Georgian winemaking starts at home

The Georgian wines the media likes to portray, and the ones sommeliers in hip restaurants and wine bars like to pour, are artisanal, natural, and made in qvevri. But if you look at all commercial winemaking in Georgia, this comprises only a few percent of total production. And this is reflected to a large extent in the Georgian wine available in the UK. Go to a specialist online Georgian merchant, select a bottle at random – the chances are that its contents have never seen the inside of a qvevri. Estimates for the percentage of qvevri wine vary, but are in the range 1-3% for commercial winemaking. A surprisingly low number perhaps, but that is not the biggest surprise.

In this pie chart you can clearly see what I reckon to be the biggest surprise. It is the vast quantity of homemade wine – something I became aware of only a few weeks ago. Estimates are all finger-in-the-air, but someone suggested 70% of wine consumed in Georgia is homemade. Another says home production is two to three times larger than the commercial sector. Regardless of the precise numbers, homemade wine is a huge proportion of the total. If it were twice the production of the commercial sector, that would put it at two-thirds of the overall total, and in my chart I have shown it as 70%.

But why should we care about this? One reason is that it was the home winemakers who carried the tradition of qvevri winemaking though the Soviet period, when all legal wine was made in large factories that paid no regard to the old methods. In this time many Georgians kept their home qvevri, and some must have quietly continued to use them as God intended. And this tradition of home winemaking led to the emergence of small-scale commercial qvevri wine production, and later to its increasing adoption by larger producers.

When we consider the scale of home production of wine in Georgia, that must challenge our ideas about the proportion of wine made in qvevri. Doubtless some home wine is made in large plastic containers these days, but I bet a significant amount is still in qvevri. So as a proportion of all Georgian wine, qvevri production must be a lot higher than the few percent that the commercial data suggest.

As a (rather large in terms of screen area) postscript, I would like to share a few videos about home wine production in a Georgian village. The videos are not the fastest-moving, but I think they are insightful, and I rather like the gentle pace and humour. How typical the methods are, I would not like to say in general, but the adding of kilos of sugar to the qvervi was unexpected for me, and you might like to check the YouTube comments on the matter. For completeness I also include videos by the same filmmaker on the making of chacha (the Georgian equivalent of Marc or Grappa) and bread. I wish I could credit the filmmaker properly, but I don’t know anything other than the information given on YouTube – they were uploaded in 2011 by the YouTube user omwuchi, who says he or she lived in the village with a host family.

About Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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