I have been involved in the wine trade for over fifteen years, twelve of that selecting bottles Tate should serve in its various restaurants. A large part of this process is attending trade tasting where it is common for over a thousand wines to be open. Not I hear you cry the most onerous task and indeed I would not change my job for anything.
However the reality is most events are turgid affairs, in soulless conference centres with a dodgy sandwich for lunch, if you are lucky, and a sea of mediocrity to wade through before alighting on the odd gem.
Yesterday was different, very different. I was at the Real Wine Fair. It was in the basement of Victoria House in Holborn, wires hung from the ceiling and the odd period feature poked out amongst the rough, exposed concrete floors and walls. The feel was warehouse rave, rather than wine tasting. Inside were hundreds of producers who inhabit the outer reaches of the wine world. There were no marketing managers or slick PR movies instead beards, sideburns, roll ups and even a straitjacket – this is the Glastonbury and big top circus of the wine world.
Many adhere to the ‘natural’ wine movement. Search the internet and you will find heated, often vitriolic debate on the subject. It inspires love and loathing in equal measures, but in a nut shell is a producer who aspires to make wine with minimal intervention in both the vineyard and winery. The results can be startling, challenging, plain odd and disgusting but it has served to invigorate an increasingly staid, homogenous wine world. There was even proper food on offer from the likes of Ottolenghi, Moro and the world’s finest porky scratchings.
Experience of the day and quite probably the year was trying to give feedback to a Georgian Orthodox monk who had travelled from the Alaverdi Monastery in the eastern region of Kakheti to show his wines. He smiled serenely as I commented and only as bottle number six was tasted, and I started asking questions, did I realise he spoke no English. My Georgian being non-existent we communicated through a series of smiles, gentle bows and approving nods.
The wines? Completely and utterly brilliant, although far removed from our concept of normal red and white wine. They were made from native Georgian grapes varieties with names I could not begin to pronounce (Kikhvi being my favourite). The whites were not really white at all, ranging from yellow through to orange. The sole red made from the Saperavi was opaque, more black than red. They are made by an ancient, local technique; fermentation and ageing takes place in clay amphora (qvevri), buried in the ground. Unusually for whites the skins and stalks of the grapes are left with the juice accounting for the extraordinary colour, aroma and often tannin in the wines. These are far removed from a light, innocuous Pinot Grigio or pungent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and will not be for everyone. They thrill and challenge in equal measure.
You might even be able to buy these wines soon at Tate although the importer was having trouble variously with bribes and unfriendly border police. If not, go next year (day one is open to the general public) with an open mind and I will see you there.