You can’t talk about Georgia without talking about wine. And you can’t talk about Georgian wine without talking about qvevri.
Georgians have been making wine in qvevris for 8,000 continuous years. Some of the oldest winemaking artifacts in the world have been found in Georgia, leading many archaeologists to call Georgia “the birthplace of wine.”
More than 400 distinct varietals of grapes grow in fertile soil from the highlands of Racha to the flatlands of Alazani Valley. Think about that. Think of all the grape varieties you know: cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, pinot gris, shiraz, etc…. Now add hundreds more. Amazing.
We spent last week in Georgia’s most famous winemaking region, Kakheti. There, old qvevris dot the landscape. Underneath trees…
Against the walls of homes…
Buried in the ground next to centuries-old monasteries.
What is a qvevri? Simply put, it’s a large, oval-shaped terra-cotta vessel resembling an egg. Qvevris were always used to make wine, but in ancient times they were also used to store grains, cheese and perishable foods — usually to hide them from invaders.
Qvevris are always buried in the ground. They are usually coated on the inside with beeswax, a natural sealant designed to keep undesirable bacteria from seeping through the walls of the qvevri, affecting the wine. Some people claim this beeswax gives qvevri wine a honey-like quality, but there is no general agreement on this and I can’t personally make that claim. It’s purpose is protection, not flavor.
Once a year, after the fall grape harvest, pressed grapes — juice, skins & seeds alike — are poured in. Although commercial operations have industrial presses to do that work now, it is still common for smaller producers and families to throw the grapes in a hollowed out log or cement trough, drill a hole in the bottom, don a pair of rubber boats and jump in, stomping away. The resultant juice flows down a little channel into the qvevri.
The qvevri is sealed and the top covered with earth for insulation.
There, the grapes are allowed to ferment for a little less than a month. The skins, seeds and any stray stems sink to the bottom while the juice rises to the top, bubbling as it converts sugars into alcohol. One of the wineries we visited had a great visual presentation of an actual qvevri cut in half, showing the separation of juice from skins & seeds.
After being manually pressed down to squeeze the last little bit of juice out of the grapes, the wine is left in the qvevri. How long? This is up to the winemaker, to achieve the character he or she is going for, usually five or six months. Sometimes it is moved to another vessel instead, such as oak barrels (which are becoming more popular as Georgian winemakers try to emulate their European brethren) or steel tanks, like this one below.
Even though oak-finished qvevri wines are making their way onto menus in popular wine bars around the country, untouched qvevri wines are the most distinctly “Georgian,” in my opinion. They’re “wine,” sure, but most of them are probably unlike any wines you’ve had before. They smell and taste close to the earth. Complex. Tannic, because of the prolonged contact between the juice and the skins, but not in an off-putting way. The white wines are more orange in color, and the red ones are dark as night (actually referred to as shavi ghvino — black wine — by the locals). You want to be able to describe them better, but the words elude you. To me they’re just… Georgian.
Wines made completely in qvevris are also entirely organic, which means no chemicals or preservatives are added. There is an additional benefit as well. In Kakheti, where the wine flows like water, it’s an important one: virtually no hangovers.
After the wine is removed from the qvevri (by a high-tech pump in large factories, and by a jug tied onto a pole everywhere else), the leftover “mash” of skins & seeds is distilled into an intensely strong concoction called “cha cha.” (Anthony Bourdain does a little piece on cha-cha here, previewing his upcoming Parts Unknown special.)
The hard part comes next: cleaning the qvevri. The traditional way of cleaning is still the method used today, even by the large producers: a man of slight build grabs a stick with a large bundle of cherry park attached to the end of it, climbs into the qvevri, and scrubs down the inside of it with plain water. For hours.
The manager at one of the largest qvevri wine producers in Georgia told us that when he was a boy, it was his job to clean the qvevri. Pointing to his rounded stomach, laughing, he said it was no longer his job because he couldn’t fit in the qvevri anymore. But he said it was long, grueling work. Scrub, scrub, scrub. Dirty water would collect at his feet and it would be scooped out and replaced with clean water. Scrub, scrub, scrub.
How would he know when he was finished? When he could drink a glass of the water that collected at the bottom. This is still the method he uses with his young qvevri cleaners today.
Finally, the qvevri is sterilized with lime, re-coated with beeswax and left to sit in the marani (wine cellar), ready for the next year’s harvest.
More about qvevris tomorrow…