Donald Edwards finds a clue in the traditional Georgian food that was served at a dinner at the Notting Hill restaurant Colchis recently.
"Orange wines can be divisive, of this there is no doubt. They certainly have their advocates, of which I am one, but I’ll accept there are those less than convinced.
Personally I like to think of them as being like an extra palette of paints, offering the chance to play with a whole new set of colours and flavours. It was with this in mind that I went along to Colchis, a newish Georgian restaurant in Notting Hill to attend a supra (Georgian feast) with wines selected by leading natural wine advocate Isabelle Legeron..
Now, a few quick words on Georgia, a country I was lucky to visit last year. It has the most incredible winemaking tradition of using large amphoras, called kvevri, that are buried in the ground. This method of wine making stretches back an unbroken eight thousand years. This, added to the characterful indigenous varieties gives Georgia a powerful and unique wine culture.
We started with the Lagvinari, a rkatsiteli made in kvevri by Isabelle, Deep orange in colour with a nose that suggested salted mango and dried apricots. On the palette there was the tannic structure that defines long skin maceration wines, it’s this along with the great acidity and depth of flavour that really makes orange wines so versatile with food. They can cope with big, oily, meaty flavours - indeed it is with them that they start to come into their own.
For starters we were served aubergine pkhali, the aubergines cooked slowly with spices and walnuts, then rolled up like sushi and decorated with pomegranate seeds. This is big flavour cooking, the walnut and olive oil, the deep umami of the slow cooked aubergine and the punchiness of the spice, all played off very nicely with the structure of the wine. The tannins acting almost like those in a red would have done, offering a palate cleansing action.
Along with the pkhali we had some chicken bazhe, a sort of spiced ballotine with walnut sauce and the king of the starters; the oily, salty cheesy bread known as katchapuri. The salty, stringy cheese mitigating the slight bitterness of the tannins and providing a platform upon which the fruit and floral aromatics of the wine could excel.
Mains saw a switch to France with Le Casot des Mailloles, Poudre d’Escampette from Banyuls. This was all about tart aromatic red fruits, an ideal match for some juicy beef and pork mince dumplings, and the chicken mtsvadi shashlik (think Georgian for shish kebab) served with raw onions and an electrifying hot (spicy) sour plum sauce (tkemali). It was here that the relative lack of tannins in the Banyuls allowed the heat and herbal notes in the sauce to shine, while conversely the sour plum notes softened the wine somewhat.
We then saw a switch back to Georgia with Isabelle’s other wine, a tank-fermented saperavi. Saperavi is the king of Georgian red varieties, muscular, tannic, very deep in colour and often boasting an impressive tartness. This was served with chanakhi a rich lamb stew with aubergines, peppers and potatoes. We were back in classic matching territory here; a rich stew, slightly spicy, deep, tannic red wine. I don’t think this was ever in doubt.
Finally, to round off the dinner we returned to an orange wine, Slatnik from Radikon in Friuli. 80% Chardonnay and 20% Friulano (or Tocai if you’re feeling a little politically incorrect*), this is a three week skin maceration wine that then spends a year in old oak.
The difference between the Radikon and the Lagvini is enormous. The kvevri imparts a certain limescale like quality to the mouthfeel of the Lagvini, making for a huge textural difference when compared to the much more silken tannins of the Radikon. The chardonnay also contributes more ripe fruit notes, meaning the aromatics tend towards dried peaches and tropical fruits with fewer floral characters than one finds with rkatsiteli.
The Radikon was served with whole roast suckling pig (I know - it’s such a chore attending these sort of events). The ripe yet powerful Slatnik working wonderfully with the delicate but fatty flesh of the piglet, and the slight oxidized characters seemingly born to accompany the glorious paper-thin crackling.
Sure there were a couple of misfires, the delicate scallop on tomato and lime salad was a bit lightweight for the Lagvini, but on the whole the food was perfectly pitched to go with the long skin maceration wines. Enough character, spice and fattiness to balance the structure of the wines, but a recognition that they show different fruit characters to similarly structured reds.
It’s this structural similarity allied to a completely different set of flavours that makes orange wines so fun to match with. They open up a huge set of possibilities you normally wouldn't anticipate with white wines.
Colchis is at 39 Chepstow Place in Notting Hill - London W2 4TS. Tel: +44 (0)20 7221 7620.
*the good folk of Friuli aren't best pleased that they have to stop using the name Tocai, from Tokaj and dislike the Friuliano moniker.
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