Georgia prides itself on being the birthplace of wine, with archaeological evidence showing traces of winemaking in traditional earthenware dating back to 8,000 years ago.
In 2013, Unesco recorded the ‘Ancient Georgian traditional Qvevri wine-making method’ on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
These traditional, oval-shaped clay vessels of varied sizes are still widely used in Georgian wineries today for fermentation, ageing and storage, while also gaining popularity among curious international winemakers.
Why use qvevris for winemaking?
‘Ქვევრი’ is the Georgian word for qvevri (or kvevri). The prefix ‘kve’ means ‘beneath’ or ‘under’, implying the usual way these vessels are used in Georgian cellars. Locals would say that the fact they are buried and used to make and store wine sets them apart from common amphorae, which are more often used for transport and tend to have handles.
These handmade terracotta vessels commonly take on a large-bellied oval shape with a slightly pointy base. Found throughout Georgia, especially in primary winemaking regions such as Kakheti and Kartli in the east and Imereti in the central west, they are essentially inert (although discussions continue regarding the effect of the minerals in them), so don’t impart flavour or tannin to the wine.
These heavy-duty clay jars are hard to produce and transport and more fragile and difficult to clean compared to modern inert vats – but why are they still used and even gaining in popularity?
The shape is the first hint. Grape musts can move around more freely inside these smooth, egg-shaped vessels, as opposed to cylindrical vats, thus encouraging the extraction of flavours and structure, explains Valeriani (Vako) Gamtkitsulashvili of Twins Wine House.
What makes these traditional clay vessels more remarkable is the fact that as they are buried, stable ground temperatures help the wine inside to naturally maintain a certain temperature range during fermentation – a solution developed in the days when modern winemaking technology was non-existent.
It is, however, down to Georgia’s traditional wine production technique, that shapes these pristine, exceptionally structured and richly-flavoured wines.
How does it work?
Ripe, healthy fruit and ripe stems (if used) are the prerequisites to a successful qvevri wine, says Nugzar Ksovreli of Koncho & Co.
Once the whole bunches are pressed, the juice and some ‘chacha’ (the grape skins, ripe stems and pips) are fed into the qvevris, waiting for natural yeast to trigger fermentation after two to three days.
At Mildiani Family Winery, workers stir the lees with a long stick four times per day, for five minutes each time to ensure there’s enough oxygen for the yeast and to encourage phenolic extraction.
It can take two to four weeks for alcoholic fermentation to complete, with malolactic fermentation kicking in almost immediately afterwards.
At this stage, producers in Kakheti may choose to remove the solids from red wines but leave them in whites for a bit longer, before topping up their qvevris and sealing them.
Producers would usually apply a clay or silicon layer coiled around the ‘mouth’ of the qvevri, then press down a glass disk or stone lid to seal the opening.
Traditionally, these qvevris should not be opened until the next spring, but modern-day winemakers may want to check on the health of the wine occasionally via specially designed lids – though they have to be careful to prevent excessive exposure to oxygen.
As the weather warms up in spring, some producers start bottling their wines for younger styles and cash flow, while others pump out the clear wine to clean qvevris for further ageing.
Heavy oxygen intake (such as due to leakage or frequently opening the seal) can be harmful at the final stage of production. However, micro-oxygenation may help to smooth out the harsh tannins intrinsic to the style, says winemaker and consultant Giorgi Dakishvili, who prefers used oak barrels to give his wines a final polish.
The best size qvevri for winemaking
The size of the qvevri matters, explains Dakishvili. Bigger qvevris tend to accumulate higher temperatures (roughly 28-30°C in the case of 2000L qvevris) during fermentation and smaller qvevris tend to work better in diffusing heat (22-24°C for 200L qvevris).
Higher temperature is beneficial to extract ‘more structure, tannin and phenolics’ while lower fermentation temperature is beneficial for extracting fresh fruits, says the winemaker, who blends wines made from large and small qvevris for his red wines, though he believes that a 2000L vessel is the ‘best size’ for producing qvevri wine.
The thickness of the qvevri walls is another factor to consider when it comes to controlling temperature, says Misha Dolidze, founder of Marani Casreli (Marani means ‘wine cellar’).
Koncho & Co applies an additional cooling system underground for the qvevris, in an effort to help fine-tune the temperature, says Ksovreli.
The making of a qvevri
From merely a few litres to nearly 10,000, the size of the qvevri is tailored towards the demand of wine producers. Therefore, in regions with lower winemaking capacity, such as Imereti, the qvevris made locally tend to be smaller.
Each qvevri maker has their own preference for material and production style. Zaza Kbilashvili of Meqvevre Kbilashvilis Marani in Kakheti, for instance, sources his raw materials from the foothills of the Caucasas Mountains.
By mixing with water and grinding, the potter prepares the clay to the right texture and makes it into rolls (logs). Starting from the bottom, rolls of clay form the wall of the qvevri, layer upon layer, added by hand. Each layer needs a few days to dry before a new layer can be added, which means the building process alone can take up to two months to complete.
Without precise measurements to follow, the final look of each qvevri is shaped solely by the potter’s eyes and hands, backed up by knowledge and experience passed down through generations.
Once the qvevri has taken shape, it needs a further 40 days to dry completely. Arid weather is ideal for these giant terracotta vessels to firm up.
Now it’s time to light the flame. The fully dried qvevris are carefully lined up in the kiln, which is then sealed up with bricks to retain heat. Usually, only an observation window at the top and a small gap at the bottom are left open, allowing firewood to be constantly fed in, taking the temperature above 1,200°C.
It takes seven sleepless days for the firing process to complete. When these freshly-made qvevris are finally rolled out from the kiln, if the job has been properly done, they display a bright orange colour.
While the qvevris are still warm, beeswax is applied to the inner surface as an antiseptic, also to smooth out invisible cracks thus preventing leaks. Iron wire, in addition to a cement and lime layer, can also be affixed to the exterior as a ‘safety jacket’, providing some protection during transport and against earthquakes, which are not uncommon at the foot of the Caucasas Mountains.
The life of a qvevri
Although qvevris were once widely produced in Georgia, nowadays merely a few skilled potters still master the production technique. In the case of the Kbilashvili workshop, the waiting time for producers to get their hands on brand new qvevris is as long as a year.
Some of the increasing demand is met by secondhand qvevri dealers. In fact, some producers prefer ‘tested’ qvevris to the ‘mint-condition’ ones, such as at Tbilvino winery.
The producers’ concerns come with a reason. Leakage is a real risk – if the clay wasn’t properly mixed or if the building and baking process wasn’t up to standard, says Misha Dolidze of Marani Casreli. Therefore testing the condition of the qvevri is crucial before it’s filled with wine.
Hygiene, on the other hand, is key to producing wines to modern standards when using this ancient technique.
As Andrew Jefford puts it: ‘Every qvevri is, potentially, a microbiological jungle, a sensorial car crash, a celebration of hideousness – unless the vessel itself has been scrupulously prepared, unless the harvest has been carefully sorted and cleaned, unless the vinification practices have been honed and refined.’
To give the inside of these enormous clay vessels a thorough clean, the usual practice is for a worker to climb inside with a ladder and do some serious scrubbing, says Vladimer Kublashvili, chief winemaker at Khareba Winery, adding that a special brush is used to ensure there is no damage to the clay.
The team at Marani Casreli takes a more meticulous approach, applying high-pressure water guns and acids, followed by a test of the hygiene conditions, according to Dolidze.
So long as there are no major earthquakes, if maintained with care and under appropriate temperatures, one qvevri can last ‘decades’, says Kublashvili.
Classic qvevri orange or amber wines from the main producing region Kakheti are commonly made using local varieties such as Rkatsiteli, Kisi, Khikhvi and Mtsvane.
The top examples typically bear a yellow fruit-driven nose of quince, candied orange peel and dried apricot, sometimes with a hint of blossom and minty herbs. Due to extended skin contact, these wines tend to take on a full-on, structured body but do not lack freshness. The chewy, tea-like tannin structure is wrapped with layers of dried yellow fruits, confected citrus and sometimes spices, followed by a lingering finish.
With the majority produced using Saperavi, the qvevri reds typically display pure, dark fruit aromas, refined by dried flowers and spices that are true to the variety. The palate is structured, with savoury spices and sometimes a mineral edge.
Generally speaking, finishing in used oak barrels and extended ageing help to polish the rough edges and make the wines more palatable.
With their robust character and distinct mouthfeel, qvevri-crafted orange wines may not seem instantly approachable to the mass market at first encounter – but they are certainly memorable, and worth further exploration.
Now is a perfect time. The popularity of qvevri is ‘at its peak’ at the moment, as Dolidze puts it, while the wine world embraces diversity and more ‘natural’ winemaking.
These pristine, richly woven wines made in the ancient vessels that originated from the birthplace of wine are packed with flavours and sensual surprises. They possess unlimited gastronomic potential, awaiting their unravelling by the true connoisseur.