Is Black Wine the New Orange?

June 7, 2024
Dining & Wine
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In California, where alicante bouschet plants were largely ripped out post-Prohibition, the winemaker Raj Parr, 51, is dedicated to honoring the state’s history via its forgotten vines. His dramatically hued Scythians Red is about one third alicante bouschet, which he sources from an abandoned plot close enough to Ontario airport that the leaves shake when planes pass overhead. “It looked more like a graveyard of vines than a vineyard,” Raj recalls of the first time he saw the place.

Alicante bouschet is unusual in the context of Vitis vinifera — the classic European grape — but teinturiers are the norm among Vitis riparia, grapes native to America that are generally dismissed for winemaking. Though they’re too sour to eat, they’re hardy and resistant to disease, and scientists are now taking advantage of those qualities by creating hybrids of vinifera and riparia. One early example, frontenac, was introduced in 1996 by the grape breeder Peter Hemstad, now 64, as part of the University of Minnesota’s cold-hardy fruit breeding program, which was also responsible for the Honeycrisp apple. Frontenac retains riparia’s intense pigmentation and resistance to disease, as well as its ability to withstand a frosty winter, which made it foundational in the birth of the organic wine scene in the northeast. It’s also quite acidic, but Deirdre Heekin, 57, of La Garagista, a pioneering natural wine producer in Vermont, sees this as an asset. For her Loups-Garoux, a homage to Italian ripasso, a twice-fermented red, she harvests frontenac when half the bunch is raisinated, or dried on the vine, to concentrate the grapes’ sugar content.

Then there’s saperavi, a grape that makes wine dark enough to sometimes be referred to as “shavi gvino,” or “black wine,” in its native Georgia. An ancient variety, it’s been thriving in New York’s Finger Lakes wine region since Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian viticulturist, brought it stateside in the early ’60s. Still, saperavi was virtually unknown domestically until 2014, when the Tax and Trade Bureau — the federal organization that regulates which grape names can appear on wine labels — added it to its list. (Until then, American saperavi had been masked under names like McGregor Vineyard’s Black Russian Red.) “Saperavi is like Formula One, and not everyone knows how to drive it,” says Lasha Tsatava, 46, the beverage director at Chama Mama, a Georgian restaurant with multiple locations in New York City that offers a saperavi flight showcasing the grape’s versatility. The fruit can produce everything from the semisweet style popular in Georgia to a garnet-colored rosé to an almost ebony-hued style traditionally aged in a qvevri, or a clay amphora. Tsatava is also a co-founder of Saperica, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading awareness of Georgian food and wine whose third-annual Saperavi Festival will take place in Hammondsport, N.Y., on June 8. Tastings of saperavi produced by over a dozen American and Georgian wineries will be on offer, and Tsatava hopes that attendees will overlook their purple-stained lips to see his vision that — in five or 10 years — saperavi will join riesling as a signature wine of the Finger Lakes.

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