Uncorked: Ancient grape saperavi suited to new world climate

Drought tolerance one of its winning attributes

Saperica works to introduce ancient grape to new markets.

The world’s oldest wine needs a larger audience.

Saperavi, traced back to the early Neolithic period between 6,000 and 5,800 B.C. at two sites in Georgia’s South Caucasus, is still made in its traditional method, fermented and aged underground in qvevri, large-earthenware vessels, and around the same sites.

Saperica works to introduce ancient grape to new markets.

While climate change continues to bring extreme weather, saperavi is drought tolerant and incredibly versatile as it takes to a variety of soils and climatological conditions. It’s a producer on the vine, accumulating enough sugar to make wines with anywhere from 10 to 17% alcohol.

Saperavi has enough acid to easily go through malolactic fermentation; its skins yield enough color and tannin to provide structure for the wine, and its pronounced aromatics showcase whether it was grown in a cool- or warm-climate vineyard.

Which is why Lasha Tsatava, co-founder of the nonprofit organization Saperica, is on a mission to increase saperavi awareness. He holds a diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is consulting wine director at Chama Mama restaurants.

“I am on a quest to figure out why saperavi isn’t recognized like other international varieties like cabernet sauvignon or syrah,” Tsatava said. “I keep asking myself that, and I ask people who know more than me in the wine world the same question, so we can find the solution and put it on the map.”

Four Georgian saperavi were sampled, all with dramatically different aromas, textures and flavor profiles.

A crowd-pleaser for its blackberry compote and blueberry cobbler aromas, DoReMi Saperavi 2021 ($30) was medium- to full-bodied, with juicy, cooked, black fruit flavors. Teleda Orgo Saperavi 2021 ($25.99) was medium-bodied, with black cherry, roasted meat and dusty dark chocolate flavors.

Tbilvino Saperavi 2021 ($11) was ruby red in the glass, with violets, licorice, fennel seed and plum on a medium to full body. My personal favorite, Georgian Royal Wine Saperavi 2021 ($15.99), was a bright violet color and light-bodied, with a floral and menthol nose. It had juicy, round, red fruits, and, if chilled, came off a little like a Lambrusco.

Saperica works to introduce ancient grape to new markets.

To make a comparison to more familiar grape varieties, the saperavi showed characteristics of warm-climate syrah, light-bodied grenache, New World grenache, syrah and mourvedre blends, even showing some Italian sangiovese traits.

Because each wine was so unique – and good – it was an exciting experience. That’s a strength for winemakers who can let their personality shine as they offer individualized interpretations of saperavi. But it’s a challenge for marketers as they look to define the grape’s identity for a larger audience.

“Everyone wants their own expression of saperavi,” Tsatava said. “However, imagine coming to a new market and having all these different versions. Someone has to answer how we market all these different styles and how consumers understand it. Which style is most likely produced and delivered through channels with the right price point and flavor profiles, that’s what we are trying to figure out.”

While they try to figure it out, consider sampling saperavi as a journey through time. It’s the world’s oldest wine-growing region at 8,000 years. It’s a wine made in the traditional qvevri, a large earthenware vessel buried underground where fermentation and aging take place in a temperature-controlled environment from a time before electricity powered a wine cellar. It also was granted UNESCO heritage status on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013.

Like an exhumed qvevri that will yield a new vintage, saperavi might take some figurative digging through shelves at your local wine store, but it’s well worth the search.

“Saperavi is a sleeping giant that hasn’t been discovered or widely accepted,” Tsatava said. “It is drought resistant in the big wine regions of the world. Bordeaux and California are all trying to figure out what to blend next with rising climate temperatures. This is where saperavi has a place that hasn’t been widely researched or accepted. But it has that potential to march with climate change.”

Organization champions saperavi

For Lasha Tsatava, saperavi should have a home in the United States. He’s so sure of it, he co-founded Saperica Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation devoted to spreading the saperavi gospel. The aim is to raise awareness for saperavi, and increase plantings in America, Georgia and around the world.

He sees potential for saperavi in New York where it’s already in Finger Lakes vineyards.

“For me, I believe the best chance for saperavi in the States is the Finger Lakes,” Tsatava said. “To give voice to saperavi, you don’t even need anyone to be brave and plant it. It’s been there for 60 years. For two years in a row, we’ve organized a festival telling everyone about its versatility.”

It was after a presentation at the festival that an attendee‘s response left Tsatava with an inspired feeling.

“They told me they could totally see saperavi becoming what riesling has become in the Finger Lakes,” Tsatava said. “That was a huge boost. Someone from a crowd is listening and can envision something for the future. I’m so happy the plantings are slowly increasing. More people are becoming aware. It’s a slow growth, but the impact is there.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.

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