Mary Hamilton embraces the pampered grape
Author: Eli Greenblat Date Posted:20 July 2019
Mary Hamilton and her father Hugh at their vineyard in McLaren Vale, South Australia
Picture: James Elsby
Mary Hamilton, the boss of Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, Hugh Hamilton Wines, nervously laughs off how her father treats the winemaker’s vineyards of saperavi grapes like a pampered pedigree pet, with even sunscreen applied in the hotter weeks to protect their inky purple grapes.
Delicate, bold and ancient, these saperavi grapes — the new divas of the wine world — have quickly spread throughout Australia from their native home in the former Soviet republic of Georgia to dozens of winemakers who are growing the variety in commercial quantities.
Where once winemakers keen on saperavi could hold their meetings in a broom closet, now there are enough to launch a collective, and that is exactly what Hamilton is doing by creating the Australian Saperavi Association to take the message of Georgia’s most popular grape to local drinkers.
“We are doing this because it is such an unknown variety and it has such an incredible backstory to tell,” Hamilton told The Weekend Australian.
“And we think by creating an association with a bit of structure around it will help people understand more about the variety.”
Her family’s 180-year-old winery’s journey to the Georgian grape began almost 20 years ago when patriarch and her father Hugh Hamilton became so excited by the wine after meeting Georgian winemaker and national treasure Lado Uzunashvil that he started ripping out his own vines.
“We planted in 2000 and it was a little experimental patch and people said to dad that he was a nutter, because there were these really old and beautiful petit verdot vines he pulled out on a bit of an impulse to see what this exotic Georgian variety would do,’’ she said.
“Our first vintage was in 2004 and first real production in 2005, it has always sold out and now we have gone further to put more plantings in a church block and have planted on our two other vineyards as well, so we have more than we have ever had of it.”
The association will hold a symposium at the end of the year, and Hamilton hopes to have around 20 winemakers, growers and producers signed up to celebrate all things saperavi over two days of tastings and informal information sessions.
Georgia, which hugs the Black Sea and whose neighbours include Armenia and Azerbaijan, is considered by many as the cradle of wine, with a history going back 8000 years.
Saperavi literally means “paint” or “dye” as the rich purplish black fruits would dye the hands of grape pickers.
It is a big, bold, full-throttled red wine, much like the full-bodied shiraz that Australia is well known for, and Hamilton believes the Australian palate can easily jump to the Georgian style.
The grape is also quirky.
“It does something very unusual in that if you get a run of hot, hot days, like three days in a row of temperatures over 38 degrees, sometimes it will do a very quirky thing I have never seen in another variety — it will steal back all of the juice out of the berries back into the vine, so it will suck the berries dry.’’
This has seen Hamilton and her workers forced to apply a type of sunscreen to the vines to protect the berries.
“These are the most pampered grapes you can imagine, these saperavi, my dad pampers these grapes like you would a pedigree pet.’’
Hamilton believes the time is ripe for saperavi growers to share their knowledge in what will be Australia’s first saperavi festival in November.
“Wine is a fairly collegial industry where people tend to be fairly open with each other, unlike other industries where it is much more secretive, I think you will get much more of a rub off effect where they talk to each other about it. When I say I want 20 members of this association, some will be producers only, some will be wineries only that don’t produce and buying saperavi grapes from others and some will be like us that do both — grow and make their own saperavi wine.’’