Star of the past - where is Saperavi now?

Thursday, 4. August 2016 - 11:45
Qvevri cellar, Georgia
In an era when identifying the next ‘new, new thing’ often seems to be a key priority, winemakers are increasingly experimenting with grape varieties of which almost no consumers will ever have heard. Among the more exotic recent arrivals in Australian and US vineyards is Saperavi, an unusual, dark-skinned and dark-fleshed variety with ancient origins in Georgia and a more recent role as a workhorse of Soviet-era winemaking – and, apparently, a beneficial effect on the spatial memory function of rats. 
Apparently, like green tea, quince and lemon peel, Saperavi grapes are packed with flavonoids and, according to the preliminary findings of a 2016 study by Mariam Qurasbediani of Tbilisi State University, rodents that drank Saperavi juice were not only better at finding their way around a maze, they also had lower incidence of epilepsy.
Setting aside its novelty value and possible healthfulness, Saperavi has several other things going for it. It has the rare distinction of being classed, alongside Alicante Bouschet, as a teinturier – a ‘dyeing’ variety whose dark juice can be used to correct the colour of insufficiently richly-hued reds. In fact, its name in Georgian means ‘paint’ or ‘ink’. It also boasts naturally high levels of acidity.
The combination of these characteristics is likely to appeal to winemakers in warm regions where hot summers can make for pale-coloured, low-acid examples of wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Unlike Alicante Bouschet, however, which is rarely used as a single varietal, Saperavi has a long history of flying solo in Georgia. Indeed, in a 2010 conference paper, Jana Ekhvaia and Maia Akhalkatsi  of Ilia State University and Frank R. Blattner of Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Research suggested DNA testing may link it to the ancient wild vinifera grapes with which ancient man first produced wine in the Caucasus 8,000 years ago.
Hard to find
Until the fall of the Iron Curtain, cultivation and awareness of Saperavi was almost exclusively restricted to Eastern Europe. Although references to the variety have appeared in international wine literature in more recent times, anyone wanting to know what wines made from the variety actually tasted like struggled to find good examples. Despite her unusually broad experience of wines from around the world and her authorship of books on grapes, Jancis Robinson MW wrote in 2007 that “Saperavi is undoubtedly a great grape but too often it is vinified to a price, or made so sweet that it is difficult to assess true varietal character.” 
This appreciation for sweet red wine in Eastern Europe is often overlooked by British and French wine experts. For the Georgians, however, partially fermented, late-picked Saperavi from the Kvareli region, sold under the Kindzmarauli appellation is one of the jewels in their country’s vinous crown. It is also the style that can be seen on the tables of Russian oligarchs in smart Georgian restaurants in Moscow. Within Georgia itself, most of the wine that was domestically consumed would have been drawn from qvevri, the big amphorae sunk into the ground in which it was fermented and stored. Despite the current fashion for this method among some modern sommeliers and critics, qvevri – like new oak barrels or the ripasso technique in Italy – tends to impose its own influence on the character of the wine. Two wines made from different grape varieties arguably taste more alike when made in qvevri than in stainless steel. 
Today, as Georgian producers increasingly focus on exports to less sweet-toothed countries – especially after a period of enforced exclusion from the Russian market - interest in the dry ‘Mukhuzani’ style is increasing. Even so, as recently as 2013, only one in every four bottles of exported Georgian red wine was dry; indeed 60% of all its wine exports were of sweet red.
Fortunately, a new generation of Georgian winemakers and producers in other countries is now offering examples that allow opinion- formers like Robinson to gain a clearer idea of the Saperavi’s true personality and potential. It would now be possible to set up a tasting of well-made wines from Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as New York State and Pennsylvania in the US and, most surprisingly perhaps, Australia, where it is being used to produce wines by at least 14 wineries. 
Wherever Saperavi is produced, descriptors tend to include ‘spicy’, ‘smoky’, ‘cherryish’, and ‘earthy’; ‘elegant’ and ‘fine’ are far less frequent. Tannin levels tend to be high, along with the acidity, but these can be reduced by gentle handling in the winery. Consumers of traditional Georgian examples were hardly likely to be troubled by a little toughness, given their acceptance of skin-fermented qvevri Rkatsiteli, one of the most innately phenolic white wines in the world.
In Georgia, Saperavi covers approximately 4,000 ha and is the most widely planted red wine variety. New York-based Lisa Granik MW has wide experience of the variety. She has witnessed a growing understanding on the part of the producers of how to get the best out of Saperavi. “They are picking earlier to get fresher flavours and are using less new oak.” Yields, she says, are certainly much lower than they would have been in the days of the Soviet system, and recent plantings are paying more attention to clones, including the longer-berried and reportedly ‘finer’ Budeshurisebri.
However, Granik acknowledges, gatekeepers in the US show little interest in conventionally-produced Saperavis. “The ones you see getting attention are overwhelmingly qvevri wines,” from wineries such as Schuchmann, Vinoterra, Telavi Wine Cellar, and Pheasant’s Tears. Indeed, she notes ruefully, a couple of Californians recently said that the only Georgian wines of any interest are made in qvevri.
Saperavi elsewhere
In the West, the first person to experiment with Saperavi was Dr Konstantin Frank, an early pioneer of the use of vinifera rather than hybrids and labrusca in the Finger Lakes in the north of New York State. He produced his first Saperavi in 1962 from vines planted four years earlier. Today, he has just over half a hectare of the variety, close to Hammondsport, but the 250 or so cases he makes are only available at the cellar door. Frank’s lead was followed by another producer in the region, John McGregor, who introduced four Russian grapes – Saperavi, Sereksiya Rosé, Sereksiya Charni, and Rkatsiteli – in 1980, and was already bottling a Saperavi under his family’s vineyard label in 1985. The third member of what might be called the Finger Lakes Saperavi Trio is Marti Macinski of Standing Stones, who began planting Saperavi in 1994 and now has 2-ha of the variety.  Most recently, Saperavi has been added to the list of styles produced at Fero Vineyards in Pennsylvania.
However, the volumes they produce are tiny – less than a couple of thousand cases – and, despite an occasional mention in a North American wine magazine, the wines are unlikely to attract much attention in an industry dominated by Californian regions such as Napa and Sonoma.
In Australia, however, the grape has been adopted in one of the country’s leading regions, the Barossa Valley, by well-known producers Robin Day, who was previously chief winemaker at Jacob’s Creek, and Michael Twelftree, of Two Hands. It is also grown in the warm Rutherglen region in Victoria, where Howard Anderson of the Anderson Winery – former winemaker for Seppelt, one of Australia’s most famous sparkling wine brands – produces around 2,000 cases of wine per year. In his view, Saperavi is a grape with a ‘wow factor’ for winemakers. He planted his first vines in 2007, now has a hectare of them, and is looking forward to putting the 2012 vintage on to the market. “We’ll alternate between using it for red wine and good old sparkling Aussie red,” he says. “We also have Durif (Petite Sirah) and find that the tannin structures are quite similar. Saperavi will never be big, but we’re excited by it.”
In the cooler King Valley, Peter Evans of the Symphonia winery took over a small Saperavi vineyard planted in the 1990s by the previous owner. “We don’t make the wine as a single varietal every year – the grapes aren’t always up to it – and it takes a while to mature,” he says, adding that the vintage he’s now selling is the 2008, which “is rich, and deeply coloured and just at its peak”. Sales aren’t brisk – “you can have a pallet if you want” – but interest is growing and he thinks it’s a “magnificent variety” whose “time may have come”.
Saperavi’s most enthusiastic Australian fan, however, is Hugh Hamilton in McLaren Vale. He was introduced to the variety 20 years ago by a young Georgian winemaker called Lado Uzunashvili who was in an English class run by his sister. Uzunashvili, who has since become one of Georgia’s vinous stars, persuaded the Australian to plant a few rows, and Hamilton “fell totally in love with it”. 
The relationship has not always been easygoing, however. “It’s a very capricious variety,” he says. “This year we got 12 tons, after a lot of crop-thinning. Last year we only got two, and in 2009, it did something really extraordinary. The drought conditions meant that almost all of the vines lost their leaves, but not the Saperavi. The leaves were all there, but the grapes had dried out. We expected six tons but got 980 kg. It tasted beautiful, but it was the most expensive wine I ever made.”
Hamilton is so evangelical about Saperavi that he is running a symposium on it for other producers. He’s also a realist, however. “If I’d known how tricky it can be, I might never have planted it. And it’s not an easy sell; if you put it on a shelf, it’ll sit there. It needs to be hand-sold, but once people buy it, they often love it.” And, if the medical research is to be believed, once they’ve got a taste for it, they’re unlikely to ever forget its name.
Robert Joseph