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One of the world’s oldest wine grapes is poised to take off in America

Fred and Meaghan Frank, president and vice president, respectively, at Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery in Upstate New York, handle day-to-day operations at the winery.  (Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery)
Fred and Meaghan Frank, president and vice president, respectively, at Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery in Upstate New York, handle day-to-day operations at the winery. (Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery)
By Dave McIntyre Special to the Washington Post

There’s a red grape you may be hearing more about in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic in coming years. It’s not new – in fact, it’s one of the oldest wine grapes in the world. It’s saperavi, native to Georgia in the Caucasus Mountains, where archaeologists have unearthed evidence of winemaking dating back 8,000 years. Yet while it is one of the world’s most ancient grapes, saperavi’s story, including how it came to America, reverberates through today’s headlines.

On May 14, the Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery in Hammondsport, N.Y., on the west side of Keuka Lake will host 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 together founded Saperica, a nonprofit organization to promote Georgian wine and gastronomy in the U.S.

The two formed a bond when Tsatava spoke of Georgia’s ancient wine heritage, and Frey, who studied at Cornell University, recognized 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 couldn’t travel to Georgia, but we could get to the Finger Lakes,” Frey says.

Last summer, they visited wineries growing 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,” Tsatava says. “We want to grow 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 saying – what’s the connection to Ukraine? Remember, 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 says. “Wineries will go out of business.”

Ukraine also grows saperavi, though its best vineyards were “annihilated” by the Russians when they annexed Crimea in 2014, according to Gayle Corrigan, president of Saperavi USA, a Rhode Island-based importer. There’s another connection, one that demonstrates how world events – world wars, even – intertwine with personal stories and are reflected in the wines we drink.

Saperavi was first planted in the U.S. 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 toward the end of World War II and settled in the Finger Lakes area in the early 1950s. There he began a controversial crusade to convince skeptical winegrowers 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 the chief grape of the Finger Lakes. 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, is grown in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts as well as New York. It produces a racy wine similar to riesling and albariño. Linganore winery in central Maryland makes a delicious saperavi, and Ox-Eye Vineyards in Virginia grows it, as well. More saperavi is grown in Pennsylvania and Michigan and should become available in limited quantities in coming years.

Saperavi has several attractive characteristics for Eastern U.S. winemakers, says Lisa Granik, a master of wine and specialist on Georgian wines. “It is deeply colored and has a distinctive flavor, probably closer to syrah than any other variety,” Granik says. Low in tannins and high in acidity, “it is very food-friendly with anything grilled,” she adds. “Anything that works with a red wine that is not shy.” Another advantage: “It’s easy to pronounce.”

“I’m surprised people from Maryland and on north haven’t gone after saperavi,” says Fred Merwarth, citing the grape’s ability to withstand cold winters. Merwarth is 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. He acknowledges that he’s still trying to find the grape’s best expression, experimenting with oak barrels and aging in a 1,000-liter clay pot to mimic the traditional qvevri used in Georgia.

But Merwarth is bullish on saperavi’s potential. He plans to plant 10 additional acres next year. “Saperavi works well here,” says Meaghan Frank, Konstantin Frank’s great-granddaughter and the fourth-generation winemaker at the family-owned winery. “With its intense color, the wine can be bold and full-bodied, something not always achievable here in the Finger Lakes,” she says. Her saperavi, made in small quantities and available from the winery, is bright and juicy, with flavors of black cherry and a hint of tobacco. “We’re looking 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 a weekend’s revenue to World Central Kitchen to support relief efforts for Ukrainian refugees. “That was our family story,” Meaghan says, noting the Franks still have relatives in Odessa. “We thought we might 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 won’t just be savoring its aromas. You will be drinking history, from 8,000 years ago to now.

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