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Saperavi, one of the world’s oldest grapes, is ready to take off in America

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There is a red grape you may hear more about in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic in the coming years. This is not new – in fact, it is one of the oldest grapes in the world. It is saperavi, native to Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains, where archaeologists have found evidence of winemaking dating back 8,000 years. But even though it is one of the world’s oldest grapes, the history of saperavis, including how it came to America, resonates through today’s headlines.

On May 14, Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery in Hammondsport, NY, on the west side of Keuka Lake, hosts a Saperavi festival for trade and consumers to highlight the grape’s Georgian heritage and its connection to Ukraine. The festival is the inspiration of Lasha Tsatava, a native Georgian, and Erika Frey, a Boston-based wine educator and retailer who co-founded Saperica, a nonprofit organization to promote Georgian wine and gastronomy in the United States. The two formed a bond when Tsatava talked about Georgia’s old wine heritage, and Frey, who had studied at Cornell University, acknowledged that some of the grape varieties he mentioned were grown in the Finger Lakes region.

They decided to explore Georgia’s connection to American wine during the pandemic. “We could not travel to Georgia, but we could get to Finger Lakes,” Frey says. Last summer, they visited a handful of wineries that grew saperavi, including Dr. Frank and McGregor Vineyard on Keuka Lake, and Standing Stone on the east side of Seneca Lake.

“When I told people the story of saperavi and its connection to Georgian culture and the history of wine, I could see their eyes light up,” says Tsatava. “We want to develop that feeling.” He and Frey organized two small consumer events last fall and began planning this spring’s Saperavi Festival.

Wait a minute, I hear you say – what is the connection to Ukraine?

Remember that Georgia and Ukraine were both part of the Soviet Union. Georgia’s primary wine export markets are Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, three quarters of Georgia’s export market evaporated,” Tsatava said. “Wineries will go bankrupt.”

Ukraine also grows saperavi, though its best vineyards were “wiped out” by the Russians when they annexed Crimea in 2014, according to Gayle Corrigan, president of Saperavi USA, a Rhode Island-based importer.

There is another connection, one that shows how world events – even world wars – intertwine with personal stories and are reflected in the wines we drink.

Saperavi was first planted in the United States in 1958 by Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian refugee of German heritage who had worked in agriculture and viticulture at the Polytechnic Institute of Odessa in the 1920s and 1930s under Stalin’s Soviet Union. Frank became a refugee towards the end of World War II and settled in the Finger Lakes area in the early 1950s. There he embarked on a controversial crusade to convince skeptical winemakers that European vinifera grapes could thrive in that climate and produce better wines than native or hybrid grapes.

He was right, of course, and Riesling became Finger Lakes’ main grape. But Frank introduced more than 60 vinifera varieties he had worked with in Ukraine, including saperavi and the white Georgian grape rkatsiteli. Rkats, as its fans call it, are grown in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts as well as New York. It produces a fresh wine that resembles riesling and albariño. Linganore Winery in central Maryland makes a delicious saperavi, and Ox-Eye Vineyards in Virginia grows it as well. More saperavi are grown in Pennsylvania and Michigan and should become available in limited quantities in the coming years.

Saperavi has several attractive properties for East American winemakers, says Lisa Granik, a master of wine and specialist in Georgian wines. “It is deeply colored and has a characteristic taste, probably closer to syrah than any other variety,” Granik says. Low in tannins and high in acid, “it’s very food friendly with everything grilled,” she adds. “Everything that works with a red wine that is not shy.” Another benefit: “It’s easy to pronounce.”

“I’m surprised people from Maryland and up north have not gone after saperavi,” says Fred Merwarth, referring to the grape’s ability to withstand cold winters. Merwarth is a winemaker and co-owner of Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, which acquired Standing Stone and its 6.9 acres of saperavi vines in 2017. He makes five wines with saperavi, including a rosé and a sparkling one. He acknowledges that he is still trying to find the best expression of the grape, experimenting with oak barrels and aging in a 1,000-liter clay pot to mimic the traditional qvevri used in Georgia.

But Merwarth is optimistic about Saperavis’ potential. He plans to plant another 10 acres next year.

“Saperavi works well here,” says Meaghan Frank, great-grandson of Constantine Frank and fourth-generation winemaker at the family-owned winery. “With its intense color, the wine can be bold and full-bodied, something that can not always be achieved here in Finger Lakes,” she says. Her saperavi, made in small quantities and available from the vineyard, is light and juicy with flavors of black cherries and a touch of tobacco. “We look forward to a bright future for this variety,” she says.

After Russia launched its latest invasion of Ukraine in late February, the Franks decided to donate half of a weekend’s revenue to World Central Kitchen to support relief efforts for Ukrainian refugees. “It was our family history,” Meaghan says, noting that the Franks still have relatives in Odessa. “We thought we could raise $ 10,000, but we ended up with more than $ 41,000. People came in droves.”

When you raise a glass of American saperavi, you will not only enjoy its aromas. You will drink history, from 8,000 years ago to now.

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