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To the Ends of the Earth - Naturally

Posted by Martin Cahnbley on

The ‘natural’ wine movement and its emergence and fashionability have piqued my interest for some time now. The fact that this term, within the wine industry, has no specific definition or certification is a topic for a long discussion over many glasses of wine.

I have been working in the wine industry for over 30 years and am somewhat cynical about the many still-fermenting ‘Pet-Nat’ wines, fancy labels, high prices and often unimpressive liquids concocted by bearded hipster-types wearing too-tight trousers with too-tight jackets. At the recent Rootstock Natural Wine Festival in Sydney, one of the most acclaimed (and bio-dynamic) wineries from Western Australia was asked what gave them the right to be at that festival. How much more natural can a winery be than bio-dynamic?

But, let us step back 8000 years. This is when Georgia (Eastern Europe, not Coca Cola) started producing wine, naturally. An invitation from a school friend to join him in his hunt for his father’s ancestral home in the Ukraine had me poring over on-line maps of the Black Sea and beyond. Any excuse and my tendrils are out, feeling for wine connections in Georgia and Armenia. Sadly Crimea, known for producing ‘Champagne’, was out of bounds due to the Russian annexation/invasion.

Jump to August 2017 and after, a week in the Ukraine, including a day-trip exploring Chernobyl, I landed in Yerevan, capital of Armenia. In site of a midnight arrival, the suited driver of the Ararat Cognac Factory guided me to the large black Mercedes and my AirBnB accommodation. After a short meeting with the family on the following day, we drove to the ‘Factory’. Number 2 son driving, father (no English) in the passenger seat and number 1 son, Grigor, next to me in the rear, pushing for sales already, in excellent English. The father had been the manager of the factory when the USSR fell in 1991 and took over ownership at that time. No questions asked (by me).

While the facilities, with views of Mount Ararat in Turkey, were certainly out-dated, their very valuable assets are the multitude of barrels of liquid they have in stock. Armenian ‘Cognac’ is highly regarded around the world and especially in Russia. The tasting was held in a large wood-paneled room with high ceilings and naïve paintings of the owner leading worker brothers to shore. ‘Rustic’ would be a good descriptor, as were the chocolates that were offered. The various spirits and wines (including pomegranate and blackcurrant) were interesting. “How would these be received in the New Zealand market?” is the question I keep asking myself when searching for extensions to the Planet Wine portfolio. As the sun set, with Mt. Ararat in the distance, with the gift of a bottle of 50-year old Ararat Cognac in my hand, I resolved to import some of their products – good products, good people, sincere.

That evening, back in the capital Yerevan, I went in search of a wine bar called Wine Republic. An Armenian winery, Zorah, had suggested that I taste their wines there. Yerevan was founded in the 8th century BC and became the capital of Armenia in 1918. Structures are mainly European 18th and 19th century in style but the 21st century is making its mark with modern buildings, shops, bars and restaurant that would not be out of place in New York or Florence. Wine Republic turned out to be a Thai restaurant with an excellent wine bar and cellar. Young staff were friendly and competent in English and led me through an interesting array of Armenian wines using indigenous and ‘Georgian’ grape varieties: areni noir, saperavi, kisi etc

Armenia’s wine industry has been over-shadowed by its northern neighbour, Georgia. While similar varieties and processes are used, the Georgian industry has taken the opportunity to promote itself extensively and consistently over the past 5+ years, secure in the proof that Georgia has been producing wine continuously for the past 8000 years, longer than any other country.

I undertook my trip from Yerevan to Tbilisi in a marshrutka, a small bus certified to carry 12-16 passengers. Traffic in this part of the world drives on the RHS of the road. Driving becomes ‘interesting’ when both left and right-hand-drive vehicles are allowed, causing drivers of RHD vehicles to have to cross into on-coming traffic in order to assess overtaking opportunities. Our bus had free WiFi (as far as the Georgian border) and we were stopped for a speeding offence.

Tbilisi is a hilly capital much more focused on tourism than Yerevan. Every 4th store is a wine store or a wine bar or restaurant. WINE is the engine of this country. After a night of walking about and ingesting a large steak with some local red wine, I tumbled into my AirBnB bed. In the morning, I was picked up by Salomé, my translator, who had only recently started working for the Georgian wine marketing body, and the driver. This was the beginning of a 4.5 day, 22-winery whirlwind tour of Georgian wineries. On day one we visited two Monasteries that produce wine. I was introduced to the Qvevri, the traditional Georgian fermentation and storage vessel. Essentially, these are clay amphora, lined with bee’s wax, which are buried in the ground. In residential areas, where Europeans would have cellars, Georgians may have 4-6 Qvevri buried in the ground in the basement of their homes. This saves space and also aids in controlling the temperature of the wine. Day one ended with visits to the residential wineries of three brothers, each trying to outdo the other. I remember much food, many toasts and some singing, but no dancing. Very friendly and hospitable people, the Georgians!

The rest of the days in Georgia were a blur of wineries, Qvevri and vineyards. Wineries ranged from small to foreign-owned and to large corporates. Most of the wineries work with autochthonous varieties like mtsvane, rkatsiteli, saperavi, kisi, chinuri and 500+ others. Most that we visited ferment and age their wines in Qvevri but we also encountered a few larger wineries that have invested in modern winemaking equipment like stainless steel tanks and oak barrels.

Like in any other winemaking country, vintners are usually driven by a dream, by a passion. The winemakers I like to work with are these, the ones who love what they do and who will give up much to achieve that dream. An example of this is the winery Pheasant’s Tears, named after a Georgian fable in which only the best wines will make a Pheasant cry. I had been in email contact with John Wurdeman. His story is worth telling: grew up with hippy parents in California, studied art/painting, decided to study painting further in Moscow, visited Georgia in 1996, met his wife Gela, from a winemaking family, married and stayed. His wines are the most well known from and in Georgia, possibly because of his western roots and connections. Wines are all made in Qvevri. The skin contact varies with each grape variety. The skin and stalks floating on top of the wine are called ChaCha, also the name for Georgian grappa.

John was kind enough to devote an entire afternoon and evening to our small team and I am pleased to say that 5 of his wines will be arriving in New Zealand on 19 February and will be available via the Planet Wine website.

Of the 22 wineries I visited, having tasted around 150 wines, I will eventually work with 4-6. Some focus only one variety while others produce more affordable wines with Georgian varieties that will be required to introduce them to a wider novice audience in New Zealand.

Full circle. Georgian wines are, to a large extent, made in a natural, minimal-interventionist manner. That means using natural yeasts (occurring in the vineyard), not using chemical sprays in the vineyard and not adding SO2 to the wines. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. While proponents of the ‘natural wine’ movement may blindly jump at the chance of tasting Georgian wines and expounding its virtues, I am interested in a broader assessment from wine connoisseurs who have honed their senses on more traditionally-made wines. My experience in Georgia proved to me that many vintners producing ‘natural’ wines in the New World still have a lot to learn before their ‘natural’ wines meet my standards.

On the other hand, I have had occasion to meet ‘natural’ winemakers around the world whose wines I really enjoyed. I am already representing the Testalonga wines from South Africa and am currently in discussions with Dave Geyer in the Barossa Valley and a Spanish ‘natural’ wine producer, Bodegas Cueva.


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