Many people are surprised to learn that the third most planted grape in terms of hectare grown is the ancient vinifera, Rkatsiteli. Thought to have originated in the Caucasus Mountains bordering Armenia and Turkey, this grape is popular in the former USSR countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldavia, Ukraine as well as Bulgaria and Rumania. Wine historians believe that this varietal was growing in Georgia over 5,000 years ago and Georgia’s most famous wine is Tsinandali, a blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane grapes. One manufacturer, Vaziani, has been producing this wine since 1886. You can learn more about Georgian Rkatsiteli wine at the Georgian Wine House. In Russia, the total acreage of the varietal declined during Gorbachev’s reign, but is starting to rebound. This grape is also popular in China, where it is called Baiyu.
Rkatsiteli is high in acidity with pleasant floral and spicy characteristics, similar to a Gewurztraminer or Johannisberg Riesling. It can be vinified into different type of wines: from dry to very sweet, to sparkling wines, and even to Sherry-like wines.
This grape is starting to catch hold in the United States, where a handful of wineries are producing Rkatsiteli wine. The first American winery to grow and cultivate Rkatsiteli was Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars in Hammondsport, New York. The winery’s founder, Dr. Konstantin Frank, earned a PhD degree in viticulture at the University of Odessa in the Ukraine. After immigrating to the United States and settling in New York's Finger Lakes region, Dr. Frank's fundamental goal was to introduce the world's best Vitis Vinifera varieties to this region. Rkatsiteli was at the top of this list based on his experience producing the varietal in his native Ukraine. The winery is now run by his Dr. Frank’s son, Willy and grandson Frederick. According to Frederick Frank, Dr. Frank's Rkatsiteli has become somewhat of a cult wine – with a loyal group of wine consumers who love its unique qualities. Their version starts out tasting something like a Riesling, but lingers longer on the palate, and has spiciness reminiscent of, but different from, Gewürztraminer, evoking herbs, strawberries, and fresh ground pepper. Dr. Frank’s Rkatsiteli also receives numerous awards each year. In 2005, the 2004 vintage won double gold at the Great Lakes Wine Competition and gold at the New York Wine & Food Classic and International Eastern Wine Competition. While growing Rkatsiteli is very labor intensive and must be planted on east facing slopes, the winery believes that the final product and growing consumer demand justifies the work involved.
In New Jersey, Tomasello Winery has been growing Rkatsiteli since the early 90's, producing a vintage Rkatsiteli and a Sparkling Rkatsiteli. According to Jack Tomasello, it is one of his favorite wine grapes to grow and one of his favorite grapes to talk about. The grape grows well in New Jersey, remains healthy during the winter, and displays characteristics of a Riesling with pronounced hints of pear. Tomasello Winery educates their customers about this unique grape and has found that unique wines sell in New York and New Jersey. Their distributors have also found a demand for the product in local fine wine shops. Mr. Tomasello also foresees more interest on the West Coast. Recently a California nursery contacted him to request bud wood to graft some vines for next year.
Our first taste of Rkatsiteli occurred while visiting Horton Vineyards. This wine displayed characteristics much like a good dry Riesling: fruity aromas, citrus flavors and a long, crisp finish. We were immediately hooked and have always kept a bottle in our cellar. Located in Gordonsville, Virginia, Horton Vineyards started growing Rkatsiteli because it is a late bud breaking white grape and is extremely winter hardy. They cultivate the grape in the 5 acres directly in front of their winery. Marketed as R-Kats (so that consumers can pronounce its name) this wine is only sold where the buyer can taste the product: at the winery or festivals. In these environments, Horton has found that buyers are more than willing to experiment with new wines and it sells nicely. Eventually, as demand increases, they hope to sell the product in local wine shops.
Wine consumers in many countries are enjoying this ancient wine on a daily basis and it is very unfortunate that it is virtually unknown in the United States. As more wineries such as Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, Tomasello Winery, and Horton Vineyards start to experiment with unique grapes, we hope this situation will change and that one day, Rkatsiteli will be a household name within the American wine community. To learn more about Rkatsiteli and other grape varietals, visit our Wine 101 section at Wine Compass.