Of all the changes in the world of wine over the past decade, none has had such an impact as the emergence of Georgia. Before 2008 its wines were virtually unknown to Western consumers. Today, wine writers, sommeliers and consumers alike have been electrified by the diversity and quality of wines coming from this former Soviet republic. And no winery does a better job of showcasing the sheer diversity of what Georgia can do than Winery Khareba. Its wines now sell around the world, attract crowds at international wine fairs, and win medals in major competitions.
Winery Khareba also functions as an ambassador for Georgian wines, through its wine shops, restaurants and wine tourism activities.
Rising like a phoenix
Georgia, one of the oldest wine region in the world, is recognized as the cradle of winemaking, but it suffered appallingly under decades of collectivized Soviet winemaking. The communist regime ripped out many of Georgia’s 500-plus autochthonous vines and, while sparing the region’s traditional white Rkatsiteli and red-juiced Saperavi varieties, focused on quantity rather than quality. Wineries were separate from vineyards, so winemakers never knew what they were going to work with until the grapes were delivered. Most of what they made using generally substandard equipment, was mostly sweet and red.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the vineyards were abandoned, and the state-run wineries fell silent. When peaceful times returned, a small number of Georgians took a fresh look at the hills and valleys where wine had been produced for over 8,000 years. It was time for a renaissance.
Winemaking is not simply an activity in Georgia. It is an essential part of the national culture. Vines and grapes feature on countless ancient artefacts and every family traditionally has a small plot of vines and a qvevri full of home-made wine buried in the soil beneath their home. No dinner is complete without plentiful wine and a series of toasts orchestrated by the tamada – head of table.
Among the first pioneers of the revived Georgian wine industry were the three Kharebava brothers, whose ancestors had produced wine for generations. In 1995 they bought a winery in Kvareli in the famed, ancient Kakheti region, home to home to the David Gareja monastery and source of about three quarters of Georgia’s grapes. The terroir has been described as some of the world’s most perfect; the climate is moderate and there are ‘cinnamonic’ reddish coloured, sandy calcareous soils.
In 2004, the family built a winery from scratch at Terjola in the Imereti region, and acquired vineyards, so they could grow their own grapes and build a reputation for quality. Winery Khareba was soon busy supplying clients in Russia.
The family also acquired vineyards in other key regions, including Samegrelo and Lechkhumi and built a wine shop inside the winery.
In 2006, the Khareba family began to modernize their wineries and plant new vineyards in different regions, such as Samegrelo, Racha-Lechkhumi, Imereti and Kakheti.
That same year, 2006, they hired their chief winemaker, Vladimer Kublashvili, who had studied winemaking in Georgia, as well as England and Germany. “Last year I did the Wine MBA in Bordeaux,” he adds.
In 2006, the brothers bought what they call ‘the cave’, a 7.7 km tunnel. Near Kvareli, it was originally built as a Soviet bomb shelter. “Once it was finished, the government decided to use it as a wine cellar,” explains Kublashvili. “They obliged all the state wineries to send wine there for ageing.”
It’s a remarkable place, and not just because it’s the largest in the region. It’s 36,000 square metres and it lies beneath the Great Caucasus mountain range. The Kharebava family refurbished it, not only filling it with their own wine, but doing tours and tastings.
Khareba was growing rapidly, with new wineries, refurbished vineyards and the continual rise in wine quality. Kublashvili drew not just on modern European winemaking methods, but also on the traditional Imeretian and Kakhetian ways of doing things by fermenting wines in qvevri. That, plus the influx of wine tourists, meant things were looking good.
“The three brothers are all still involved,” says Kublashvili. “It’s not just a business for them – it’s their family.”
From crisis to success
In 2006, Russia created a pretext to embargo Georgia’s wines, mineral water and agricultural products. This thrust the industry into crisis but, in crisis, as the saying goes, there is opportunity, and the Georgian wine industry understood that it had to reorient its production to Western tastes.
The Georgians as a group began to market heavily to Europeans, who were amazed to discover the vibrant capital of Tbilisi, just a plane ride away. Wine quality kept improving, and noted European and American wine critics fell in love with Georgian wines and cuisine.
In 2011 the Kharebavas remodeled the ‘cave’, adding a restaurant, a shop and different wine tour packages. “People can visit and taste the wines and be introduced to Georgian dishes,” says Kublashvili.
The tunnels have become a major attraction, and are regularly rated five stars on TripAdvisor and described as one of the top things to see in the region. “Our visit to Khareba was the most memorable and successful during our trip around Kakheti wineries,” said one happy contributor to the TripAdvisor site.
“Tourists can also taste wines from qvevri,” says Kublashvili, adding there’s an above ground restaurant that serves Georgian food. “It’s a nice tour.”
At the end of the tour, visitors can explore the wine shop, where all of Winery Khareba’s wines are on sale. The range is wide, encompassing still wines made to European standards, sparkling and qvevri wines. While many Western sommeliers and critics are understandably fascinated by the unfamiliar flavours of amber-coloured qvevri wines, these represent less than 5% of Georgia’s total production.
However, they offer a perfect introduction to the growing number of wines Georgia is now producing from the autochthonous varieties that are being revived. “We produce more than 35 wines from local varieties,” says Kublashvili. The grapes used include Ojaleshi, Otskhanuri Sapere, Tsitska, Tsolikouri, Krakhuna, Aladasturi, Usakhelouri, Saperavi, Khikhvi, Kisi, Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli. The sparkling wines, too, are made from indigenous grapes, such as Tsitska, which gives aromas of white flowers.
“We produce around six million bottles per year,” using state-of-the-art Italian equipment, says Kublashvili. “All our grapes come from our own vineyards. We now have 1,500 hectares and can really control the quality.”
The attention to detail has paid off – in the past few years, Winery Khareba wines have accumulated 47 Gold, 26 Silver and 20 Bronze medals from international competitions. They have also had export success, selling to Baltic countries, Ukraine, UK, Belgium, Poland, Italy, Germany, France and China. Since 2013, Russian wine lovers can once again buy these wines in their own country, but today they have to compete with a growing number of Georgian wine fans from Boston to Beijing.
The company already has the warehouses in Germany and Italy, and not just because of their wine. Khareba’s grape pip oil has also been a big success, particularly in China. In 2017 company opened its Asian office in China, “We have an office in Shanghai with Chinese staff,” says Kublashvili.
The wine shops
Winery Khareba now encompasses two wineries, vineyards, a massive underground complex, a restaurant, a café, wine tourism – and wine shops. The first opened in 2004, the second in 2011 and now they have wine shops in Tblisi, Kvareli, Batumi, Mtskheta, Poti, Kazbegi and Terjola. The shops are modern and offer comfortable bars where people can sample European-style and qvevri wines, as well as the oils. The concept has been so popular that another shop is opening soon – in the maritime city of Bari, in Italy. “It’s getting ready for its opening ceremony,” says Kublashvili. A Georgian wine shop? In Italy? “The reason we decided to open it there is that in the city there is a church called St Nicholas. Our customers in Ukraine go to that city to visit the church. Also this is the great possibility to introduce Georgian wine to curious Italian wine lovers.” So, naturally, the wine shop is next to the church. “The next project could be in Berlin or Shanghai,” he says. “Probably Berlin first.”
It’s a remarkable success story and a testament to hard work and the quality of the vineyards and wines. It takes a lot to build a successful international wine business in just one generation. To do this in the face of such political upheaval is remarkable. For the chance to sample the wines for yourself and to meet some of the Winery Khareba team, they will all be at the Georgian stand at ProWein. You’re in for a treat.