Joseph Stalin's top red tickles our palates
It was the favourite tipple of Joseph Stalin but Georgian-born winemaker Lado Uzunashvili is quick to distance himself from the Russian dictator, not to mention Russia itself, when it comes to discussing one of the world's oldest grape varieties, saperavi.
Saperavi has been grown in the former Soviet republic of Georgia for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of grape cultivation can be traced to this part of the world; the very word "wine" is thought to have its roots in the Georgian term "gvino".
Last week, Uzunashvili presented a tasting of saperavi at the Hugh Hamilton vineyard in McLaren Vale. Hamilton was one of the first vignerons to plant the grape in Australia after meeting the Georgian winemaker in the mid-1990s, and the two have remained friends.
While he is rightly proud of the variety and its viticultural history, Uzunashvili is, understandably, reluctant to talk about some aspects of the past.
Of the thousands of different grape varieties planted across the world, saperavi stands out for its dramatic character and unusual history."I don't like to connect saperavi with Stalin," he says. "And any talk of Georgia and Russia is entering a danger zone."
The name saperavi translates literally as "pigment": the grape has a thick black skin as well as magenta-coloured flesh and produces particularly dense and vivid purple wine with a unique, spicy, tannic personality.
The traditional method of production -- first developed many millennia ago and still practised by some Georgians today -- is to tip freshly harvested saperavi grapes into a huge, buried, clay amphora-like vessel called a kvevri, put the lid on, and come back a few months later to siphon off the strong, dark liquid.
Now this ancient red grape has also found a home in Australia. Over the past decade a dozen producers -- from Symphonia in Victoria's Alpine Valleys to Ten Miles East in South Australia's Adelaide Hills -- have planted the variety in their vineyards. And the growing local fascination with saperavi has paralleled a resurgence of interest in the grape in its homeland.
After working for a number of wineries after migrating to Australia in 1995 and then as a flying winemaker in Europe, Uzunashvili these days spends most of his time in Georgia making wine at new, high-profile estates such as Orovela, a label that helped put modern saperavi on the international wine map.
After the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, the flourishing trade in Georgian wine to Moscow evaporated as the Russian market was flooded with cheap, counterfeit saperavi. Then, in 2006, at the height of political tension between the two countries, the Kremlin imposed a ban on imports from Georgia.
As a result, progressive Georgian winemakers such as Uzunashvili have been looking to other markets, such as Britain, the US and more recently China to keep the industry afloat. Now, he says, both the modern styles of saperavi wine that he makes and the saperavi made in traditional ways such as by fermenting in kvevri have become very fashionable.
"It's like the song," says Uzunashvili. "Georgia is on everyone's mind at the moment."
Saperavi is very much on Hamilton's mind -- and under his skin. "When the pickers go through the saperavi vines during vintage it's remarkable to see how much the juice from the grapes stains their hands," he says. "They turn this bright red colour.
"When we crushed the first crop in 2005 I thought: 'Wow, we've got something really special here. We can really make something out of this.' "