(March 2016) We were welcomed to Khareba Winery by an amazing site. A group of polyphonic singers seranaded us, while chefs prepared traditional Georgian food over an open fire (see video here). We were invited to help cook fresh breads, dumplings filled with herbs and minced lamb, and the amazing "churchkhela," which look like long salamis. In actuality they are walnuts placed on a string and then dipped in a molten pot of hot grape juice. They taste almost like candy.
|Polyphonic Singers in Black Robes, with cooking pots over fire|
|Churchkhela. Photo by Levan Gokadze|
Opening the Qvevri and Tasting the Baby Wine
After cooking and sampling the fruit of our efforts, we descended into the 7.7 km long tunnels where more than 25,000 bottles of Khareba wines are stored. There, deep in the darkness with the music of the polyphonic singers echoing off the walls and humming around us like an electric current, our guides opened two of the qvevri.
It took a while to sweep away the dirt on top and pry open the clay lid. Next they used a dipper on a long pole to gently retrieve some of the very clear and new wine. They poured the wine into small clay bowls that we were each given to drink the wine. It tasted cool, earthy, nutty, and magical.
|Opening the Qvevri and Extracting the Baby Wine|
As I stood there sipping the qvevri wine, that the Georgians believe is a miracle, made deep in Mother Earth and born to bring beauty and spirituality to mankind, I felt a delicious shiver run through me. I knew I was experiencing a truly mystical experience with the wine and the music pulsating around me. It was then that I understood how wine is so closely linked to religion in Georgia.
About Khareba Winery and Master Tasting
After tasting the baby wine from qvevri, we exited the tunnel and took a path up the hill to the winery. It is quite new, having been built in 2004, and reminded me of visiting Robert Mondavi winery in Napa Valley. It is very large, fancy, and modern with a tasting room and restaurant.
|The new modern exterior of Khareba Winery Visitor's Center|
For the master tasting, we were escorted to a small room, with a view overlooking the Kakheti Valley. It was quite stunning to see the rows and rows of vineyards spread out below.
|View of Vineyards in Kakhetic Valley|
We were welcomed by viticulturist, Tornike Chakhvadze, who explained that Khareba Winery had two locations – a winery in the west, as well one in the eastern part of Georgia, where we were gathered. Khareba is owned by three brothers who purchased the old cellars and built the new modern winery, restaurant and tasting room on top of the hill. The name, “Khareba” means “the enunciation “or bearer of good news. The logo for the winery is a dove flying upwards with grape vine.
Altogether they own just over 1000 hectares of vineyards, with 600 hectares of white grapes and 400 hectares of red grapes, of which 90% are saperavi. As one of the largest wineries in Georgia, Khareba produces around 5 million bottles of wine per year (417,000 cases). Tornike reported that they export about 20% of production to more than 33 countries. Today Khareba receives more than 15,000 wine tourists per year.
Three Major Brands Produced at Khareba
Since they make wine in both the ancient qvevri style as well as using modern winemaking techniques, they have wisely divided production into three brands to make it easier for the consumer to understand the various styles:
1) Monastery Qvevri Wine - the brand for all wines made in qvevri, resulting in a heavy, textured style that can sometimes seem slightly oxidized. It is named Monastery because the qvevri style is closely linked to the church, and the three brothers are said to be very religious. They have even built a chapel and a house for Bishop David when he visits.
2) Winery Khareba – the brand name for wines made in a fresh modern style. Most of these are made in stainless steel with little to no oak.
3) Chateau Lipartiani - the brand name used for the more expensive wines made in an international style with generous French oak under the guidance of their consulting winemaker from Bordeaux.
In terms of marketing, Tornike said they use aggressive advertising, and have established their own retail shops in major Georgian towns as well as one in Southern Italy.
A Tasting of Five Wines
We were given five wines to taste and evaluate. Tornike described the winemaking techniques for each:
Khareba Winery Mtsvane 2014 – made in the modern “European style in stainless steel tank, of Mtsvane grapes from Kakheti region. Lovely fresh floral nose with citrus and herbs on palate. Heavier body from lees contact in tank. Intensely concentrated and slightly phenolic. Not as refreshing as the nose would indicate. Medium-plus acid and 14% alcohol.
Monastery Qvevri Wine - Mtsvane 2013– Dry white wine made of Mtsvane grapes from the Kakheti region. Brilliant orange-amber color. Intense nose of dried apricot, with marmalade, nuts and spice on palate. Textured, very dry and slightly tannic. This is a serious wine that could easily be served with meats and heavy cheeses. 3 months on skins in qvevri, then 5 more months aging in new qvevri. 12.5% alcohol.
Chateau Lipartiani Dry Red 2011 – 100% Saperavi from 3 appellations in Kakheti region. Nose of lifted violets, earth, and black fruit. On palate very concentrated with large tannins, black plum, anise, complex savory notes. Very well balanced with high acid and long finish. Generous 100% new French Oak, aged for 8 months. 14% alcohol. Tasted similar to a big, complex Bordeaux. Quite expensive at 190 gel ($82 US)
Monastery Qvevri Wine - Otskhanuri Sapere 2012 – made in qvervi, the grape variety is Otskhanuri Sapere, which is from the mountainous region of Western Georgia. It is said to be similar to zinfandel in that it ripens unevenly. Nose of blackberries, on the palate it tasted of juicy tart plum, tar, and black licorice. With fine tannins and a high acid, the wine had precision and character. 12.5% alcohol.
Monastery Qvevri Wine - Ojalashi - made from the rare Ojalashi grape, of which there are only 10 hectares left in country. rom Western Georgia, it had a nose of plum and mixed red berry, which followed through on palate. Grippy tannins, medium body. Quite young and needed more time. Aged 2 weeks on skins in Qvevri, then pressed. Transferred to a new qvevri for ML and aging. 12% alcohol.
Magnificent Supra Feast
At the conclusion of the tasting, we were invited into the restaurant called Saperavi Restaurant for a grand “Supra” for our final evening in Georgia. A “supra” is a feast with lots of toasting with wine, and food that never ends. There is so much food that dishes are piled on top of one another. The apparent reason for this is because it would appear rude if there was not extra food. If this is the case, this dinner had to be the most hospitable and welcoming in the world, because the food never ended, and the singing and toasting last long into the night. A truly magnificent conclusion!
|Our Group at Supra Table with Singers at Head|
|Overflowing Food on Table at Supra|
Video of Polyphonic Singers at Supra Dinner
Singing a song to praise the vine