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The Dying Art of Georgian Qvevri (February 8, 2012)

In an era when technology trumps tradition it's refreshing to discover a wine region where ancient customs are not only revered and protected but actually practiced and encouraged.

I'm talking about Georgia – not the Georgia of peaches and peanuts, but the Georgia whose wines have been banned by the neighbouring Russian government since 2006.

The proud Georgians will tell you that their country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia is "the cradle of wine civilization." Archeological digs have uncovered grape pits and wine-stained pottery shards that were carbon-dated back 8,000 years. And those particular pottery shards came from a vessel that is now known as a qvevri (pronounced to rhyme with "every").

Qvevri are clay pots that are buried in the ground up to their lip and used as fermentation or storage vessels. They are sealed with wood or stone tops and rendered hermetic by the application of clay "glue" around the edges. They can be made to hold as little as 2–3 litres of wine or up to 8,000 litres or more. A number of qvevri dating back to the early and middle Bronze Age have been excavated in various parts of Georgia, but the oldest one found – a flat-bottomed jar with a stone lid – dates back to the early Iron Age (7th century BC).

Qvevris were used to store grains, melted butter, and pickled produce as well as the delightfully named local Georgian grappa they call chacha (which is also the name of the left-over grape skins and seeds from which the spirit is distilled). But the origins of qvevri are linked particularly to winemaking and wine storage.

Since the qvevri is buried in the ground, the temperature in the soil around it varies only a few degrees from summer to winter. To induce and maintain an ambient temperature to start fermentation, the winemakers of yore discovered that if the exterior wall of a qvevri was washed with lime and covered with lime stone before it was buried it could preserve the wine at a temperature higher than that of the soil to facilitate the fermentation. The cone-like shape of the qvevri with its pointed bottom allows the grape seeds to separate from the skins after fermentation and sink to the bottom. The skins float to the top, driven up by carbon dioxide, providing a protective blanket on top of the wine while the lees sink to the bottom. This allows the fermenting juice to stay in contact with skins that add colour and phenolics to the wine. The winemakers usually leave the qvevris sealed for six months or so before opening them.

This is wine at its most natural, made without recourse to commercial yeasts or fining agents or chemical additives. With today's growing interest in organic and bio-dynamically grown wine, this ancient method is being studied by producers in Australia and the United States. At the 1st International Qvevri Symposium in Georgia this past September I met a Texan potter who had come to study the techniques of manufacturing these extraordinary vessels.

The symposium was held at the Alaverdi Monastery, an orthodox monastery located 25 km from the town of Akhmeta, in the middle of Kakheti's wine-growing region of Eastern Georgia. The cathedral building dates to the 11th century, while the ruins of the original monastery go back to 6th century. It was only fitting for the gathering of qvevri enthusiasts to be here, since it was the monks of this and other monasteries who not only kept the wine industry alive during the Dark Ages but who are dedicated to continue producing wine under their auspices today.

Bishop David of Alaverdi, who hosted the symposium, showed us the remains of a wine academy in the grounds of the Ikalto Monastery and told us of his intent to restore the wine cellars and to recreate the academy that flourished here in the eleventh century.

The Alaverdi Monastery also has an eleventh-century wine cellar which is now fully functioning. The monastery currently produces 30,000 litres of wine under its own label using the qvevri method as well as modern stainless steel fermentation. Bishop David told me, "The monks prefer the qvevri wines to the modern wines."

Standing over the qvevris buried in the ground, we were offered three wines that were made here. First was Alaverdi Rkatsiteli 2010 (deep orange-amber colour; spicy, dry, austere on the nose with an apricot flavour and aggressive tannins); then Alaverdi Kisi 2010 (deep old gold colour; floral nose with a rich, spicy peach nose and a grapey flavour with obvious tannins). At this point we were given little clay cups called piala which have a softening effect on the tannins. The best of the wines was the last: Alaverdi Saperavi 2010 (ruby colour with a nose of dried rose petals and a cherry flavour; dry, firmly structured and tannic – but mitigated by the piala).

Once a flourishing industry, the hand-making of qvevri is becoming in a dying art. Today there are only five or six qvevri masters left in Georgia. It would be a terrible shame if this craft were allowed to die through lack of interest. Perhaps it takes the energy and enthusiasm of a Texan potter or an Aussie winemaker to remind the Georgians what a national treasure they have.




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