John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – March 17th, 2018

G.R.A.P.E.: Uncovering 8,000 Year-Old Wine, and other European Discoveries
By John Szabo, MS, with notes by David Lawrason, Michael Godel and Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Nobody had to invent wine. It makes itself. Once juice is released from berries, naturally occurring yeasts get to work on converting sugar to alcohol, without any needed encouragement. It stands to reason then that if you can find the region where wild grapevines were first domesticated, then you’ll also find the place where wine was first ‘made’. This is the logic that led a team of University of Toronto Archaeologists to the Republic of Georgia, where they unearthed evidence of wine production dated to 5900 BC, the oldest yet known. But how did they know they had found wine? Read on for the archaeological proof. In this report we’ll also share our top picks from the VINTAGES March 17th release, focused on the theme of “European Discoveries”. For us that meant lesser known regions and unfamiliar producers. We think you’ll find some worthy discoveries in the Buyers’ Guide.

G.R.A.P.E.: Uncovering 8,000 Year-Old Wine

“Everybody in Georgia knows the University of Toronto”, enthused Konstantin Kavtaradze, the Georgian ambassador to Canada earlier this week while introducing a presentation of archeological findings at U of T’s Woodsworth College. “And it’s because of the GRAPE project”.

The Gadachrili Gora Regional Archaeological Project Expedition, or GRAPE, is a project of the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations at U of T. Among the principal aims of GRAPE was to find the ancient origins of wine. And considering the importance of wine to Georgian culture – it’s embedded in just about every aspect of Georgian life – it’s not surprising that the extraordinary findings of GRAPE have caused a national, and even international stir.

GRAPE co-directors Stephen Batiuk and Andrew Graham represent the Canadian component of a larger international, interdisciplinary project involving DNA specialists, paleobotanists, climatologists, and archaeologists from the United States, Denmark, France, Italy, and Israel.

Gadachrili Gora - Photo Credit: Andrew Graham

Gadachrili Gora – Photo Credit: Andrew Graham

Following the excavations of two villages that date back the Neolithic period (10,000 to 4,000 years ago) and analysis of fragments recovered at the sites, they released evidence late last year pointing to wine production in the region of Gadachrili Gora, Georgia, about 50 kilometers south of the capital Tbilisi, dated to around 8,000 years ago. That’s about 1,000 years earlier than the previously accepted origins of wine discovered at a site in modern-day Iran. “We believe this is the oldest example of wine being made from the Eurasian grapevine,” said Batiuk.

It’s widely accepted that wild grapevines were first domesticated in the South Caucasus region, which covers modern-day Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and which is part of the larger Fertile Crescent that stretches from Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea to the northern shores of the Persian Gulf.

That Georgia boasts nearly 600 indigenous grape varieties, identified so far, is a strong indication of a very long history of domestication and interbreeding.

As Batiuk pointed out during his presentation, “Nobody had to ‘invent’ wine. Wine would have happened everywhere grapes grew. And grapes were first domesticated in the Caucasus.”

The evidence that wine was produced at Gadachrili Gora is based on state-of-the-art chemical analysis of residues taken from eight ancient jars believed to have contained wine, discovered at the site. Undertaken by Patrick McGovern of University of Pennsylvania (the “godfather” of the study of ancient alcohol, according to Batiuk), tartaric, malic, succinic and citric acids were identified in the residues, which are fingerprints of wine.

Jar Sample unearther at Gadachrili Gora. Photo courtesy of J. Olszewski (1)

Jar Sample unearther at Gadachrili Gora. Photo courtesy of J. Olszewski

Tartaric is the most important acid in both grapes and in wine but is rare in other plants, leading to the conclusion that the vessels contained grape juice in some form. Malic acid, though also found in significant concentrations in apples, for example (the names comes from malum, Latin for apple), is also a signature of grapes, and to a lesser extent, wine. But succinic acid was the tip-off that the grape juice must have fermented. It is present in only trace amounts in ripe grapes, but is created as a by-product of fermentation, from the metabolization of nitrogen by yeast cells.

Additional, indirect evidence for the presence of grapes/wine was provided by palynological studies – grape pollens in particular – which were also found, along with epidermal grape cells, vine starches and bits of insects, like the microscopic hairs of fruit flies still inevitably found in wineries the world over, especially during fermentation.

These pieces of evidence are, “less indicative of wine itself, but more the process”, continues Batiuk, also noting that vine starches in particular, “would suggest that the stems were included in the fermentation and aging process, similar to the modern qvevri method. This is admittedly a bit of a stretch based on that limited data, but in reality, since the qvevri method is a very basic mode of production, it is a logical jump”.

The qvevri, the uniquely-shaped terra cotta vessels unique to Georgia and found at the dig site, is still commonly used for wine production in Georgia today. Following traditional methods, grape juice, skins, seeds, stems and all, of both red and white grapes, are put into qvevris buried in the ground and left to ferment and age for up to a year or more. In fact, qvevri wine making is so important to the country’s traditions that UNESCO declared it an intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2013: “The tradition of Qvevri wine-making defines the lifestyle of local communities and forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs.”

Ancient Georgian qvevri - Photo Credit: Andrew Graham

Ancient Georgian qvevri – Photo Credit: Andrew Graham

As though further evidence were needed, ambassador Kavtaradze proffered a tantalizing linguistic proof that Georgia is the origin of wine: “It has been suggested that the Latin word for wine, “vino”, which is the origin of virtually all modern European words for wine [except in the Basque and Hungarian languages], actually has its roots in the Georgian word “ghvino”.

So, there you have it. Georgia, a tiny country of 4.5m people between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, is the cradle of wine, with an unbroken history of production stretching back 8000 years. Raise a glass of Georgian qvevri wine today – you’ll be partaking in the world’s oldest wine tradition.

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES March 17th:

European White, Rosé & Sparkling

Matthias et Emile Roblin 2015 Le Enclos de Maimbray Sancerre, AC Loire, France ($34.95)
John Szabo – Though Sancerre is hardly a discovery, Domaine Roblin is, making its debut at VINTAGES. This 4-generation family affair in the Château de Mainbray farms average 25 year-old vines on Kimmeridgian and Portlandian limestones, which here yield a restrained and subtle wine, though flavours are more pronounced and focused on the palate. I like the cool, stony-mineral, lightly herbal but not overtly green profile, all citrus and green apple, with impressive depth and length. I’m always intrigued when such seemingly light wines manage to hang on the palate for so long. A textbook Sancerre, particularly vibrant for the vintage. Best 2018-2023.
Sara d’Amato – Stylistically quite modern, Matthias et Emile Roblin’s Maimbray’s Sancerre is surprisingly ample and offers the depth of flavours you would expect at a premium price. Six months of fine lees ageing gives the palate great weight and texture. The grapes seem to have been purposefully ripened to a more extensive degree than the norm but without loss of varietal or regional. One of the most memorable finds in this release.

Matthias et Emile Roblin Le Enclos de Maimbray Sancerre 2015Castelo do Mar Albariño 2016Dr. Pauly Bergweiler Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Spätlese 2015

Castelo do Mar 2016 Albariño, DO Rías Baixas, Spain ($17.95)
John Szabo – Fans of aromatic whites should get to know Rias Baixas, in Spain’s cool northwest corner right above Portugal, a little better. Albariño is the principal grape, which smells like viognier but tastes more like dry riesling, like this bright, clean and fresh, lively lemon-lime and white flower-flavoured example. Acids are expectedly balanced-firm and alcohol is moderate on a mid-weight, wood-free frame. Makes for a fine spring-scented white for aperitif or fresh appetizers.

Dr. Pauly Bergweiler 2015 Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany ($29.95)
David Lawrason – This is huge value in classic, elegant late harvest riesling. It has a classic nose of apricot, honey, wax and the unusual foresty/mossiness I often find in the finest German riesling. It is very elegant, off-dry with all kinds of acidity, a hint of Co2 and minerality holding the fort. Drier on the finish than I expected from a spatlese.
Sara d’Amato – On the riper end of the Spätlese spectrum, Bergweiler’s Badstube vineyard riesling overflows with muscat-like florality, honeyed lemon flavour and rich tropical fruit. Nearing a sensory overload, it has a creamy appeal and an unctuous texture that will satisfy all hedonists.

Domaine Gardien Frères Le Nectar des Fées Saint Pourçain 2016, Loire Valley, France ($20.95)
Michael Godel – The rare and elusive Saint-Pourcain comes to Ontario from its central France, upper Loire origins with this subtle, tangy, simple and deliciously fruity blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and endemic tressallier. It’s a nectarous white blend to be sure, perfect for sipping, apéritif time and any or all fish from pond, lake, river or sea.

Domaine Gardien Frères Le Nectar Des Fées Saint Pourçain 2016Bertolani RoséMoutard Père & Fils Cuvée Prestige Brut Champagne

Bertolani Rosé, DOC Lambrusco Reggiano, Emilia-Romagna, Italy ($14.95)
John Szabo – Perhaps it’s time to rediscover Lambrusco, one of Emilia-Romagna’s more original contributions to the Italian wine offer. This is classically frizzante, but, unlike the bad commercial wines of the past, dry and crisp, grapey and cherry flavoured. Don’t expect massive complexity, just enjoy the crisp-tart acids and the frothy effervescence, a wine designed for simple pleasure with a chill. Perfect with charcuterie (prosciutto from nearby Parma, for example!).

Moutard Père & Fils Cuvée Prestige Brut Champagne, France ($51.95)
Michael Godel – Quite the electric and taut cuvée, this blend of pinot noir and chardonnay from La Côte des Bar spent a minimum 36 months on its lees. The nose is all soda biscuit and lime, the palate equally spirited and the finish a continuum of the same. Very impressive VINTAGES debut that speaks not of luxuriousness but rather precision and a focused clarity, that at least all of you should highly consider in Champagne.

European Reds

Faiveley 2015 Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France ($25.95)
David Lawrason – Favieley’s reds always present a very floral, raspberry note. Here it is gently flecked with cedary notes and subtle oak char. Very much in the zone here. It is light to mid-weight, firm, juicy and light in tannin. Mouth watering acidity, fine balance.

Domaine Les Ondines 2015 Passion Vacqueyras AC Rhône, France ($39.95)
John Szabo – The southern Rhône isn’t exactly a ‘European discovery’ either, but the wines of Les Ondines are new to me, and a happy acquaintance to be sure. From organically farmed vineyards in Vacqueyras, this is a ripe, ambitious, clearly concentrated, jammy southern Rhône blend (about two-thirds grenache, one-quarter syrah and the balance in cinsault) with plenty of scorched earth, dried Mediterranean scrub, dried red and black fruit and more. This tastes like an extreme terroir pushed to the limits, suffering and desperate, and all the more interesting for it, a giant mouthful of terroir-driven wine with strong personality, authentic and honest. Best 2020-2030.

Joseph Faiveley Bourgogne 2015Domaine Les Ondines Passion Vacqueyras 2015Château De Nages Vieilles Vignes Costières De Nîmes 2015

Château de Nages 2015 Vieilles Vignes Costières de Nîmes, Rhône, France ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – Michel Gassier’s Château de Nages once again over-delivers at the price, offering regionally expressive character and wide appeal. Sustainably crafted with a light touch of winemaking, it showcases the long, hot 2015 vintage of the southern Rhône with its substantial body and thick black fruit. Despite expected ripeness, the wine avoids feeling overly jammy and retains a sensual, musky, peppery quality – signs of careful picking and high quality old vine fruit.

Il Molino Di Grace 2011 Il Margone Gran Selezione Chianti Classico DOCG Tuscany, Italy ($42.95)
John Szabo – Il Margone is essentially made from a cask selection in the cellar, but consistently vintages comes from the stoniest, galestro-rich parcels on the property. This warm vintage 2011 is mature, savoury, porcini mushroom-inflected, with high complexity while the palate is properly mid-weight and firm, dusty and tightly wound, with balanced acids-tannins and excellent length. A classy and complex, well made Classico all around, best with salty protein at the table and/or hold into the mid-’20s. Best 2018-2026.

Marziano Abbona Terlo Ravera Barolo 2011, Piedmont, Italy ($59.95)
Michael Godel – Ravera is on the eastern slope of the township of Novello, also left bank of the diagonal soil epoch dividing line and like Monvigliero, facing south/southeast. It can be one of the more austere of the main crus, owing to being characterized by Serravallian soils. With six plus years behind it, it is the Abbona that shows excellent development and has made great strides. The integration now speaks to a terrific fleshiness and the beginning of a golden period marked by candied roses and succulent spice. Still a bit of unresolved chalkiness but the structure before and hereafter is beguiling, impressive and wise.

Il Molino Di Grace Il Margone Gran Selezione Chianti Classico 2011Marziano Abbona Terlo Ravera Barolo 2011Château Pech Redon La Clape L'épervier 2014Château Du Grand Caumont Cuvée Tradition Corbières 2014

Château Pech Redon 2014 l’Épervier La Clape, AC Coteaux du Languedoc, France ($22.95)
John Szabo – I’ve previously declared the Mediterranean as a source of excellent value, and this deep, impenetrable purple-red from the Languedoc furthers the point. From organic vineyards in the cru of La Clape, a promontory that was formerly an island between Roman garrison of Narbonne and the sea, it offers, intense, evolving aromatics, with some mentholated, wood-derived character to be sure, but also so much dense, concentrated black fruit extract and wild Mediterranean scrub-garrigue as to draw attention away. Alcohol is generous at 14.5% declared, but melts seamlessly into the ensemble. A top notch BBQ wine, and sharp value at that, for those seeking big impact reds. Also scope to age/improve into the mid-’20s. Best 2018-2026.

Château du Grand Caumont 2014 Cuvée Tradition Corbières, Languedoc, France ($13.95)
David Lawrason All kinds of complexity at $13.95! This deeply coloured ruby Rhone blend has quite complex mineral, saltine oyster shell, and meaty (beef jerky) aromas, with pepper, violet and blackberry. Very Mediterranean, with Corbiere’s rusticity in spades.

Beyra Vinhos de Altitude 2015 Red DOC Beira Interior, Portugal ($12.95)
John Szabo – I’ve enthused about the cracking value wines of Beyra before, but if you’ve still yet to discover these wines from the interior granitic highlands of Portugal near the Spanish border, don’t miss this. It’s a delightfully fruity, fresh, ripe and crunchy red blend of tint roriz (aka tempranillo) and Touriga nacional, simple but highly drinkable and honest. For the price, I’d have a case of this on hand for the backyard or cottage. Drink with a chill.

Beyra Vinhos De Altitude Red 2015Confidencial Reserva 2014Andreza Reserva 2014

Confidencial Reserva 2014, Vinho Regional Lisboa, Portugal ($14.95)
Michael Godel – If you are looking for quality fruit, balancing acidity and a freshness only exceeded by ultra-modernity than this Lisboa red should not be missed. It’s bothy easy to drink and just complex enough to raise the bar and imagine a higher price. Just excellent value at $15 with a minor gust of two or three year tannin.

Andreza 2014 Reserva, Douro Valley, Portugal ($16.95)
David Lawrason – This sturdy red has impressive structure, depth and ripeness for the money – as is often the case with Douro reds. It has ripe plummy/mulberry fruit, with vaguely meaty, earthy notes, plus a touch of pepper and stone. Great acid and tannin. Very good to excellent length.

Muriel Fincas de la Villa Crianza 2014, Rioja, Spain ($15.95)
Michael Godel – Twelve months in oak and two plus years in bottle have really tied this tempranillo room together so that fresh 2014 fruit and experience now walk hand in cherry leather hand. For a mere $16 you will be gifted ripeness, fleshy stone fruit, a grain run through silky ganache, fine spice, faint volatility, sweet and sour hard candy and even a funky note of complexity. Bargain of the release and good for five years easy.

Muriel Fincas De La Villa Crianza 2014Temperamento Bobal 2014Izadi El Regalo 2014

Temperamento 2014 Bobal, Utiel-Requena, Spain ($17.95)
David Lawrason – Although uncommon on LCBO shelves the dark-skinned bobal grape is grown widely in south-eastern Spain, and is a mainstay of this appellation. This example shows fine elegance and tannin that underlies the deep colour and generous, very ripe fruit. It is fairly lifted with blackberry/plum, lilac/rose florality, licorice and gentle oak vanillin.

Izadi El Regalo 2014, Rioja, Spain ($34.95)
Michael Godel – From Grupo Artevino and winemaker Ruth Rodríguez out of Villabuena de Álava and vine plantings in Rioja Alavesa dating back as far as 1930. The declared alcohol (14.4 per cent) and oak regime may be generous (20 months in 100 per cent French Darnajou, Transaud, F.Freres and Radou barrels) but this formidable and lush tempranillo delivers purity and an emotional impression. Rich, delicious and complex with that purple fruit gain and without any demand by the wood. You have to love and appreciate the restraint without compromise to structure and longevity. Drink 2018-2023.  Tasted March 2018.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS

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