Features 4 March 2019

Georgia: An ancient art revived

The art of making wine in kvevri, the mighty clay amphorae of Georgia, is undergoing a renaissance

Words by Miquel Hudin

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Towards the back of Zaliko Bodjadze’s open, modest workshop in central Georgia sits a block of clay the size and shape of an abandoned car. Carried here by the River Dzirula, which wraps around the thumb of land where Bodjadze’s workshop sits, it would originally have formed part of the Caucasus Mountains. Bodjadze’s son silently lifts the sheet of plastic draped across the clay and moistens it just enough to cut out a piece that he begins rolling into a large coil. Sitting on a wooden footstool, he repeats these actions until a stack forms. Then, with his father, he hefts this large coil and works it into the top ring of a huge, unfinished vessel, wetting and smoothing, wetting and smoothing, until it has added another few centimetres to the height of what appears to be an impossibly large turnip. It is, in fact, a kvevri, the traditional vessel used to age wine in this ancient winemaking land.

Around Bodjadze’s workshop sit a dozen of these enormous clay amphorae, all still unfinished, having risen to perhaps a third of their eventual 2m height. Demand is high, and in the summer the work is fast as the hot breezes flutter through the faded-blue fabric of the curtains and quickly dry the clay. The pace slows in the autumn. The final kiln load is fired just as winter sweeps over the land. Father and son pile on wood that will burn at 1,000C for a week; the fire will take days to cool, emitting an unholy glow. In the spring, work starts again as the orders arrive for kvevri to use in the coming harvest. And so it continues, not just as it did for Bodjadze’s father and his father before him, but almost exactly as it has been done for the last 8,000 years.

Zaliko Bodjadze working on a giant kvevri;
Zaliko Bodjadze working on a giant kvevri;
Bottles of Mukazani wine
Bottles of Mukazani wine

How a century can undo millennia

The 20th century nearly erased those 8,000 years. During the communist era, the traditional method of ageing wine in the kvevri – interred up to its neck to maintain a constant temperature – was derided as an anachronism. This uncontrolled and unpredictable method of making wine didn’t fit with the Soviet need to produce the maximum number of hectolitres possible from Georgia. Steel tanks and industrial viticulture became the new normal in a country that boasts an ancient winemaking tradition, as evidenced by pot fragments dating back to 6000BC. Other uses were found for these great vessels: at the Alaverdi Monastery, centuriesold kvevri were repurposed to store petrol.

Georgia had been held up as a utopia in the vastness of the Soviet Union – a fertile swath between the Black and Caspian seas producing vegetables, tea and, of course, grapes. The Soviet era left its mark. Despite Georgia gaining independence in 1991, some of its former wines, like the semi-sweet, treacly Khvanchkara, remain sought after, and to this day, this style still makes up the majority of all the wine produced in the country.

Old wine cellars in Kakheti
Old wine cellars in Kakheti

The kvevri never quite died out, however. With private winemaking banned during the Soviet period, families would install kvevri in their basements and find a few grapes from their vines and those of neighbours to make enough home wine to last them until the next harvest. But it seemed to be a manner of making wine whose era had passed: kvevri craftsmen like Bodjadze in Imereti and the Kbilashvili family in Kakheti in the east are two of the only commercial producers in the country.

Producing fine wine from kvevri is a much more delicate process. The traditional, hands-off approach appeals to natural-wine fans

At its core, winemaking with a kvevri is a simple matter. The grapes are thrown in, the jar is sealed once the initial alcoholic fermentation has finished, opened again in the spring and the wine taken out. Countless smallholdings produce wines for easy drinking from kvevri buried in the basement or in the garden, under the shade of a tree.

Georgian wine pitchers
Georgian wine pitchers

Producing fine wine from kvevri, by contrast, is a much more delicate process. The traditional, hands-off approach appeals to natural-wine fans, but in reality there needs to be a good deal of management of the process. This is where formally trained winemakers have brought a steady, guiding hand.

A fine Georgian wine is one that balances the intensity of the skin-contact process with the fruit and terroir of where the grapes were grown. This means the delicate apricot and orchard notes of local white grapes such as Mtsvane Kakhuri, Kisi or the prolific Rkatsiteli are not smothered in nutty or yeasty flavours, an impenetrable wall of tannins or other aromas. Reds such as Saperavi, probably the most instantly recognisable of Georgian grapes, should be hearty and robust, though not blustery, with clean, crisp acidity and grippy but not overpowering tannins.

While the grape names may be difficult to pronounce (Chkhaveri and Khikhvi are two of the hardest examples), the winemaking at its best takes much the same approach as it would in the traditional chais of France. The wines should be robust, true to the region, savoury without being overwhelming, and pair well with food. If the wines are sold purely on their 8,000-year history, then they have failed: the finest Georgian wine transcends its story.

Birds flying over vineyards in the village of Kachreti
Birds flying over vineyards in the village of Kachreti

Different approaches, a shared history

For kvevri winemaking in Georgia to grow, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Ironically, the big producers are playing a major part in this renaissance, as they see the increasing popularity of kvevri wines and are beginning to install these ancient vessels in their facilities. Nowhere does new meet old more visibly than at Tbilvino, a large winery originally based in Tbilisi but now in Kakheti, where 10m-tall temperature-controlled tanks are mirrored by clay kvevri sunk 2m into the soil.

Other producers are promoting Georgian winemaking without an eye to the ancient techniques. Lukasi, a boutique winery established in 2013, whose offerings have won praise from the likes of Jancis Robinson MW and Monocle magazine, produces all its wines in stainless steel or barrel. Kvevri aficionados may deplore what they see as a betrayal of their Georgian roots, but the Lukasi wines show Georgian grapes in a pure form, allowing people to taste what is different about the region before fully immersing themselves in kvevri winemaking.

But the use of kvevri is growing, and not just in Georgia: there is now worldwide demand for these mighty vessels. The celebrated Josko Gravner of Friuli in northeast Italy and his neighbour, the equally renowned Radikon, were some of the first to order Georgian kvevri. Now, their allure is so popular that wine importers with a handful of Georgian wines in their portfolio use what extra space there may be in the shipping container to fit a couple of kvevri.

Back at the workshop, Bodjadze and his son break for lunch and wash it down with chacha, the alcohol distilled from the pomace of the grapes that will eventually fill the kvevri they’re crafting. In a corner of the workshop is what looks like a pile of crumpled napkins on a desk. In fact, this is Bodjadze’s filing system: these are future orders. How long would it take to fulfil one of those orders for a 2m-high kvevri? He chuckles. ‘If it continues at the same pace, probably this time next year.’ Producers expecting delivery for this year’s harvest may be disappointed, then. ‘The problem is, I’m one man with one son, and demand isn’t slowing down.’

View of the Caucasus Mountains from Rooms Hotel Kazbegi
View of the Caucasus Mountains from Rooms Hotel Kazbegi

Georgian hospitality by Carla Capalbo

The first time I was invited to a Georgian supra, or feast, in Tbilisi, I was amazed by the abundance, variety and colours of the dishes that were served. The food was exotic yet familiar, rich in fresh vegetables and salads, subtly spiced but vibrantly flavoured, with more nuts and fresh herbs in one meal than we use in a month. It’s a sharing culture, and guests help themselves from the many dishes laid out on the table.

The food did not come unaccompanied. The meal was hosted by a tamada, or toastmaster, dressed in his traditional chokha – the calflength wool coat that has been a symbol of Georgian identity since the Middle Ages. His lively and often rousing toasts punctuated the meal and set the tone for the evening’s festivities as he raised his glass to themes of friendship, love and freedom. He brought singers to the table who ate with us and enriched the meal with beautifully haunting polyphonic songs from the mountains.

In Georgia the guest is considered a gift from god: that’s the key to the generous hospitality that any visitor who comes in peace encounters. It makes dining there an unforgettable experience.

Carla Capalbo is the award-winning author and photographer of Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus, published by Pallas Athene Top: a valley in Kazbegi. Opposite: view of UK/Interlink Books USA.

A valley in Kazbegi
A valley in Kazbegi
Musician playing the panduri - a traditional Georgian instrument
Musician playing the panduri - a traditional Georgian instrument

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