Hugh Hamilton

The first time Jo Marsh squished the dark juice out of saperavi there was an expectation it would morph into a tannic, robust red. How could it not with all that colour? But her first impression when smelling and tasting this ancient Georgian variety, growing in Victoria’s Alpine Valleys, turned out to be completely different.

“I had no idea it would be such a perfumed variety,” says Marsh. “You expect wines with that much colour to be tannic monsters but it’s not like that at all. It smells of potpourri, rose petals, lots of florals actually, and dried herbs.”

While made for another producer, that first foray with saperavi in 2012 had such an impact she now has one under her successful, and burgeoning, Billy Button label.

Billy Button features a range of diverse wine styles comprising umpteen varieties all because Marsh has an admirable habit of supporting local growers, especially if something different is available, or on the verge of being lost. No one wanted the saperavi off the Merriang Vineyard, the source of that 2012 wine; Jo Marsh to the rescue. In 2015, the aptly named The Squid Saperavi came to fruition. Apparently it flies out of the cellar door, so it’s a keeper.

With several saperavi vintages under her belt, Marsh discovered it responds well to being made in two parts. In order to retain the aromatics and brightness of fruit, half the juice is pressed off the skins and fermented while the rest is left on skins for about 10 months to ensure more complexity, more savoury tannins and more texture, then both are blended, ready for bottling. The current release, 2017, is a testament to how well that idea is working. It’s a juicy, fragrant and delicious drink.

Saperavi is a teinturier variety, where the juice is red or dark

However, her winemaking husband Glenn James, who has been crafting mainly white wines in terracotta for several years under the Pandora’s Amphora label, decided to include a saperavi in 2016, sourced from the same Alpine Valleys site. Pyrrha is wild-yeast fermented then sealed up in a single clay amphora and left on skins for 200 days. The vintage was hot, wines were ripe but this turned out savoury, composed with lots of alpine herbs and violets. It’s a stunner.

While a highly experienced winemaker, Glenn James had never tasted saperavi until he went to Georgia in 2012 – a whistle-stop tour to look at how Georgians use special clay vessels called qvevri. The technique involves white or red grapes, skins and all, being put into qvevri, which are buried underground, sealed and left for many months until the grapes become wine. It’s an ancient method, so unique it has been included on UNESCO’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

James came away with an understanding that extended time on skins is paramount. “It’s not like a seven-day ferment as with Australian shiraz, not even three to four weeks of post-maceration. It’s serious time and it’s a whole different aspect to making wine.”

Georgia’s Lado Uzunashvili of Mukado Wines

At this juncture, perhaps it’s best to ask a Georgian about one of their indigenous grapes. Enter Lado Uzunashvili, winemaker and owner at Mukado Wines based in the Gurjaani Region, about 80 kilometres east of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. He’s linked to Australia with family based in Adelaide and one of his sons recently graduated as a winemaker. Uzunashvili flits between Georgia and Australia with the demand for his wines taking him to Europe, Asia and America. He produces a suite of saperavi including those aged in oak, made in qvevri and a sweet late-harvest style.

So is it Georgia’s most important variety? “Definitely. Both in quality and quantity. It is the central artery of the Georgian wine industry and a living history.” Uzunashvili calls saperavi an intelligent variety given its diversity and cultural significance.

Georgians are fiercely proud about their wine culture and for good reason. It is one of the world’s oldest wine producing countries, around 8,000 years old. They still make wine the ancient way, in qvevri, and saperavi has ensured the country is on the wine map, helped by a strong international interest, particularly for amber wines.

Uzunashvili explains the genomic research of the ancient saperavi grape, then says poetically: “Its history is written on its leaves. If you turn a saperavi leaf over, you see beautiful white fluff on the bottom, telling you ‘I am saperavi. I was born at the Black Sea shore, the south-west of our country, then I travelled across our wine land and found my true home in the east’. How many more Georgian varieties could possibly boast this historic spirit and cultural importance?”

As to the variety’s colour, it is one of just a handful labelled as teinturier, where the pulp and juice is reddish or dark; all other reds have white juice and get colour from their skins. Saperavi literally means to give colour. Uzunashvili adds a more profound interpretation: “Something requiring love or care, expecting love or care, or has to be loved or cared for.”

Mark Walpole of Fighting Gully Road

Perhaps all that could be a catch-cry for how to approach it in Australia. Where did Australia’s saperavi vines come from? Let’s go back to the Alpine Valleys, and nearby Beechworth, for that insight with Mark Walpole, Gourmet Traveller WINE’s 2017 Viticulturist of the Year who is well known for his Fighting Gully Road wines. He says the now defunct CSIRO horticulture research station at Merbein brought in one saperavi clone – known as FVI1V10 – from the University of California, Davis in 1974.

In 1989, Walpole obtained saperavi cuttings from the CSIRO and planted them at his family’s nursery – he believes he was the first in Australia to do so. Why did he plant it? “Curiosity, and it’s one of those varieties that got me. It has fantastic natural acidity, phenomenal colour and so many attributes.”

Walpole grows saperavi but doesn’t make any wine out of it, and from his cuttings it spread throughout the valley, first to Peter Read, who established Symphonia in the King Valley in the 1990s then to Victorian Alps Winery at Gapsted and elsewhere. While the cool climate of the valleys is ideal, perhaps there’s a lack of will or understanding of the variety. It needs some heroes.

Billy Button husband and wife team Glenn James and Jo Marsh

If there is one person who has done more to promote Australian saperavi, it is McLaren Vale producer, Hugh Hamilton and that’s where the connection with Uzunashvili comes in. When the Georgian moved to Adelaide in the 1990s, it was only a matter of time before he would meet up with other winemakers. He introduced saperavi to Hamilton, working with him to plant it in 2001 and make it with the first proper vintage release in 2005.

“I was blown away by that wine. Entranced by it and I thought, right, I have to do something about this. I had some petit verdot and I ripped it out to plant more saperavi. I was called a nutter for doing that,” Hamilton says. “I love the variety and, quite frankly, I’m obsessed. It grabbed me from the moment I tasted it. It has amazing colour and spiciness, and a fabulous dark berry fruit character.”

Hamilton’s original plantings comprise 1.2 hectares – another 4,000 square metres were added in 2015, and in 2018 another 4,000. It’s hardly mainstream, even for this leading producer. While some fruit goes into Black Ops, a shiraz blend, the two varietal wines are The Oddball and Oddball The Great, the latter of which is a barrel selection and the most expensive at A$150.

The 2017 The Oddball is about to be released and with that Hamilton chalks up 12 saperavi vintages. More compelling is his collaboration with Uzunashvili called The Quirky featuring two wines, a white made from mtsvane and a saperavi. While Uzunashvili makes them in Georgia, the final blending decision is done by both. The saperavi is not made in qvevri but it is distinctly Georgian. The 2014 The Quirky Saperavi is fabulous, really earthy and spicy and I prefer it to the Oddball wines, which are riper and more concentrated. They have a fan base though.

There’s no doubt saperavi is niche. Not much is planted in Australia – so small is the number there are no official figures -and the producers making it hover around 23 or so. So maybe exclusive is okay. Let quality be the driver.

“I’m in two minds (about it being niche),” says Hamilton, “it’s such a fantastic secret and I’m very happy for it to stay that way, but visibility is a problem. There are not enough people making it. If the big guys got behind it and understood that we have this enigmatic variety in Australia then maybe that would help.”

That’s not to say the variety is suitable everywhere. Saperavi is susceptible to heat, an issue given our climate. While pleased with what his vineyards produce, Hamilton says if he had done his homework, the ideal spot might be in the Adelaide Hills or around the Alpine Valleys. “It’s a big red in McLaren Vale, but it’s not a big red in those regions and it’s more like Georgian saperavi.”

Hugh Hamilton’s winemaker, Nic Bourke, confesses to joining the company because he became hooked on saperavi and having access to an established site was hard to pass up.

“It’s unlike anything else I have tasted. It’s easy to get caught up in its history, but it’s the line of spice, the power and strength without it being overbearing that gets me excited.” He describes it as “Shiraz raised on a diet of lightning. The volume’s up, it has more of everything not just in the sense of tannin and weight but more stuffing”.

A trap producers fall into when a red variety is unknown in Australia, is to grow it and make it like shiraz. In warmer regions that often translates to big, oaky reds. Marsh and James suggest “giving it a bit of love and treating it as a premium variety, both in the vineyard and in the winery. Don’t make it like a shiraz. Make saperavi.”

For some, it’s a stylistic choice. Uzunashvili enjoys our more robust renditions. Bourke says, “There are big, brawny examples with lots of oak and tannins, plus flavour, and I think they have their place. It’s okay to want a big red but we’re wanting to achieve more elegance, to have the fresh spices and not overcooked fruit. Really, it’s all about balance.”

While the next step for Hamilton is exploring single sites – there will be three in time – he hasn’t ruled out using qvevri. Bourke’s keen. And Uzunashvili is already working on bringing qvevri to Australia. In the meantime, Hamilton just wants people to try the elixir he calls his muse. “If you want a red wine revelation, get your chops around it.”