Showing posts with label natural wine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label natural wine. Show all posts

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Tusheti - The Great Caucasus Mountains (Part Two)

“Why is Max here?” asked Bishop David Makharadze on the night that we arrived; his questions became ever more pointed, and on the final morning, I heard his voice from behind ask my colleague John “what faith does Max believe in?”

Pondering this question over my morning boiled egg, I decided to take a defensive position. “Ten years at an Anglican boarding school knocked any sense of dogma and religion out of me.” “Ah, he said gently, the Anglicans lost their way.”

An hour and a half later, and by now sitting at his table, I realised that Bishop David was a truly remarkable man. His answers to my questions about the difference between the social binding of the Georgian and Armenian Orthodox churches (well, conversation was slacking, and I wanted to appear to be alert), were met with a unequivocal answer: “The Armenians betrayed their people and their beliefs in the 5th century, so how would one ever trust such a church to hold fast the dogma of the church today?” Well, he had a point, I thought … and he continued, “The church in Georgia today has remained unwavering to the correct and original dogma of the church, it is trusted and it is alive”.

And he is not wrong.

It is, at first glance, difficult to understand how this tiny corner of the world has remained peaceful, intact and culturally strong. There are, of course, many isolated areas of the world that have not managed to do so; indeed, Georgia as a country has faced the last century as an occupied nation and then one in civil war, yet its character has remained defiant and strong.

The Tush survival has been a factor of many elements and among the strongest is the system of land ownership, and its social effect. Dating back to the dawn of time, Tush families own land and simply do not sell it. It gets passed down through generations completely undisturbed by outsiders arriving other than to marry into a family. As a result, there are no businesses from outside; no developers able to buy land and start to chip away at the social and economic fabric. It is also a part of their heritage for those who have left to return at least once a year to the land, and this constant connection has maintained ties that elsewhere have been broken.

I am still unable to really process my impressions of Tusheti; I was only there, of course, for a brief time, and gained insight to only a flake of Tushetian life. I saw in that brief period, I think, a hint of what contentment can be. Happiness, once defined as “living in harmony with the order of things” is nowhere more apparent than here. The respect for social order allows the communities to live harmoniously and the maintenance of ancient traditions, no more evident than in the superb horsemanship of the Tush people, maintain a link from the past to the future.

The roads, on the other hand, are a different matter. From our Near Feast experience in Girevi we crawled back over the ruts and through the grooves to our hotel, the wonderful Guesthouse Shina in Omalo; there, conversation, marvellous food, wine and the gentle rhythm of village life awaited. Dinner, a traditional (and, it has to be said, plentiful) feast each night, washed down with some remarkable wines that our friend John brought from his winery, Pheasant's Tears, in Sighanagi was a treat each night; and let me tell you that John knows a thing or two about wine making.

John specialises in “Natural Wines”. These are basically the juice from stomped grapes poured into a large underground clay pot (a “qvevri”) with some skins and wood, fermented for a couple of weeks and then transferred to another qvevri for a further four to six months.

This process is augmented by the use of a series of most eccentric and ancient wooden tools, the specific uses of I wouldn’t care to ponder. The resulting wines however are simply delicious; and the extraordinary variety of Georgian grapes - some 450 at least - spare the palate a continuation of the overdose of our common Chardonnays, Pinots and Merlots.

They are wonderful wines indeed, and washed down our dinners a treat.

The guesthouse is lovely; it offers accommodation to about twenty travellers in comfortable bedrooms, with a mildly eccentric electrical delivery system adding to the fun. The hosts are delightful, the hospitality unmatched and the views of both the distant mountains and the nearby forts are simply inspiring. It certainly epitomises the ideals of a guesthouse, and I can’t wait to return.

I didn’t actually know I was going to go to Tusheti until about three or four days before I arrived when I received and email from my friend and business colleague Ia. I was travelling to Georgia for a couple of day’s meetings with Ia and John to look at some projects that we are working on, and it was decided (by her or them, I am not quite sure), that Tusheti would be a good place to meet and ponder. This pretty typical of Ia; apart from being the most dazzlingly beautiful woman in the Caucasus, she is an imaginative and very creative travel-type; her persistence in trying to sell Georgia to the outside world was both amusing and successful, and now she is a partner in a terrific local travel company with whom I love to work.

I had a hard timing processing Tusheti; the grandeur, the isolation, the strength of community, the air, the hospitality, the history and architecture, the horsemanship and the serenity. I still have a hard time, but know that I would like to return, and next time stay for longer, and spend more time in the smaller villages, and perhaps even ride a horse.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The wonderful face of Natural Wines

Life can be oddly circular. Even for those of us mildly irritated by the overuse of such adages as “what comes around goes around” and “well, life is just a circle”, from time to time it works like that.
Not trying to seek a completion of a six-week sojourn in Europe, sorry, Gruelling Business Travel, that has taken me from Khaketi in Eastern Georgia to Lairg in the Scottish Highlands, and from Stanley Gibbons stamp auction house in London’s Strand to the Pyrenees and finally to the hills of northern Tuscany and the final departure point of Bologna.

And it is of Bologna and Tbilisi that I speak.

The purpose of my trip to Georgia was to join the Second Qvevri Symposium, a fascinating week of education liberally illustrated with an extraordinary supply of these marvellous “natural wines”, made entirely in the Old Fashioned Way.
Stomped grapes, fermentation in an earthenware pot (an Amphora or Qvevri) and finally settlement in another of these pots; it is a technique that is over 10,000 years old and the wine produced thus is marvellous and most eminently drinkable. Unfortunately all too little ever reaches North America, although there are a couple of importers and restaurants that do carry these wines.

The food of Georgia (as you can imagine, we did not only drink), was exceptional; fresh, flavourful and a daily treat. The trip was an insight, a vital lesson and an awe-inspiring insight to the possibilities for food, culture and wine exploration of this mostly unknown corner of the world.
Which leads me to Bologna.

Everybody goes to Florence, and I am sure that it is very pleasant indeed, and is stuffed full of astonishment. It is, however, also stuffed full of tourist in July, and not wanting to line up behind hundreds of yards of earnest folks clutching Let’s Go Europe, I decided to head to Bologna instead.

For years I have heard and believed that Bologna has very much to offer. It is close to Florence, and if one wants the “medieval Italian city experience”, there is little to differentiate the two. Sure Florence has the brand-name sights, and is a little bigger, but Bologna is truly gorgeous and has no queues.
Stunning towers, piazzas, medieval lanes and delightful architecture; museums and galleries, and even for those with a more contemporary bent, the Ferrari factory.

And food; Bologna is a food lovers delight, and for reasons that had something to do with Trip Advisor, and a lot to do with serendipity (there are a lot of restaurants listed in TA), I dined at the unprepossessing Trattoria di via Serra last night.
Frankly, you would not be walking past by chance, and if you were, you would probably not give it a second glance; however, once through the unsightly door, one is transported into a home. The owners, Flavio Benassi and  Tomasso Maio offer a truly superb and simple product.

They learned to cook in the mountain villages between Bologna and Modeno where, Flavio said “You can’t fool people about your pasta”; so from these beginnings to opening their restaurant in Bologna a year ago that have concentrated in preparing simple, local and organic food.
And it is quite simply delicious. From their cheese and ham or local mushrooms on home-style bread antipasti through the most exquisite pasta one can imagine to their secondi of rabbit or other local delicacies, one could taste the care. Tomasso, the chef, prepares wonderfully and is perfectly complemented by Flavio’s terrific personality, so vital for a successful front-of-house.

And the wine; interestingly, they offer only red and white on the menu, although there are other bottles available upon demand.

The house wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon and the white Pignoletto are both produced by the Vigneto San Vito, and are completely fresh and natural; and, I have to say, utterly delicious.
I sat, complete after far too much food, contemplating on the concept of “natural wines” and why such an ancient concept seemed so new and fresh. Perhaps it is because we live in a world so dominated by brands that we have lost sight of where the ideas came from in the first place.

However, fortunately for us, vintners in Georgia and Italy, among other places, are beginning to catch on to the fact that there is a market who is keen to embrace the fresh and clean ideas of wines made without resort to chemicals.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Georgian Supra

I am a survivor; only just, I will admit, but tomorrow I will be able to stumble onto an aeroplane and leave the extraordinary Georgian hospitality behind.

Let me explain.

Georgia is all about hospitality; now I realise that may countries make this announcement, but in Georgia it is true. The ordinary, average Georgian is delighted that one is visiting, and will spare no effort to display this.

The differently-enhanced Georgian simply goes all out, and not in a Russian manner to simply impress, but in a Georgian manner, simply to host.

One way to show one’s respect and affection is to host a Supra, the Georgian name for a feast. Now at this point, set aside images of medieval “feasts” held at the drearier type of motorway motel, and think hospitality.

Timing is important; apparently, but not in principle. Tables are laid, the initial offerings are put down and at some juncture within thirty or forty minutes of the “scheduled” start, folks wander to the table. Plates of salad, cheeses, pate, eggplant laced with piquant sauces of the most perfect tomatoes and rich chilies, walnut sauces, cilantro, hummus (with rocket if you are lucky), preserves and bread are served. Then come the katchapouri, leavened bread with cheese and (if one is lucky), beet leaves baked into it; lamb, fish and veal dishes arrives, and the table starts  under the weight of the food. Wine flows in delightful rivers, and he laughter measured both in delights chuckles and heartfelt guffaws is heard everywhere.

And then, they sing; there will be a choir of perhaps six singers who punctuate the evening with the haunting and captivating songs of Georgia. The exquisite and haunting polyphonic music of the region is immediately discordant to western ears, but it takes little time to become aware of a different and exciting musical genre. The songs are old; older than most of our countries and tell of love (requited and unrequited), peace, harmony, life and its interrelationships with the land and God. They are truly delightful, and add yet another dimension to the evening. However, this is not really the point.

The issue and history of the Supra is interaction; between families, business colleagues, warring parties or even sparring government departments (one imagines). It is a meeting place; it is the venue to allow ones feelings to be aired, and hear others by means of toasts, speeches and open emotion. It is a wonderful social leveller, and an environment that has been a key point that has allowed so many disparate, divisive and independent groups to co-exist.

Georgia’s many families, tribes, kingdoms, religious groups and interlopers could have evolved so differently. It could have mirrored the cauldrons that are the Middle East and the Balkans; it could have been pasteurised out of ethnographical existence as we seem to be trying to do in “The West”.

Not for Georgia is a future of lowest common denominators and a drive toward mediocrity; it is a country that takes challenge head on, and then resolves conflict through feast.