A kvevri is a large (800-3,500 litre) earthenware vessel, and often also transliterated as qvevri – the Georgian word is ქვევრი. Sometimes you see them described as amphoras in English texts, but strictly speaking those are smaller vessels with handles, and were used for transportation.
They are lined with beeswax and used in Georgia to ferment and age wine, usually buried underground with only the neck visible. Traditionally, these wines are fermented on their skins irrespective of the colour of the grape, and little or no sulphur dioxide is used as the natural tannins are reckoned to be sufficient for protection against oxygen.
Back in 2006, when the wines of this country were even less well known than they are now, Tom Cannavan travelled to Georgia to judge a wine competition. Referring largely to kvevri wines I think, he wrote
It soon became clear that calibration was needed not only of palates, but of expectations and cultural sensitivities. Each judge spoke in turn about wine one. Our eastern European judges all award the wine 18 or 19 points; a gold medal. The western judges scored it 12, 12 and 10, noting winemaking faults.
Reading that was the first time I became aware of the importance of cultural norms in defining wine quality, and it made quite a big impact on how I regard wine. Eight years on, and Georgia is still making these wines. I would say they are still weird to Western European taste, though the recent rise in popularity of so-called natural wines has perhaps made us more accepting, and they are more readily available in the UK.
I rate wines by personal enjoyment, so I don’t need to worry too much about cultural norms, but I still found these wine challenging to assess. It is surprisingly difficult to decide how much you like something when the experience is so different to what you normally encounter. Whether I do or do not finish up drinking a lot of kvevri wines in the future, I am sure of one thing: the world of wine would be poorer without this style, and I am pleased it exists. If you have not done so already I suggest you try at least one white and one red – Pheasant’s Tears is probably the most widely brand available in the UK, and seems to be well-regarded by those who judge such things.
Anyway, here are the wines, bought from different shops so the prices are not directly comparable. In addition to the tasting notes, there is brief information largely taken from the back label.
Iago’s Wine, Chardakhi, Chinuri, White dry, Without skin contact, 2010, 11.4%, £13.50
There was no “contains sulphites” text on the label which, if legal, means the sulphite level was very low. Chinuri is the grape variety, and Chardakhi the village. The vines are over 50 years old. This wine was “foot pressed” in wooden containers, and underwent fermentation and initial aging in kvevri.
Pale amber gold. Intense pear. Medium high acidity. Has a sour note – as in sour milk but not unpleasant. Dry. Decent length. Pleasant and interesting, but rather simple. Can’t remember ever having had a wine like this. The following day it was a tad oxidised ***
Lagvini, Rkatsiteli, Vineyards of the Caucasus, Kakheti, 2011, 12.5%, £22.50
This is an orange wine, fermented and aged in kvevri. Organic and natural. Lagvini is the producer, Rkatsiteli the grape variety, and Kakheti the region.
Medium amber. Intense. Fresh. Phenolic – a little like carbolic soap. And aromas I would normally associate with light red wines, like raspberry I think, and Beaujolais-like notes. Ripe apple, but not the over-ripe apple you associate with oxidation. Difficult to describe. Medium acid. Fresh, pleasant and interesting. A bit flat on the finish. Medium high tannin. Drink now I guess. Score includes a little for interest factor. But it is short, and somehow did not get drunk much with the middle-eastern meal ****
Pheasant’s Tears, Unfiltered, Saperavi, Living Black Wine, Kakheti Region, 2007, 12.5%, £18.00
Pheasant’s Tears is the producer, and Saperavi the grape variety. This was hand-pressed into bees wax lined amphoras (sic – that’s what the label said). Macerated for several days. Semi-filtered and lightly sulphured, so drink soon after opening.
Medium garnet. Intense. Smokey wood. High-toned. Medium high acidity. Dry. Medium tannin. Intense, sharp juicy dark fruit. Mouth-watering. Excellent length. On the palate, less of the smokey character that is on the nose, but it is still there. Drink now probably. Interesting, and I like it. Not sure how often I would want to drink it though ****
Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Dry unfiltered red wine, Kakheti , 2011, 12.5%, £13.00
This is really the same as the previous wine, but a different vintage, and with a revamped label and back-label information. The vines come from the Tinaani sub-region of Kakheti. The grapes were pressed into bees wax lined amphoras (sic), where they underwent normal and malolactic fermentation with natural yeasts. Long skin maceration.
Medium inky purple ruby. Intense dark fruit. Volatile and bretty. High acidity. Medium high tannin. Excellent length. As nose. Band-aid brett noticeable in the mouth, in addition to the farmyard brett on the nose. Overall a cough-mixture effect. Wierd stuff. Hmmm, let’s see… ****
Pheasant’s Tears, Mtsvane, Dry unfiltered amber wine, Kakheti, 2011, 12.5%, £15.00
The grape is Mtsvane, and the vines are from the Kartilian estate. Production details are as for the Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Saperavi.
Medium greeny amber gold. Intense smoke, and some rose. Some sharp honey-like notes too I think. Intriguing and exotic. Medium low acidity. Dry, but with the sweet aromas of ripe fruit. Highly astringent. Seems more acidic on the finish, which is refreshing. On the palate, more sharp honey and less rose than on the nose. Intriguing. No idea how this would age. Would it keep the aromas, but soften? Not easy to score ****
Pheasant’s Tears, Shavkapito, Dry unfiltered red wine, Kakheti, 2011, 12.5%, £15.00
Shavkapito is the grape variety, and this came from the Tinaani sub-region of Kakheti. Production details are as for the Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Saperavi.
Medium ruby with some violet. Vague berry perhaps. Little reductive maybe. Not giving much on the nose. Medium low acidity. Dry. Hard edges. Highly astringent. Some soft berry aroms hidden behind the tannin somewhere – maybe – I think. Needs a decade or so ***
Pheasant’s Tears, Rkatsiteli, Dry unfiltered amber wine, Kakheti ,2011, 12.5%, £14.70
Rkatsiteli is the grape variety, and this comes from Bodbiskevi village, East Alazani Valley. Production details are as for the Pheasant’s Tears 2011 Saperavi.
Medium pale greenish amber gold. Intense, fresh, slightly medicinal. Could be brett, but I think this is typical of skin-contact white wines. Medicinal note is irritating to my nose. Dried apricots maybe. Medium high acidity. Tannin obvious. High astringency. Excellent length. As nose. Astringent finish. No idea how this will age. Including the interest factor, I give this… ***