Where English is spoken but only Georgian is drunk Cozy spot in Tbilisi Old Town sources natural wines from peasant vintners

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The night we arrive at Bottle Shock wine bar, the neighborhood is enduring a power outage.

TBILISI, REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA.  If the steeply winding, cobble-stoned climb from Tibilisi’s old town up Metekhi Rise leaves you with any breath at all, be prepared for the view from its heights to take it away.  Before you a broad swath of this wildly romantic city unrolls like an exotic carpet– from the gracefully curving Mtkvari River and its incongruously modern Reebok sneaker of a bridge to the ancient and still imposing Narikala Fortress perched on an opposing hilltop.

We’ve made the ascent to this tidy, up-scale neighborhood because we’ve heard whispers of a little-known wine bar offering natural wines made by peasant vintners from indigenous Georgian grapes (with Armenia, Eastern Turkey, and northern Iran, Georgia shares the world’s oldest wine culture), but finding it proves challenging.

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The sign that should have been out on the sidewalk.

A city-wide party whose reason for being we never discover is clogging the streets with revelers and the sandwich board that is the sole marker of the bar’s location and which (we later learn) is normally positioned on the sidewalk had been taken in lest partying hoards invade the tiny space. It’s not that they wouldn’t be welcome. It’s just that our destination isn’t the kind that can, or cares to, cater to a crowd.

A bit of detective work and some helpful neighbors eventually put us right. A part-time labor of love for native Georgians George Korganov and Nino Shonia,  Bottle Shock turns out to be a comfortable if sparsely decorated single room.

Six or seven tables and all the chairs (handmade by the couple) some low-key lighting, a bench piled with board games, and some original art (George’s) attached to the walls with oversize paper clips is about all the decor the place can muster. You can readily imagine the opening scenes of Puccini’s “La Boheme” being staged here.

And that’s exactly the idea. After more than a year in business, Bottle Shock is still less a wine bar in the usual sense than a kind of under-the-radar gathering spot where the couple host their friends and a small, in-the-know clientele.

English is spoken but only Georgian is drunk. The wine list consists entirely of native Georgian wines that the couple personally selects in small batches from the countryside from vintners working in a traditional, natural way (that means, among other things, no sulfur dioxide added at any point). When they find something that meets their standards they buy a demijohn or two on consignment.

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George Korganov fills bottles and inserts corks by hand.

Bottling is done right in the shop. George hand letters labels for each with a liquid chalk marker and pours them with evident pleasure and pride.

The couple work as animators and graphic designers during the day. Proprietors and guests begin to wander in sometime after 4pm.

“My father and I made wine together as a kind of family tradition,” Korganov says, “but I always knew I wanted to own a bar. There are plenty of party bars in Tbilisi. I wanted one that was small and served only very fine wine.”

Nino’s grandfather was a wine buyer for the state during the days when Georgia was one of 15 Soviet republics. She proudly showed us his picture in a yearbook from 1985 that described all aspects of the contemporary Georgian wine industry.  With its unbroken tradition of winemaking going back at least 8000 years, Georgia was the former Soviet Union’s main source of wine under its command economy. Neighboring Armenia was given the job of supplying the brandy.

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Wines are identified by hand-lettering directly on the glass.

Some but not all of the wine served here is made in the traditional large clay pot known as a qvevry (kwev-ree), which is buried in the ground.  There was a time when almost every family with a bit of land here kept one whether it grew grapes or purchased fruit to ferment in it. Today a scant 2 or 3 percent of all the wine in Georgia is made in this primordial way.

When I ask about how these womb-shaped pottery vessels are so effective at turning roughly crushed grapes into delicately flavored and scented wine with virtually no winemaker intervention, George just shrugs. “The winemakers tell me they don’t really know much about how qvevry work. They just say, ‘I do it the way my father did.'”

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Nino Shonia and George Korganov of Bottle Shock Wine Bar in Tbilisi.

We love what we taste here: an emphatically dry, salty, white blend of rkatsiteli and mtsuane from the village of Kvareli that smells a bit like fermenting apple cores, and a delicious red made from saperavi grapes from the village of Gurgaani that tastes of fresh black cherries and has a dry, lightly astringent finish.

“Of course, I’d like to be successful, George explains, “but I never want to lose what is good about this bar – a place where you can feel like family, where everybody knows you and will sit with you and tell you a story and you will drink perfect wine. Maybe later on you will eat something good, but the main thing is that it will feel like home.”

Bottle Shock Wine Bar
14 Metekhi Rise
Tbilisi, Georgia
+995 577 76 26 36
Open most days from 4 p.m. A menu of soup, sandwiches and small plates is served. Prices vary from about $3 to about $8 USD.

Originally published in the Boston Globe on April 24, 2016

When we drank it in Tuscany . . . Imagination is wine's secret sauce

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I drew this cartoon a few years ago after a conversation with my wife about just how much the where and the when of wine affects our experience of it. It’s especially common, we decided, with people who have just returned from vacation with a bottle or two in their suitcases. It seemed almost supernaturally delicious there, but doesn’t have quite the same old magic when we pull the cork here.

Re-living that original experience would require conjuring up a whole world — the view of the mountains from the terrace, the sweetness of the boy waiter, the lovely sequence of courses, the pleasantness of the conversation and in general, just how good a time it was.

It’s a let-down when, expecting our suitcase wine to recover it all for us, we find it’s not up to the task. But it’s not the wine, per se, that’s letting us down. It’s a failure on our part to acknowledge the degree to which the pleasure we derive from wine is context-dependent.

Food, people and places all provide context, but perhaps the most powerful structures for framing and mediating our experience with wine are the intangible ones provided by imagination.

I’ve often been struck by the thought that when I’m at Formaggio Kitchen selling wine, what I’m mainly doing is building an imaginative construct within which the customer can see herself enjoying a particular wine.  I’m engaging in this sort of thing when I describe, for example, the 65% grade of the vineyards in Marcillac, where vines for Domaine du Cros’ Lo Sang du Pais are cultivated, or when we tell guests that Jean-Philippe and Jean-Francois Bourdy still manage the same property (and live in the same house) their winemaking ancestors did in the 1470’s.

Neither of these two facts have anything to do with the organoleptic features of the wine in question – but they have everything to do with creating an imaginative world which the consumer can step into as he anticipates and then actually consumes these wonderful products of natural and social history.

When presented truthfully and in good faith these stories stimulate the imagination and are an authentic source of at least part of the pleasure we take in wine. I’d go further and say they are a source of joy in their own right, since the more you enter a wine’s legitimate narrative, the more there is about them to enjoy and appreciate.

The people I know who derive the greatest pleasure from wine are past masters of using the imagination to encircle every wine with a halo of context that includes the places, people, places and events that made it what it is. One important reason we’re in love with smaller-production, family properties is because they are especially rich sources of just this kind of added value.

I’m afraid no one has ever told the he couple in the cartoon any of this, poor fellows. Maybe they need a new wine shop.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at stephenmeuse@icloud.com

 

Rhymes with Radicchio Food friendly Verdicchio has become our go-to white wine

Recording a segment in America’s Test Kitchen Radio

The late Yogi Berra is credited with saying that you can observe a lot by watching. As with many of the late Yankee catcher’s quips, it seems silly at first. Only upon reflection do you begin to see that there’s something meaningful hiding behind those tortured semantics.

If we were to apply the Yogism to wine, it might come out something like this: To understand what kind of wine you most enjoy and value, look closely at your buying habits. It seems obvious, but isn’t entirely. Speaking as a wine buyer purchasing a lot of wine every week, I know it’s possible to fail to see the patterns in your own actions until one day, while stocking the shelves or reviewing invoices, you notice something you hadn’t before.

So it was a couple of weeks ago at Formaggio Kitchen when we became fully conscious of the number of wines made with the Verdicchio grape that had maneuvered themselves onto our shelves. It sparked a conversation here about why we seem to be drawn to wine made from a grape with a name that must be just about the only one in any language to rhyme with radicchio.

Continue reading Rhymes with Radicchio Food friendly Verdicchio has become our go-to white wine

Dropping in on neolithic happy hour Child sacrifice and cannibalism at the world's oldest known winery

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The cave complex at Areni, Armenia houses the world’s oldest known winery.

ARENI, ARMENIA.  As caves go it’s not the sort to attract attention. There are no souvenir shops on the approach and no dramatic lighting within intended to highlight the kind of fantastic calcified structures that are so beloved of spelunker-wannabe tourists. There is only a vertical opening like a nasty unhealed wound in this ancient rock face in the mountains of southeast Armenia not far from the border with Iran.

The otherwise nondescript cave made big news, however, in 2011 when a team of archaeologists led by Professor Boris Gasparyan, co-director of the Armenian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, announced that they had discovered in it the remnants of a winemaking facility dating back more than 6,000 years.

I knew about the cave and had written something about it in 2012, so was amazed when the opportunity came to visit it. I was even more thrilled to discover that our guide that day would be Professor Gasparyan himself. Continue reading Dropping in on neolithic happy hour Child sacrifice and cannibalism at the world’s oldest known winery

Farewell to the ladybugs If organic and biodynamic certification doesn't guarantee good wine or responsible agriculture, what does?

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Previously, the Cambridge Formaggio Kitchen wine department took care to identify the wines on its shelves that were made from organically or biodynamically farmed grapes and with no — or minimal — applications of sulfur.  We used little ladybug icons to set them apart.  It seemed like a reasonable step to take, since a significant subset of our clientele expresses a preference for wines made this way.

But there were some drawbacks to this approach — primarily, the implication that wines that couldn’t flash a ladybug badge were somehow of a second order of quality or moral standing.  One can imagine the line of thinking this might initiate: If they’re not farming organically, what must be going on in those vineyards?  Routine and frequent applications of chemical fertilizers?  Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides sprayed on a fixed schedule whether vines are actually threatened or not?  

The fact is that we don’t sell any wine that can be described this way.

The choices made by conscientious wine growers are conditioned by durable facts on the ground,  the vagaries of the vintage,  and the style of wine that is in view.  Durable facts on the ground include, for example, whether the climate is dry or damp, whether the vineyard has a good flow of air, how pervasive mildews may be.  In places like sunny, dry Sicily, prevailing conditions make organic agriculture relatively easy to accomplish.  In cool, damp Bordeaux or almost anywhere in the U.S. east of the Mississippi, it can require heroic efforts.

Continue reading Farewell to the ladybugs If organic and biodynamic certification doesn’t guarantee good wine or responsible agriculture, what does?