Ridgemill Estate The Czar Saperavi 2012

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Ridgemill Estate The Czar Saperavi 2012

Ridgemill Estate The Czar Saperavi 2012

Today’s wine was a gift from a fellow wine writer, Stuart over at The Vinsomniac  It’s very much a curiosity, and while there are some things that can be determined from the bottle and the producer’s website, writing up this wine has left me with more questions than answers. If answers are found subsequently, I’ll certainly update this post.  And with that puzzling introduction, I give you Ridgemill Estate The Czar Saperavi 2012.

This wine is produced and bottled in Severnlea, which puts it in the Granite Belt wine region in Queensland, Australia.  For those not familiar with this country, Queensland is the state in the north east corner and is home to Brisbane, Cairns, Surfers Paradise, Gold Coast, and the Great Barrier Reef.  It’s the tourists’ image of Australia, with kangaroos hopping along the beach, and it’s not an image that lines up well with growing grapes for wine.

Obviously it’s much more than just that, and while there are certainly lovely beaches, it’s a big place.  To put it into perspective, it’s not just bigger than California – you can throw in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado and it’s still bigger.  Or if you prefer, it’s bigger than France, Spain, the UK, Ireland and Portugal combined.  Across the expanse of such a large area, there’s bound to be climate and soils appropriate for viticulture, which brings us to the Granite Belt.

Located in the south east of Queensland, centred on an area roughly 160km in from the coast, the Granite Belt has the coolest climate in the state, largely due to its elevation of 450m to 900m (with 810m being the average), though being nestled along the southern border helps as well.  It is the textbook definition of a continental climate with warm summers and cold winters.  Snow in the winter, while not common, is not unknown.

There are two main soil types – a brownish-grey speckled soil well suited to vines, and a sandy, granitic grey-black soil which is less so, both supported by deep clay.  Drainage is good, which is to say water retention is bad, and so irrigation is often essential.  Hazards include spring frosts and rain at vintage, though both can be mitigated with thoughtful site selection.

I started to write that the Granite Belt is a fairly young region, as James Halliday’s Wine Atlas of Australia dates the first wine grapes as having been planted in 1965.  However,  Granite Belt Wine & Tourism claims vines were first cultivated by an Italian Catholic priest in the 19th century and cites vineyards and wineries dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.  As a region, it is known for small producers making boutique quality wines, though some of its appeal is certainly wine tourism with easy access from Brisbane.  It’s also home to a number of interesting grape varieties, which are highlighted through the Strange Bird Alternative Wine Trail, co-founded by the Ridgemill Estate winemaker.

I’ve written about Saperavi twice before, with the Hugh Hamiliton Oddball of McLaren Vale, Australia and the Taliani Valley of Napareuli, Georgia, so I think it’s time to move on to the producer.

What is now Ridgemill Estate got its start as vineyards under the name Emerald Hill in 1998 with plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Chardonnay.  Tempranillo followed two years later, and in 2004 the property was purchased by the current owner, Martin Cooper who set about making some changes.  He hired Peter McGlashan as  winemaker and manager, rebranded the estate as Ridgemill, established cabins in the vineyards for wine tourism, and expanded plantings to include Saperavi, Verdelho and Viognier.  The current line up of wines includes varietal Chardonnay, Verdelho and Shiraz, blends of Cabernet Sauvignon / Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon / Malbec / Merlot, and Monastrell / Tempranillo, as well as a Merlot rosé.  They also produce a sweet white wine, two fortified wines and a traditional method sparkling wine.  Apparently they also have plantings of Jacquez, which is banned in France.  How cool is that?

None of that is exceptionally out of the ordinary (except for the Jacquez), so what has left me scratching my head so much?  Primarily that the back label of this wine says that 60 bottles were produced, unfined and unfiltered.  Sixty bottles, five cases, or 45 litres of wine.  It’s an impossibly small amount, and I say that having worked three vintages with a winery that is effectively a one man band.  Saperavi is a reasonably productive grape, and as the vines were planted in 2006 I have a difficult time imagining their harvest only came to 60 bottles.  Then again, since this was released the same year it was produced, perhaps there is a 2012 reserve that will be released after further maturation.  Or maybe they sold off a portion of the harvest to another winemaker.

If there is no reserve 2012, then there’s the question of how you go about making 60 bottles of a wine.  Of the equipment I’ve used in a small winery, most would be overkill for such a small batch.  It would take more time to clean a destemmer than it would to process the grapes, and that applies to the crusher as well.  I can well imagine a very small kvevri, possibly a repurposed earthenware planter, as a fermenter, and as for pressing, I have seen some pretty small basket presses, but still.  This wine is unlikely to have seen the inside of a barrel, because except for tiny barrels for storing fortified wine at home, such small volumes are not easy to accommodate – a standard barrique would only be 20% full with 45 litres.  Bottling and labelling would almost certainly have to have been done by hand as the overhead cost of getting a bottling line running would be prohibitive.

All of that is pure speculation based on the label, so perhaps it’s time to have a look at the wine itself.  In the glass it’s clear and bright with a medium minus purple colour and quick, thick legs.  Interesting colour – in my experience if a wine is purple, it’s also fairly dark.  This one, while certainly purple, is not so dark at all.  On the nose it’s clean and youthful with medium plus intensity and notes of mulberry, some peppery character, blackberry, plums, a little soda pop and a hint of perfume.  On the palate it’s dry with medium body, medium plus acidity, medium fine tannins, medium intensity, medium plus alcohol, and medium length.  It started out quite candied with notes of cherry and bubble gum.  It developed somewhat in the glass, and other berries emerged, as did some chocolate and a bit of black pepper.  However, the fruit was still very candied – something from a sweets shop instead of a green grocer.

I don’t know what to make of this wine.  While I’m not an expert on Saperavi, I’ve had a few and this is nothing like those.  The colour, while purple, is not nearly as dark as I would have expected, particularly since Saperavi means “dye” in Georgian and is a teinturier, meaning its juice is coloured instead of clear.  The spectrum of berry flavours is fine, but the bubble gum and candied notes suggest carbonic maceration, which is certainly a possibility, particularly if whole bunches were used.  While I like a little of that in Gamay and some Point Noirs, I’m not sure how I feel about it in heavier reds like Saperavi.

Really though, I can’t properly assess the quality of this wine because it was a gift.  I generally don’t accept samples for review, and even though this wasn’t sent from the actual producer, I’ll keep my conclusion to myself.  However, I couldn’t resist the chance to write about a new (for me) wine region and a producer who is clearly innovating with interesting varieties.

Taliani Valley Napareuli Red Dry 2007

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Taliani Valley Napareuli Red Dry 2007

Taliani Valley Napareuli Red Dry 2007

This is a bit of a big week for me in terms of new wines, but of all the wines I’ve had over the past few days, this is the one to which I’ve been looking forward the most.  Recently I reviewed the Hugh Hamilton “The Oddball” Saperavi and commented how I’d tasted two Australian takes on this Georgian grape, but had no basis as far as comparing it to wine from its country of origin.  Well today I will be making amends.

I have before me a bottle of wine with writing on it that is so unfamiliar I would not have been able to name the script at first glance.  Fortunately, there are also Latin characters, which tell me that this is the Taliani Valley Napareuli Red Dry 2007.  The back label is similarly divided with the English half telling me that this is a red dry wine made from the Saperavi in the Napareuli district of Kakheti, Georgia.

So, Georgia.  It is thought that the birthplace of wine is somewhere in the area between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea.  There’s an often referenced an article in The Independent from 2003 that credits Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum with having discovered 8,000 year old wine residue in what’s present-day Georgia, but I can only find a supposed copy.  In a more recent interview with the biomolecular archaeologist, he dates the oldest winemaking facility at 6,000 years old in present-day Armenia.  In any case, wine and winemaking go back quite a ways in Georgia.

Modern Georgia continues to produce wine, most of it for export, though that export is heavily concentrated in its near neighbours, with the vast majority of it going to Ukraine at the moment.  (Russia used to be a very large customer, but relations between Russia and Georgia are not brilliant at the moment.)  There’s a mix of traditional winemaking from smaller producers and modern techniques in larger scale operations.  In some cases, fermentation takes place in large earthenware vessels, kvevri, which are not unlike the amphora which has become trendy in a number of places, even in Australia.  Red, white, sparkling, and fortified wines are produced, largely from a wide range of native grape varieties.  This wine is from Napareuli, which is an appellation in Kakheti, in the east of Georgia, on the north side of the river Alazani River, across from another appellation, Mukazani.  It’s soil is sand, clay, and small stones.  The climate is warm summers and mild winters.  I can’t come up with much more information about Napareuli itself, though obviously they grow Saperavi.  Funnily enough, though, there is a recent BBC article on a winery located there, which is worth a read.

I’ve written about Saperavi before from a New World perspective, but within Georgia it is apparently native to Kakheti.  I mentioned that it’s known for its acidity, its colour, and that it withstands the cold very well.  What I didn’t mention is that it’s a teinturier, making it one of the few grapes in the world with red flesh, which means the juice is also red.  The vast majority of red grapes actually produce clear juice, which then becomes red through contact with skin before, during, and/or after fermentation.  It’s also one of the oldest varieties in Georgia, which likely makes it one of the oldest varieties full stop.

Teliani Valley is not a company with whom I was familiar before today, but they are based in Kakheti and produce not just wine, but also a form of vodka made from grapes and a brandy.  They’re a good sized producer, processing roughly 1500t of grapes per vintage, or on the order of a million bottles.  I’ve stuck their pin on the map in Telavi, as per the town on the back of the label, but I can’t quite place the Tbilisi Highway 3.  However, that’s better than using the address on their website which would be their offices in Tbilisi, roughly 60km away.

On to the wine itself -it’s a keeper.  Dark ruby colour, though not quite opaque to the rim.  A slight bit of light can get through if you hold the glass just right.  A rich, intense nose with red fruit and a bit of licorice, and maybe a little cranberry.  On the palate, it has high acidity, a medium body, but somewhat light on tannins.  It gives more of the what was promised on the nose – red berries, some licorice, and very tart.

I know mentally this isn’t a super premium wine, but it does seem very well made and very pleasing.  I may just be giving in to the novelty, or maybe I’m just so pleased to be tasting a Georgian Saperavi, but I really like it.  I’ll have to pick up another bottle in a month or two when the moment has passed to see if I feel the same, but for now I’m happy to say that this is a very good wine and I look forward to having it again.

Hugh Hamilton McLaren Vale The Oddball Saperavi 2007

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Hugh Hamilton McLaren Vale "The Oddball" Saperavi 20007

Hugh Hamilton McLaren Vale "The Oddball" Saperavi 20007

So tonight it’s another interesting varietal, with Saperavi being the star of the show.  The wine in particular is The Oddball 2007 from Hugh Hamilton of McLaren Vale.  First, the winery and region.

Hugh Hamilton traces his family back five generations to the first people to plant grapes in South Australia, which locally is considered back quite a ways.  The winery is interesting for a few reasons.  First, they have a wide range of different wines.  It’s not just red and whites, but rosé, sparkling and fortified wines as well.  That’s not so uncommon in McLaren Vale, but it’s not just the standard varietals, as demonstrated by this wine.

Wax seal on the top of the bottle.

Wax seal on the top of the bottle.

Second, Hugh Hamilton is one of the most heavily branded and merchandised wineries I’ve ever seen.  At some point they decided on sheep and have run with it.  Hugh himself is described as the black sheep of the family, and all of their wines have sheep branding and names.  Visiting their cellar door it, there are far more branded products (and not just hats and t-shirts, but all manner of items) on offer than wines.  The individual products that you can see online are all reasonably tasteful, but it’s all a bit much in the confines of their cellar door.  That said, I like the wax covering the cork with a sheep seal, though I’m afraid my photo doesn’t do it justice.  Very good production values (Hugh Hamilton – not this blog).

So Saperavi – an interesting grape, and not widely planted in most of the world.  It’s origins are in Georgia, the country not the state, and as Georgia claims to be one of the oldest regions of wine production, this grape is potentially quite ancient.  It is typically quite acidic (in a good way) and also very dark in colour.  One of its selling points in the vineyard is its ability to withstand cold weather.  How this has convinced people that Australia would be a good place for it is not at all clear to me, but I’m never one to turn down an interesting grape no matter how unlikely the pairing of it with a terroir might be.

The wine in the glass in front of me is as interesting as one could reasonably expect.  The first thing you notice is the colour – it’s intense right up to the rim.  And even going on five years old, it’s not taken on any hint of brick.  It’s not a really young purple, but it’s certainly holding steady at ruby.

On the palate, there’s certainly the intense berry flavour I was promised, though the body is a solid medium.  There are also some secondary notes starting to come through – I’m getting dark chocolate which is very pleasant and long lasting.  However, what I’m not getting is the searing acidity that I might have expected from my book learning.  It’s not that it’s flabby – it’s just a matter of expectations.  Just a guess, but might it have something to do with being grown in McLaren Vale, which is a fairly warm climate?

In conclusion, this is a very good wine for me.  I love trying new things, especially new varietals.  I have had this wine before, as well as another Australian Saperavi from Domain Day, but I think it’s about time I tracked down one from Georgia to see how they stack up next to their progenitor.  Until then though, I enjoyed this wine as more than just a curiosity, particularly the intensity of flavour and length of the finish.

So on an unrelated note, I’ve started working on getting some maps together with minor success.  Ordinarily I’d say something about not wanting to get too technical because people are here to read about wine, but honestly I think so few people read this that I won’t be getting too many complaints.  So I’m using Google Maps, and it’s interesting.  Project for today was writing up an web page that had three zones on it in different colours.  First problem, not reading the intro section about needing to get an API key.  Next, the Google interface takes coordinates in latitude, longitude pairs, but for some reason the KML files I’ve generated have longitude, latitude, altitude trios.  Final weirdness, it seems polygons can’t have more than 500 coordinates.  Other than that, things are interesting.  I hope to put up a sample wine region map in the next week.  Next step, writing a script that reads in different KML files and gives me a region for each one, so I can keep code and data separate.  After that, figuring out if there is a way to deal with the 500 coordinate limitation.