Thank You Qvevri Much
Technology has brought us many fantastic developments over the years. Breakthroughs have helped us reach higher, go faster and travel further than ever before. When it comes to wine making, the ideal combination is that of modern knowledge and traditions worth years of expertise.
In Georgia at least, where wine-making has been going on for over 8000 years. In this particular country of the Caucasus, one tradition pre-dates the Greco-Roman methods and utilises a wine making technique called a Qvevri.
A Qvevri (aka Kvevri) is a huge, lemon-shaped, terracotta vessel used to ferment, store and age wine, or more specifically, Georgian wine. Their size means they can store anything from 100 to 4000 litres of wine at a time, although some have been discovered that would hold up to 10,000 litres. Some historians think that the shape itself was ‘designed’ to resemble a woman’s womb, giving birth to wine, but the truth may well be lost in history, either way it makes a great story.
Qvevri’s in the making
A Qvevri itself takes weeks, sometimes even months, of manual labour to make before it even comes close to a grape. It is made by only a few local artisans using simple wooden tools. Technology hasn’t managed to improve on the classics here. Each one is made to order and the two main centres of production are, in the east of Georgia, the Kakheti region and Guria and Imereti in the west.
Once complete, the Qvevri can look a little ‘rough and ready’ to the untrained eye, but the proportions of the vessel have been accurately taken into account. An imbalance in thickness or weight distribution can weaken the structural integrity of the container and render it useless, unless you need a very large paperweight. The inner walls of the Qvevri are coated with beeswax to waterproof and sterilise it, whilst the outside remains porous, allowing some air to pass through it.
Once the grapes are in
It isn’t just the grape juice that gets added to a qvevri. Georgian wine is fermented with the skins, stems and pips all included. The shape of the vessel allows the pomace and sediment, to sink to the pointed cone end of the qvevri over time, in an ordered layer, which also enriches the wine through its volatile and non-volatile elements. The wine is then separated and allowed to stabilise.
A qvevri can be used to produce both red and white Georgian wine, although the white is often a much more of an orange colour because the wine is in contact with the grape skins during fermentation for longer. The wines are very aromatic with an intriguing mix of both sweet fruit and savoury notes.
The undergound cellars - the Maranis
You may not have realised it, but a qvevri isn’t stored in your spare room, they are buried in underground cellars, known as a marani. Each region of Georgia has its own special version, but keeping them underground allows the temperature to remain constant which allows for a longer maceration process, increasing the aroma and flavour profile of the wine within.
When the finished product is finally ready, the wine is transferred to another clean qvevri, leaving behind the sediment, before bottling. The qvevri can then be used over and over again (thankfully!). With proper care, the vessels commonly last decades, if not centuries. The fact that they are so long-lasting means that the demand for new vessels is low, which has meant that the manufacturing of them has diminished over recent years. Thankfully, a new generation of Georgian winemakers have rediscovered how incredible it can be and now the use of these incredible pieces of simple design has been revitalised.
UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List
If you’re still in two minds about the importance of the qvevri, you should know that, back in 2013, UNESCO recognised this particular art form of wine-making as an item of an ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’.
New technology is all well and good, but a tradition bound by a thousand of years worth of expertise can’t be overlooked. Georgian wine has been there to be savoured and it has proved to be more than just a flash-in-the-qvevri.