Qvevri were created to solve problems. In Georgia, they have been used for the controlled maceration, fermentation, clarification, stabilisation and ageing of wine for 8,000 years. These fired clay vessels, shaped like a heart without the cleft, are installed in the ground. They range (typically) from 1,000 to 3,000 litres in capacity; material, form and installation are pertinent. Today’s winemakers are inspired by this ancient patrimony but informed by contemporary control.
The Qvevri is a feat of engineering, not mysticism. And yet, it evokes emotion and mythology. Foremost among the false myths around Qvevri that deserve debunking is the idea that they are a magical porridge pot of self-making wine: ‘Chuck the grapes in, close the lid, and leave it alone’. As Gogi Dakishvili, one of Georgia’s most admired and influential winemakers, and a key figure in the Qvevri renaissance says: ‘Making wine in a Qvevri takes ten times my attention compared to making wine in a stainless steel tank.’ Qvevri are labour-, attention- and expertise-intensive, and were devised at a time when labour, attention and expertise were all we had.
For a winemaker paying attention, Qvevri ensure that wine is fresh, stable and fault-free. More than this, the Qvevri is a muse: making wine this way demands commitment and inspires creativity. Qvevri hold the key to Georgia’s wine soul. The new generation of Georgian winemakers are skilled oenologists who have studied and worked all over the world, and yet the Qvevri still call to them.
Installed in the ground in well-ventilated marani, the empty Qvevri are filled with freshly harvested grapes, varying proportions of skins, and (less commonly) stems. Many (though not all) winemakers favour natural yeasts for fermentation. The shape and thermic stability of the Qvevri encourages strong yeast growth. Their broad shoulders make for a healthy cap, facilitating punch-downs and reducing the risk of bacterial spoilage.
The Qvevri size is a form of temperature control. Smaller (1,000l-1,800l) Qvevri reach a maximum temperature of around 20 degrees centigrade during fermentation and are used for lighter and aromatic wines. Larger Qvevri generate higher temperatures and are chosen for making structured wines. The shape of the Qvevri promotes natural circulation during fermentation and ageing (like that engineered in modern concrete and wooden eggs).
After fermentation, the cap sinks through the Qvevri, fining the wine. The seeds (containing bitter phenols) collect in the bottom tip of the vessel and are kept away from the wine by the skins covering them. The Qvevri is closed with a tight-fitting seal and lid. The sealed wine is aged on skins and lees for two to six months. Most Qvevri are not highly porous because they are lined with beeswax before use. In this way, Qvevri offer protection from oxidation – if the winemaker wants to take them up on it. Cold stabilisation takes place as the wine overwinters, the temperature falling as the earth cools. On opening, the wine is usually strikingly clear. It is pumped off the skins to a fresh Qvevri, or tank or barrel, for blending or further ageing.
Producers may fine and filter or add sulfites before bottling. Most are not dogmatic. But these adjustments are lightly applied. Qvevri have become associated with natural winemaking because their design is so spare and intelligent. They were developed by observing how grapes, nature and maker can be all you need to make great wine. Many natural winemakers adopt Qvevri, but not all Qvevri wine is natural. Even winemakers who wouldn’t identify as ‘Ideologically Natural’ see Qvevri as part of a low-addition ethos.
Qvevri have become associated with natural winemaking because their design is so spare and intelligent. They were developed by observing how grapes, nature and maker can be all you need to make great wine
If Qvevri are just old technology, why are they so evocative and resonant? Georgian Qvevri wine, despite the renaissance of the last 10 years, accounts for only 10% of the country’s annual production. So why is it so prominent in our market and awareness? Well, the wines are sensational. Qvevri wines dominated Gold and Silver awards in the latest IWSC results. Most thrilling is the sophistication of Georgia’s amber wines.
Orange wines are associated in the UK with a defiantly ‘natty’ style. Georgia’s new wave of ‘fine amber’ wines (as a sommelier friend described them ) are nuanced, pure, and distinguished by region and grape, not fermentation vessel. Château Ketevane’s textured, mineral Rkatsiteli 2021 is a fine example. This Gold-Medal-winning wine is from a winery founded in 2018. Director Besik Loliashvili, who studied at the renowned wine faculty at Geisenhem in Germany, says ‘we believe that there is a renaissance of Georgian winemaking and we want to make our impact on it.’
The delicate intensity of Georgia’s western amber tradition was recognised in a Gold for Itsis Marani’s 2020 Bimbili Qvevri Tsolikouri from the region of Imereti. This pale golden, aromatic white has the gentlest of grip and racy acidity. It is made, as is the tradition, with only light skin contact. Fine amber lets the variety sing, and Teliani’s 2020 Glekhuri Kisi, which won Silver, was a great example, showcasing this variety’s filigree aromatics and texture.
Qvevri reds are less obviously ‘different’ to their conventional counterparts than Qvevri amber. The precision-driven revolution has shaped them too, as skill in handling maceration and the malolactic fermentation has increased. Labara’s Qvevri Ojaleshi (now imported by Lea and Sandeman), is a pure, fresh-cherry glass of joy, expressing the juiciness of Western Georgia. Kartveli’s Gold-Medal-winning 2015 Saperavi shows the sensational unadorned texture of this incredible grape, as well as its ageing potential.
Qvevri are used by producers of Georgia’s most aspiring and soulful wines. A symbol of defiance and cultural freedom, Qvevri are the keepers of Georgian identity. And as any Georgian will tell you: our blood is wine.