Grapes: Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane
Source: Iberia, Islington
When Liv and I drew up our list of target countries, back in December, we did so without much idea of where and how we’d source most of the wines. We knew we could rely on the many (and wonderful) wine shops of London for anything obvious, and the rest…well, we assumed the rest would just work themselves out as the year went on.
Six months later, that laissez-faire approach has proved surprisingly successful, due in large part to the ingenuity and generosity of our family and friends. Between their gifts and a variety of impulse purchases, we’ve just about kept up with the pace required to complete our challenge (though it’s going to be a busy December!).
Dotted in amongst those opportunistic bottles have been a handful of countries for which we did have a plan. We always knew, for example, that we’d be spending a week in New York in January, so it made sense to drink our American wine there; once I’d booked our June trip to Paris, the same was true for France. We drank German wine in Berlin, while visiting my sister and nephew, and at some point in the autumn we’ll make it to one of the various English vineyards for a bottle of British fizz.
It helps to have those ‘event’ wines to look forward to, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that we both scored the American, French, and German bottles very highly – when it comes to any kind of sensory experience, context matters. That was also true last Tuesday, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, when we went to a small, family-run restaurant on Caledonian Road called Iberia, for some delicious Georgian food and a bottle of their equally tasty white wine.
Georgia is the other country I’d put a mental asterisk next to in January, and for that I blame/credit my friend Alex. It was Alex – along with her girlfriend, Pavlina, and her sister, Caroline – who took me to Iberia for my birthday in 2014, and who introduced me to the warm, rich, spicy flavours of traditional Georgian cooking. The restaurant was no more than a 15-minute walk from my Islington flat, and featured on a couple of my regular running routes, so I returned there several times over the next couple of years, for their wonderful, cheese-stuffed khachapuri, and (of course) for their wine.
With restaurants – far more so than with pubs – I think it’s really important to have a couple of decent ‘locals’. Eating out is one of life’s great pleasures, whether you’re marking a special occasion, catching up with friends, or just treating yourself to some tasty food and quality alone-time. It’s obviously not cheap though, so while it’s always nice to try somewhere new, I like to have a couple of places nearby where I know I’ll get a good meal at a fair price – just for those nights when guaranteed satisfaction feels like more of a priority than experimentation or adventure.
Even in Warsaw, where eating was cheap, I found myself returning to the same restaurants again and again, often with my laptop or a book for company. I’ve never understood why solo dining is regarded as such an unusual (or uncomfortable) activity, but I think it was only there that I really fell in love with those cosy meals for one. For someone who sort of straddles the fence between introvert and extrovert, they were perfect; I could eat, read, and people-watch to my heart’s content, but if I wanted company, there were always bar staff or fellow diners who were more than happy to practice their English with a native speaker.
Perhaps because there’s a bit of a stigma attached to it, eating out alone can also feel quite indulgent, which I rather like; it is somehow more of a treat than going for dinner with a friend or partner. And treats are important! Anything that requires a conscious decision to give/allow ourselves something nice helps to boost self-esteem and self-worth. It encourages us to acknowledge that we deserve nice things, and the value of that cannot be underestimated. There have certainly been times when I’ve appreciated the reminder!
Of course – as with so many things in life – doing it on your own is great, but doing it with other people is even better, and by picking out a handful of good, local restaurants, you also ensure that you’re never short of options when you do need to organise a big event or a group outing. Someone asked me recently to pick out the best restaurant meal I’ve ever had, and the first thing that came to mind wasn’t some swanky, Michelin-starred place, nor was it one of the many outstanding eateries in London or New York that I’d happily and heartily recommend to anyone who asked.
No, that honour went instead to the meal I had at a small, shabby Lebanese restaurant in Oxford on my 30th birthday. Al-Shami is an Oxford institution – when it opened in 1988, it was reputedly the UK’s first Lebanese restaurant outside London – and for over three years it occupied pride of place on my roster of Jericho ‘locals’. When I started to plan my 30th, I knew I wanted to go somewhere I loved, and that I thought everyone else would love too. Al-Shami was the obvious choice. Six years later, that evening stands out less for the food than for the company, the laughter, the joy of seeing all my favourite people gathered in one place…but underpinning all that was the simple act of sitting down to eat together. And it was brilliant.
Liv and I returned to Iberia for our Georgian wine after salsa last week, on another warm, sticky London evening. We sat outside and ate khachapuri, followed by tolma, and a big bowl of chicken braised in tomato, coriander and spices. The waitress let us try three or four different wines before we picked out a bottle, and told us all about the various local grapes that went into them. When we eventually settled on a rich, dry white from the east of Georgia, she left us to enjoy the last of the daylight and each other’s company. Everything about the restaurant was just as good as I remembered: friendly, authentic, and very tasty. The perfect local.
From the Iberia wine list:
Dry. Elegant, complex and round with oak and fried bread in bouquet. Is distinguished by banana and tropical fruits on palate.
From the producer’s website:
Classic, a very pleasant pale straw colored wine made from Rkatsiteli and Kakhetian Mtsvane grape varieties. It offers the dominant aroma of quince and is medium-bodied and rich in the mouth with a smooth finish.
We spent a relatively long time trying to pick a Georgian wine. The grapes on offer were all entirely new to me so I had very little to guide our choice but the price and tasting notes. Our waitress was very helpful, but I’m never sure if I trust staff members who recommend the second most expensive bottle… We eventually chose this white – mainly because I was intrigued by the claim that it tasted of bananas!
Sad to say, there was no banana flavour. It did, however, have a slight sweetness that hinted at tropical and aniseed-y flavours with a faint oaky note that supported the full bodied taste. Although I’ve just used descriptive words like ‘slight’ and ‘faint,’ the overall impression was strong and it easily complimented the rich, spicy meal; blending well but not being overwhelmed. It was golden with a soft aroma, and I really liked it!
8/10, would choose again
This wine smelled nothing like what I’d been expecting! Right from the first, experimental sniff, there was something appealingly strong and raisin-y about it. Almost burnt, but in a really good way, and I was surprised when I glanced at the bottle to see that it was only 12.5%.
Iberia’s tasting notes say banana, but I didn’t get any of that. The tropical fruit? Mayyyyybe. Either way, I liked the fact that it was dry, but not insubstantial or watery – there was something good and toasty to back up that first crisp hit of flavour. It went very well with our meal, and finishing it off afterwards was equally enjoyable. Definitely a combination of grapes I’ll look out for again.