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The Ancient Wines of Pheasant’s Tears

I have drunk only a few bottles of wine which were made in large clay vessels notably COS Pithos.  Pheasant’s Tears is one winery in Georgia which use these clay vessels known as qvevri.  Pheasant’s Tears was formed in 2007, some two years after a chance encounter between painter John Wurderman and winemaker Gela Patalishvili.  Qvevri are employed in traditional Georgian wine making to both ferment and age the wine.  There are only four or five qvevri producers left in Georgia so Pheasant’s Tears uses a mixture of new and old qvevri.  These old qvevri may be up to 200 years old and weigh in at 500 pounds.  Pheasant’s Tears leases or buys the rights to these old qvevri so that they may be dug up then transported to his winery.  These old qvevri are still used because they tend to be stronger than newer ones.

Qvevri, Image by Sandro Ukleba (flickr)

The inside of the qvevri have both large and small pores.  It is difficult to clean the small pores where bacteria may reside so the qvevri are lined with beeswax.  Now I had envisioned a thick layer of wax akin to spreading peanut butter on toast.  Instead only a thin layer is spread with the aim of filling the small pores with wax.  To do so a fire is built underneath the qvevri to heat it up so that the wax will melt on the inside.  Once the qvevri is lined it is carefully buried in the ground.  It is possible that the wax has a slight impact on the first use but after that it is an inert container. The lining is only repeated once every 50 years or so.

Stomping Grapes, Image by Civil Service Bureau (flickr)

At Pheasant’s Tears the fruit is crushed by foot in a hollowed out log.  Everything flows by gravity down into the qvevri.  Only the ripest of stems are added into the qvevri where there are punch-downs and stirring.  The Rkatsiteli spends up to six months on the skins.  After fermentation the qvevri is covered with a slate top and carbon dioxide is injected.  Such little carbon dioxide is used that the final wine contains only 16-18 ppm.  The slate top is sealed with a clay ring and covered with sand.  When it comes time to open the qvevri a pump is used to remove the wine.  Larger qvevri are used to blend any lots before bottling.

Of the recent vintages, 2008 and 2010 were warmer.  2009 was cooler and has better acidity than 2010.  In 2010 the grapes were harvested one month earlier than normal.  One indicator of the warmth of a vintage is the color of the Rkatsiteli wine.  The grape itself has a pink pigment so that in warmer vintages the wine has more orange color.  Many thanks to Chris Terrell for providing the detailed information.  For additional details please watch the videos on the Pheasant’s Tears website.

Tasting these two wines was a unique experience.  Not only were the aromas and flavors new to me but the sensation in the mouth was rather tactile.  I never tried more the one glass at a time, they are not quite the flavors I prefer, but they comes across as deftly made.  That is, if you can describe a wine produced with such minimal interaction as “made.”  These will be long-lived wines.  At one point Shane stopped by.  It had been some two weeks after I had opened the Saperavi but I poured some anyways.  The wine had barely changed!   If you are the curious sort then I strongly recommend you try these wines.  These wines are available at MacArthur Beverages.

2009 Pheasant’s Tears, Rkatsiteli, Kakheti – $17
Imported by Terrell Wines. Alcohol 12.5%.  The color is a light+ gold with amber.  The nose is milk-like with dark, low-lying aromas.  In the mouth the oily wine starts with some red berries then bright, almost piercing flavors of lemon followed by dried flowers.  After several days the wine becomes oily, earthy, with fresh acidity throughout, a little smokey in the finish, and fine sappy tannins in the aftertaste.  Imagine wax.  Over several days, the wine remains quite fresh in the mouth with a gentle body.  ** Now-2022.

2010 Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Kakheti – $17
Imported by Terrell Wines. Alcohol 14%.  The color is a medium to dark ruby.  The nose reveals waxed fruit which I know not how to describe.  The legs are viscous and slowly drip down the glass.  In the mouth the wine is almost viscous with fine gritty texture, soft and ripe, grippy tannins, and tart fruit of moderate ripness.  There are tannins the length of the wine which work well with the tactile sensation of drinking the wine.  The flavors become drier in the finish.  ** Now-2027.

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  1. April 24, 2014 at 5:15 am

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