Sipping a deep, orange-coloured Georgian wine is an entirely different experience to drinking a glass of sauvignon blanc — and not just if you happen to be sitting overlooking the mountain-backed vines of the country’s Kakheti wine region. The white wine has the texture and tannins of a red, with flavours of quince rather than citrus — and it goes wonderfully with a lavish Georgian feast.
Just as our taste in food is shifting, so our interest in wine is starting to diversify. French, Italian and Spanish wines may still be the best-sellers, but straying off the beaten track can reveal new flavours and unusual grape varieties.
Georgia has attracted a lot of media interest over the past couple of years — both as a travel destination and for the output of its vineyards and kitchens (it was recently featured both by Channel 5’s The Wine Show and The Food Programme, on BBC Radio 4). It claims to be the oldest wine-producing country in the world, with a tradition dating back over 8,000 years, and still retains classic methods of ageing wine in qvevri (clay amphorae) buried in the ground. This exposes the wines to greater oxidation than inert containers such as stainless steel, giving the whites their particularly deep colour — they’re often referred to as orange or amber wines. Reds are also aged in qvevri but tend to retain a brighter taste due to the fresh acidity of the native saperavi grape. It’s a laborious process that helps to account for the relatively high price of these distinct wines.
Hungary is another lesser-known wine nation with a long history of production — in fact it produces more of the stuff than New Zealand does. The type people are most familiar is Tokaji, a luscious sweet wine made from grapes affected by noble rot — a fungus that shrivels the ripe grapes until they concentrate to a luscious sweetness. It was drunk at courts across Europe in the 17th century, but gradually fell out of favour. Now the new generation of dry whites, many made from furmint grapes, are grabbing the attention of sommeliers and wine merchants — much as Austria’s similarly versatile grüner veltliner did a few years ago. Look out too for hárslevelu (mouthwateringly fruity) and the rarer juhfark, whose pure, piercing minerality owes much to being grown on volcanic soil.
In keeping with the culinary vogue for all things Middle Eastern, Lebanon also deserves attention for its top-notch wines. Production has been strongly influenced by the French, who occupied the country for over 20 years after the First World War, so you’ll find many of the same grapes as you do in the South of France (grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault and carignan), along with Bordeaux varieties (cabernet sauvignon and merlot). Reds dominate, but more recently strong, savoury rosés have become popular; they go exceptionally well with Lebanese food. Open your mind to new wines, and the world’s your oyster — or your falafel, washed down with a glass of something special.
Five of the best
Orgo Saperavi 2015, Georgia
Traditionally made and inky in colour, this is a lively, juicy red with beguiling bitter cherry flavours. Ideal with chargrilled lamb and a pomegranate salad. £19. oddbins.com
Domaine des Tourelles Rosé 2016, Lebanon
Full-bodied, fruity rosé from the heart of the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon’s principal wine-growing region. Drink with a mezze platter. £11.99. talkingwines.co.uk
Patricius Tokaji Furmint Dry 2016, Hungary
A fresh-tasting, versatile dry white from a variety that’s very much on the up. Perfect with smoked fish or a beetroot salad. £12.75. greatwesternwine.co.uk
Waitrose Romanian Pinot Noir 2016, Romania
Romania has some of the best-value pino — although it’s stronger and darker than those from cooler climates. Good with duck. £5.99. waitrosecellar.com
Verus Riesling 2016, Slovenia
Slovenia specialises in conventional grape varieties, with more white than red. This deliciously fragrant, floral (but dry) riesling is a lovely aperitif. £12.99. therealwineco.co.uk
Published in Issue 1 of National Geographic Traveller Food