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Desperately Seeking Saperavi

November 2, 2016 16 comments

Saperavi is one of my absolute favorite grapes. It is capable of a wide range of expressions, as well as extended aging, and Saperavi wines often present an unbeatable value compare to any wines in the same or even higher price category. Saperavi is typically associated with the Republic of Georgia, where it is an undisputable star, but it is slowly gaining its enthusiastic following in the other regions. This grape also became a connection point between myself and Rich Rocca, whose passion for the Saperavi is unquestionable, and I’m always looking forward learning from Rich as to what is going on in the world of Saperavi, especially considering his focus on the New World regions. I thought it would be perfectly appropriate to offer pages of this blog for the guest post from Rich, who shares his quest for Saperavi below.

saperavi-grapes-marani

Saperavi Grapes. Source: Marani website

My name is Rich Rocca and I write the wine blog wpawinepirate. I have covered a wide variety of subjects in my posts but the primary objective has always been to provide my readers information about the wineries and vineyards in my home region of Western Pennsylvania. The Finger Lakes Wine Region of New York (FLX) has also been of great interest to me. I have made numerous trips to the FLX and it was during these visits I discovered Saperavi. Anatoli and I became friends after we began exchanging our thoughts concerning the state of Saperavi in America and even Saperavi wine itself. Those years of accessing the progress of this grape eventually lead to Anatoli’s gracious invitation to write a guest post on his blog which I eagerly accepted. Saperavi has always been a “Secret Handshake” type of wine that you either knew about or you didn’t. Here’s your chance to get into the club but unlike in the past don’t keep it to yourself and spread the word about this rising star.

The vintners of the Northeastern United States have long searched for a red wine grape that could be their signature grape. Over the years several have been on the cusp of becoming the iconic red wine grape that would be identified with the region for producing world-class red wine. Vintages of Lemberger and Cabernet Franc have produced stellar wines that can hold their own with other regions but just couldn’t elbow their way through a crowded field of reds for the attention of the wine drinkers of the Eastern U.S. and beyond. The fact that you are reading this post proves that you have a curiosity about something new in a world full of wine that can be overwhelming at times. The following is a summary of information I have gathered over the years about this intriguing grape from the winemakers and vineyard managers who know it best.

Saperavi is an ancient grape that can trace its origin to the Kakheti Region of Georgia and the surrounding regions as far back as 6000 B.C. Saperavi is a teinturier-type grape, which means it has a dark skin and a pink-tinted flesh. A teinturier variety of grape will produce an intensely colored juice when crushed because both the skin and flesh contain the water-soluble pigment anthocyanin which is responsible for giving fruits and vegetables their red, blue and purple color. Saperavi is a very adaptable loose bunch, late-ripening, cool climate grape variety that can produce large yields without sacrificing much in the quality of the fruit. These vines are able to thrive in cool climate regions even at high altitudes because they have above average resistance to cold temperatures. A more cold/frost tolerant hybrid called Saperavi Severny has been developed by incorporating genes from the hardy Severny grape. Traditionally Saperavi wine has been blended with lesser wines but recently it has been gaining popularity as a varietal bottling. A common translation of Saperavi is “dye” because it makes an extremely dark colored wine. Saperavi wine is known for having good acidity and firm but not overwhelming tannins. It is these attributes that make it a wine that takes well to aging with some examples being found to have aged nicely for fifty years. Georgia recently has had political problems with its neighbors over the export of wine, notably Saperavi, but that is a blessing in disguise because it is diverting more wine to the world market.

When talking about Saperavi I can’t contain my excitement and expectations for the wine being grown and made in the United States. I have coined the term “New World Saperavi” for the wine being grown and made by three wineries in the Finger Lakes Wine Region of New York and one in Central Pennsylvania. In the FLX Saperavi is being grown and made at Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellar by Fredrick (Fred) Frank, the son of Willy Frank and grandson of Dr. Konstantin Frank, two legendary winemakers. Saperavi winemaking is well established at Standing Stone Vineyards thanks to Martha (Marti) Macinski (owner/winemaker). She is one of the pioneers of Saperavi in the FLX and is making her wine using grapes from her ever expanding Saperavi vineyard, arguably the largest in North America. Anyone familiar with FLX Saperavi knows John McGregor at McGregor Vineyards the maker of McGregor Black Russian Red. This wine is often referred to as “THE” cult wine of the FLX. McGregor Black Russian Red is a unique blend of Saperavi and Sereksiya Charni and is only produced at John’s Keuka Lake winery. The only other producer of Saperavi outside of the FLX is Fero Vineyards and Winery in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Chuck Zaleski is the owner/winemaker at Fero and as his award-winning Saperavi vines mature he has been experimenting with different wine making techniques and styles to capitalize on the distinct characteristics this grape exhibits.

Fero isn’t the only winery exploring the possibilities of Saperavi, all three of its counterparts in New York continue to hone in on their particular vision of what Saperavi can be and what styles it can be made into. Their success isn’t going unnoticed as more vineyard managers are planting Saperavi but the addition of newly planted acreage is slow. There are several factors that have hindered the spread of Saperavi not the least of which is the scarcity of the vines themselves. Two eastern wineries that have young Saperavi vineyards are Knapp Winery in the FLX and White Barrel Winery (formerly Attimo) in Christianburg, Virginia. Anyone considering adding Saperavi to their property can start their search at Grafted Grapevine Nursery Clifton Springs, New York, a longtime supplier of Saperavi and other varieties to the wine industry.

“New World Saperavi” can be difficult to find because of the small number of producers and the limited yields from vineyards that are expanding but cannot meet the increasing demand. If you are interested in learning more about the Saperavi producers in the United States I have written an in-depth post about them. The post can be viewed at wpawinepirate.wordpress.com/2015/09/22/new-world-saperavi-report/

The next stop on our search for “New World Saperavi” is Australia. South Australia to be more exact, home to Dan Traucki, wine industry consultant, Director of Wine Assist Pty Ltd, freelance writer and my newest friend in the search for Saperavi wherever it may take me. Through his articles and our correspondences, Dan has given me an insider’s perspective of the current state of Saperavi and other lesser known wines being made in Australia. Australian wine production from its approximately 4000 wineries is dominated by Shiraz and Chardonnay making competition for market share acutely competitive. Fourteen ground-breaking vineyard managers have taken the speculative position of planting Saperavi in their vineyards. The majority of these plantings are in the warm climate of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale Regions. Saperavi can also be found in the cool climate of the Alpine Valley Region of Victoria. The cool climate Saperavi produces a slender wine with an angular taste profile while the warm climate renders a wine of muscular body and vivid taste.

I am interested in how Saperavi’s innate ability to express its terroir plays out when it is being planted in such a diverse assortment of locations around the globe. Even though these vineyards are planted in vastly different regions of the world there is a high probability that over the course of time the DNA of other wine grapes has found its way into the DNA of Saperavi as it has with all other “pure” strains of wine grapes. The vines for Australian Saperavi were sourced from the Archival Saperavi of Roseworthy Agricultural College. This noteworthy collection of vines has been amassed from vineyards worldwide over the past 100 years. With this thought in mind, I am sure that Saperavi produced anywhere will display the unmistakable qualities that we associate with it but will also manifest certain location-specific characteristics that will be inevitable because of its genetic tendency to adapt the growing environment.

The history of the “Old World Saperavi” has been well chronicled over the centuries dating back to ancient times. Much of the craftsmanship used to make this wine has change little over time from the way it is fermented and stored in large egg-shaped earthenware vessels called Qvevri to the traditions of the Georgian communities that are as intertwined with this grape as are the Saperavi vines themselves. The story of “New World Saperavi” is still in its early chapters but luckily for us it is being written by skilled winemakers that are fearless visionaries when it comes to the future they see for their wineries. The possibilities surrounding this wine are fascinating and evolving with each new harvest. I am a curious person by nature and have always enjoyed learning about something new and exciting. I invite you to join me on this journey in the pursuit of an ageless red wine grape reinvented in vineyards a world away from its ancestral home by dreamers and risk-takers as full of life as Saperavi itself. I urge you to indulge your inquisitive side and try Saperavi from anywhere in the world. I think you will be surprised and glad you got to taste something a little different.

Thank you to Anatoli for the invitation to be a guest on his blog and the opportunity it provides me to reach so many new readers/friends. I am always interested in news of Saperavi growers and producers anywhere. If you know of any please contact me at email: wpainepirate@gmail.com or follow me on my blog: wpawinepirate.wordpress.com

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Riesling, Oh Riesling – Finger Lakes Riesling Deep Immersion with #WineChat

September 16, 2014 18 comments

IRF tasteprofileThere is nothing obscure about Riesling. Unquestionably one of the “big three” white grapes (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling). Celebrated through various social media events – “The Summer of Riesling”, “Riesling Month”. An established, de-facto pairing for the Asian or any spicy cuisine for that matter. “Fastest growing white wine in America”. And nevertheless, one of the most unknown, under-appreciated and misunderstood wines, if you ask me.

Walk into any general wine store, and try to find Riesling wines. Are they right in the first aisle, next to the California Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc? Nope. Oh yes, a lot of Rieslings come from Europe, so they definitely will be right next to the Burgundy and Loire. Oops – not here again? Here they are – in the back of the back, a side aisle, a small section, ask the sales guy, he will show you. And this is not limited to the wine stores only – most of the restaurant wine lists have one or two Riesling wines, usually in the cheapest group. Similar story in most of our cellars – how many bottles of Riesling do you have on your shelves? A few? And this is despite the fact that Riesling is one of the most age-worthy wines in the world…

So how do these two realities of “one of the fastest growing” and “last row seat” co-exist? I think perception has a lot to do with this. Since Riesling can be sweet, and often it is praised for its sweetness, consumers are stuck in the notion Riesling = Sweet. Take a look at the Wine Spectator ratings – highest rated Kabinett Riesling (typically showing only a hint of sweetness) got 93 points; and then 8 (eight!) Rieslings got 100 points (the absolute top) rating – by the way, it is 8 of only 75 wines which got 100 points from Wine Spectator – and all 8 are Trockenbeerenauslese, the highest sweetness designation. Thus for lots and lots of wine drinkers, Riesling is a dessert wine, and while we love dessert wines a lot more than we are willing to admit, the dessert wine designation means “only for the special moments”.

Can this perception be changed? Of course. How? By educating people. This was one of the reasons for the International Riesling Foundation (IRF) to be created in 2007. The idea behind foundation was exactly this – to make people aware of what Riesling has to offer, and to help people better understand Riesling wines. One of the outcomes of the IRF efforts became the Riesling Taste Profile. According the the specification of that profile, four taste categories are defined – Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet and Sweet. Based on the given set of parameters (sugar, acid and pH), the IRF developed a technical chart which allows winery to estimate how the consumers will likely perceive the wine across the 4 defined taste categories. After that, the winery can print that taste profile on the label (you can see an example at the very beginning of this post) – and then the consumer can quickly set the expectations just by glancing at the label.

Finger Lakes Rieslings

Well, it is good to have an informative label, but when it comes to the wine world, seeing doesn’t really equates to believing. But tasting does. This is where the #winechat comes to the rescue. Last week, a group of enthusiastic oenophiles had a chance to dive deeply into the world of 2013 Finger Lakes Riesling, by tasting through the 8 different wines and sharing the excitement with each other. And the wines were definitely very exciting, full of pleasure in every sip. Finger Lakes region in New York deserves all of your attention  – but I already shared my thought about the region at length in the two earlier posts this year, so I will have to refer you to those (first Finger Lakes #winechat and the post about Bellangelo wines).

Below are my notes regarding the individual wines. These notes are based on the longer evaluation of the wines than we would otherwise have during the 60 short minutes of the #winechat, so if you are talking part in another #winechat session on that subject, I suggest you will start tasting your wines now. One last note regarding the wines. As this is my third encounter with the Finger Lakes wines this year, I would like to offer two “bits of wisdom” based on that experience:

  1. Don’t over-chill.
  2. Let ’em breathe.

Terroir, minerality are important components of Finger Lakes wines – by serving the wines a bit warmer than you normally would, say at around 50F, and letting them breathe for may be an hour, you will do yourself a big favor and will find a lot more pleasure in every sip. At least I did. Without further ado, here are the 8 beautiful wines:

Thirsty Owl Riesling Finger Lakes2013 Thirsty Owl Wine Company Riesling Finger Lakes (11.0% ABV, $14.95). IRF scale not shown. On the nose, touch of minerality (gunflint), apricot. Overall nice and restrained. Palate: Clean , crisp acidity, touch of honeysuckle, golden delicious apple. Medium finish, overall very refreshing. Drinkability: 8-

Knapp Riesling Finger Lakes2013 Knapp Dry Riesling Finger Lakes (12%ABV, $15.95) – On the IRF scale, this wine is at the lower part of the Medium Dry style. White apples, honey and lemon on the nose. On the palate, candied lemon peel with fresh lemon juice, complemented by the cut-through acidity. Medium finish, overall a nicely balanced wine. Drinkability: 7+

Boundary Breaks Riesling Finger Lakes2013 Boundary Breaks Vineyard #239 Dry Finger Lakes (11.6% ABV, $19.95) – right in the middle of “dry” on the IRF scale. This is my second encounter with Boundary Breaks Riesling, and I find that this wine needs breathing time to show itself. Initially, closed on the nose, then opening to show distant hint of lemon, touch of minerality. On the palate – wave of sweetness first, with cut through acidity, lingering for a bit and then finishing dry. Tasting at a later time adds some fresh apple and more minerally undertones. Drinkability: 7+

Red Newt Cellars Riesling Finger Lakes2013 Red Newt Cellars Dry Riesling Finger Lakes (11.8% ABV, $17.00) – right in the middle of “dry” on the IRF scale. On the nose, shows minerality, touch of fresh grass. hint of fresh lime, overall very intense. On the palate – nutmeg, hint of mango, fresh herbs and lemon, crisp, dry. Excellent balance and overall very pleasant. One of my very favorites from the tasting. Drinkability: 8

Swedish Hill Riesling Finger Lakes2013 Swedish Hill Riesling Finger Lakes (11.8% ABV, $15.99) – IRF scale not shown. Fresh white fruit on the nose, touch of candied lemon. Nose quite intense. On the palate – rich, velvety, ripe peach with touch of fresh lemon, clean acidity, excellent finish (medium plus). Texturally quite unique. Drinkability: 8-

Fox Run Riesling Finger Lakes2013 Fox Run Vineyards Dry Riesling Finger Lakes (11% ABV, $17.99) – According to IRF scale, the wine is right on the border between Dry and Medium Dry. On the nose, subdued notes of peach and honey, touch of lemon, intense. Palate is elegant, mineral-driven, with green apple, touch of Meyer lemon, overall dry and very balanced. Drinkability: 8

McGregor Riesling Finger Lakes2013 McGregor Vineyard Riesling Finger Lakes (10.5% ABV, $19.99) – IRF scale is not used. A lot is happening on the nose – cantaloupe, honeysuckle, candied orange, openly sweet and intense. On the palate – ripe apricot, honey, ripe white apple, elegant acidity, perfectly refreshing, very good balance. Drinkability: 8-

Chateau Lafayette Reneau Riesling Finger Lakes2013 Chateau Lafayette Reneau Riesling Semidry Finger Lakes (11.5% ABV, $14.99) – IRF scale is not used. On the nose – rhubarb, floral, touch of grass, white apple. On the palate – honeysuckle, ripe peach, touch of minerality and grass, lemon zest, clean acidity, excellent balance, soft and round mouthfeel. Another top favorite from the tasting. Drinkability: 8

Here we go – 8 great wines, and the region for you waiting to be discovered. September is still on, and it is an official Finger Lakes Riesling month – make an effort to find your new love – a versatile ( and affordable!) wine which you can drink now or put away to enjoy in a few years (or 10 or 20, this is entirely up to you). Cheers!

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