Friday, February 28, 2014

Boston Wine Expo: Khareba Winery From Georgia

At the Boston Wine Expo, I traveled in time and space, back many thousands of years to a region which some believe could be the birthplace of wine making. I am referring to Georgia, a country situated in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. The exact origins of wine making may never be known, but it cannot be disputed that Georgia's history in this regard extends back to the vinous beginnings. Some even believe the word "wine" derives from the Georgian word "gvino" which means "wine." Unfortunately, despite Georgia's importance to the history of wine, many American consumers have never tasted a Georgian wine.

There are over 500 indigenous grapes in Georgia though only about 38 are currently used for wine production. In time, that will likely increase as some wineries have been exploring the potential of the other indigenous grapes. It is a long, historical tradition for Georgians to ferment and age their wines in clay vessels, called "qvevri" or "kvevri." These are similar to amphorae but usually lack handles. The qvevri are commonly buried underground in a marani, sometimes said to be a sacred area, though more commonly it refers to a wine cellar.

These qvevri, for a multitude of reasons, can create some interesting wines, and the whites produced in these qvevri may sometimes be known as "orange wines," as oxidation has darkened their color and added intriguing flavors. Because of its importance, the qvevri was even added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Other winemakers from around the world have also started using or experimenting with clay amphora.

Wine is an integral component of Georgian culture, from the revelry of rtveli, their grape harvest, to the supra, a traditional feast. The term "supra" means "tablecloth" and the supra feast typically contains a lengthy amount of toasts. A tamada, a toastmaster, is selected to lead the evening, and the tamada will make all of the toasts. These toasts will honor family and friends, events in the past, present and future, and much more. It is customary to toast to every person attending the feast, saying something positive about them. The primary prohibition is that you cannot toast to anything negative.

Two years ago, at the Boston Wine Expo, I tasted and enjoyed the Georgian wines of Telavi Wine Cellar, including one wine made in a qvevri. I later sampled and was impressed by the sparkling wines of Bagrationi 1882 Winery. So, when I learned the Khareba Winery from Georgia would be exhibiting at this year's Expo, I placed it at the top of my list of tables to visit. It was the only Georgian winery exhibiting at the show, and ended up being the first wine booth at which I stopped to taste.

At the Khareba tables, I met Vladimer Kublashvili, their Production Director, and Lia Kutateladze, their Export Manager, both who were personable and obviously passionate about Georgian wines. I was eminently satisfied with the wines I found and the table also seemed very popular during the public hours of the Grand Tasting. Consumers wanted to know more about wines from this unfamiliar region. They wanted to taste something different, to broaden the horizons of their palates. Kudos to all of those consumers brave enough to explore wine outside their comfort zone.

The Khareba Winery currently owns over 750 hectares of vineyards, and 90% of them located are located in Kakheti, in Eastern Georgia. The other 10% of vineyards are in Western Georgia, 9% in Imereti and 1% in Lechkhumi. Their Kakheti winery has been in operation since 1957, and currently produces their table wines. In 2011, they constructed a second winery in Imereti which now produces their premium quality and sparkling wines. They produce over 30 different wines and started about three years ago to produce a number of wines using the traditional qvevri. It impresses me that one of the goals of the winery is to identify and cultivate old, traditional and indigenous Georgian grapes. With such a wealth of indigenous grapes, it is great that they are trying to preserve this history and potentially find obscure grapes that will make some compelling wines.

Of the 12 wines I tasted, I found the Khareba Monastery Wines, those made with qvevri, to be the most compelling. They produce about 8 different monastery wines, including 6 whites and 2 reds, and they had 4 of them available for tasting at the Expo. The four wines I tasted were all single varietal wines, using indigenous Georgian grapes that are rarely seen outside of Georgia. You might be familiar though with Rkatiseli as it is now being grown in several other regions, and some can even be found in Massachusetts, grown by Westport Rivers.

The 2011 Krakhuna Monastery Wine is a white wine that was fermented and aged in qvevri for 8 months with 5% of its skins. Krakhuna is an ancient white grape that is late ripening. This wine had a mild yellowish/amber color to it, and on the palate was dry with mild flavors of pear and herbs. With good acidity and a pleasant finish, this is a wine that would appeal to many consumers. It would be fine on its own, or paired with lighter fare, such as seafood.

The 2011 Mtsvane Monastery Wine is another white wine that was fermented and aged in qvevri, but for 10 months with 100% of its skins. Mtsvane is a light-skinned, white grape and its name means "green." This was the darkest of the white wines, with a rich amber/orange color, and also the one which I felt possessed the most complex and compelling aromas and flavors. The aroma was full of fresh fruit flavors, from peach to apple, and on the palate, there was an intriguing melange of fruit, spice and minerality. With lots of umami in this wine, its savory nature was appealing and satisfying. Highly recommended.

The 2011 Rkatsiteli Monastery Wine is the third white wine, and it was fermented and aged in qvevri for 10 months with 100% of its skins. Rkatsiteli is an ancient white grape, with high acidity, and its name means "red stem." This wine's color was medium amber/orange and presents with a more exotic taste, a blend of dried fruits, spice and herbs with a nice crispness. In some respects it reminded me of Gewurztraminer, but possessed its own uniqueness as well. Definitely one of the best examples of Rkatsiteli that I have tasted.

My favorite wine was the 2012 Saperavi Monastery Wine, a red wine that was fermented and aged in qvevri. Saperavi is an ancient red grape, known to be very hardy, and its name means literally "paint" or "dye," due to its intense dark-red color. And this wine possessed a strong dark red color and an intense aroma of black and blue fruits, with a mild spicy undertone. On the palate, there was a complex and alluring melange of black cherry, blueberry, and blackberry with subtle spicy notes. There is also an exotic element to the wine, one that is difficult to encapsulate in words, but which makes this wine interesting and delicious. The tannins were restrained, the wine was nicely balanced, and it presented a lengthy and pleasing finish. Highly recommended.

The rest of the Khareba wines I sampled were table wines, produced in a more European style and without the use of a qvevri. In general, though lacking the complexity of the qvevri wines, I enjoyed most of the table wines, finding them easy drinking and pleasant. These are more everyday wines, inexpensive wines that you would select for an ordinary dinner or a quiet night at home. As these wines use indigenous Georgian grapes, they add their own uniqueness, helping to elevate them over some other table wines. These wines can also serve as conversation starters, and help wine lovers expand their palates.

The 2010 Khareba Brut Sparkling Wine is made from the Tsitska grape and is aged for 12 months. It was a rather simple sparkling wine, with yeasty and floral notes, and didn't appeal to my own preferences. On the other hand, the 2013 Khareba Krakhuna was bright, crisp and had tasty green apple and pear flavors. It would make an excellent summer wine, an easy drinking quaffer which would also pair well with light dishes. The 2013 Khareba Mtsvane was strongly aromatic, like a Gewurztraminer, and had some of those same spicy notes on the palate. Dry, crisp and nicely balanced, this is another easy drinker and I would like to try it with some spicy Thai.

The last of the whites was the 2013 Khareba Rkatiseli, which presented a crisp and clean taste of spice and herbs, supplemented by a mild citrus nature. An intriguing taste, and another candidate for a fun summer wine. All three of the white, still wines were pleasing and should appeal to most wine lovers.

All of the red wines contained the Saperavi grape, and the different wines showed the allure and versatility of this grape. The 2011 Khareba Saperavi sees no oak, and presented juicy black fruit flavors with spicy elements enhancing the taste. A delicious and easy drinking wine, perfect for burgers or pizza. It presents just enough exotic taste to differentiate it from wines from other regions. The 2010 Khareba Saperavi Premium sees about 20% aged in oak, and the tannins are mild. Again, there were nice black fruit flavors, with hints of blueberrry, and a bit more spice.

The 2011 Khareba Oak is produced from 100% Saperavi, aged in oak, and presents a fuller and richer taste, with black and blue fruit flavors, lots of spice, and subtle herbal notes. The tannins are moderate and the finish is lengthy and satisfying. It also presents more complexity than the other two Saperavi table wines. It was my favorite of the three red wines, but I could easily enjoy the other two as well. Once again, these reds should appeal to most wine lovers.

Finally, we ended on a sweet note with the 2012 Kindzmarauli, a semi-sweet wine made from Saperavi. With a deep red color, it has a nose that reminded me of sweet candy, and that came out on the palate as well. It was not overly sweet, and had bright red fruit flavors.

Overall, the Khareba wines impressed me, especially their qvevri wines, and further enhanced my view of Georgian wines. These were well-made wines, presenting intriguing indigenous grapes that offered an exotic aspect. Their table wines would appeal to a broad spectrum of wine drinkers, while the qvevri wines might appeal more to wine geeks, though the Krakhuna Monastery wine is more consumer friendly. Georgian wines have a lengthy history, and it seems that their future is looking bright. I encourage all wine lovers to seek out the wines of Georgia, to explore the wonders of their wines.

Khareba Winery is currently seeking a national importer so they can bring their wines to the U.S. I wish them the best of luck in finding an importer as I believe their wines are worthy, and would do well in the U.S.

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