Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rkatsitelli. Rkatsi...what? Rkatsi...who?

It's one of the world's most ancient wine grapes.

It's also one of the most widely grown grapes in the world. It's all the rage in Russia and Georgia.

And you've probably never had it. Hell, you may have never heard of it before (unless you're one of those starry-eyed wine geek types).

In Russia and Georgia, it's pretty much the all-purpose workhorse grape. It's used for everything: dry, sweet, sparkling, dessert, whatever.

But there are plantings of this ancient variety in other places---albeit in small amounts. One such is in the well-known wine-growing state of...Massachusetts. And there's some in the Finger Lakes too.

One I sampled just recently, courtesy of a gift from my friend Jason Brandt Lewis---yes, THE Jason Brandt Lewis, legendary wine personality and wine forum provocateur and general know-it-all-been-there-done-that of wine---was the Westport Rivers Rkatsiteli 2005 Northeast New England.

Weighing in at a surprisingly moderate 11.2% alcohol (!), this estate grown Rkatsitelli is worth a try. After all, what wine lover wouldn't try something this out of the ordinary, eh?

It's typical in the light, spicy, tangy elements; and it's technically a correctly made wine and decent enough withal. When I sampled it with some students during a course session on the ancient history of wine, it was quite well received.

But for me, it had an unmistakable and immediately apparent odor---and subsequent flavor---of that musky (and often musty) Muscadine grape native to the east coast of the U.S. And that is, as we say in the business when we're being noncommittal or damning with faint praise, "an acquired taste."

I acquired my first taste of it when I was very young, by sampling a local fresh-picked wild Muscadine homemade wine in Georgia (the other one, the one that wasn't invaded by the Soviet Union, just rawboned Anglo-Irish immigrants). Despite that experience, I later went back to taste more Muscadine---this time as a professional, thinking it was my duty to do so so I would be informed, and actually know whereof I speak, and this time from vineyards in Arkansas. There was even a white Muscadine and a red Muscadine. I tasted both. to make sure.

After acquiring that taste, I felt no particular need to acquire any more tastes. So, if you're guessing I'm not particularly overwhelmed by this wine, you would be correct.

What's intriguing about this connection between wild Muscadine and the Rkatsiteli is that the grapes are from two entirely different origins. Rkatsiteli has an ancient lineage derived from the trans-Caucasus region, and is vitis vinifera. Muscadine is from America, and is vitis labrusca. By rights, Rkatsiteli shouldn't have any reference to Muscadine, or "foxiness", whatsoever. But such is the way the mind works---well, mine at least---that one clearly reminds me of the other. Strange, but there it is.

Again, it's not a bad wine...it is simply not very interesting or likable to me. That 'foxy' wild native American grape smell just doesn't do it for me. Nice acidity, actually. Good body, with a light touch of sweetness that doesn't cloy, and some tangy-spicy flavors, in the mode of a Gewurztraminer, or perhaps Muscat. But there's that Muscadine-ness, that Muscadine-osity...

If you're on the East Coast, you might try it if you get the chance. Your mileage may well vary. And for what it is, it's good. Heck, it's undoubtedly the single best Rkatsiteli I've ever had! (Although I'm told on good authority that the version from Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery in New York is pretty impressive. Maybe I'll try that some day.)

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