Giorgi Iukuridze has a bachelor and Masters Degree in Politics and International Relations and, prior to the Russian invasion, was known in Ukraine as both co-founder of Shabo, the country’s leading winery, and as a strong international promoter of local culture and cuisine. This year, like other business leaders in Ukraine, he has had to face the commercial and human challenges of being in a nation at war.
Meininger’s: Can you place Shabo in the context of the Ukrainian industry as a whole?
Iukuridze: In 2003, we bought a winery that had been run into the ground in the post-Soviet era. It was an enormous undertaking and took colossal investments to bring the company to where is today. Essentially everything had to be rebuilt from scratch.
Our family came to Shabo because of its unique terroir. It has been our long running dream - to create what I call the Great Wines of Ukraine. Ours is one of the most ancient wine-growing regions of the country with ideal soils and climatic conditions between the Dniester estuary and the sea.
We are traditional winemakers and only use our own grapes to create wines. Already in the first years of the company, out of 1,200ha of vineyards, we renewed and replanted 900ha. We bought the vines from [top nurseries] Rauscedo and Mercier, planted them in specific plots, having previously made a deep soil analysis. We also managed to preserve and increase our Ukrainian unique [white] autochthonous variety Telti-Kuruk. We worked with different specialists and consultants in the past, but since 2011 we are workingwith international experts from Bordeaux – Derenoncourt Consultants.
We are also very passionate about Charmat and methode champenoise sparkling wines, and have been cooperating with the Institute “Oenologique de Champagne” for many years.
SHABO wines are the first and only in Ukraine to receive appellation status of ‘КНП’ which stands for controlled designation of origin. It has been fundamental for us from day one to introduce and strengthen the knowledge that Ukraine is a wine-producing country.
SHABO is also the first Ukrainian winery to participate in the world's largest exhibitions and competitions (ProWein Düsseldorf, Vinexpo Bordeaux, Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, Mundus Vini, New York IWC and a dozen others). Having won more than 500 international awards and accolades, all of this helped to build the reputation of the company and more importantly on a larger scale,the brand image of Ukraine as a wine-producing country. We got the first ever gold medals for Ukraine from Decanter WWA 2021, where two of our wines received 95 points. Our wine also came in the Top 5 in the blind tasting of the ‘Best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world’, at the Villa d’Este Wine Symposium.
Meininger’s: Ukraine has a history of being a great market for spirits – indeed you once said that as many as one in three Ukrainians may drink Shabo brandy – but what is happening in wine?
Iukuridze: In order to introduce everyone to the world of Ukrainian winemaking, in 2009 we created the SHABO Wine Culture Center. Every year since, the Center has welcomed on average 50 thousand visitors annually. For us, first of all it was a social project, to tell the engaging story about the amazing history of the country's wine-growing region; and more importantly to promote and education about the wine culture and wine consumption. Bicentennial Swiss cellars, modern art objects from famous masters of the world, a museum, cinemas, a musical fountain, production and professional tasting of wines that are conquering the world - a whole complex of impressions and tastes has been created. Here, every visitor can appreciate the achievements of Ukrainian winemakers. But at the same time, we laid the foundation of this project – education in the culture of drinking in Ukraine among compatriots. I think that both then and now these are big risks - in a country where strong drinks have always been prevailed, to start making wine and also teach how to drink responsibly. But we could not do otherwise. This is our duty and responsibility.
Meininger’s: How is the industry innovating?
Iukuridze: We cannot live without constant development and improvement. We adhere to the best traditions of winemaking and are always open to new unique approaches that no one else does in our country. So, for several years we have been creating qvevri wines, the special clay vessels from Georgia (the technology of which is more than 8,000 years old).
We also made naturally semi-sweet wines by stopping fermentation with cold. Today, more than 60% of the wines sold in Ukraine are semisweet or sweet. So, for the people that enjoy dessert wines, we started using complex and costly technology to provide our Ukrainians with quality wine where they can taste the structure of the grape and its natural sweetness of the berry itself.
Meininger’s: It is very difficult for people who are outside Ukraine and informed only by the media to imagine what life is like in your country now. As a wine business that supplied Ukrainian restaurants and shops before the February invasion, how are you doing today?
Iukuridze: Like the rest of Ukraine, the SHABO company is going through hard times, but it does its best to support its native country, people, economy, and believes only in victory. Before the war, we covered 85-90% of our country. Now, in general, the entire market for wine has shrunk by 50%, and for brandy by 30%. The wine industry has gone through periods ranging from a complete ban on the sale of alcohol to limited sales times during martial law. We do not write off problems with logistics, the destruction of warehouses, , manufacturers of essential components for production, etc.
With HoReCa, the situation is much worse. The market has almost stopped in its tracks, especially in the first months of the war. Today, HoReCa is coming back to work, but quite slowly. Unfortunately, many of the restaurants had to close their doors permanently.
Meininger’s: What happened to other exports? Where did you sell most of your wine before the war? Has greater awareness of Ukraine and the desire to support the country helped open up new export markets?
Iukuridze: Popularization of the Brand of Ukrainian Wine remains a priority for us. It is always important for us to tell the world about the uniqueness and richness of the Ukrainian terroir. Our team strongly and all of Shabo’s big family believe that ‘Made in Ukraine’ wines are noteworthy and deserve attention.
At the moment, we export Ukrainian wines to 20 countries of the world (from Japan to Americas). Therecognition of Ukraine has now increased few times over and the interest in the country's products too. Most recent example was our trip to Pro Wein 2022 Düsseldorf in May. It took a lot of effort for us to get there and bring samples. But we managed to present the wines of Ukraine at this event. We definitely felt increased attention to our wines with a non-stop flow of visitors and interested parties to our stand. We felt the support and desire to help from our colleagues in the industry. One of such meetings led to a new country for our exports - Denmark and the record first order supply of Ukrainian wine - more than 106 thousand bottles. Since the end of August, Ukrainian wines have been presented in one of the largest retail chains of Denmark - COOP.
The importance of exports is crucial for the future of our winery and its importance cannot be underestimated.
Meininger’s: And given the challenges we read about for grain exporters, how do you get wine out of the country to overseas buyers?
Iukuridze: I would like to note the great difficulties with the delivery of samples for potential export clients, as well as for wine competitions and exhibitions. Due to the fact that international courier services have vetoed working with alcohol due to martial law, we cannot ship products directly from Ukraine. Here we are faced with the problem of double customs clearance and the lack of legal entities that are ready to accept and send our samples further.
This problem is exclusive to samples. Actual export orders are being handled.
Meininger’s: What about the logistical problems that everyone else is suffering from, such as glass shortages and rising energy prices?
Iukuridze: The cost of shipping products abroad has risen since last year, when the container crisis began. We had a huge increase in energy resources last autumn. The cost of glass has gone up by more than 300%. Now the market for the bottle production has diminished significantly. Due to war, a large Vetropack plant (in Gostomel) was damaged. We are looking at alternative options for buying bottles from abroad, but everything comes down to a higher cost. The prices of the wines on the shelf are being pushed by cost of components and logistics.
Meininger’s: How many employees are at Shabo, how did the war affect them, and what do they do for the company?
Iukuridze: The company employs 1000 people. Some employees went to the frontlines, some continue to combine work and humanitarian support, to work from abroad, etc. I am very lucky to have such a great team and big family of SHABO.
When talking about the work of the winery: we are able to maintain activities within the framework of today's realities. The emphasis is on the implementation of the most important areas - the conduct of all important activities in the vineyards and in the process of creating wines.
Beyond that, we continue to do our best to support the community and the region. The company has always been actively involved in the life and improvement of the village. We do not stop our social responsibility even during military operations: from global support projects to personal volunteering of everyone: helping the community, territorial defense, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, support for employees, internally displaced persons and all those in need - providing food, essentials, transport, bulletproof vests, etc. Together with fellow winemakers, we organized support for the residents of the hero city of Mykolaiv in providing them with drinking water (SHABO transports drinking water from its own artesian well, and gave its water carriers to the municipality for use, etc.).
Meininger’s: You have vineyards near the conflict zone around Odessa. How did you manage to take care of the vines during the season, both in the face of the fighting and the demands of the vineyard workers to fulfill their role in the army?
Iukuridze: I am grateful to the whole team of winegrowers who, despite all the difficulties, continued to work in the vineyards. We have not missed a single day of work there, which means that we have completed all the necessary procedures for a successful harvest. Alas, I know that not all of my colleagues were so lucky. Due to shelling, occupation, mining of vineyards, etc., not everyone was able to work in the vineyards. And this year they are left without the harvest. For them, we give full access to our vineyards, winery and expertise – so that they can use our grapes/wines, so that their brand survives, lives on, and promotes Ukraine.
We continue to plant new vines for our high end collections. As well as we do not stop our program for the reconstruction and upkeep of our native Telti-Kuruk, whose oldest vines are turning 50 years old.
Meininger’s: Finally, how are things going with the 2022 harvest?
Iukuridze: The 2022 vintage will be extraordinary. We expect this to be a Victory Vintage.
Climatically, the year was very good: the vine managed to accumulate the necessary moisture, the summer was with the optimal amount of precipitation, the last 5-6 weeks there was a strong heatwave. Also, for the last two weeks we observe large variations between day and night temperatures, which will help in the development of organoleptic properties and structure of wines.
For background information about the situation in Ukraine, see HERE.