I have a thing for unusual wine: obscure varieties, weird vinification processes, vineyards that look like they could have been planted at the dawn of time. So rkatsiteli was natural for me to take at least an intellectual liking to. It’s ancient, from Eurasia’s Caucasus Mountains where viticulture originated—specifically Mount Ararat, for the biblical literalist. It’s only grown by a handful of producers in this country and, almost better, it’s difficult to pronounce (er-kat-si-teli).
But despite modern obscurity, it was the world’s third-most-planted white grape until, during an anti-alcohol campaign in the Soviet Union’s dying days, Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the uprooting of millions of vines. Today there’s still a lot grown in the Republic of Georgia, Armenia, the Ukraine and Russia; we just don’t see much in these parts.
My first taste of rkatsiteli was challenging. I was in a Georgian village on the Black Sea to attend my brother’s wedding to a lovely local woman whose neighbors handed me a glass of golden-hued homemade wine. My first sniff found something unusual, fruity and funky, like quince paste with stinky cheese, but a sip was rough and oxidized, searing in alcohol and acid. “To life,” I toasted, and knocked back the rest out of respect.
Years passed before I became reacquainted with rkatsiteli in a West Village sushi joint. This fresh, crisp incarnation came from a vineyard in New York’s own Finger Lakes. How did this ancient grape make its way from the shores of the Black Sea to the steep slopes upstate?
While wine has been made in the Finger Lakes since the earliest European settlements, the consensus has long been that the region’s winters are too cold for Vitis vinifera, the species of old-world grapes most feel makes the best wine. Instead locals grew indigenous/European hybrids, which didn’t offer much to recommend themselves, or Vitis labrusca grapes, which connoisseurs regard as too “foxy” for fine wine.
Enter Dr. Konstatin Frank, a doctor of viticulture educated in Odessa who immigrated to the states after World War II. Experiences in the Ukraine, where winters can be even more bitter than those in the Finger Lakes, convinced him that cold weather wasn’t the problem so much as poor choice of rootstock. In 1962 he founded Vinifera Wine Cellars—the name alone a proclamation that fine vinifera wine could be made in the Finger Lakes.
Though it was a commercial enterprise, Dr. Frank’s heart remained in science and research; he planted 60 vinifera varieties to test his rootstock theories. After 20 years his son took over the business and winnowed the number of varieties down to the 20 best performing. Among those was a beloved grape his father knew from his early years in the Soviet Union: rkatsiteli.
It has little in common with the oxidized rkastiteli I met in Georgia, where it’s traditionally fermented in buried clay amphorae. Fred Frank, grandson of Dr. Frank and current owner of the winery—known today as Dr. Konstatin Frank—attributes his fresh aromatics and succulent flavors to the grape’s natural character combined with slow, cool fermentation in stainless steel tanks. The winery grows 11 acres of rkatsiteli, but in response to growing demand—remarkable for a grape few can pronounce—they’re planting more. Good news for adventurous wine drinkers.
Available at Astor Wines & Spirits, 399 Lafayette Sreet at East 4th, 212.674.7500; and Appellation Wines, 156 10th Avenue at 20th Street 212.741.9474
Photo courtesy of Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars.