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Natural wines: Justin Keay blogs from Georgia

Published:  16 May, 2012

There are wineries, and, well, there are wineries. With memories of my recent tour around some of the western Cape's most splendid wine estates still fresh, I was expecting the vineyards in Georgia (the former Soviet republic not the home state of Newt Gingrich) would be different. But not this different.

I am standing amongst the vines in Nika's vineyard in Anaga in the Kakheti wine region in eastern Georgia and to be truthful, it is hard to conceive of a more desolate place. Behind me is a ramshackle village with roads so bad they devastated the minibus that was carrying me. In front are some forlorn-looking mountains though I am assured that they don't look quite so ominous when the sun is shining.

The winery itself? No start of the art steel tanks or new French oak here; instead in a shed not much bigger than the average suburban garage, huge ceramic amphorae, known as kvevri, or quevri, are buried in the ground to hold and mature the wine. This is one of the oldest and most traditional forms of wine-making in Georgia, one of the countries that lays claim to being the cradle of wine-making and a technique now making a comeback. For natural wine-makers, kvevri are perfect because in essence you put the wine into the kvevri - for several months or indeed years - without doing anything to it except maybe add a tiny bit of sulphur to prevent it going off.

I'm not the only one who finds this place tough. Vineyard owner and artist Nika Bakhia has suffered mysterious fires amongst his vines no fewer than five times. Who did it? One doesn't want to cast blame but the fact he is the only (natural) wine maker in this otherwise basic crop area and that he comes originally from western Georgia and is thus viewed as an outsider might have something to do with it. The fact he insists on using the ancient kveri method might also be a factor because Nika makes wine much better than most natural winemakers in the Kakheti region.

"Everything I make is ecological; I believe winemaking should a natural, human process, like painting or sculpture," says Nika, handing across a sample of his white Rkatsiteli - along with Mtsvane, the most widely grown white grape in Georgia) from the kvevri. The result is a raw, delicious, fresh if highly tannic wine. This last because Nika makes his whites orange: that is to say he makes them as if they were reds, with skins, pips and (occasionally) stems as well left to macerate in their own juice for months. His red (Saperavi, Georgia's best known variety) is much more approachable, but still raw and vital.

A few minutes later, when I taste the previous vintage - the Nika Saperavi 2009 - in bottle, I can see where it is going. This is a full-bodied, dark (almost black) but smooth-tannin wine that really gives a sense of where it has come from, and quite unlike anything you might buy in your local Tesco. Remarkably, this wine is made with almost zero human interference: after being left in the kvevri for a period of up to two years, it ferments naturally before being put totally unfiltered into bottles, with tiny amounts of sulphur added to prevent the wine spoiling.

It may seem hard to believe but Nika, who now makes 15,000 bottles a year, is almost a large professional producer by the standards of Georgia's garage-style natural wine industry, not lest because he exports to Germany and Britain, amongst other countries.

An hour or so away, near Telavi (the home of Georgia's wine-industry) Kakha's Place looks about as ideal for a natural winemaker as you could imagine, nestling by the southern slopes of the Caucasus mountains, with a river running close-by. Kakha Berishvili's Saparevi of Artana is made purely with organically grown and hard-harvested grapes. Production may be tiny but it is well regarded: his wine won top medal last year at the Tbilisi International Wine Fair.

For controversial natural wines proponent Isabelle Legeron (AKA that crazy Frenchwoman, and the only French woman to become a MW), this is all exactly how it should be. Legeron works closely with many of Georgia's natural winemakers - and is creating her own, rather good, kvevri-based Saperavi - and feels they have much to teach the broader wine world.

"This is wine as it should be - a natural living thing made with minimal human interference," she says, admitting that her views have been completely transformed since she was won over to natural wine. "When you buy a wine from a top chateau you are led to believe you are buying terroir, a dream, but instead you are buying a manufactured thing, a concoction. I can no longer regard these great estate wines as fine wines," she says, pointing to the long list of additives that are used to do such things as speed or slow maloactic fermentation.

As one of the most vocal cheerleaders for natural wines, Legeron has attracted her fair share of critics. So too has the whole natural wine movement: Robert Parker famously called it "one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers" whilst Andrew Jefford has accused some natural winemakers of a fundamental "perversion of the ideas of naturalness" sacrificing drinkability for an ideal.

Yet the movement is now uber-fashionable: last year's Natural Wine Fair held (where else) in Borough Market was a major success. This month in London sees two natural wine fairs: RAW (organised by Legeron) and the Real Wine Fair are being held at exactly the same time (May 21-22) suggesting a fallout amongst those who organised last year's fair. Presumably, aside from personalities, presumptions about what constitutes natural wine lie at the heart of this. A glance at the wineries represented suggests RAW will feature a wider range of small, independent natural winemakers, some of which might be deemed not commercially viable by importers, whilst the Real Wine Fair is more mainstream (by natural wine standards).

Georgia will be well represented at RAW which is as it should be, because this really is natural wine making at its most fundamental.

In the village of Kardanakhi, Soliko's Place makes just 13,00 bottles of five different wines, again mostly using Rkatsiteli and Saperavi grapes. The wines here are harder going than at Nika's as they are in another natural wine-making winery I visit in a garden just outside Georgia's capital Tbilisi. Again using the ancient kvevri method, with no human interference, this is winemaking at its most boutique. These are almost entirely orange wines, which really are the hardcore of the natural wine industry; no concessions are made to modernity at all. It's not so much the rough tannins, though these don't help, but the lack of finesse and the saminess that make them so hard going.

I guess this is part of the deal when you are making a natural product with which you have (deliberately) not interfered, but it still seems to me a far cry from drinking wine for pleasure. My view of natural wines based on my Georgia experience? Some are interesting and accessible whilst others - particularly the orange wines - are less so, lending some truth to Parker and Jefford's accusations. But I'll be attending at least one of this month's natural wine fairs to get a broader picture of what is still very much a growing movement, particularly in France.