Satellite Wine Club, August 2020
I Need More Skin Contact!
Tchotiashvili Family Vineyards - Mtsvane aged in Qvevri - Telavi, Kakheti, GE - 2016
Press Gang Cellars - la Presa Vineyard - Solvang, Santa Barbara County, CA - 2017
Who needs a hug? I definitely need a hug. Do you remember when we did that? With strangers!? Don’t even get me started with shaking hands!
Skin Contact, my friends: It’s totally necessary. I’m a hugger damn it! That’s why we’re focusing on skin contact wines once again... But this time, we’re going for a lot more than just an innocent little hug ;)
This month we dive into an ancient tradition intertwined with the identity of a people, a culture, and a style of winemaking that’s truly on the fringe… and yet so inviting you’ll wonder why we don’t have more.
What’s this month all about? It’s about taking beautiful white grapes, squishing them up, loading them in a vessel, and leaving them. Not for a few days or weeks, but for many, many months. You might think it’s crazy and I’d agree with you if I didn’t know how fascinating and dog gone delicious these wines are.
These are truly special wines, with few equals, and extremely small quantities produced. These white wines should be decanted and not served so cold! They should be enjoyed with rich food, fats, oils, and exotic flavors. These hot little puppies demand to be mulled over, thought about, considered, relished; brows furrowed, taste-buds working overtime! WHAT IS THIS WITCHCRAFT!?
Winestronaut. This August I am taking you out of the central Solar System of wines you’ll recognize, all the way out to the Kuiper Wine Belt where illusive flavors and strangely composed bottles drift listlessly on the outskirts of possibility and conceivability. This month we probe two wines that will unlock the mysteries of wine itself! This is what Winestronauting is all about!
Join me, friends… who I miss so much. Join me as we make up for 5 months of less skin contact… with wines of Seven and Ten months of straight up touchin’. This month Satellite gets handsy :)
Tchotiashvili Family Vineyards - Mtsvane Kakhuri aged in Qvevri -
Telavi, Kakheti, GE - 2016
Meet Kakha Tchotiashvili. I’ll start by plucking the low hanging fruit here: Kakha’s wines do not taste like ‘Kakha’... Anything butt!! ;)
Tchotiashvili comes from the unexpected heart of traditional winemaking: Georgia. No, y’all. Not the Georgia that decided Nail Salons & Bowling Alleys needed to be opened back up in April (honestly, WTF Georgia) but the other Georgia! You know, that one way further than Eastern Europe, sitting above Turkey between the Caucuses Mountains and Black Seas. You know, the one that has a tradition of winemaking some 8000+ years deep.
Eight. Thousand. Years. At least. Take that Italy, Greece, Iran, and literally everywhere else (except you, China… somehow you’ve had wine going for at least 9,000 years… woah). This country is so much more than meets the eye, and truly so much more than the kind of Kazakhstan-Borat-Movie-Imagery you might expect. Did you know the Georgians have had a continuous image of “nationality” that extends far longer than their (many) struggles for independence from the Empires of Assyria, Persia, Byzantia, Rome, Arabia, Osmanli, and Soviet Russia? These are a hearty, confident, and resilient people who don’t take flak from nobody!
So it turns out Georgia is extremely awesome, for a number of reasons, most especially Wine! Wedged north of Turkey with its western border on the Black Sea, and Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Caspian sea to its east. It’s geography is incredibly complex, with the massive Greater Caucuses Mountains along the northern border with Russia and the Lesser Caucuses on the southern Turkish Border. These mountains amount to a source of hugely diverse soil types as well as a kind-of funnel for air-movement between the Black and Caspian Seas.
The focus of today’s Georgia inquiry is on the region of Kakheti, the most important of the 10 major Georgian appellations. Here, over 70% of the country’s grapes are raised in a high valley hugging the slopes of the northern Greater Caucuses and the Russian border. It has a micro-climate not dissimilar from much of central France, with a balance of warm summers, cold winters, and plenty of rainfall. It’s no surprise that the ancient peoples of this region began cultivating vines here… the weather is exceptional for winegrowing and the diverse indigenous grape varietals grow everywhere here!
What grapes come from Georgia? I hope you’ve been practicing your pronunciation! Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane Kakhuri, Khikivi, & Kisi! 😘 Today I have the distinct pleasure of consuming the better part of 750ml of Mtsvane Kakhuri for your educational pleasure! The experience has been a deeeeeelight.
So what’s up with Kakha’s ‘Amber Wine’? What makes it relevant, special, & so incredibly different from the wines we’re used to? Ever heard of a Qvevri? (Pronounced Kwev-ri). If there’s one thing you’ve got to know about Georgian wine: it’s Qvevri! These massive hand-thrown clay pots, often lined with bees wax, are buried in the earth right up to their necks and can be used to make wine for centuries before needing replacement. Ranging anywhere from 50 to 4000 liters, they are shaped like inverted tear-drops and have truly amazing properties benefitting winemaking.
Qvevri are cool and extremely traditional. They look just like the prehistoric vessels found across the country dating back 8000+ years... Sometimes you just find something that works, and you stick with it! Winemakers, Kakha included, lightly crush up whole clusters of grapes and fill the Qvevri to the top, stems and seeds included! They can be sealed with wood, or slate, or even air-tight with fresh clay. Locked in the earth, Qvevri are naturally temperature controlled making much-desired slow fermentations standard for Georgian wines. Their egg-like shape also encourages convection flows, keeping movement in the must and suspending solids within the juice to allow even contact and avoiding rot or bacterial growth. Over the standard 7+ months the Qvevri naturally clarifies the amber colored juice as molecular tannin and protein chains lengthen, gathering mass, and eventually dropping to the bottom as sediment.
Those of you winestronauts familiar with the very cloudy orange wines from May might remark on the brilliant natural clarity of this wine in comparison with those of much lesser skin contact time. It’s a strange and wonderful intersection of chemistry and thousands of years tinkering! Just my style.
Let’s talk grapes! The Mtsvane Kakhuri grape is one of the most lauded grapes in Georgia. It literally means “Green from Kakheti” and is core to history and modern success of the region. Without the long skin contact of a Qvevri it makes for jovial, easy, tropical-citrus flavored wines with higher alcohol and relatively high acidity, however, as you’ll discover, a Qvevri does the Mtsvane gooooood. Dried flowers, nutty creaminess, dried apricots, and flavors I associate closer with Islay Scotch are all here for the tasting and woo, there’s a wonderful and persistent tannin that makes this an incredibly useful white wine for higher fat and meatier dishes! Honestly, one could sit and drink this wine over the course of days and find a new profile by the hour. It is INFINITE!
Let’s get the importer’s take:
“Kakha Tchotiashvili is an artisan winemaker focused on reviving ancient local varieties, and makes wines according to local traditions without additives or chemicals at any point in the process. His wines are all produced in Qvevri. Precise and very careful, Kakha Tchotiashvili is a quiet but stimulating force. He cultivates his family vineyards on organic principles, and makes tiny batches of exquisite qvevri wines in red and amber styles. Kakha underlined that grape health, cleanliness, and relentless attention to the wine making process are the essential pillars of successful Qvevri winemaking. All are fermented with wild yeast and bottled unfiltered. Kakha's meticulous hand in the vines and the cellar yield precise and clean flavors from ancient methods.”
What can be said about this wine. This phenomenally flavored, classically styled, historically relevant wine? This orange wine taken to the extreme, more structured than most red wines, sinewy in its power and length, a wine screaming “I am UNEXPECTED AND DELICIOUS” in every corner of the palate? I say YES, this wine is what I love about wine. This is the adventure, the thrill, the reward of seeking out the exceptions, honoring the history, and pushing beyond what the basic wine drinker thinks is possible. This is why I do it! Thanks for coming along on for the ride.
Press Gang Cellars - la Presa Vineyard - Solvang, Santa Barbara County, CA - 2017
Surprise! We make long skin contact wine in Santa Barbara too!!
While not nearly as prevalent, and lacking by roughly 8000 years of experience, we are making up for lost time!
Let me introduce you to Kyle Knapp. Kyle is the winemaker at the Stolpman Winery, one of the most important Santa Barbara producers. There he works on wines ranging from the very traditional Estate labelled wines (think inky, rich, high-point-score wines) to the esoteric Combe project focusing on extremely rare varietals, and the ‘So Fresh’ Brand dedicated to ØØ no sulfur wines intended to push the boundaries of local winemaking possibilities. In essence: Kyle can do it all. (Hot Side Note: Kyle plays the part of a surfer bro just as well as a winemaker. He survived a Great White attack in 2008 off Lompoc… radical!)
Oh and I didn’t even mention his own project! Press Gang is a collaboration between Kyle and his wife Savanna. The wines are their own personal expression separate from their day jobs. All of their wines are produced naturally in the cellar with native yeast fermentations, no fining, filtering, and very judicious use of sulphur if at all. Across the board their wines taste open, alive, and are part of a small and important movement towards non-interventionist winemaking in Santa Barbara.
Non-interventionist is exactly what this wine is all about. Kyle picks up about a half ton of pristine Grenache Blanc from La Presa Vineyard in Solvang each year. About enough for 50 cases or so. The winemaking is simple: The fruit is destemmed and laboriously loaded by an intern (thanks kid!) into a single 500 Liter barrel where the fermentation and aging happen for 10 months. The barrel receives regular top-ups but that’s all. At the end the barrel is drained and put on its end so the team can take off the ribs and butt of the barrel to dig out the remaining skins for pressing. Beyond that the wine sees two additional months of settling in old oak barrels then goes straight to bottle. He adds a minimal 10g/l of SO2 at bottling to ensure a clean wine and that’s it! Pure adventure in a bottle.
So what’s this kooky little bottle all about?
First of all: floaties. This wine has a ton of ‘dry extract in suspension’... which means it’s unsettled. Because Kyle goes straight from the barrel to bottle without settling the little bits of grape skin and pulp from long-aging remain in suspension. This is a marked difference from the Georgian wine and a great example of how much the fermentation and aging vessel’s shape and material determines the final product. While a Qvevri encourages matter to settle in the thin base of the jar, a barrel has a much more rounded bottom, allowing convection currents to regularly whip up the settling matter. The result is a wine with a ton of body and texture.
On the nose I immediately sense a hallmark of the Grenache Blanc grape: fresh tennis balls. While this example is a bit more muddled with spice and deeper than a traditional Grenache Blanc, I’m reminded of the sound and smell of popping a fresh sleeve of Wilsons! Backed by beautiful spicey apple notes and a whole bushel of clove, white pepper, sumac. It’s here, it’s more than I’ve ever had from a grenache blanc wine, and I love it.
Let’s get our beaks wet! This wine pops on the palate and there’s so much happening! First things first: the wine feels vibrant and alive, nothing is muted. It feels light on the tongue, with plenty of refreshing acidity, and yet paired with a tannic texture I might compare with a roughly polished concrete or sanded wood - just enough grip to let you know it’s serious and yet light enough to drink on a smokin’ hot day. The flavors are myriad, with more of that spicy ripe apple tart transforming into prickly pear cactus and ripe asian pear. There’s a distinct nutty cream note as well, I think from the long slow malo-lactic fermentation and skin contact combo. I also get a hugely complex exotic spice component, with everything from saffron to white pepper, even dried dill. There’s a distinct backdrop of oak that creeps in quietly too. Mitigated by the many uses of the barrel and it’s large size (less barrel contact per volume!) imparting less flavor, the oak remains present as a frame for the natural expression of the fruit.
With a long finish and a substantial tannic grip, the wine doesn’t let you go. Flowers and fruit continue to bloom as It says: “consider me… I am fascinating!!”
I was so happy to find this wine. Such an unusual example in our locality, and yet, something we need to explore more broadly. While we might lack the 8000 year history we certainly have the quality of fruit, the knowhow, and the sheer madness to do it! It’s an example of the benefits of taking the risk to explore the path less travelled and ever-improving. That’s where the interesting, important wines are. That’s what I want, and I want to share it!
Cheers to you Winestronaut.
Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still, in peaceful dreams, I see
The road leads back to you, to you, my beautiful Georgia
Georgia, no peace I find
Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind
This is August at Satellite.