The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

concise guide to wine new 3e

I’m delighted to announce that the new, third edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting is now in stock and shipping from the UK warehouse.

Just in time for Christmas, phew!

Apart from some light reorganizing, refreshing, and enriching, the third edition includes new chapters on the philosophy of wine, Greece, and Georgia, and new sections on Savoie, Irouléguy, Corsica, and Montilla-Moriles. Following recent research trips, I have reworked the chapters on Austria, Burgundy, Chile, and Hungary, and the sections on Cahors, Madiran, Jurançon, Languedoc- Roussillon, Sicily, and Sherry.

Many thanks to all those who helped me design the striking cover.

Reviews of previous editions

A comprehensive education in wine –The Times Literary Supplement

Splendid, concise, up-to-date, comprehensive and accurate –Clive Coates MW, Author of The Wines of Burgundy

Delightful yet sophisticated –Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, Author of The Wines of Greece

Trustworthy and valuable –Richard Hemming MW for JancisRobinson.com

An indispensable guide –Michael Palij MW, Founder of Winetraders and Winematters

Anyone on a wine course should consider this essential reading –Thomas Parker MW, Purchaser at Farr Vintners

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The Wines of Uruguay

In the 19th century, French Basque settlers brought the Tannat grape into Uruguay, a small bucolic nation to the northeast of Buenos Aires. Today, Uruguay is a welcoming, liberal, and forward-looking country with lush grasslands, virgin beaches, and no traffic jams. Cattle, mostly reared on grass, outnumber people by four-to-one, and an invitation to stay for lunch typically takes the form of “Would you like an entrecôte?”Many people assume that Uruguay is a tropical country, but, at 35 degrees South, the capital of Montevideo shares a similar latitude to Colchagua in Chile, Cape Agulhas in South Africa, and McLaren Vale in Australia. Uruguay is at the northern end of the cold Falklands Current, and the Atlantic Ocean exerts a strong moderating influence, as does the immense Plata Estuary at the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná Rivers. Indeed, the climate in and around Montevideo is often compared to that of Bordeaux, although average temperature and average rainfall are both higher. The most common training systems are espaldera alta (VSP) and lyre to mitigate against high humidity and minimize frost damage.

The terrain in Uruguay is mostly flat or gently undulating. The coastal and more populated south of the country accounts for some 90% of production, and the Canelones department around Montevideo accounts for some two-thirds of that. The soils in Canelones are for the most part limestone clay. Other centres of viticulture include Carmelo near the Argentine border, and Garzón to the east in the Maldonado department. Garzón is noted for its rockier granitic soils and slightly cooler climate and has seen some heavy investment especially from Argentina.

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No expenses spared at Bodega Garzón

Uruguay counts around 180 wineries, often run by the third or fourth generation of Italian, Basque, or Catalonian settlers. From the 1970s, these families shifted from bulk to quality wine production, with a focus on Tannat which has come to account for more than a quarter of the ~6,500ha under vine. In my time in Uruguay, I tasted every possible style of Tannat, including a soft, ‘nouveau’ style made by carbonic maceration (at Pizzorno) and even a sparkling style made by traditional method double fermentation (at Pisano). The signature full-bodied style is deep purple with a heady aroma of plum and dark fruit, tobacco, leather, and petrichor. In the mouth, the wine is full-bodied with high tannins, balanced alcohol, and refreshing, multiform acidity. Compared to Madiran or Irouléguy (which are also Tannat or Tannat-dominated), it is likely to be softer, with slightly higher alcohol and more spiciness than minerality.

Other important grape varieties in Uruguay include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, and I also tasted successful examples of Petit Verdot, Riesling, Syrah, Tempranillo, Torrontes, Viognier… Because there are many parallels between Garzón and Galicia, I was very curious to taste the Albariño from Bodega Garzón: compared to its Old World counterpart, it is fuller and riper, with notes of white peach, canteloupe melon, honey, fennel, sage, and cardamom, a bitter and balancing backbone, and a long and salty finish.

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Tasting with Pablo Fallabrino of Viñedo de los Vientos

Because Uruguay has no appellation system, the wineries have a very free hand to experiment and respond to consumer tastes. With some ‘softening’ blends, this can seem as much a curse as a blessing—by which I mean, if you’re going to put 20% Viognier into your Tannat, you might as well be making Merlot.

Unfortunately, Uruguayan wines can be hard to source. Compared to Chile and Argentina, production is small and artisanal, and the silver beaches around Punta del Este are a magnet for well-heeled (and often high-heeled) Argentine and Brazilian tourists. Still, most wineries are keen to export their wines and show the world what they can do.

Favourite producers include Pisano (the RPF range is especially good value), Antigua Bodega Stagnari (try if you can the Osiris), Bouza (pronounced ‘Bow-za’), Familia Deicas, Garzón, de Lucca, Marichal, Pizzorno, and Viñedo de los Vientos. 2018 is an exceptional vintage in Uruguay, while 2014, owing to harvest rains, is the weakest in recent years.

The Wines of Corsica

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Patrimonio

One of the 18 regions of France, the island of Corsica lies to the south-east of mainland France, off the coast of Tuscany and just north of Sardinia. From early antiquity, Greek colonists cultivated the vine in Corsica. In the 13th century, control of the island passed from Pisa to Genoa, and then, from 1768, to France. The following year, an Italian noblewoman Maria Letizia Buonaparte gave birth to a boy, Napoleon, in Ajaccio—now the island’s capital. In the wake of the Algerian War (1954-1962) many pied-noirs resettled in Corsica, contributing to a four-fold increase in vineyard area. In recent decades, initiatives by the European Union have led to a refocussing on quality wine production, with vineyard area falling back to ~7,000ha. This being fairly limited, Corsican wines do not come cheap. But progress in recent years has been phenomenal, and the best examples are worth the outlay.

Corsica is very mountainous, and vineyards tend to be planted nearer the coast. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and short, mild winters, although the shifting landscape allows for a range of mesoclimates. The sea moderates temperatures, while the mountains can significantly increase diurnal temperature range. The main threat to the harvest comes from heat and drought. Most of the island is granitic, but the Cap Corse peninsula in the far north is rich in schist, Patrimonio just south of Cap Corse is rich in limestone clay, and Bonifacio in the far south is rich in chalky limestone.

The catch-all Ile de Beauté IGP accounts for more than half of the island’s production. The generic Vin de Corse AOP also covers the entire island. Subject to stricter rules, five areas can append their names to the Vin de Corse AOP: Coteaux du Cap Corse, Calvi, Sartène, Figari, and Porto Vecchio. Patrimonio and Ajaccio have their own AOPs. Finally, there is an AOP for Muscat du Cap Corse, a vin doux naturel made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Production of Muscat du Cap Corse is small, but the wine can impress, with notes of rose petal, orange blossom, litchi, and honey, high but balanced acidity and smoky minerality. Rarer still from Cap Corse is Rappu, a red vin doux naturel made from the Aleatico grape, which is also behind Elba Aleatico Passito DOCG.

A Pieretti vineyard on Cap Corse

About half of Corsican wine is rosé, a third red, and the remainder white, although, compared to the cooperatives, leading producers tend to make proportionally less rosé. One producer sought to justify his rosé production by saying, “A Ferrari is not much good without petrol.” By far the most important grape varieties are Nielluccio (Sangiovese) and Sciacarello (Mammolo) for reds and rosés, and Vermentino (Rolle) for whites. Reds and rosés made under Vin de Corse AOP must include at least 50% Nielluccio, Sciacarello, and Grenache. Patrimonio reds and rosés are heavily dominated by Nielluccio, which does best on calcareous soils. Sciacarello on the other hand does best on granitic soils, and is the leading variety in Ajaccio and the south. Producers are enthusiastic about local varieties, including rarer varieties such as Bianco Gentile, Aleatico, Morescola, Morescono, Montanaccia, Carcajolo Nero… One producer I visited had been grafting Vermentino onto 50-year-old Grenache because “we don’t want to drown in the Rhône”. Nielluccio is bold and structured with notes of black fruit, tomato leaf, and maquis herbs. It is often blended with Sciacarello, which is lighter, with notes of red fruits, almonds, and coffee or pepper. Corsican whites are often 100% Vermentino. They are typically pale in colour, with notes of grapefruit, peach, almond, flowers, fennel, and anise, with balanced acidity and a bitter finish. Depending on terroir, they can be either rich or mineral. The unblended Bianco Gentile from Yves Leccia in Patrimonio is fresh yet mouthfilling, with notes of lemon, beeswax, chamomile, popcorn, and smoke.

Some favourite producers in Corsica include Pieretti and Clos Nicrosi in Cap Corse, Domaine Arena and Yves Leccia in Patrimonio, and, further south, Jean-Charles Abbatucci, Yves Canarelli, Clos Culombu (try the Storia di cuvées), and Domaine Vaccelli (try the Granit cuvées). Abbatucci and Canarelli are leading the revival of rarer varieties and, in the case of Canarelli, the limestone terroir of Bonifacio. At the time of writing, there are about 150 independent producers in Corsica, but just five in Cap Corse and three in Bonifacio, highlighting the unrealized potential of this serene island.

The Wines of Austria

Some of the cellar walls at Nikolaihof in Wachau were built by the Romans. Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal is still owned, though no longer operated, by Cistercian monks. In 1985, it emerged that a few Austrian wine brokers had been adulterating their light and acidic wines with diethylene glycol to increase body and sweetness. This ‘antifreeze scandal’ hit the international headlines, almost completely destroying the reputation of Austrian wine. In the following years, Austria turned away from medium-sweet mass-market wines and, like the phoenix rising, reinvented itself as a producer of quality wines.

The lie of the land

Austria’s four wine regions of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), Burgenland, Wien (Vienna), and Steiermark (Styria) are all in the east of the country, bordering on the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia. Lower Austria, Burgenland, and Styria are divided into districts, of which there are, including Vienna, a total of 16. Burgenland sits on the edge of the vast Pannonian Plain, and is much flatter than the other three regions. Soils are very diverse, even within a single region; but the most important or prevalent soils are a varying thickness of loess over gneiss in Lower Austria, sand over limestone in Burgenland, and clay over limestone in Styria.

Climate

Austria is a landlocked country with a frankly continental climate marked by cold winters and hot summers. Autumns are long, enabling grapes to ripen and sweet wines to be made. High diurnal temperature variation throughout the growing season promotes concentration of sugar and phenolics while preserving natural acidity. In Lower Austria, the Danube and its tributaries moderate temperatures, as does, in Burgenland, the Neusiedlersee (Lake Neusiedl), which also creates the conditions for noble rot. Burgenland in particular also benefits from warm easterlies from the Pannonian Plain. Many vines in Austria (although not those dedicated to the finest wines) are trained high on the Lenz Moser system, which offers some frost protection and reduces labour costs.

Grape varieties

Austrian wines are mostly dry white wines, although sweeter white wines are also made. 26 varieties are permitted for quality white wine, but the best are made from Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, or Chardonnay, with Grüner by far the most planted variety. In valleys like Wachau and Kremstal, Grüner tends to be planted on moisture-retaining loamy soils, and Riesling on higher, drier stone terraces. Other important white varieties are Welschriesling (unrelated to Riesling), Pinot Blanc (Weißburgunder), and Sauvignon Blanc. Red wines account for ~30% of production, and are most often made from Blaufränkisch and local varieties such as Zweigelt (Blaufränkisch x Saint Laurent). Although plantings are fairly small, Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder) punches above its weight on the export market. In total, 14 varieties are permitted for quality red wine.

Classifications

There are three separate classifications operating in Austria. The traditional classification is modelled on that of Germany, with four principal levels based on must weights: Tafelwein, Landwein, Qualitätswein, and Prädikatswein. The bulk of production is either Qualitätswein or Prädikatswein; given the choice, many producers prefer to label their wine as Qualitätswein to circumvent a German style of labelling. In addition to Kabinett (which in Austria is included under Qualitätswein rather than Prädikatswein), Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and Eiswein, there are two additional styles, Ausbruch (‘break out’) and Strohwein (‘straw wine’). Traditionally, Ausbruch is made by adding grape must or late harvest wine to shrivelled botrytized grapes to ‘break out’ the sugars and facilitate fermentation. These days most Ausbruch is made just like Trockenbeerenauslese, but with a minimum must weight of 27°instead of 30° on the Klosterneuburg Must Weight Scale. For each classification level, minimum must weights are higher than in Germany. As in Germany, chaptalization is permitted for Qualitätswein, although not for the higher level of Kabinett. Unlike in Germany, the addition of Sußreserve is not permitted for Prädikatswein.

In addition, most of Austria’s 16 wine regions adhere to a geographical appellation system, Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC), first introduced in 2003 and comprising three ascending levels: Gebietswein (regional wine), Ortswein (villages wine), and Riedenwein (single vineyard wine). As with other geographical appellation systems, each DAC has specific requirements intended to bring out the particular characteristics of a recognized regional style. The DACs include Kremstal (for Riesling and Grüner), Kamptal (Riesling and Grüner), Traisental (Riesling and Grüner), Wiener Gemischter Satz (various white varieties in a blend), Weinviertel (Grüner), Leithaberg (Grüner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Neuberger, Blaufränkisch), Neusiedlersee (Zweigelt: 100% Zweigelt for Klassik, and at least 60% for Reserve Cuvée Blend), Mittelburgenland (Blaufränkisch), and Eisenberg (Blaufränkisch). The DAC system is still in a state of flux.

The Wachau operates a separate classification, the Vinea Wachau Nobilis Districtus. This has three ascending categories, all for dry wines, defined by the maturity of the grapes: Steinfeder, Federspiel, and Smaragd, the last, Smaragd, named after an emerald lizard of the vineyards. Outside Wachau, the Association of Austrian Traditional Wine Estates is working with the German VDP to classify the vineyards of the Danube region (‘Donauraum’), including Kamptal, Kremstal, and Traisental.

Regions

Lower Austria

Lower Austria is the country’s largest and most important wine region, accounting for eight of the sixteen districts and over half of production. The extreme west of the region boasts the small and premium district of Wachau, with vineyards on steep terraces that stretch along the Danube from Melk to Krems. Wachau can be divided into Upper, Middle, and Eastern—or ‘Lower’, but the locals, being Catholic, prefer ‘Eastern’. The cool continental influence is stronger in Upper Wachau, while the warm Pannonian influence is stronger in Eastern Wachau, where the valley is also wider. Wachau is famous for its rich and concentrated Grüners and Rieslings. The district is home to a large but highly rated co-operative, the Freie Weingärtner Wachau. Immediately to the east of Wachau is Kremstal, where the Danube valley opens up into gently rolling hills. Like Wachau, Kremstal is especially noted for its Grüners and Rieslings, which qualify for the Kremstal DAC. To the north-east of Kremstal is Kamptal, which stretches out around Langenlois with the best vineyards on steep south-facing terraces overlooking the River Kamp. These vineyards are especially suited to Riesling, with both Rieslings and Grüners qualifying for the Kamptal DAC. Closer to the Danube, the side valley opens up and black varieties become more common. Wagram stretches from Kamptal to Vienna along the Danube. The deep loess soils are particularly suited to Grüner although other varieties are also planted. Founded in 1114, Klosterneuburg Abbey in the east of the district is one of the oldest and largest wine estates in Austria. To the west of Wagram and south of Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal lies the small district of Traisental. Grüner, Riesling, and other varieties are cultivated on steep terraces overlooking the River Traisen, with Grüners and Rieslings qualifying for the Traisental DAC.

The Weinviertel (‘Wine Quarter’) is the largest district in Lower Austria and indeed Austria, accounting for about half of plantings in Lower Austria and one-third of plantings in Austria. The land is mostly flat and fertile and given to Grüner, which is made in a fresh and fruity style. However, there are some more interesting terroirs being cultivated by quality producers such as Graf Hardegg and Pfaffl: at Graf Hardegg, I tasted a 25-year-old Grüner that had developed notes of fennel, honey, toffee, toast, and cognac, and still looked youthful. Many other varieties are cultivated in the Weinviertel, but in much smaller quantities. Sekt is made from Riesling and Grüner in the far north-east around Poysdorf.

South of the Weinviertel and of the Danube lies the hilly district of Carnuntum. With its deep soils and warmer climate, Carnuntum is particularly suited to black varieties, with Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt dominating plantings. To the south-west of Carnuntum is Thermenregion, named after Roman thermal baths. Thermenregion is noted for a white wine blend of indigenous varieties Zierfandler (Spätrot) and Rotgipler. Black varieties are also cultivated, Portugieser first among them.

Vienna

Vienna is fiercely proud of its 640ha of vineyards. Land on the left (northern) bank of the Danube is mainly planted to Grüner, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc, and on the right bank to black varieties. Though it has its crus, Vienna is noted for Gemischter Satz DAC, a blend of several varieties cultivated en foule in the same vineyard. Punters can drink the latest vintage of Gemischter Satz by the jug in one of the city’s many wine taverns or Heurigen, which are signposted with sprigs of pine over the door.

Burgenland

Burgenland is home to four DACs: Neusiedlersee, Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland, and Eisenberg. The Neusiedlersee district in the north of the region is reputed for its botrytized wines made from Welschriesling or a number of other varieties other than Riesling (sometimes in a blend). However, the Neusiedlersee DAC is exclusively for red wines dominated by Zweigelt. To the west, on the opposite shore of the lake, which is never deeper than 1.8m, is Neusiedlersee-Hügelland (‘Hill Country’). This district of diverse terrains produces sweet white wines (including the renowned Ruster Ausbruch, Austria’s best answer to Tokaji), dry white wines, and dry red wines. The Leithaberg DAC is for white wines made from Grüner, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Neuberger, and red wines made from Blaufränkisch. The DAC covers an area of limestone and slate soils connected with the Leitha Mountains, west of Lake Neusiedl. Chardonnay from certain Leithaberg vineyards, such as the limestone-rich Gloria, might well be mistaken for top Burgundy. Mittelburgenland, nicknamed ‘Blaufränkischland’, on the Pannonian Plain is the spiritual home of Blaufränkisch, which accounts for more than half of the district’s plantings. The other DAC for Blaufränkisch is Eisenberg (‘Iron Mountain’), to the south in the small district of Südburgenland, which is noted for its soils of slate and ferrous loam.

‘Weinland Osterreich’ consists of Lower Austria and Burgenland, which together account for more than 90% of Austria’s vineyard area. The main motive for this legal construct is to enable Landwein to be blended across a very large area.

Styria

Styria stands out for its small size, rugged terrain, and warmer and wetter climate, with marked diurnal temperature variation. The bulk of production is consumed locally. The soils of South-East Styria (Südoststeiermark) are largely volcanic in origin, lending themselves to the cultivation of varieties from the Traminer family, although, of course, other varieties are also planted. The wines are crisp, aromatic, and full-bodied with notes of spice and mineral. South Styria is very mountainous, with vineyards planted on steep, south-facing slopes. The district is reputed for its Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (‘Morillon’) and noted for its ‘Junker’ (young, fruity wines). West Styria counts only 500ha of vines. It is known for Schilcher, a cult rosé-style wine of searing acidity made from the indigenous Blauer Wildbacher grape. From the 2018 vintage, all three Styrian regions can claim DAC status.

Wine styles

Like Alsatian Riesling, which it most resembles, Austrian Riesling is dry with high acidity, medium-to-high alcohol, and pronounced minerality. However, it is typically less austere and dominated by riper stone fruit. ‘Hints of lime’ is another common tasting note. Riesling from Kremstal and Kamptal is often fuller than that from Wachau.

The vegetal, peppery Grüner Veltlineris very much an Austrian speciality. It is produced in a range of styles and qualities, and is often reminiscent of Burgundy or Alsace. Grüner from Wachau is pale gold with hints of green. It is typically dry with notes of celery, white pepper, spice, and minerals. Depending on ripeness, fruit can range from apple and grapefruit to distinctly tropical fruits. Body is medium to full, acidity is high, alcohol is medium-high or high, and oak is typically absent. The best examples can develop honeyed and toasty aromas with age. Grüner Veltliner from Kremstal and Kamptal is often fuller than that from Wachau.

Blaufränkish is usually dark purple in colour with notes of red currants or cherries, blackberry, pepper and spice, and liquorice. On the palate, body is medium, acidity high, alcohol medium, and tannins firm and grippy. Some examples are aged in new French oak. Blaufränkisch is sometimes blended with other varieties such as Zweigelt, in which case it contributes acidity and structure to the blend. Owing to the red, iron-rich soils, Blaufränkisch from Eisenberg is typically spicier than that from Mittelburgenland.

Zweigelt is fresh and fruit-driven. It is often deep ruby in colour, with notes of red cherries and soft spice such as cinnamon and nutmeg. On the palate, it is light-to-medium bodied with a supple acidity reminiscent of Barbera (but less high), medium alcohol, and soft and subtle tannins. Oak is usually absent.

Top producers in Austria include Franz Hirtzberger, Knoll, Nikolaihof, FX Pichler, Rudi Pichler, and Prager in Wachau; Bründlmayer, Schloss Gobelsburg, and Loimer in Kamptal; Felsner, Malat, Sepp Moser, and Nigl in Kremstal; Graf Hardegg and Pfaffl in Weinviertel; Feiler Artinger, Gesellmann, Gernot und Heike Heinrich, Kollwentz, Kracher, and Poeckle in Burgenland; and Tement in South Styria. Although top Rieslings and Grüners can evolve with age, most Austrian wines are destined for early drinking, and there is not the same emphasis on vintage as in some other regions.

A Short Philosophy of Wine

bacchus

Bacchus, by Caravaggio (c. 1595)

Wine lovers know that wine is so much more than a drink, but how to explain the love of wine to those who do not already share it?

When you uncork a bottle of mature fine wine, what you are drinking is the product of a particular culture and tradition, a particular soil and exposure, a particular climate, the weather in that year, and the love and labour and life of people who may since have died. If you know how to read it, the wine, like a book, will speak to you of all those things and more.

The wine is still changing, still evolving, so much so that no two bottles can ever be quite the same. By now, the stuff has become incredibly complex, almost ethereal. Without seeking to blaspheme, it has become something like the smell and taste of God. This moving mirror, this transdimensional distillate, will send shivers down your spine. It will make you burst into laughter. It will knock you right out of yourself, release you from the abstract and self-absorbed prison of the mind and redeliver you into the magic and mystery of the world as though you had just been reborn. Remarkably, every wine that can do this does it in its own way, meaning that there can be no end to your journey.

To get the most out of wine, you will need to sharpen your senses, and you will need to deepen your knowledge. By wine, we become more aware of our senses, and we begin to develop them, especially the neglected, almost vestigial, senses of smell and taste. By awakening our faculties, we begin to experience the world more intensely. We also begin to experience it in a different way, almost as though we were a different kind of animal. Through wine, I have learnt a great deal about geography, geology, agriculture, biology, chemistry, gastronomy, history, languages, literature, psychology, philosophy, religion… By wine, I have communed with, and actually visited, many parts of the world—and should add that wine regions, with their gardened slopes and goldilocks climates, make for the most agreeable destinations. Blind tasting has accelerated my development. It has also taught me about the methods of the mind, and, in the process, made me less bigoted, less dogmatic. On so many levels, wine offers a medium and motivation to apprehend the world. It is, ultimately, a kind of homecoming, a way of feeling at home in the world.

Wine is also an ideal vehicle for alcoholic intoxication, serving to loosen the mind and dissolve the ego. Wine brings people together, helps them be together, and be inventive together, as in the Greek symposia and Roman convivia, in which measured drinking could lead to expansive elation and creative conversation and the voicing of disruptive ideas and perspectives. Wine also played a central role in the secret rites of Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed above all at ecstatic union with the divine—an idea that has survived to this day in the sacramental blood of Christ. Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy. He was an important god—no doubt, in certain periods and places, the most important—and most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox.

Let me paint a picture of a Dionysian orgy. The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revellers wearing masks and, well, not much else. Closing the parade is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god stirred in with ribaldry and obscenity. Having arrived at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze may have been interlaced with other entheogens (substances that ‘generate the divine from within’). Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping.

The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BC, the Senate severely restricted it through the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus (‘senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia’). According to the Roman historian Livy, the decree led to more executions than imprisonments, with many committing suicide to avoid indictment. Illicit Bacchanalia persisted but gradually folded into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (‘Free Father’), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to merge into him. The 4th century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival.

The Dionysian impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual Apollonian order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion—and blind tasting, with its emphasis on reason and deduction, as an attempt to unite the Apollonian and Dionysian and attain to the ever receding dream of civilization. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes the Dionysian impulse as a primal and universal force:

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dancing we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy kept it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force. It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner. In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective.

‘Ecstasy’ literally means ‘to be or stand outside oneself’. It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Einstein called it the ‘mystic emotion’ and spoke of it as ‘the finest emotion of which we are capable’, ‘the germ of all art and true science’, and ‘the core of the true religious sentiment’. More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and, indeed, no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience. Letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world. Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

concise guide to wine new 3e

The Wines of Georgia

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© Neel Burton

Georgia consists of some 70,000 square kilometres encased between the Black Sea to the west, the Greater Caucasus Mountains to the north, the Lesser Caucasus Mountains to the south, and Azerbaijan to the east. To the south, the country borders on Turkey and Armenia, and to the north on mighty Russia. About 40% of the population of 3.7m lives in the capital of Tbilisi.

Although fairly compact, Georgia offers a great diversity of soils and climates. The Greater Caucasus Mountains shelter the country from cold northerlies and, in their lee, can give rise to warm and dry foehn winds. The west is mild and wet, with as much as 2,500mm annual rainfall in Batumi on the Black Sea. The east with its valleys and plateaus is dry and more continental, with a greater diurnal and annual temperature range. Tbilisi, for instance, receives just 500mm annual rainfall. Harvest dates vary according to the local grape varieties and conditions: broadly speaking, the harvest begins in September in Kakheti in the east and wends its way westwards.

Our word ‘wine’ may ultimately derive from the Georgian gvino. The Caucasus, and Georgia in particular, is often regarded as the cradle of wine, which, according to the archeological evidence, was being made in the region some 8,000 years ago. Wine occupies an important place in Georgian culture: it is said that the tendrils of the vine inspired the curly forms of the Georgian script. Still today, Georgians throw elaborate feasts moderated by a tamada or toastmaster, who by his art, and calling upon that of the guests, turns wine drinking into an act of life and death.

In the 19th century, phylloxera ravaged the country’s vineyards. For most of the 20th century, Soviet winemaking emphasized quantity over quality, prioritising high yields and high yielding varieties such as Rkatsiteli. In 1991, the Republic of Georgia declared independence from the USSR. Still, Russia remained the major export market, accounting for some 80% of Georgian wine sales. From 2006 to 2013, Russia imposed an embargo on Georgian wine imports. With most of domestic demand met by home winemaking, exporters had to turn to more demanding markets and compete on the international stage.

rkatisteli

Rkatsiteli made in tank vs in kvevri

The bulk of Georgian wine exports, though entirely competent, are what the Georgians themselves call ‘factory wines’, while the country’s real reputation rests with its much more rare kvevri wines. UNESCO lists the ancient practice of kvevri winemaking as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. A kvevri is a large, turnip-shaped earthenware vessel used for fermenting, ageing, and storing wine. Its interior is lined with beeswax, and its exterior is coated with lime for sanitation. In most places, it is buried or part-buried for insulation. Traditionally, it is topped with a wooden lid and sealed with clay. The harvested grapes are lightly crushed and entered into the qvevri, often along with skins, seeds, and even stems. Fermentation is natural and there is no temperature control: the wines are rich, vivacious, and characterful, but there is considerable unpredictability and variation from vessel to vessel. ‘White’ wines are amber or orange from sustained skin contact, though to call them ‘orange wines’ can lend to confusion. Kvevris entered into the international consciousness in the 1990s when some Italian winemakers ‘discovered’ them for the West and started using them.

There are well over 400 different grape varieties in Georgia, of which 38 are commercially cultivated to make wine. The most popular include Rkatsiteli (‘red stalk’), Mtsvane, and Chinuri for the whites; and Saperavi (‘dye’), Tavkveri, and Chkhaveri for the reds. The most prevalent variety by far is Rkatsiteli, which is often blended with the more aromatic Mtsvane. Though a workhorse grape, Rkatsiteli is versatile and capable of high quality, especially in qvevri. The most prevalent black variety is Saperavi, a teinturier grape that is high in colour, acidity, and tannins. The overwhelming bulk of Georgian wine is made from indigenous varieties, often in a blend; of the international varieties, the most notable is Cabernet Sauvignon.

Georgia counts 45,000ha under vine spread over 10 viticultural regions. There are a total of 18 appellations, of which 7 are for dry white wines (Gurjaani, Kakheti, Manavi, Sviri, Tibaani, Tsinandali, Vazisubani), 4 for dry red whites (Kvareli, Mukuzani, Napareuli, Teliani), 1 for both dry white and dry red wines (Kotekhi), 3 for semisweet red wines (Akhasheni, Khvanchkara, Kindzmarauli), 1 for white semi-sweet wines (Tvishi), 1 for sparkling wine (Ateni), and 1 for fortified wine (Kardenakhi). Most of these appellations are based on Rkatsiteli or Saperavi. Manavi is based on Mtsvane, but can include some Rkatsiteli. Khvanchkara is based on Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli; Sviri is based on Tsolikouri, Tsitska, and Krakhuna; Tvishi on Tsolikouri; Ateni on Chinuri, Goruli Mtsvane, and Aligoté; and Teliani on Cabernet Sauvignon.

A full 14 of the 18 appellations are in the eastern Kakheti region, which accounts for almost 70% of the country’s vineyard area and 80% of its wine production. Kakheti is located in the valleys of the Alazani and Iori Rivers. Its capital Telavi is a two-hour drive out of Tbilisi, crossing by the scenic Gombori Pass. The region is noted for, among others, its ‘cinnamonic’ soils, sandy clays with a high iron content and reddish colour. The picturesque hill town of Sighnaghi (or Signagi) is home to Pheasant’s Tears, a seminal producer of kvevri wines.

Of the remaining four appellations, Ateni is in Shida Kartli (Inner Kartli), Khvanchkara and Tvishi are in Racha-Lechkhumi, and Sviri is in Imereti. Mountainous Imereti in the west is the second most important wine region after Kakheti. It is especially noted for white wines made from Tsolikouri, Tsitska, and Krakhuna, among others. In Imereti, qvevri are called churi, and the regional tradition is for much less skin contact, leading to lighter, less astringent wines. Khvanchkara, a semi-sweet red wine made from Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli in Racha, is famous/infamous for being the favourite of Stalin, who was born in this land of plenty.

Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

concise guide to wine new 3e

The Wines of Naoussa

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In 1831, the French scholar and diplomat Esprit Marie Cousinery wrote that ‘The wine of Naoussa is to Macedonia what Burgundy wine is to France. I am in a position to say that the wine of Naoussa is the best in the Ottoman Empire.’

Naoussa is a hill town to the west of Thessaloniki, overlooking the plain of central Macedonia. In myth, the area was home to Semele, the mother of Dionysus by Zeus. When Semele perished, Zeus stitched the foetus Dionysus into his thigh, whence the Dionysian epithet dimētōr: ‘of two mothers’, or ‘twice born’.

At the nearby temple of the Nymphs, Aristotle tutored future leaders including Ptolemy, Cassander, and, most famously, Alexander the Great. It is said that Aristotle prepared for Alexander a special edition of Homer’s Iliad, which inspired the young prince to model his life on that of the demi-divine Achilles.

The 500ha of Naoussa are the spiritual home of the most noble black grape of Greece, Xinomavro (or Xynomavro, ‘sour black’). Vineyards are interspersed with orchards at altitudes of 150 to 400m on the southeastern slopes of Mount Vermio (2050m). The soils are far from uniform, and include patches of limestone, clay, loam, and sand. Although summers are hot and dry, autumns are rainy and erratic, and winters cold and snowy, leading to considerable vintage variation. Sheltered, sloping, and south-facing sites are favoured to protect against spring frosts and maximise sun exposure.

If the soft and rich Agiorgitiko is a courtesan, then Xinomavro is a hermit, and a very prickly one at that. Yields are capped at 70hl/ha, but ambitious producers might aim for half of that. Like the light coloured Barolo, with which it is often compared, Naoussa is structured and savoury with high acidity and tannins, although, as with Barolo, there is a more modern style that requires less time in cask and bottle. I haven’t tasted a large enough sample of Naoussas, but so far the wines that I have tasted seemed more herbal and more ‘churchy’ than either Barolo or Etna and with a more pronounced tomato note.

The Xinomavro of Naoussa can be compared with that of Amyndaio 20 miles to the west, which, owing to higher altitudes, is typically fresher. Other PDOs that use Xinomavro are Goumenissa to the northeast, in a majority blend with Negoska; and Rapsani on the lower foothills of Mount Olympus, in an equal blend with Stavroto and Krassato.

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