Usakhelouri was nearly wiped out by the communists. During Soviet rule, Georgia’s wine industry was geared entirely towards supplying bulk wine to Russia. This policy put Usakhelouri particularly at risk – it doesn’t make large quantities of grapes so it tended to be ripped out. In Imereti, for example, the grape became all but extinct. So Usakhelouri was almost forgotten. It became the ‘grape with no name’.
Early 20th century historian Javakhishvili noted it was name for a village of the same name that was located on the right bank of the Lakanuri River in Lechkhumi. It is also known by the name Okureshuli, for a different small village (also in Lechkhumi). Consequently, Usakhelouri is known by a number of other names.
Most plantings of Usakhelouri remain in Lechkhumi, though there have been recent plantings in Kakheti. Lechkhumi, specifically the village of Okureshuli is where, legend has it, that Usakhelouri was saved for prosperity by a young winemaker who put up a banner offering to buy any Usakhelouri grapes people could pick. He brought up the meagre seven kilos that the villagers were able to find – and the next year the whole village was out looking for Usakhelouri.
Many thought that the vine’s small grapes, and challenging ripening patterns marked it as similar to the wild vines which grow in the Georgian hills. However, upon tasting Usakhelouri wine, people realised that it was something of much higher quality. Usakhelouri is now produced both in Qvevri and in neutral containers, with no new wood maturation. The latter method generates a vibrant, high-toned nose of lilacs, violets, mint and pepper; the palate is similarly peppery, acidic and lightly tannic.
It’s well worth trying this juicy, naturally semi-sweet red, and luckily Henry’s Wine’s stocks a particularly lovely, well priced example.