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Saperavi: The Next “Cult” Grape

Saperavi: The Next “Cult” Grape

Saperavi | Photo Credit: Standing Stone Vineyards

In the northeastern United States, the search for a red grape that would be able to produce a world-class wine has gone on for years. The search can be likened to the holy grail of wine grapes.

Lemberger (Blaufränkish) and Cabernet Franc have produced stellar wine, but many of the red vinifera varieties can’t ripen fully to achieve their true potential—given the climate of the Northeast. Wine drinkers have waited as vintners scour the world for a grape that not only survives the cold weather and ripens fully by harvest but also produces superior wine.

Vintners took guidance from the adage “ why reinvent the wheel?” and began their search for a compatible grape in the cradle of winemaking itself. The Kakheti region of Georgia and surrounding lands have been labeled as the birthplace of winemaking by archaeologists using evidence of winemaking there as far back as 6000 BC. One of the modern grapes that can trace its origins back to the beginning of this history is Saperavi (Vitis vinifera).

Saperavi is a teinturier grape meaning it has dark skin and a pink-tinted pulp. Translated as “dye,” the name Saperavi references the dark-colored wine it makes. Saperavi is compatible with the cool-climate vineyards of the Northeast and the East Coast because it’s an adaptable wine grape capable of producing large yields without sacrificing fruit quality. How did Saperavi make the journey from the shores of the Black Sea to the Finger Lakes of New York?

Folklore has it that Dr. Konstantin Frank brought Saperavi vines to the Finger Lakes when he immigrated from Europe. Fred Frank, President of Konstantin Frank Winery and grandson of Dr. Frank, explains, “Konstantin first introduced this variety to the Finger Lakes in his original plantings back in 1958. His first wines were produced in 1962.” The Finger Lakes are deep lakes carved out eons ago by glaciers. Their water collects the sun’s energy all summer, then releases it throughout the winter and spring to moderate the temperature in the vineyards planted near their shores. Those ideal conditions allow Saperavi to produce plentiful harvests of high-quality fruit consistently. Fred says, “I believe Saperavi is a good match for the Finger Lakes because it has resistance to cold temperatures and good disease resistance.” Fred Frank describes the 2016 Dr. Frank Saperavi bottling as “pronounced and fruity with bramble, blackberry, and red plum complemented with touches of sweet spice, cedar, and smoke. It’s full-bodied with polished tannins, and the acidity lifts the flavors for a long finish.”

Photo credit: Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery

Thriving at Standing Stone Vineyards

Today the state of New York is home to the world’s largest Saperavi vineyard outside of Georgia. The Saperavi in that vineyard was planted and nurtured by former owners Tom and Martha (Marti) Macinski. Tom and Marti bought the former Gold Seal Winery property on the east side of Seneca Lake in 1991. This historic vineyard was initially planted with Chardonnay by Charles Fournier and Guy DeVeaux of fabled Gold Seal Vineyards to produce sparkling wine. Unfortunately, Gold Seal Vineyards went out of business before they completed that project. The Macinskis had a vision for their vineyard and crafted a plan to maximize all the unique attributes it had to offer.

Marti explains, “Tom and I planted Saperavi at the suggestion of Tom Mitchell, who managed most of the Taylor and Taylor successor vineyards and also owned the Fall Bright Winemaking shop with his wife, Marcy. Tom was our first vineyard consultant. He suggested Saperavi knowing just a bit about it and knowing that Eric Volz had vines available. We were hoping the dark color of Saperavi would blend with Pinot Noir to help with that variety’s color issues. We planted two rows—a total of just over 50 vines. As the Saperavi grew, we learned more about it. The first thing we learned was that it does not blend well with Pinot Noir. It did seem to work well with Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, so we co-fermented the small amount we had with one of those.”

Growing Saperavi and making wine from its grapes became a learning experience for the Macinskis, one that had a steep learning curve. The first real test was in the winter of 2004. Marti remembered that pivotal time in detail, “It was devastating for lots of young vinifera vines in the Finger Lakes. Temperatures plummeted to ten degrees below zero. While many vinifera varieties showed losses of more than 30 percent, the Saperavi was relatively unscathed. We let it grow as it wanted to that year, not thinning out any clusters. It ripened fully, and the resulting larger harvest was just enough to give us one barrel of wine. We bottled it separately, people loved it, and we never looked back. We began to plant more Saperavi, eventually increasing our vines to cover over six acres.”

Photo Credit: Standing Stone Vineyards

As their Saperavi vineyard developed over the years, Tom and Marti continued to refine how they made Standing Stone Saperavi. Their most popular winery event was the annual Saperavi vertical tasting. Wine lovers had the rare opportunity to taste several vintages of Standing Stone Saperavi and compare their development to better understand how complex the variety can become as it ages. The 2019 Standing Stone Teinturier Saperavi uses hand-picked grapes, some whole-cluster inclusion. It is aged ten months, and the resulting wine is full-bodied with notes of plum, dark fruit, black currant, blackberry, and blueberry that are accentuated by bright acidity and moderate tannins.

In 1971, Bob and Marge McGregor purchased 70 acres on the east side of Keuka Lake overlooking the East Bluff in Dundee that would become their winery, McGregor Vineyard. Their novel approach of planting Vitis vinifera grape varieties was uncommon at the time due to the belief that vinifera vines were not cold hardy. The McGregors’ resolve proved to be not only innovative but integral to their success. They added Saperavi to the vineyard in 1980, along with the Moldovan wine grape Sereksiya Charni. The marriage of these two grapes produced a one-of-a-kind blend that defined McGregor Vineyard in the eyes of the wine community. The first vintage of this iconic blend, named Black Russian Red, was released in 1991. Black Russian Red is a field blend where the Saperavi and Sereksiya Charni vines are planted, harvested, and treated together to yield a consistent wine. In 2017, McGregor Vineyard produced its first varietal Saperavi in more than thirty years. The Saperavi vines there have adapted and thrived while portraying the distinct characteristics of the site.

Rooted in the McGregor Vineyard Legacy

Bob & Marge McGregor | Photo Credit: McGregor Vineyard

The McGregors’ son and McGregor Vineyard Vice-President John McGregor explains its success, “Saperavi is well-suited to the Finger Lakes’ micro-climate in general. Its loose clusters make it less susceptible to mildew than tight-clustered vinifera such as Pinot Noir. Our proximity (about a mile up the hillside for Keuka Lake) has certainly helped us prevent disease. The lake pulls cool air down the hill in the evenings and pushes warm air up the hill in the daytime. Our clay-loam soils have a high concentration of shale and mineral content, and the vines like this quite a bit. The vines seem to tolerate quite cold winter temperatures, certainly better than Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gewürztraminer. The most difficult characteristic of the grape to deal with in this region is its naturally high acidity. In the years where the growing conditions are not ideal, the acid can be a real headache for the winemaker. Balancing this bracing acidity with the proper residual sugar while reducing the acid without the pH rising too much takes some skill. I also think this is where our patience in the cellar and long-term holdings of vintage bottlings have paid off; age lends itself well to Saperavi.” The 2018 McGregor Saperavi is a rich, dark red wine with excellent tannin structure and flavors of blackberry, elderberry, and spice. It exhibits Saperavi’s trademark acidity, making it perfectly suited to long-term cellar aging.

Not Just the Finger Lakes

Jim Baker | Photo Credit: Chateau Niagara

Traveling northwest from the Finger Lakes are the award-winning vineyards of Chateau Niagara on the Niagara Lake Plain near Lake Ontario in Newfane. Jim Baker is the owner and winemaker and has always pushed the envelope to plant unexpected “Old-World” wine grapes in his vineyard alongside more well-known varieties. Chateau Niagara’s Saperavi vineyard is an excellent example of the grape’s versatility and ability to produce exceptional fruit that can express an interpretation of its terroir amongst a diverse assortment of growing conditions. Jim explains how the growing requirements on the Niagara Lake Plain differ from those in the Finger Lakes and how they favor Saperavi, “They have mostly clay soils there, and we have lake-laid silt, sand, and gravel soils here. Our property is an old sand bar, with sand and sand-and-gravel spots. Our climate is dominated by Lake Ontario and the effects of the Niagara Escarpment. These two things work together to hold us back from late spring frosts and extend our fall harvest season. We have relatively slow seasonal changes.” The vineyards at Chateau Niagara can grow any number of wine grapes successfully but it was during a visit to McGregor Vineyard when Jim tasted their Black Russian Red that he knew immediately Saperavi was perfect for the vision he had for his winery and he had to have it. The 2019 Chateau Niagara Saperavi is a deeply-colored, well-structured dry red wine with ample acidity, mild tannins, and cherry, black raspberry, and dark fruit flavors.

Saperavi has established itself on the East coast of the United States, but it is only in its early chapters here with every growing season and harvest. The possibilities surrounding this wine are compelling, and winemakers are noticing—coming up with fresh ideas on Saperavi wine now and in the future.