World of Difference”, “Challenge Your Senses,” “Enjoy the Unique” and my favourite, “Some make wines while otehrs make history”- but which given Portuguese realities, actually make perfect sense. Yet Monteiro admits it hasn't been plain sailing.
“The quality of our wine is high but so it is in wine from other places. Our message to consumers is that they should try our wines not because they are cheaper or better but because they are different, and this is because there our wine regions provide a mosaic of grapes. It has been hard to work this message in the UK in particular, probably because there are so many other wines on the market,” he says.
Ironically however, it would appear that Portugal's wealth in varieties and their strong regionality have also contributed to poor profile. If you think of Spanish red, you think Tempranillo, Spanish white, maybe Verdejo or Airen; if you think of a NZ white, Sauvignon Blanc springs to mind, reds, probably Pinot Noir. Portugal has had some success in promoting Touriga Nacional, as its flagship national signature red: despite its origins in the Dao or Douro (depending on who you speak to), TN is now grown in most parts of the country and does very well in the Alentejo) Yet this hasn't worked with white wines, which accounts for around 30% of the wine produced in a typical year), because even more than red, white grapes are regional, and are almost always blended.
“Large production of white wine in Portugal is relatively new and none of the varieties grow well in all the regions,” he says. Arinto comes pretty close but remains concentrated in the north; alvarinho is produced in relatively small quantities and will anyway be always identified with Spain's albarino and Maria Gomes/Fernao Pires probably sounds too much like your elderly Iberian next door neighbour to appeal to the Pinot Grigio/Sauvignon Blanc set.
Monteiro says Portugal is looking to a “second wave of grapes” within the industry in the hope of developing a good stand alone variety that grows well across the board. I suggest that Encruzado, a versatile and well-balanced Dao grape, would be a good candidate for a national white, but Monteiro won't be drawn, saying more research needs to be done.
In the meantime, Portugal looks destined to remain something of a niche player, albeit one beloved by those in the know. Miguel Buccellato, of Hedonism Wines in London's Mayfair reports growing interest in Portuguese reds in particular, with consumers attracted by their style, high quality and value for money. He says the “sense of history” associated with many of the wines is another bonus.
For Esporao's Cabral, word of mouth and the inevitable albeit gradual recognition of Portugal's strengths, will boost its profile.
“Consumers that try our wines in a restaurant or specialized shop or on a trip to Portugal, recognize they are over delivering and bring memorable experiences. A natural consequence of this will be an increase in distribution and retail sales.”
Gorgeous Georgia: Cradle of Wine
Wine enthusiasts - even more than travellers - are always searching for something different, for wines that combine character, place and substance, ideally at a price that won't break the bank. Georgia is an ideal candidate. One of the world's first Christian countries was also the earliest producer of wine, mastering viticulture at a time most people in Europe were living in mud huts: wine-making here has been traced back some 8000 years.
The good news is that these traditions survive with many wine-makers still making wines in large clay pots (kveri) and placing them in the ground to ensure a constant temperature, before extracting them with a giant syringe. The result is usually a fresh, full-bodied and distinctly different tasting wine that is almost certainly different to any wine you have tasted before.
Although Georgia has around 525 grape varieties, many indigenous, only 40 are produced with the main focus - quite rightly - on Saperavi, Georgia's full-bodied and character-full answer to Malbec. Depending on the style in which its made this grape has various incarnations and names; for example, Satrapezo is fermented in clay amphoras before being put into conventional barrels whilst Mukuzani is oak-aged for longer than other Saperavis. Leading white varietals are Rkatsiteli - zesty and fruity on the nose and palate - and the more subdued, Chenin Blanc-like Mtsvane.
Yet despite all this welcome variety in grapes and styles, and the pressure generated by having the Russian market closed by Moscow's economic blockade, getting Georgian wines onto western shelves has proved no easy matter.
The British in particular are preoccupied with price with the overwhelming majority of wines here sold in supermarkets for less than £5. Although Georgia makes some excellent wines at good prices, trying to compete with mass-produced, branded wines from South Africa or Australia is not an option. The problem is not one of low volume but rather high fragmentation. Kakheti may be the principal wine region, but within it are many producers who have clear ideas of how to make a good wine, but not how to market to countries where the competition is so vast, let alone deal with tough negotiators like Tesco. The fact Georgian wine companies produce a huge range of wines rather than the few made by big producers in other countries further muddies the waters. Telavi, one of the largest, produces around 50 different wines according to Helen Smith of UK wine importer Gaumajos, making it hard for beginners to know where to start.
"Winemakers need to work together to promote Georgian wine as a product and to know what works, so they can work out where to put their money," she argues. Smith adds there is also a credibility challenge, especially amongst consumers with long memories of buying poor quality Bulgarian and Hungarian wine in the 1990s.
"Nine or ten pounds - which is what many of our wines cost - is not expensive for wines of such character and quality, but many consumers have negative associations with east Europe. Being used to paying £5 a bottle, they also need to be convinced it is worth paying the extra," she says.
Recognising wine's potential importance to the economy, Georgian Wine Association director Tinatin Kezeli says Georgia is now determined to promote wines with tourism, stressing the huge advances in quality since the industry move away from servicing the Russian market, but also their distinctiveness. However the push will be at the high end.
"We need a niche market for people who know wine," she says, pointing out that Georgian wines were well received - for the fifth time - at this year's London International Wine Fair.
An excellent example of a high quality producer is Chateau Mukhrani, whose wine-maker Lado Uzunashvili makes Orovela, an upmarket Saperavi made for the UK market and sold by Waitrose.
"The Soviet years, and the aftermath, gave a serious blow to both quality and credibility of Georgian winemaking. Our aim is to try and resurrect its old glory," says CEO Petter Svaetichin, who as well as focusing on quality wines is restoring the Chateau to its historic glory.
Uzunashvili echoes this saying that Mukhrani's terroir, as well as its heritage and quality, are what make its wines so distinctive and expressive.
"The purity of taste and freshness of the white wines, and the complex, deep structural expression of the reds make our wines capable of challenging leading world brands," he says.
Georgia - open for wine, open for tourism
Boosting Georgia's appeal to visitors has been one of the government's biggest successes. In the years since the Rose Revolution numbers have grown consistently year on year reaching two million last year with three million expected by 2013. The inflow has been encouraged by the lack of airport formalities - for most nationalities a valid passport is all you need - the ongoing improvement in facilities on the Black Sea, which has proved a magnet for visitors from neighboring countries and an increase in the number of direct flights. Western visitor numbers are up thanks to the increasing number of four and five star hotels in Tbilisi in particular but also growing due to the growing awareness of Georgia as an intriguing, hospitable but different destination, with much to offer.
"Georgia is one of the oldest cultures in Europe with much to visit and has one of the most dramatic and varied landscapes in the world despite being only the size of Ireland," says Peter Naysmith. Author of several books on Georgia and owner of Prospero's Books, the recently expanded English-language bookshop on Tbilisi's main boulevard, Rustaveli, Naysmith says Georgia's wines - particularly those made from the signature grape saperavi - and improved restaurants are also wowing visitors.
So where should the visitor start? Tbilisi (which means warm place, a reflection of its sheltered geographic location but also reflects the congeniality of its people, except when they are driving) has a different feel to most places you will have visited. Although much of the infrastructure is rundown, roads, shop-fronts and other facilities are improving and the shops have more things to buy. At night the floodlit buildings - an impossible fantasy before 2005 when blackouts were common - reveal a city regaining its confidence and purpose. That said, Tbilisi's unusual layout - along the banks of the river but with the main avenues located far from it - can be confusing.
Most visitors start in the gloriously reconstructed old town, at the foot of Tbilisi's most distinctive landmark, Narikala Fortress. The streets at night here in particular are filled with Georgians and visitors alike, drinking and eating at the many bars and restaurants (Somelier at 1 Bambis rigi has a wide range of Georgian wines). The restored churches - including the Metekhi Church on the north side of the river, with nice views - make for great sightseeing. A walk from here through Freedom Square - dominated by the St George statue and City Hall - and along Rustaveli to Republic Square, takes around an hour. Main attractions include the Soviet-era Parliament Building (the focus of the 2003 Rose Revolution), the historic Marriott Hotel (formerly the Majestic, which opened in 1915 and was long considered the city's best hotel), the restored Rustaveli theatre and the opera house and the national museum. To make the most of Tbilisi and nearby Mtskheta, site of the former capital and now home to a number of beautiful churches, three days is recommended.
There is a wealth of things to see outside the capital, of course. A three hour drive north-east will bring you to Stepantsminda (formerly Kazbegi) - an Alpine region near the border with some great trekking opportunities and fascinating things to see including the remote Gergeti Trinity Church. Naysmith, author of a well-received book on trekking in Georgia rates this region highly, comparing the hiking and sightseeing opportunities to those in Nepal.
However as a complete contrast visitors should also visit the historic wine region of Kakheti, about one hours drive east of the capital, and taste Saperavi wine made in the traditional way out of kveri, large clay amphoras stored in the ground and lined with beeswax. Although you can buy these wines in the UK now - Gaumarjos.com imports Satrapezo, which has won many international wine prizes - nothing can substitute for tasting in situ, especially as many in this region make wine in their own backyards.
Also well worthwhile is a visit to Batumi, on Georgia's sub-tropical Black Sea coast which can stay into December and whose golden sandy beaches are a magnet at any time of the year. The vast, still ongoing investments here - into roads, restaurants but above all hotels - are transforming this into a major and increasingly sophisticated resort, which can now be reached on the direct, overnight train from Tbilisi. And for those with more time Svaneti - the impossibly remote but beautiful Alpine region north of Tbilisi, near South Ossetia - home to many defensive historic stone towers is a must. Hiking here is very rewarding with wild animals and a completely different language and cuisine all adding to the sense you have dropped into a time warp.
As tourism increasingly takes hold in Georgia, the challenge will be to retain intact those things that make the country so special.
"The authorities must be careful with restoration, in Tbilisi and elsewhere. Visitors want authenticity rather than the excessive reconstruction that has already raised concerns with UNESCO as well as residents," says Naysmith. "That said, this country has so much to offer most travellers return again and again."
Glories of the Holy Land
There was a time, not long ago, when if you talked of Israeli wine people would have assumed you were attending a barmitzvah and taking along a bottle of the famous Palwin that usually accompanies these and other Jewish events. Like so much else in the wine world though, things have changed and in the last 20 years wine here has really come of age with volume, but most importantly quality, up. Winemakers seem increasingly determined to make a global impact, focusing on Bordeaux blends that are aimed at sophisticated international palates.Certainly things have come a long way since 1976 when the first wine grapes were grown on the Golan Heights and in 1983, when the Golan Heights winery was set up. The area – famously captured from Syria by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War - has ideal climactic and geographic conditions for making wine. The Golan Heights winery – the country's third largest after Carmel and Barkan, and one of its most forward-looking – has sought to maximise its potential by using the latest viticultural techniques and vines imported from California.It is not alone; all the countries wineries have upped their game including the very first – Binyamina – and the Jerusalem Winery, which still makes wine from within the City. And a tiny but dynamic force is emerging in the form of boutique wineries which are using bio-dynamic techniques to produce some quite astoundingly low yield wines (Margalit, one of the most interesting, has a grape yield of just 35 hl/ha, equivalent to just two bottles of wine per vine). However as a recent tasting in London confirmed, several things have become evident about Israel's wine industry.First, despite the growing presence of small producers, big producers rule the roost here, with the above three producers, along with the next largest Teperburg 1870 and Binyamina, producing a prodigious 92% of all wine produced in the country.Second, reds are generally much better than whites as well as being more widely produced. Although some of the smaller winemakers in particular are experimenting with the likes of Riesling, Viogner and Gewurtztraminer – the Yardrn Heightswine 07, a Gewurtztraminer ice wine made in Galilee by the Golan Heights winery deserves special mention – results tend to be hit and miss. One viognier I tasted was over fat and oily whilst some of the Chardonnays missed their mark completely.Third, the industry currently seems infatuated with French varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon (in particular) and Merlot, both of which have gained at the expense of Carignan which in the early days of the industry was something of a staple. This is by no means bad – some of the Bordeaux blends are very good indeed and will improve with ageing – but for those who like to see the use of more unusual grape varieties, it is a little disappointing. So what of the wines available here in the UK is worth buying, bearing in mind that most of the wines seemed to be around the £20 mark?Most of the Golan Heights output seemed pretty good including the Gamla Brut, a sparking wine comprised equally of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and the big, vanilla-oak framed Yardrn Katzrin Chardonnay 2006. Probably best of the range though are the Yardrn Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, a classic-tasting Cab with lots of warm cassis berry flavours, benefiting from a firm, soft structure reflecting the 16-18 months the wine spent in French oak. An oddball entry, the Yardrn Heightswine 2007, an icewine made from Gewurtztraminer grapes, was quite delicious. Wines available via the importer, Osem UK.
Funnily, I wasn't taken too much with the wines shown by the largest producer Carmel although again their desert wine – the Sha'al Vineyard Gewurtztraminer 2006 – was very moreish. That said, they are by far Israel's largest producer and it would be disproportionate not to try at least some of the wines, given that they also have the broadest price range. The importer here is Enotria.The Barkan Superieur Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 from Upper Galilee is a lovely oak aged wine, well structured with the firm cassis flavours underlain with soft herbal notes. Imported by Kedem Europe.However some of the best – albeit, most expensive wine – will prove hard to get hold of here. The Margalit Winery is family-run by biochemists with vineyards at 800 metres near the Upper Galilee Mountains and another at sea-level on the Mediterranean, With an average annual output of just 20,000 bottles, it was ranked by the 2009 Wine Report as one of the country's two best wineries. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 and 2006 are both excellent but special mention must go to Enigma, a refined Bordeaux blend which changes each year depending on grape yields and climate. The 2006 – 60% Cab Sauv, 17% Merlot and 23% Cab Franc – was sublime, rather better than the 2007, with 51% Cab Sauv, 26% Merlot and 23% Cab Franc. Everything you might expect from a good Bordeaux blend,made by people who really know what they are doing, but with that little X factor extra added in.