To properly tell the story of the orange wine phenomenon one must begin in the country of Georgia. While discussions of orange wines famously focus on Italian wine makers (primarily Gravner and Bea) and their influence on wine making in both their own and other countries, their orange wine-making techniques actually originate in their discovery of Georgian wine making tradition.
Archaeological evidence currently points to the longest known history of wine making resting in the area now known as Georgia, with clay wine making vessels, there called kvevri, dotting the countryside, many still containing seeds of ancient grapes.
Today, Georgian wine making still follows tradition with many people across the countryside actually making wine for themselves in their own back yard. And by that I literally mean IN their own backyard. Kvevri work importantly by being buried in the ground. On the western side of the country kvevri are often buried in sand outside, however in the East where temperatures are higher, wine makers tend to construct wine cellars in which the kvevri are buried. Wine cellar ground burial is seen to keep the ambient temperatures cooler around the lid of the kvevri, and also to protect the structure more fully.
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Georgian Amber wine production utilizes white wine grapes indigenous to the Georgian region, but instead of using them in the way traditional to contemporary white wine making, as discussed on Friday, the grapes are left in contact with the skins during fermentation. But, the Georgian Amber wine tradition goes even further–juice is not only left in contact with the skins, but also the seeds, and the ripest stems as well. By including so much of the grape plant in the process, Georgian wine makers have found that the wine remains more stable, allowing what would now be called a natural process in the production of these wines. That is, preservatives are not utilized in making Amber wines. Instead, the tannins introduced from the various grape parts (when all included in fermentation called the chacha), and the naturally high acidity of the grapes themselves work together to allow for a wine making process without the introduction of petro-chemical, or human made, such as biodynamic, additives. Further, by being buried in the ground the kvevri provide a cool environment in which fermentation can take place, allowing a slower process.
Kvevri are made of earthenware (terra cotta type clay) that is then lined in beeswax as a kind of natural light sealant. The material allows for micro-oxydation to occur in the wine but does not heavily influence the taste of the wine itself, as other materials such as oak would. During the fermentation process the egg shape of the vessel encourages a natural circulation process of the chacha to occur. As the materials circulate the seeds slowly sink and get caught by the pointy bottom of the kvevri, thereby largely removing their influence on the flavor of the wine.
When fermentation is complete, wine is transferred into another kvevri leaving sediment behind in the first. This is done repeatedly as desired by the wine maker leading to a natural filtration process as the wine moves from one vessel to the next. In this way no chemicals are used for fining or filtration. Once the final kvevri is in place with the wine, it is left to age for anywhere from one to eight years buried in the ground, and covered with leaves, a simple natural product (like clay, or cork) lid, and then sand.
Traditionally, Georgian Amber wine has been made with the indigenous grape Rkatsiteli, but today some wine makers are producing Amber-style wines with other indigenous white grapes as well, such as Kisi. In either case, with the extended skin, and stem contact the tannins on Amber wine are higher, and for both grapes the natural acidity is also higher, leading to a wine with loads of structure.
Note: many orange wines around the world are made in amphora in a manner similar to that described here for Amber wines. However, Georgian wine makers emphasize that their earthenware vessels are unique. In their view kvevri have properties not typical to all amphora. As such, I have made a point of continuing to call them kvevri here. Many wine discussions on orange wines (of which Georgian Amber wines are included) will speak of kvevri or amphora interchangeably.
Pheasant’s Tears 2009 Rkatsiteli Amber Wine
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As the story goes, a wine maker has succeeded when he makes a wine so good it brings a pheasant to tears, thus the name of this Georgian winery.
In recent history, Georgian wine making served the area’s local people, with many producing wine for their own families, or, with higher production regions, went to what was at the time the Soviet Union. However, when Georgia became independent again the economic exchange situation changed.
After the separation of the two countries an international political incident occurred. In 2006, four Russian officers crossed into the Georgian countryside and were picked up by local authorities accused of being spies. It turns out the incident caused offense to then Russian ruler Putin, who retaliated by cutting off all travel and exchange links to the smaller country of Georgia. Needless to say, the Georgian economy was significantly affected, and the area’s wine making exports were hampered as well. Interestingly, soon after an American painter that happened to be traveling through the region helped redirect Georgian wine exports to new regions of the world.
In 2007 painter John Wurdeman paired up with Georgian wine maker Gela Patalishvili, after the two met by chance when John was painting Gela’s vineyards. Together they started the winery Pheasant’s Tears focusing on Georgian wine making tradition with marketing and export heading West. (Their story is utterly charming-you can read more about it on their website.)
Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli Amber Wine follows the long standing tradition producing an importantly unique wine. The grape is indigenous to the region, and combined with amber wine practices creates an intensely floral-perfumed wine with rich texture, and an impressively long finish. “Ripe” is the best way to capture the simple effect of this wine in the mouth. But its characteristics are complex–the floral qualities are most impressive, but they are grounded with ripe fruits, and nut characteristics all on the body of medium high tannins, and medium high acidity. This wine first waters your mouth, and then dries it out again.
After tasting the Pheasant’s Tears, I drank it along side roast chicken breast, mixed vegetable filo pastry, and a feta vegetable pasta salad. The wine went equally well with all selections, and I am certain would pair even more broadly. The structure on this wine means it can stand years more aging, and I’d be curious to taste either an older vintage, or this one again in several more years to see what it does to the floral and fruit characteristics.
Incredibly, Rkatsiteli is one of the oldest known grape varieties with many of those seeds found in kvevri around the Georgian countryside dating back at least 3000 years. It also naturally shows incredibly high acidity with wine makers having to work to make wines from it more drinkable–most often either through aging, or later harvesting–as a result.
This wine is one I was thoroughly intrigued by, and have certain respect for, but I have to admit the ripe tart tang of it combined with such heavy floral elements were strange for me, and I felt a limit in how much I wanted to drink. I wanted to taste it but continuing to certainly demands food alongside. The finish on this wine is so long I could honestly feel its effects in my mouth as much as 30 minutes later.
Vinoterra 2006 Kisi
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Wine maker Gogi Dakisvili employs Georgian Amber wine making traditions producing several varietal wines of different white grapes indigenous to the region. While he does produce a rkatsiteli amber wine, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to taste from another grape local to the area–Kisi. Kisi garners far less international attention, and is a lesser produced varietal as well. In fact the grape’s reputation is small enough it shows up in few wine books.
In Georgia, Kisi is more commonly found in the Kakhetian region of the East (where both these wines originate), and there is often treated to a blended wine or a sweet wine process. Here, Dakisvili instead chooses to produces a dry style single varietal with it.
The Vinoterra Kisi offered impressive balance giving elegance to what is certainly a richly textured wine. The flavors here are both floral and fruit driven with the thickening of date flavors and smoke showing as well. The acidity on this kisi is medium bringing a nice complement to the medium-plus tannin. So, here you have a wine with pleasing mouth feel, that dries your mouth but keeps it just watered enough to allow the wine’s flavors to show through.
After tasting this wine I drank it alongside the same dinner described above, but I also added on at the end a piece of traditional Yupik-style hard smoke salmon just to experiment. The wine honestly complemented the fish, which is no small feat. Alaska native style smoke fish is incredibly firm bodied, with rich oils, and strong smoke plus salmon flavors. You stink good for hours after eating it. The oils of the fish helped the tannins of the wine, while the smoke notes and acid of the wine complemented the fish. I’m impressed.
(If you want to read more on salmon styles from Alaska, including the smoke fish I mention here, check out a newer blog from an Alaskan fisherwoman, wine drinker and skier that discusses the yumminess of these things: Fish*Ski*Wine. She’s super knowledgeable on both salmon-wine pairings, and different seafoods, so feel free to ask her questions there. I know she’d love to hear from you!)
Of the two Georgian wines I enjoyed the Vinoterra best, but I recognize too that it has the advantage of age over the Pheasant’s Tears. Reviews of older vintages of the Pheasant’s Tears imply that the pert qualities of the Rkatsiteli calm as it ages. Both wines are certainly capable of extended cellaring, and both also prefer to be served with food.
Neither of these wines wants to be a cocktail style wine drunk alone. They’re lonely for food, and your palate will do best with them respecting those needs.
Again, thanks to Kim for writing and asking me to do an Orange Wine Focus.
If you want to read more on what makes an Orange wine, well, orange, check out my explanation of them from Friday. There you’ll also see more of an exploration of the importance and effects of tannin in wine.
You can also read more about Georgian Amber wine specifically by exploring the numerous links embedded throughout this post.
Wednesday we’ll take a look at several Italian orange wines, including those made famous by Gravner and Bea.
Thanks, as always, for reading!
To read the rest of this series, follow these links:
Understanding Orange Wines 1: A Quick and Dirty Look at How They’re Made and What Their Tannins do to Our Saliva: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/02/18/understanding-orange-wines-a-quick-and-dirty-look-at-how-theyre-made-and-what-their-tannins-do-to-our-saliva/
Understanding Orange Wines 3: Italian Orange Wines: Gravner Breg, Vodopivec Classica, Bea Arboreus, Coenobium Rusticum: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/02/23/understanding-orange-wines-3-italian-orange-wines-gravner-breg-vodopivec-classica-bea-arboreus-coenobium-rusticum/
Understanding Orange Wines 4: Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project: The Prince in His Cabes 2010, San Floriano Normale 2006 http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/02/25/understanding-orange-wines-4-abe-schoeners-scholium-project-the-prince-in-his-caves-2010-san-floriano-normale-2006/
If you have a feature you’d like investigated and comic-ed out too, feel free to email me and let me know. I’d love to hear from you!
lilyelainehawkwakawaka (at) gmail (dot) com
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