Saperavi is special. Georgians love, admire and esteem this inky deep wine. And they are so proud that it is theirs. Many Georgians tell you that the Saperavi vine originated in Kakheti, in Georgia’s warm east. But Robinson et al give its origin as Zemo Kartli, in the far south west, where it was still widespread in the 17th century. But the Soviets chose Kakheti as the centre of wine production in Georgia, and the ‘other’ wine regions are still recovering and replanting today.
Saperavi’s numerous clones tell of its age. (The longer a variety has been grown, the more time it has to mutate, and for the welcome mutants to be selected and cultivated.) Saperavi clones include Budeshurisebri, Grdzelmarcvala, Mskhvilmarcvala and Pachkha. Interest in and awareness of the clonal diversity of Saperavi is growing.
Saperavi is useful. Drought tolerant and winter hardy, Saperavi is a survivor vine. It ripens late, but is relatively productive. It retains acidity – uncomfortably so in too-cool sites – and is saturated in colour. Its name comes from the word meaning ‘to dye’. Like Alicante Bouchet, the delinquent darling of prohibition America, Saperavi is a ‘Teinturier’ variety, meaning that both skins and flesh are pigmented. Unlike Alicante Bouchet, it has never been damned with the reputation of a basic colour booster for weedier wines. Until the iron curtain fell, very few people outside of Russia and Eastern Europe had heard of it.
Saperavi is versatile, making wines that are deep, rich and age-worthy and (as Robert Joseph points out in this article for Meiningers) excellent, albeit underestimated, sweet and resistant reds from late picked grapes and arrested fermentation.
Saperavi is delicious. And somehow audacious in flavour. Bursting with character and soul. Styles in Georgia are becoming more nuanced, as the throttle is pulled back on extraction and oak. Saperavi can take it. But more subtle dry and off-dry Saperavi wines are being made in Georgia, as well as some intriguing rosé.
The grape has long been cultivated outside of Georgia, almost exclusively in the vineyards of the former Soviet Union. Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia all have established Saperavi vineyards, some of them much acclaimed. Saperavi, and the appellation wines made from it, was the fine wine choice of these countries. Mukuzani was their Pauillac.
Today, Saperavi is going global. It is fitting that the Australians – so pragmatic, technical, and creative – were among the first non-natives to champion and plant this Eastern European grape. Saperavi’s drought tolerance, stable colour and fresh acidity fulfil a need. But they’ve also fallen in love with it, despite the challenges of selling it to a market that does not know where Georgia is, and has certainly never heard of its finest red grape variety. As this article in Wine Business monthly details, some of Australia’s most influential and admired winemakers are now producing acclaimed Saperavi.
So the first ever SapPrize is going to be a fascinating competition. Launched in July 2017, SapPrize has attracted entries of Saperavi from around the world to be judged by an expert jury. Entries are still open, and so far Saperavi from Georgia, Australia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia, New Zealand, Azerbaijan and the USA has been entered. Watch this space. Drink some Saperavi. You’ll be glad you did.