Qvevri winemaking – variety, tradition and innovation

Although qvevri winemaking does indeed have an 8,000 year continuous history in Georgia, it is important to realise that it has not remained unchanged throughout that period, and that practice varies from region to region, even within regions. It is not a single concept that should be frozen in time and fetishised. It is so much more exciting: qvevri winemaking has many forms, and they should be encouraged to continue to live and evolve.

The appeal to tradition on the labels of the Alaverdi Monastery

The aspect of qvevri winemaking practice that has most impact on the finished product is the degree of skin contact. In Georgia’s largest winemaking region of Kakheti, grapes of all colours are traditionally fermented on their skins, and the skins remain for a period of post-fermentation maceration. This results in red or orange wines, that can often be fiercely astringent. In contrast, the more Westerly regions of Georgia typically use much more limited skin contact. Here, for white wine production grape skins would be removed immediately after crushing, following the normal practice in the rest of the world. And for all wines, if there is skin maceration at all it would be for a shorter period of time. But not all winemakers follow their regional stereotypes: some may prefer one style or the other, while others might like to make both.

Other variations in practice include how the qvevri are made less porous, kept clean, the material used for lids, and how the lids are sealed post-fermentation. These factors might not affect the style of the wine, but could influence the quality if, for example, an animal fat is used instead of beeswax to reduce the porosity, or if the cleaning is inadequate. I doubt very much if animal fat is used in qvevri for commercial wine production today, but it was employed, and maybe still is to a very limited extent. Another regional difference is that in Kakheti the qvevri for winemaking are located indoors, as you might expect, while in Western Georgia the tradition is to have them just outside buildings.

Basketware filter to fit on the end of a pump hose for qvevri

Now let’s take a look at how to how things have changed over the last 8,000 years. The first thing to note is that the qvevri vessels themselves have changed a lot. Prior to the 3rd century BC, a relatively recent date in the context of eight millennia, qvevri were less than 1.5m high, had a flat bottoms, and either free-standing or only partly buried.

Another important development is in how the wine is presented to the consumer. The  qvevri wines we foreign consumers see will be bottled, while traditionally it would be kept in qvevri until drinking. Bottling has obvious economic advantages in making the wine available to more distant and lucrative markets, and also frees up qvevri at an earlier stage for making subsequent vintages. It allows the consumer to experiment with cellar-aging the wine in bottle, but wine will almost certainly have a different development trajectories in qvevri and bottle.

Then there are a couple of more recent developments that are regarded as a Bad Thing by some: practices that would not usually be thought of as natural winemaking, and the use of wooden barrels to age wine after the qvevri fermentation.

Qvevri lids with bubbler airlocks at Okro’s Wines

Relatively minor changes in recent years have been the use of pumps to get wine out of the qvevri, high pressure jet washers for cleaning, stainless steel or glass lids with bubbler airlocks, and tubes suspended in the qvevri for temperature control. My personal suggestion for radical improvement would be the addition of drainage holes at the bottom of the qvevri. Yes, I realise it would be tricky, not least because the qvevri are buried, but in the 21st century surely it is not beyond the wit of man? There are also ways of reproducing some of the claimed advantages of qvevri by using stainless steel vessels, but they of course would represent a huge departure from tradition – and totally destroy the magic.

If you believe qvevri winemaking evolved over thousands of years to become perfect, nothing could ever be a substitute for the real thing. But could it actually have arrived on the scene as an accident of history, and stuck around merely because it was good enough for the job? Is it really so crass to suggest that? Maybe. But it is in my opinion equally crass to imply that the vast majority of the world of wine has got it wrong. Regardless, live and let live I say. Vive la difference and all that. It would be horrible if qvevri winemaking were to die out.

(In addition to information gained personally, my main sources are Making Wine in Qvevri and a webpage entitled The History of Georgian Wine.)

About Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast
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