In a small village outside of Telavi, the unofficial capital of Georgia’s eastern winemaking region of Kakheti, we pull up to an unassuming house from which an unassuming man emerges.
Our driver, the father of a Georgian friend, had simply stopped the car in front of the house and started honking the horn, notifying the man that we were there.
It turns out that the man wasn’t expecting us, even though I didn’t know it at the time. (I thought another friend was going to call him to let him know we were on our way, but I found out — later — that hadn’t happened in time.) But the man took us through the gate and led us around the side of the house to his backyard. This kind of thing happens all the time in Georgia.
But this was no ordinary backyard. We were standing in the qvevri factory of Remi Kbilashvili and his son, Zaza.
For more than 35 years, Remi has been building these large winemaking vessels, by hand, a few at a time. His father did it before him, as did his grandfather and great-grandfather. His son is continuing the tradition.
During Soviet times, he told us that sales mostly came from family vineyards seeking small qvevris. All commercial winemaking was controlled by the state, mass produced in factories that favored quantity over quality.
As a result, there was little use for the painstakingly slow method of qvevri winemaking. The 400+ indigenous grape varietals began to die off, and the wine produced from the few remaining grapes was reportedly little more than swill. Georgian wine was plentiful in the Soviet Union, but was borderline undrinkable.
(A friend in the wine business here told us that “Georgian wine” still faces this branding problem in Russia: even though the quality of Georgian wine is now much better, its reputation from Soviet times has carried over. He said that most Georgian wines sold in Russia are still considered below average. The same wines that are catching fire in western Europe, Japan and the US are rarely even for sale in Russia. Instead, cheap mass-produced, lower quality wines line the bottom shelves at supermarkets while their Italian, French and Australian cousins command higher shelves and prices.)
In the 20+ years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, sales of Remi’s qvevris have developed much like qvevri wine itself: slowly but surely. He and his son now make around 50 a year, most of them sold to larger producers. Some are even being shipped to winemakers in Italy and France, who are opening their minds and palates to the benefits of this centuries-old technique.
It takes two to three months for Remi to make a qvevri, starting by getting just the right kind of red clay-like soil, called tikha (თიხა).
The tikha is combined with water to create a thick, moldable clay. The qvevri begins by taking a 3-4″ strip of clay and shaping it into a ring. This is allowed to dry for a few days, then another strip is added on top. This is repeated, again and again, until the qvevri reaches the desired height.
The qvevris are then carefully transported down the hill to the brick oven, enclosed on only three sides. The oven can hold several 2,000-liter vessels, each one taller than me.
Once the oven is filled with qvevris, the fourth wall is built, brick by brick. A small opening is left at the bottom for the fire that will be built. For a week, the fire is continuously stoked. It starts small; too much heat too quickly can crack the qvevri, rendering it useless. By the end of the week, as the clay sets, the fire is much hotter.
The finished qvevris are laid out in the yard, then wrapped with steel cables to keep them from expanding or contracting too much underground, as the pressure from liquid and fermentation pushes on their walls.
Finally the qvevris are coated with beeswax on the inside, to act as a natural anti-bacterial sealant and to protect against seepage through the wall. Sometimes, the exterior is coated with a thin layer of cement for extra protection against tree roots or earthquakes.
It was a real treat to see first-hand how these giant vessels, so ubiquitous in Georgia, were painstakingly made by a master of the process. It’s more than manufacturing, more than utilitarian. It’s true craftsmanship, or kheloba (ხელობა). Art.
As with other pieces of art, the artist’s signature adorns the piece:
Later, in the midst of ruins from an ancient university, we spotted signatures of other craftsmen from other times, each doing their part to keep Georgia’s 8,000 year winemaking tradition alive and well.