Throughout the winemaking areas of the republic of Georgia, the qvevri — large clay vessels like giant amphors — are being readied for the new grape harvest. This fascinating country, nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains, has the world’s oldest winemaking tradition: Wine has been made there for 8,000 years. And it’s always been made in clay pots buried in the ground. (Versions of it were adopted in ancient Rome and Greece.)
What’s exciting, too, is that the Georgian method is now being used in several countries in Europe and beyond by a few passionate organic and biodynamic winemakers wanting to make what are being called “natural” wines. Indeed, I was first introduced to these huge clay pots in northeastern Italy, in the cellars of Josko Gravner. Gravner was the first non-Georgian winemaker to bring both the method and the Georgian qvevris to Italy. (He calls them anfore, or amphors, though strictly speaking amphors were used in the ancient world to transport wine, whereas the large immobile qvevri are used to make it in.)
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Recently, I attended the International Qvevri Symposium in the handsome Georgian capital city, Tbilisi. The symposium showcases Georgia’s top wineries, including those that make wine in European-style barrels using international varieties. I was keen to learn more about the qvevri and their wines. A few are available in Europe, but this was a rare opportunity to find almost 20 professional qvevri producers — including two monasteries — gathered under one roof.
One of them was John Wurdeman, an American who has long been based in Georgia. As well as being an enthusiastic expert about all things Georgian — he sings in a marvelous polyphonic choir there — Wurdeman has set up one of the country’s most dynamic wineries, Pheasant’s Tears. I spoke to him on his stand at the symposium, and again a few days later as we toured his vineyards near his home in Sighnaghi, in the Khaketi region of eastern Georgia.
“Qvevri are like large coil pots with conical bottoms that are made by hand and fired in walk-in kilns by one of only five master potters who now remain,” he explains. “They are then buried in the ground — usually inside a cellar, but sometimes outside, too — and can range in size from 100 to 4,000 litres (26 to 1,056 gallons) in capacity.”
Cellars containing qvevri are disconcerting at first for those of us used to visiting rooms filled with vats and barrels. They seem empty, with just the qvevris’ round “necks” protruding from below. Yet the volumes of liquid being stored in the vessels underground give these cellars a very special atmosphere. They may seem empty, but one senses the presence of the wine below.
“Packing the qvevri in sand gives the wines stability, but the winemaking method differs, too,” he continues as we stand in his cellar overlooking the vineyards. “Clay is porous, so before the qvevri can receive the grapes, they need to be treated inside with hot beeswax. This goes deeply into the pores but does not completely seal the inside surface: a tiny bit of air needs to be able to breathe as the wines are being made.
“We crush our grapes lightly and put them into the qvevri, stems and all,” Wurdeman says. “This applies to both red and white grapes. The alcoholic fermentation gets underway within a few days, spontaneously, without the need for added yeasts.” Indeed, the qvevri cellars host wild yeasts in the same way that some caves help to ripen cheeses.
“That fermentation lasts for between two to four weeks. We punch the cap down twice a day during this period until it falls. Then, if the grapes are white, we leave the wine on its skins and stems. The red wines are handled differently: they’re taken off the skins and stems and transferred to another qvevri. Both types of wine are then loosely covered with a stone — again, to allow a tiny bit of air to enter. The malolactic, or secondary, fermentation begins spontaneously within a few weeks. When the malolactic is finished, the qvevri are sealed more tightly using a wooden lid and more beeswax, and a heavy stone is placed on top.
“That’s it until spring, when the earth’s temperature begins to warm. At that point the wines are racked: pumped out into bottles or into a clean qvevri, leaving behind the lees and any other sediment that has fallen into the vessels’ narrow, pointed bottoms.”
Georgian wine’s natural development
The qvevri’s stable temperature allows for a very slow, steady fermentation. Once the wine has been sealed into its home, the winemakers can’t — and don’t want to — interfere with its natural development.
“Everything depends on the quality of the grapes,” he adds. “We don’t use any of the chemical ‘correctors’ that many wineries resort to if problems occur during winemaking. This is how it’s always been done in Georgia, and the results are proof of how successful the method is. The white wines are particularly impressive: Deep amber in colour, they acquire as many tannins and polyphenols as red wines.
“The whites do acquire fragrance and an earthy body that makes them a perfect match for the diversity of Georgian food,” Wurdeman says as we sample a glass of his remarkable Rkatsiteli, an amber wine that hints at spice and honey in the nose, yet leaves the palate refreshed and dry.
This red-stemmed white grape is just one of dozens of native grape varieties the Georgians are working with that offer an exciting future for those wanting to discover winemaking’s ancient past.
Top photo: John Wurdeman at Pheasant’s Tears winery with a large qvevri. Credit: Carla Capalbo