When I interviewed Tim Hendrickson of Wine Ink for last week’s PnP/CIA dual feature, I asked him what was the single weirdest bottle in his unique and eclectic collection of wares, knowing full well that I would likely be buying his response. The answer was this bottle, the 2010 Kisi from producer Pheasant’s Tears. What makes it weird? Well, what doesn’t? It’s made in Georgia (the country, not the state, although both would be equally weird, I suppose), which is no longer a known winemaking power but is the area of the world with the longest-known history of winemaking, dating back 8000+ years. It’s a single-varietal wine from a grape, Kisi, that neither I nor the dozens of reference books in my house had ever heard of, a white grape indigenous to the Kakheti province of eastern Georgia, located near the Azerbaijan border. However, as you can see in the picture at left, the wine is not really white at all, but a rather lurid shade of orange. And oh yes — it’s fermented and aged by being buried in the ground in a giant clay egg. Intrigued yet? Just wait till you taste it.
Pheasant’s Tears is one of the few wineries on Earth making wine using ultra-traditional Georgian production methods, all of which centre around the qvevri (or kvevri), a large, beeswax-lined, egg-shaped clay fermentation vessel first used thousands of years ago that holds the key to the unique appearance and flavour profile of the wines it creates. In the qvevri process, grapes like Kisi are crushed and their juice pressed and transferred into the egg vessel along with the grapes’ skins, seeds and some stems (none of which are usually involved in the production of white wine, where the juice is almost always fermented on its own). The qvevri is then buried in the ground for up to 8 months while fermentation takes place, its subterranean location ensuring cool, consistent temperatures and humidity. During fermentation, thanks in part to the oval shape of the vessel, the skins, seeds and stems all tend to settle on the bottom of the qvevri, so when the fermented wine is transferred to a second qvevri for aging, most of this residue is left behind. According to an old Georgian proverb, “only a wine beyond measure could make a pheasant cry tears of joy”, so Pheasant’s Tears’ name is also its mantra: to keep these cherished ancient production practices alive and to use them to create wines good enough to make birds (and the buying public) weep.
The Kisi is one of Georgia’s “amber wines”, and the reason for this designation becomes clear as soon as the wine comes out of the bottle. Despite being made with a white grape, there is a clear orange tinge to the wine’s golden colour, something that would usually be a signal that there’s something very wrong with it. In this case, however, the amber colour is a result of the qvevri process, arising due to the juice’s extended contact with the grape skins during fermentation. This deep, rich amber hue wasn’t quite like anything I had ever seen in a wine, most resembling a few deeply aged dessert wines that I had tried in the past (despite being made in 2010!). The nose, however, wasn’t dessert-like at all. I can’t really tell you what it WAS like, because there is no real frame of reference for this bottle, but picture an intense, unabashed, swirling mix of salt, honeycomb, rubber, an almond-like nuttiness, and a mealy note like beer or Fino sherry, all overlaid with rich florals, lush honey, and orange zest. That gets you about halfway there. It was an absolutely insane level of complexity for a wine that hasn’t yet turned two.
This powerful, dense richness on the nose is a setup for another total 180 on the palate. Everything about how the Kisi looks and smells leads you to believe that you’re in for a full, rich, lively mouthful when you take a sip, but just like it doesn’t smell like how it looks, it doesn’t taste anything like it smells. I almost spit it out from shock when I swirled it around in my mouth and discovered it to be bone dry, with clearly discernable levels of tannin (thanks to the skin/seed/stem contact during fermentation) and a tart, delicate, quiet mouthfeel. There’s a slight hint of golden apple and apricot hidden away in the back somewhere, but the predominant flavours are wax, oolong tea, brine and parchment; remarkably weathered and austere, the Kisi almost tastes like old paper (and yes, I ate paper in high school, so I can vouch for this). Drinking it makes you feel like you’re tiptoeing into a mummy’s tomb, some sacred place that is undisturbed and covered in the dust and neglect of centuries…and yet at the same time, it’s strangely refreshing, and it finishes with a quiet confidence. Thanks to its tannin and strong acid structure, it can also apparently stand up to “red wine” foods like grilled meats, and I would bet that it could age for awhile, although there’s no particular reason to wait on it. It’s basically the weirdest thing I’ve ever tasted, but I would definitely have it again.
Simply put, this is a total mindf**k of a wine: it’s like one wine’s nose on another wine’s palate, with a colour that’s all wrong for either. The sensory and cognitive dissonance created by trying to taste this like it’s any other wine is almost enough to make your head explode. For that reason alone, I would strongly encourage you to track it down at Wine Ink, shell out $27 and give it a try, just once. This is one interview question that Tim got exactly right.
$25 to $30 CDN