Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Tour and Wine-pairing Lunch at Iago Winery in Mtskheta, with Cult-winemaker Iago Bitarishvili - Georgia Wine Tour 2019

Pictures: Tour and Wine-pairing Lunch at Iago Winery in Mtskheta, with Cult-winemaker Iago Bitarishvili - Georgia Wine Tour 2019

The Guardian - From Georgia to Lebanon: exploring the best wines of the ancient world (Chad Parkhill, Fri 27 Apr 2018): Much of the current interest in Georgian wines is owed to Pheasant’s Tears, the winery founded in 2007 by American John Wurdeman and Georgian Gela Patalishvili, which has acted as an ambassador for Georgia’s traditional wine styles. But the real gem of Georgia’s producers may be Iago’s Wine, by the eponymous Iago Bitarishvili, who makes a minuscule 3000 or so bottles per year from only one white grape varietal, chinuri, which he vinifies in qvevri with skin contact (the resulting wine falls somewhere between a grippy white and a very light orange). At the other end of the accessibility scale is Tbilvino, the country’s largest exporter, which produces an array of simple yet delicious wines at pleasingly modest prices.

Annette and I spent a week in Georgia, the small country that used to be part of the Soviet Union, located between the Black See and the Caspian See. The area is considered to be the birthplace of wine. Research indicates that wine has been made in Georgia for 8000 years. There are over 500 indigenous grape varieties in Georgia. Traditionally, wine in Georgia has been made (fermented and aged) in amphoras burried in the ground.

Iago Bitasivili introduced us to the ancient methode of making wine in Georgia in a qvevri. He showed us his winemaking facilities.

While we were there we could watch him and his team putting new qvevris into the soil with a view of expanding his production.

After the tour, we sat down for lunch and tasted 3 wines, (a) a 2017 white dry Chinuri fermented and aged in a qvevri without skin contact, (b) a 2017 white dry Chinuri fermented and aged in a qvevri with 6 months maceration and (3) a red Chardaki Saperavi 2016.

This was a group-tour of the Collegium Vini, an association of wine lovers in the Frankfurt/ Germany area, of which we are members. The tour was organized by GEORGIENREISEN. Co-owner Tea Totogashvili was our guide. The focus of the tour was on culture and wine.

See here for an overview posting: Georgia Wine Tour 2019: Discovering the Birthplace of Wine

There are quite a number of articles that have been published about Iago Bitarishvili and his qvevri wines. I have selected a few below.

Pictures: Arriving at Iago Winery

Wine in Georgia

Georgia is located in an area that is considered to be the birthplace of wine. Research indicates that wine has been made in Georgia for 8000 years. There are over 500 indigenous grape varieties in Georgia. Traditionally, wine in Georgia has been made (fermented and aged) in amphoras burried deep in the ground.

Georgia is a small, Christian country with a difficult history. In particular, it was part of the Russian Zsar's Empire. During that period the influence of French winemaking and French cuisine was important. More recently, Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet Union period Georgia was the chief provider of wine for the whole country.This was essentially low-cost mass wine shipped in tanks to all regions of the Soviet Union and bottled there. There was no commercial qvevri winemaking during the Soviet Union period. The commercial sector was dominated by huge stainless steel tanks to produce sweet-style wines.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union and various conflicts between Russia and Georgia, the Georgian wine sector has been adjusting to the new market conditions. The production of inexpensive, often sweet-style wines for Russia and other neighboring countries remains important.

At the same time, the amber wine revolution has discovered Georgia and Georgia has become an important player in the natural wine scene, including in New York, Berlin, London etc. But quevri wines account only for 3% of Georgia's wine exports. Still, they account for 100% of the buzz.

Tradionally, both red and white wine have been fermented and aged in quevris, burried in the ground for temperature control purposes. Basically each family in Georgia has a quevri where they make there wine in this ancient method. Typically, quevri wines are no-sulfur wines with natural yeast only. Whole-bunch fermentation is the rule. 

While the buzz is about the hard-core qvevri winemaking where the grapes are fermented with their skins, pips and stems and aged for an extensive period in a qvevri, you also find winemakers that combine the traditional Georgian approach with modern approaches like aging in barrels or fermenting in qvevris but without skins, pips and stems. In fact, there is a whole range of quevri winemaking. 

Interestingly, not once went a winemaker with us to the vineyard and we did not have one single-vineyard wine in Georgia. In general it seems that vineyard issues are on the backburner in Georgia.

Picture: Qvevri Winemaking in the Old Days (Source: Iago Winery)

Qvevri Wines – Different Techniques
Wine Trail Travellor, Terry Sullivan

Qvevri are earthen vessels crafted from clay, fired, coated on the inside with beeswax, often coated on the outside with cement and buried in the ground. Sizes range from one liter to thousands of liters. Compared to other winemaking vessels, qvevri are relatively inexpensive. For example, two qvevri craftsmen in Georgia charge about one dollar per liter. An oak barrel is 225 liters and if it is a French oak barrel can cost $1,000 or more. A 225 liter qvevri would cost $225 plus shipping.

Oak barrels are often used from three to five years. Qvevri are often used for hundreds of years. This ability to reuse a qvevri for centuries makes it the most economical vessel for making wine. We have visited winemakers that are still using qvevri crafted two centuries ago. We discovered that there are different winemaking protocols for making qvevri wine.

Some winemakers place whole grape clusters in the qvevri to ferment and age. The more popular practice is to press the grapes in a wood press using your feet. The grape juice and the chacha (skins, seeds and stems) are placed in the qvevri with the juice to ferment and age. Other winemakers use modern destemmer to destem the grapes and place the juice and chacha into the qvevri. Some producers add all the chacha to the qvevri while others add only a percentage of the chacha to the juice in a qvevri. Then there are a few producers that press the grapes and only add the juice to the qvevri.

Fermentation is done with the native yeasts. We asked if there were enough yeast to ferment the juice if only juice were added to a qvevri. The winemakers using this technique said the always had the juice ferment. After fermentation the techniques also vary. Some winemakers rack the wine into another qvevri without the chacha. While other winemakers seal the original qvevri letting the wine on its chacha. They usually let the wine on the chacha for six months. After which they may rack to another qvevri to help with clarification.

There isn’t one protocol that all winemakers making wine in qvevri follow. As a result, the wines will show different colors as well as aromas, tastes and tannins. A white wine made from only the juice in the qvevri will be a yellow color and probably floral and fruity with no tannins. A white wine fermented and aged on its chacha for six months will be an dark gold or amber color, have more intense aromas and tastes and have mild to bold tannins.

Consumers that want a qvevri made wine for a reason such as a white wine with bold tannins, need to know about the producer and the procedures the winemaker followed.

Pictures: In the Marani with Iago

Iago's Wine/ Iago Bitarishvili

Iago Bitarishvili: Founded in 2003, Iago’s Wine is located in the village of Chardakhi. The company was the first in Georgia who received the first Bio Certificate in Georgia in 2005. The wine cellar produces 5000 bottles of white dried natural wines per year. At this stage 100% wine produced in the wine cellar exports. 2 hectares of vineyards whose age is 60 years old is one of the best and historically known places on the Mukhran Valley. The vineyard is cultivated in Mtskheta village. Chalk Traditional and ecological methods are used in vineyards, grapes and wine making processes. The company produces wine from one of the best Georgian varieties of grapes in the Chinuri traditional "traditional" queens.

Iago's Wine/ Wine Trail Travellor
Kathy and Terry Sullivan

Summary: Iago's Wine is a small boutique winery producing qvevri wines using grapes from Iago’s organic vineyards. He also produces Chacha. Iago’s winery is a pleasant, family winery to visit. Iago exports his wines.

Iago is a winery owner and winemaker. He produces only qvevri wines. Iago is passionate about producing quality wines using qvevri. Currently he produces 2,500 bottles. Some of his qvevri are 300 years old. Iago follows in the tradition of generations of family winemakers. Iago became a commercial winery in 2003.

Iago has two hectares of certified organic vineyards planted with Chinuri. He was the first winery in Georgia to receive a bio-certificate for the vineyard and winemaking.

His winemaking practices include using natural yeast. Fermentation takes two to three weeks. During fermentation the wine cap is punched down three or four times a day. Iago demonstrated how he punches down a cap that forms on the top of a qvevri. Using a worn tree branch works well to punch through the thick cap.

After fermentation the wine is racked to another qvevri with a pump. The top of the qvevri i is sealed with clay. The wines are aged for several months.

When asked when and why he started making wine, Iago commented, that he never started making wine, “I continue.” His grandparents and parents made wine and even as a child he helped make wine.

Iago’s qvevri are housed in a separate brick lined building, a marani. He has diagrams available to show visitors the process of making qvevri wines. Iago demonstrated how a dried gourd attached to a long wood handle is used to taste the wine from a qvevri. Iago noted that he cleans his qvevri with a brush and a tool with white cherry bark on the end, used for scrubbing the sides of a qvevri.

After viewing the qvevri, we relaxed outside his home on a small patio where we enjoyed tasting Iago’s wines with Georgian cuisine.

Chinuri 2011 was made in qvevri. The wine was a dark gold with a floral aroma and floral on the taste. The finish offered mild tannins and floral nuances. Kisi 2011, also made in qvevri, had floral notes and tannins were noted on the finish.

Iago’s Chacha, made from Chinuri grapes, was clear with notes of alcohol. The Chacha was smooth with heat on the finish and a long aftertaste of dried fruit.

While tasting Iago’s wines and Chacha, Iago provided a traditional Georgian dinner consisting of khinkali, a meat filled type of dumpling, mother’s bread, different cheeses, meat dish and a tomato and cucumber salad. Our guide Tamta, demonstrated how khinkali should be eaten. The dumpling is filled with meat and juice. The trick is to hold the khinkali with two hands and nibble at one side, suck out the juice and eat the filling. Tamta told us that some people can eat a dozen khinkali before eating the other foods.

Iago exports his wines to Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Pictures: Georgian Lunch at Iago's Winery

Iago Bitarishvili – The Chinuri Master
by Simon J Woolf (24/06/2017)

Iago Bitarishvili, founder of the eponymous “Iago’s Wine“, reveals a fascinating statistic as we chat at his small winery in Georgia’s central Kartli region. “In 2009, I decided to put together a tasting of traditional Georgian qvevri wines. I could only find four serious producers who were making these wines – I discounted myself of course, as I was organising the tasting.”

Fast forward to 2017, where over 80 winemakers were exhibiting at the popular “New Wine Festival” held annually in Tbilisi – itself an initiative of Iago’s. It gives some idea of the meteoric rise and rise in popularity of the qvevri style. Not to mention Iago’s modesty.

Many of these qvevri winemakers are very new to the market, and their inexperience often shows in the very inconsistent quality of the wines. The same couldn’t be said of wafer-thin Iago, a man who looks like he would disappear if you viewed him sideways on. Except that he never stands still long enough for that to happen.

Chinuri is one of the more important white grape varieties indigenous to Kartli, and Iago is without doubt its best exponent. His focus on the grape is absolute, inviting comparison to the Vodopivec brothers in Friuli who focus solely on their native Vitovska. Iago makes two Chinuri wines, one with and one without skin contact.

“I bought my first qvevris in 2005,” he recounts “and in 2008 I released the first skin contact Chinuri onto the market. My dad was very very angry at me, for putting all the grapes in the qvevri”. But even if Iago’s dad, who had only ever made wine in a more modern western fashion, had no faith in his son’s return to Georgia’s ancient winemaking tradition, luckily others did.

“An old friend tasted the wine and told me ‘Your grandfather made wine like this’ – and that made me really happy.” explains Iago. And the 5,000 bottles he producers every year are now always sold out by May.

Chinuri 2015 (with skin contact) was fermented and aged traditionally with the skins in qvevri for six months. His only intervention is a sprinkle of sulphur, bringing the total SO2 to a miniscule 28 mg/litre. Iago explains “If the whole winemaking process proceeds naturally like this, it makes a better wine. I almost never have to intervene with my skin contact Chinuri, whereas for the wine made without skin contact it often needs my help”.

This is a young qvevri wine, still very tight on the nose, but there’s a note of kiwi fruit and green apple. With the first sip, I was struck by the wine’s purity, the very fine tannins and elegant finish. The slight hint of mint is apparently quite typical. It balances wonderfully here with pear fruit, honey, dried sage, thyme and wet stone/mineral elements.

Qvevri wines are almost always fascinating, but they very rarely reach this level of finesse in my opinion. This is true fine wine making from someone who clearly works hard both in the vineyard and the winery. Iago confirmed that the soft, fine texture – even after six months of skin contact – is due to lower yields in the vineyard.

Iago has pioneered in so many ways – in 1998 he began conversion to organic agriculture, gaining Georgia’s first organic certification in 2005. “Georgia was just big wineries when I started”, he remarks, “and there was so much pollution in the vineyards after the wars”. His work has clearly acted as a catalyst, a spur for many others to renew their interest in traditional Georgian winemaking.

This is only part of the story – Iago also makes cha-cha (Georgian grape spirit), and beer according to his grandmother’s recipe. And his talented wife Marina also happens to be a winemaker, producing a delicious Mtsvane. But all this demands a future instalment.

Iago’s wine Chinuri 2015 is available in the UK from The Smiling Grape Company for £19.95. Given all the love that goes into this wine, that’s a complete bargain.

I visited Iago’s wine as part of a trip sponsored by the National Wine Agency of Georgia.

Pictures: Lunch with Iago Bitarishvili

Vintner Interview: Iago Bitarishvili | Iago’s Wine
By Nika Shevela (August 26, 2018), vintnerproject.com

It is not often one can claim they are drinking a kind of wine they were making 8,000 ago, and yet this is pretty much what happens with certain Georgian wines, especially those made in a traditional homespun way. Most of them hint at the unique and colourful history of a country that claims to be the cradle of wine. Archaeologists are yet undecided whether wine’s birthplace was actually in Transcaucasia or southern Anatolia, but what is beyond doubt is that Georgia is the only country in the world where ancient winemaking methods have not only never been abandoned but remain in many ways best practice.

One of the true guardians of the tradition is Iago Bitarishvili from Iago’s Wine, and his path is one of going back to origins. Stemming from a family of winemakers, he started bottling his wines in 2003, determined to make wine in the true way of his region, Mtskheta. That meant stepping away from the predominance of technical mastery over raw materials that marked most part of the 20thcentury in Georgia. He was the first producer to gain organic certification in Georgia in 2005, a staunch advocate of qvevri winemaking and a driving force behind the New Wine Festival, featuring traditional wines.

I was introduced to Iago by Daria Kholodilina, a travel specialist, based in Georgia, co-author of the most comprehensive guide to Georgian wines in English language, ‘Georgia, a guide to the cradle of wine’. Arrangements were made and we agreed on a day and time for me to visit Iago at his cellar and his home near the town of Mtskheta, the old capital of Georgia.

Can you give us an overview of Iago’s Wine?

Iago’s Wine is a small family cellar where we try to make natural organic wine. We own 2 hectares of 60-year-old vineyards in the historical region of the Mukhrani Valley. The main grape variety I work with is Chinuri and it is made in the old traditional way, in clay vessels, known as qvevri in Georgia.

And what is this traditional way like?

In this case all of the grapes with all stems, seeds, go into the clay jar. I use only indigenous yeast from the grape skins, which is why all vintages differ slightly. After the fermentation the qvevri is closed, and the solids start going down slowly – this is the process of natural filtration. Wines are aged in qvevri for about 4 to 6 months. At the end of this process we obtain a completely clear wine. During these few months both colour and flavour change a lot due to the presence of solids – skins, stems and other elements – in wine. These remaining solids, the grape pomace, is the base for chacha, or Georgian grappa, the term ‘chacha’ meaning ‘pomace’.

It is the winemaking method, and not the qvevri themselves, that are recognized as UNESCO heritage. Grape-derived solids are equally important for producing quality wine. In Georgian we call them ‘mother’, and to ferment and age the wine in a qvevri without them would be to take away the child from a loving parent.

Yet, this is something that is being practiced around Georgia – fermenting and aging pure must in qvevri, without solids?

In Georgia there are over 500 indigenous grape varieties, and some of them certainly require destemming; especially, in Western Georgia where the grapes do not tend to ripen as well. In fact, about 5% of my wine is also made ‘without its mother’, but not more. Leaving the wine in contact with skins and stems helps to stabilize it for transportation and makes it more resistant to changes in temperature.

You work almost exclusively with a grape named Chinuri – why did you choose it?

I did not choose Chinuri – one could say, it chose me, since these are our family traditions that I am continuing. That said, it does not mean I dislike the grape and feel like I am stuck with it.

It is the perfect variety for me, that allows making a lot of things – sparkling wines included. In fact, most Georgian sparkling wines are produced with Chinuri. Its high acidity and lighter body makes it a perfect candidate, although yields need to be controlled for better results.

All of your total 5,000-bottle production is exported. Where can we find Iago’s wines?

I started exporting my wines in 2006, and today one can find them in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and even at traditionally very difficult to enter markets, such as France and Italy, who are main wine exporters themselves. They are featured both in top restaurants (*London’s Ritz being among the latest one to surrender to Iago’s Wine magic, and natural wine bars in London or Paris. That, of course, responds to increased demand of organic and natural wines in those places.

Speaking about organic, in 2014 you decided to abandon organic certification. How would you explain your decision?

I am completely convinced that the natural way is not better just from the producer’s point of view, but also from the consumer. However, I just do not believe that current organic and even biodynamic certification practices completely reflect this ‘natural way’. When I see my wine certified as a ‘Bio-Wein’, say, in Germany, it sometimes shares a shelf with much bigger and industrially made wines that are far from being organically made.

Another setback of these certifications is their restrictiveness. I’ll give you an example. I have recently launched a small production of family beer and bottled beer. One of the requirements for it to be labelled as organic is to indicate the best before date, but with beer being a living organism, I can’t possible know how long it will last.

Generally, I do not believe one should go through organic or biodynamic certification process purely out of business reasons. Those who do will abandon it in the early stages, since this is certainly not an easy path. I have now decided to take a step away from it and continue making wine in the same respectful way, but I might go back to certification in the future.

I am also not a biggest fan of a term ‘natural wine’, and believe that ‘minimum or low intervention wine’ reflects my personal philosophy much better.

And on the topic of wine terminology, could you shed some light on the terms ‘orange wine’ versus ‘amber wine’ applied to Georgian white qvevri-aged wines?

I really believe that ‘amber’ is a more accurate description of colour, and also is less confusing: in Georgian, as in some other languages, ‘orange wine’ can actually mean ‘wine made with or derived from oranges’. You just won’t see the term ‘orange wine’ on any Georgian wine label.

Tell us about your future challenges.

To talk about the future, it is important to remember a not so distant past. Back in 2009, when I decided to put together a tasting of traditional qvevri wines, I could barely find a handful of producers in this style, and this year, 10 years later, I received applications from over 425 Georgian winemakers.

Georgian drinking culture in general suffered major changes under the Soviet Union, to the point that even after its collapse, there were no wine bars in Tbilisi until 2008-2009. And look where we are now – witnessing a burgeoning wine scene in the capital, with a variety of wine events, wine bars, wine restaurants.

The challenge is certainly to advance this growing recognition of traditional, artisanal wines in Georgia, which is up to us as producers and consumers. The government is more interested in supporting big ‘wine factories’ than small-scale winemakers.

Another challenge is to work more closely with foreign talent – wine consultants, winemakers, and oenologists. In the past years we have seen a number of successful joint projects around Georgia, that are putting the country on the international wine scene and I believe this exchange is extremely important for our future. My neighbours Ori Marani are a good example – a perfect symbiosis of Champagne and Khartli!

Pictures: Iago and his Wife

The Wines Iago Poured

Chinuri White Dry

Without skin contact

Vogue:  Iago Bitarishvili founded his winery in 2003 to realize his dream of making wine in the traditional homespun way of his region. So he crushes his organically grown chinuri grapes in a large, hollowed-out log and empties the resulting juice and skins into earthenware vessels called qvevri, which then remain buried in the ground for up to six months. It may sound like alchemy, but the result is a fascinating mouthful: pear, autumn honey, buckwheat, and eastern spices, with the structure of a red wine built for aging. Try it with hard cheeses and charcuterie or more substantial vegetarian fare like bitter greens and eggplant

Chinuri White Dry

With skin contact.

2016 Chardakhi Saperavi

Fermented and aged initially in qvevri.

schiller-wine: Related Postings - Georgia Wine Tour 2019: Discovering the Birthplace of Wine (Published and Forthcoming Postings)

Georgia Wine Tour 2019: Discovering the Birthplace of Wine

Tour and Wine-pairing Lunch at Iago Winery in Mtskheta, with Owner/ Cult-winemaker Iago Bitarishvili

Wine-pairing Lunch at John Wurdman's Pheasant's Tears Restaurant in Sghnaghi

Tasting and Dinner at Restaurant Schuchmann, with Managing Director/ Assistant Winemaker Roland Burdiashvili

Tour and Extensive Tasting at Tchotiashveli Estate, with Owner/ Cult-winemaker Kakha Tchotiashvili and Light Lunch at Tchotiashveli Estate

Tour, Tasting and Dinner at Martali Wine, with Owners/ Winemakers Nikoloz Bitskinashvili, Nikheil Bitskinashvili, and Thomas Schubaeus

Tour and Extensive Tasting at Château Mukhrani with General Manager/ Winemaker Patrick Honnef

At Mosmieri Winebar and Shop in Tbilisi, with Château Mosmieri Owner Joerg Matthies

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