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The Ancient Georgian Art and Tradition of Making Wine in Qvevri

In the ancient land of Georgia buried in an old mystical clay jar lies the early history of wine and the art of making great wine, which truly reflects the story of its grapes and the terroir that imparts a characteristic taste and flavor to the wine.

Old qvevris at Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia
Old qvevris at Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia
Through numerous archaeological discoveries it has been found that Georgia has an 8,000 year history of wine-making tradition, and at the very core of this tradition is the use of a clay vessel called Qvevri (Kvevri). In recent years the old art and tradition of making wine using a qvevri is being revived by a growing number of wineries in Georgia.

Qvevri an Ancient Wine Vessel

Qvevri is a traditional Georgian vessel used for the fermentation, storage and aging of wine. It is handmade using a specific type of clay and the unique centuries-old knowledge of qvevri making has been passed down from generation to generation. Qvevris were also used for storing other alcoholic drinks like grape vodka, cereals, pickled and other food products.

Qvevris have a special shape that resembles a large egg and they are either buried below the ground or set into the floors of large wine cellars during the fermentation and aging process.

The exterior of the qvevris are usually treated with lime wash, which enables the qvevri to preserve and sustain temperatures at higher than the ambient temperature during fermentation besides playing the role of natural antiseptic. The inside is coated with a layer of beeswax to prevent any outer fluid from the ground to come in contact with the wine.

Art and Tradition of Making Wine in Qvevri

The art of making great wine seeks to emphasize the beauty and spirit found within nature and the grapes harvested from the vines creating a drink that is an expression of its grapes and its natural surroundings without the addition of any artificial ingredients that will influence the taste and flavor of the wine.

Old kvevris kvevris in front of the Ikalto cathedral, Kakheti, Georgia
Old qvevris in front of the Ikalto cathedral, Kakheti, Georgia
Since the pagan period, wine has had a spiritual and mystical place in Georgian life, traditions and culture. There is an old belief that at every stage of the wine-making process, the wine is constantly interacting with nature and its surroundings thereby developing character expressed through its taste and flavor when the process has completed.

With the spread of Christianity and wine's symbolism with the blood of Christ, vineyards and wine in Georgia gained even greater importance and the qvevri was considered an essential and spiritual part of the wine-making process. The best wine called Zedashe was reserved for religious holidays and families that made wine kept a sacramental qvevri for wine intended for donation to churches and monasteries.

Wine Fermentation and Maceration in Qvevri

The process of fermenting wine in a qvevri involves pressing the grapes and then pouring the juice, along with the pomace which includes grape skins, stalks and seeds into the qvevri. Alcoholic fermentation is done using natural yeasts without any additives and the pomace is stirred 4-5 times a day.

When fermentation has finished the qvevri is sealed, buried in the ground and left to macerate for 3-6 months. Temperature in qvevri buried underground is constantly maintained at 13-15 degrees Celsius as the earth's temperature remains relatively constant.

Wine fermentation in a qvevri
Wine fermentation in a qvevri
Maceration is a wine-making process whereby the color, flavor and tannins are transferred from the pomace to the wine juice which improves the ability of the wine to age besides adding flavors from the pomace. The shape of the qvevri plays an important factor during the fermentation and maceration phase as any prolonged contact of the wine with the lees is minimized due to the pointed cone-shaped bottom of the qvevri. Lees which are the leftover yeast particles from fermentation and the grape seeds settle at the bottom of the qvevri leaving the grape skins floating at the top allowing extended contact of the wine with the skin extracting a maximum of substances that are healthy and flavorful.

The completion of fermentation also coincides with the falling of ambient temperatures and the onset of colder weather, thus favorably influencing wine clarification and removal of tartrates which are tartaric acid crystals formed during fermentation. Silicon which is a high quality crystal present in the qvevri walls also acts as an agent in the removal of tartrates with the same affect as the addition of tartrates crystals. This natural filtration process taking part in the qvevri leads to the formation of crystal-clear wines. Wines made using the qvevri are considered to be naturally stable and do not require the addition of any chemical agents for stabilization and clarity.

Stable temperatures inside the qvevri help in malolactic fermentation process also known as secondary fermentation. Malolactic fermentation is a process in wine-making in which tart-tasting malic acid, naturally present in grape juice and pomace, is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid.

After filtration the pomace and wine are separated and the wine is placed into another set of qvevris for aging. The pomace which remains is usually distilled into brandy called 'chacha'.

Aging Wine in Qvevri

During the wine aging process the qvevri is sealed and buried in the ground, which guarantees an optimal temperature for the storage of wine. The primary benefit of using the qvevri is that the optimum temperature for wine storage is naturally maintained in a qvevri, unlike mechanized wine-making conditions where temperatures have to be maintained by costly equipment.

Wine aging in a qvevri
Wine aging in a qvevri
The wine is said to be at rest during this period as it matures unattended by the winemaker. The first drawing of wine from the qvevri occurs at different times depending on the location, region, vintage year and other factors. The opening of the qvevri is considered as a special occasion and some wine is aged for opening only on certain occasions, such as, a family wedding or the birth of a new child.

Qvevri a Symbol of Georgia's Ancient Wine Heritage

It has long been claimed that the earliest 'wine culture' in the world emerged in the mountainous regions of Transcaucasia in the vicinity of the southern Caucasus Mountains—modern Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the Vitis vinifera sativa grapevines grew naturally in the foothills and valleys.

The earliest traces of viticulture and wine dating back to the 6th millennium B.C. have been found in the ancient Neolithic settlements in the neighborhood of Dangreuli Gora. The fragments of clay vessels found during excavations of the settlements with remains of tartaric acid and the finding of vine fossil seeds testify that as early as the Neolithic period, wine was produced in this region using qvevris.

An ancient qvevri on display at the Georgian National Museum
An ancient qvevri on display at the Georgian National Museum
Today, some of the ancient qvevris are on display at the Georgian National Museum. One of them is from the archaeological finding in the vicinity of Shulaveri 'Khramis Didi Gora' dated to 6000 BC.

Viticulture and wine-making has been a fundamental part of Georgian life and culture for many centuries and its heritage including architecture, poetry and songs. Wine is drunk at weddings, birth and funeral receptions, to receive guests and celebrate joyful moments with friends and family. Wine for Georgians is everything—conscience, truthfulness, fairness and courage.


References

Georgia as Homeland of Winemaking and Viticulture by P. E. McGovern (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

Georgian Wine Association (GWA)

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