Taste: Aromas of autumn berries, ripe dark fruits, cassis and spice, with some earthy and smoky notes, are followed by flavors of cherry, blackberry, blackcurrant and plum, together with hints of leather, licorice, chocolate, coffee and even tobacco. If the wines are oaked, you can expect additional flavors of cedar or vanilla.
Age: Has good aging potential. The better wines will improve for 10 or 15 years, while some are reputed to last several decades.
Other: Decant an hour before serving to allow the flavor profile to open up. Look out for naturally made wines produced in qvevri – see below for further details.
Saperavi (saw-pear-ah-vee) is an ancient grape variety from the most ancient winemaking region of the world. It is indigenous to the Republic of Georgia, located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, which, together with neighboring Armenia, is where wine making began at least 6,000 years ago. This area, dominated by the Caucasus Mountains, is known as Transcaucasia and contains some of the oldest known human settlements. The wine making tradition here has survived for thousands of years and is embedded in the culture of Georgia in particular, where there are at least 525 indigenous grape varieties, although fewer than 40 are currently used for commercial wine production.
Saperavi is the most important red grape variety in Georgia and also plays an important role in the wines of former Soviet Republics, including Russia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus. The name Saperavi means “dye” in Georgian and reflects the extremely dark color of the wines it makes. This deep color is due to the fact that Saperavi belongs to a small group of grape varieties known as teinturier grapes (teinturier is a French term meaning to dye or stain).
What makes these grapes unique is that, in addition to having red skins, they also have red pulp or flesh. Most red wine grapes have red skins and clear pulp, and the color of their wines is obtained when the clear juice comes in contact with the skins during fermentation. With teinturier grapes, the juice itself is red and therefore when it comes in contact with the skins it becomes even darker in color. Unlike regular grapes, the pulp of teinturier grapes contains the pigment anthocyanin, which also has powerful antioxidant properties. Saperavi is one of the few teinturier grapes to be used in wine production and its dark color is greatly valued for blending.
It’s a hardy grape and its loose grape clusters make it more disease resistant than many other varieties. It tolerates cold well, can grow at altitude and is very expressive of its terroir. Saperavi is also a high yielding variety, but it can deliver good quality even when yields are high, although lower yields will produce better results. The wines it makes are very full bodied and, while tannin and acidity are usually high, they can vary depending on yield and production methods employed.
Varietal Saperavi wines are powerful and robust and have often been compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, with which they share many taste similarities. Aromas of autumn berries, ripe dark fruits, cassis and spice, with some earthy and smoky notes, are followed by flavors of cherry, blackberry, blackcurrant and plum, together with hints of leather, licorice, chocolate, coffee and even tobacco. If the wines are oaked you can expect additional flavors of cedar or vanilla. It is generally best to decant these wines an hour before serving to allow the flavor profile to open up. They have good aging potential and many can improve for up to 15 years and longer. Saperavi is also very good in blends, as it can bring many attributes to the finished wine.
Georgian wine production today is dominated by large modern wineries, many of which produce good quality wine using modern winemaking techniques. However, the most exciting wines are made by a small number of artisan winemakers who use the ancient method of fermenting and aging their wines in qvevri (quev-er-ree), which are large clay amphorae (pottery vessels) that are buried in the ground – for more on this, see details below. Most of the Saperavi wines you encounter will be made using modern winemaking techniques, but be sure to look out for those produced by the ancient qvevri method, as they are unique and reflect how wine might have tasted thousands of years ago.
A word of caution here! Most of these qvevri-produced wines are natural wines, that is to say, they have been made without any human intervention and although they may taste “conventional”, they may also taste rather odd and even funky (for more see the glossary entries on “Natural Wine” and “Funky”), so be sure to talk to your wine supplier before purchasing – if they stock these wines they will understand and be very happy to help.
You may also chance upon some sweet Saparavi wines, as sweet reds are very popular in the former Soviet Republics, including Georgia. Outside of the former Soviet Republics there are just a few wineries cultivating Saperavi. There are some in the USA (in Finger Lakes in New York State and also in Pennsylvania) with a larger number in Australia, though still small in general terms.
Qvevri Winemaking Method
A qvevri (quev-er-ree) – also spelt quevri and kvevri – is a large clay vessel or amphorae that has been used for winemaking in Georgia and the wider Transcaucasia region for thousands of years. The word qvevri in Georgian means “buried in the ground” and that is exactly what the winemakers do, leaving the top of the vessel at ground level for easy access. The top is covered with a wooden or stone lid and then sealed with a layer of clay. Qvevri vary in size and can hold anything from a few hundred to a few thousand litres of wine.
In preparation for use, the qvevri are heated and then lined with a coating of beeswax, which sterilizes and keeps them watertight. After the harvest the grapes are crushed and then added to the qvevri, along with the ripest stems, and left to ferment naturally. This fermentation begins spontaneously and is activated by the wild yeasts that are present on the grape skins and stems – there is no human intervention – and due to the fact that the qvevri is buried in the ground the temperature inside remains constant.
Depending on the size of the qvevri, and the grape variety used, the fermentation period may last anything from a few days, to several months. After fermentation the wine is sometimes left to age on its skins for about six months or it may be transferred to another clean qvevri. As these wines age they acquire greater depth and dimension and the qvevris, being made of clay, allow micro-oxygenation to take place, which softens the tannins. Wines made in this traditional way are not filtered and there are no fining substances used (i.e. egg white or isinglass to remove very fine particles from the wine).
Because the whole winemaking process is entirely natural the results are, to a large extent, unpredictable, and that is the great appeal of these wines for many people. You should note that some winemakers are now combining qvevri and modern winemaking techniques. For example, they may use the qvevri method for fermentation and then age the wine in oak barrels. Alternatively, they may produce 30% or 50% of the wine by the qvevri method and the remainder by the modern method of stainless steel tanks or barrels and then blend the two. For more information in the app see related glossary entries on “Natural Wine” and “Orange Wine”.
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