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Saperavi goes global with SapPrize competition

by Sarah Abbott, Master of Wine (Great Britain) Source

Saperavi is special. Georgians love, admire and esteem this inky deep wine. And they are so proud that it is theirs. Many Georgians tell you that the Saperavi vine originated in Kakheti, in Georgia’s warm east. But Robinson et al give its origin as Zemo Kartli, in the far south west, where it was still widespread in the 17th century. But the Soviets chose Kakheti as the centre of wine production in Georgia, and the ‘other’ wine regions are still recovering and replanting today.

Saperavi’s numerous clones tell of its age. (The longer a variety has been grown, the more time it has to mutate, and for the welcome mutants to be selected and cultivated.) Saperavi clones include Budeshurisebri, Grdzelmarcvala, Mskhvilmarcvala and Pachkha. Interest in and awareness of the clonal diversity of Saperavi is growing.

Saperavi is useful. Drought tolerant and winter hardy, Saperavi is a survivor vine. It ripens late, but is relatively productive. It retains acidity – uncomfortably so in too-cool sites – and is saturated in colour. Its name comes from the word meaning ‘to dye’. Like Alicante Bouchet, the delinquent darling of prohibition America, Saperavi is a ‘Teinturier’ variety, meaning that both skins and flesh are pigmented. Unlike Alicante Bouchet, it has never been damned with the reputation of a basic colour booster for weedier wines. Until the iron curtain fell, very few people outside of Russia and Eastern Europe had heard of it.

Saperavi is versatile, making wines that are deep, rich and age-worthy and excellent, albeit underestimated, sweet and resistant reds from late picked grapes and arrested fermentation.

Saperavi is delicious. And somehow audacious in flavour. Bursting with character and soul. Styles in Georgia are becoming more nuanced, as the throttle is pulled back on extraction and oak. Saperavi can take it. But more subtle dry and off-dry Saperavi wines are being made in Georgia, as well as some intriguing rosé.

The grape has long been cultivated outside of Georgia, almost exclusively in the vineyards of the former Soviet Union. Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia all have established Saperavi vineyards, some of them much acclaimed. Saperavi, and the appellation wines made from it, was the fine wine choice of these countries. Mukuzani was their Pauillac.

Today, Saperavi is going global. It is fitting that the Australians – so pragmatic, technical, and creative – were among the first non-natives to champion and plant this Eastern European grape. Saperavi’s drought tolerance, stable colour and fresh acidity fulfil a need. But they’ve also fallen in love with it, despite the challenges of selling it to a market that does not know where Georgia is, and has certainly never heard of its finest red grape variety.

So the first ever SapPrize is going to be a fascinating competition. Launched in July 2017, SapPrize has attracted entries of Saperavi from around the world to be judged by an expert jury. Entries are still open, and so far Saperavi from Georgia, Australia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia, New Zealand, Azerbaijan and the USA has been entered. Watch this space. Drink some Saperavi. You’ll be glad you did.


Saperavi is a traditional, widespread grape variety in Georgia; one of the best representatives in the world red wine assortment. Particularly, the high quality table red wine produced from Saperavi in its homeland in Kakheti, while the best strong and dessert wines are made from it in Crimea and Uzbekistan.

In viticulture literature sources, and also among local viticulturists, Saperavi is known by many other names as this is very old variety and embodied in many variations. The scholars L. Jorjadze, S. Kvariani, and P. Averkini have differentiated the real Saperavi: male, female, Budeshuri-like and Saperavi with small and large berries.

This rich variety can be explained by the long period of domestication and cultivation in different natural conditions. Other evidence of Saperavi’s ancient origins is also its morphology – the thick web-like covering of the underside of its leaves, the dark, intensive coloring of its berries, and the domination of other parts. From the self-pollinated seeds of Saperavi, distinguished, brunched, and roundish graft can be generated. This fact inspired scientists such as Prof. A. Negruli who stated that “some currently distributed varieties might represent the old form that is originated from a self-pollinating plant that was created several thousand years ago.”

A similar conclusion was reached by Prof. Cholokashvili and Dr.N. Chakhnashvili but through a different route, namely based on exploration of the flower types of the wild and domesticated grapevine varieties. According to them, “these varieties (Saperavi, Rkatsiteli and Chkapa) might be the prototypes of those varieties which are at a transitive stage between the wild and domesticated and are one of the ancient varieties.”

According to old historians – Xenophon, Herodotus, Strabo and others, at the time of a dawn of Europe’s political life, viticulture and oenology were widely developed in Georgia. All of these mentioned facts provide great possibilities for considering some currently cultivated varieties as ancient grapevine, or close relatives of ancient grapevines.

According to academician Iv. Javakhishvili, at first time Saperavi was cultivated in old Georgian province – Shavshet- Klarjeti, several centuries earlier than in Kartli, where it is first mentioned in written accounts of the 17th century. This is found in “Vakhtang VI’s “Dasturlamali” about the act of Ateni’s vineyards, but besides its name, there is nothing much written about it.”

According to this, Saperavi originated from the eastern coast of the Black Sea – from an old Kolkhetian family and was then transmitted to Eastern and south-eastern Georgia via Kartli, finally being established in Kakheti by the end of 17th century. This supposition is supported by the botanical characteristics of Saperavi by which it is closer to Kolkhetian varieties than that of the Alazani group.
Saperavi has is distributed in neighboring countries. In Azerbaijan, mostly throughout the old Georgian province – Saingilo, where Saperavi and Rkatsiteli are currently cultivated on their original root, as high and low formations of vine. In Armenia, Saperavi is less distributed, mostly in adjacent districts of Alaverdi, Shamshadini  and  Ijevani.  In  Dagestan (Russia),  Saperavi is spread throughout Sakheti, mostly in the Darubandi and Makhachkala districts.

Source:  N.KETSKHOVELI, M.RAMISHVILI, D.TABIDZE, "Georgian Ampelography", 2-nd edition (Tbilisi, 2012)