What Is Darker Than Black?
By: Jeff Vejr, Winemaker at Golden Cluster, Wine Director at Holdfast Dining, Consultant at Winelist.Consulting, and Narrator & Host of the upcoming web series The Winesman.
I would like to introduce you to the wine grape Otskhanuri Sapere.
Otskhanuri Sapere is one of the oldest red grapes in Georgia. It is believed that the grape originated from the village of “Otskhana” in the Guria region, in the western part of the country. Sapere loosely translates to “something you color with” in Georgian. So, it is known as “Otskana’s colorful” or Otskhanuri Sapere.
These days, the best examples of Otskhanuri Sapere are found in the districts of Baghdati, Zestaponi, and Terjola in the Imereti region of central Georgia. The grape can also be found in select locations in the Racha region of northern Georgia. It is also believed that while this grape is centuries old, it is maybe only 50% domesticated and 50% wild. Having seen the vineyard and tasted the grape, I can understand this belief. It also makes sense since Georgia is one of the few places left on Earth where “wild” wine grapes still exist.
One of the noble attributes of Otskhanuri Sapere is the high level of anthocyanins found in the grape. In short, this grape has crazy color and is used to boost the color of other wine grapes. On its own, this wine grape creates some of the darkest, deepest, densest wines that I have every come across. Tannat and Touriga Nacional wish that they were this dark! This wine is inky BLACK, with a gorgeous black purple hue. It stains everything it touches, including your glass. Treat this wine like you would beet juice, because it will show its dominance with anything that it comes into contact with.
I had the pleasure of being introduced to this wine grape on my trip to Georgia back in March of 2014. I was spending the day with winemaker and Renaissance man, Ramaz Nikoladze. He was kind enough to drive me around Imereti to visit a few producers that he works with and respects. On our last stop of the day, I remember him telling me that we were making one more stop and that “we going to visit very rare grape. Wild. Black.” After having tasted some inspirational white and amber wines all day, a black wine sounded like the perfect ending to a near perfect day.
Little did I know, as we entered the tiny village of Zeda Kldeeti, that I was about to be given one of the first tastes of a wine made from an extremely rare grape by Amiran Vepkhvadze. A wine that, to-date, is still the most haunting wine I have ever experienced.
Sometimes you meet a winemaker and their wines taste like their personality. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Amiran and his lovely wife. We were warmly greeted at the entrance to their home, and they whisked us to the vineyard. Daylight was fleeting so we had to hike at a brisk pace in order to see the vineyard in good light. We crossed a football field (i.e. soccer field), a few orchards, and a couple of farmhouses until we came upon Amiran’s Otskhanuri Sapere vineyard.
At the first sight of this vineyard I thought; “these vines want to grow HIGH!” This could be another indication of the grapes “wild” origins. The fruiting zone is easily six feet off of the ground and looks like an ancient version of a pergola trellis system. Ramaz indicated that the vines love to climb and if Amiran had taller stakes, the vines would be even happier. As it turns out, this is one of the largest contiguous plantings of Otskhanuri Sapere in all of Georgia and it is probably only ½ an acre. Like I said, this is a very rare wine grape.
Back in the cellar, with dusk approaching, Amiran dutifully opened his qvevri for us to try his wine. Since it was March, I’m guessing that this was one of the first times he had opened it since harvest. There was lots of excitement and anticipation in the air. Even Ramaz had a twinkle in his eye. When Amiran dipped that first glass into the qvevri, it became glazed in a black-purple-ish liquid. I remember seeing the light shimmering off the top of the qvevri, unable to penetrate through. Christ, It looked like a tar pit or a vat of motor oil.
There are those special moments in the wine industry when a wine simply defies explanation. You might have tasted thousands of wines, but one leaves you stunned and speechless. You have no reference point for it. This was one of those times. This is a singular wine. It was the thickness of this wine that was really impressive, as were the bright acids, the stones, the flowery aromatics, and the creosote. It was all tightly woven into this milkshake-thick wine. Was this even wine? Have I ever really had wine until now? Questions and curiosities were flooding my head.
I walked over to the open window in the cellar and raised my stained glass to the last remaining light of the day to marvel at the color of this wine, to see the wine seem to defy gravity by completely coating the glass, not appearing to move. I had to take a moment away from everyone to wrap my head around what I was seeing, feeling, tasting, and experiencing. When I walked back over to the group, Amiran could see the confusion on my face and said one word to me. He said; “wild”. That was the most simple, poetic, and concise way to describe Otskhanuri Sapere. It is truly and literally “wild”.
As our whirlwind vineyard tour and tasting finished, our travel schedule left us very little time with Amiran and his wife. Much is still to be learned about this grape and I hope that on my next visit to Georgia, that I get to enjoy a meal with them so we can talk more about this hauntingly beautiful wine grape, one who’s origins are centuries old, but without having been tamed by time, man, or full domestication. Most importantly, I want to be able to thank them in person for sharing one of their first wines with me and to thank them for curating this wild wine grape.
As a wine professional, visiting Georgia feels like a religious pilgrimage. There is so much to learn by honoring the past, by understanding tradition, and by drinking what used to be and yet still is.
Below is a short video clip of my travels to Georgia. I hope that it inspires you to buy Amiran’s wines and hopefully, if you are lucky, it will inspire you to visit. Georgia is one of the most important wine regions in the world. It is arguably the birthplace of wine and has the longest continuous wine culture in the world.