All you needed to know about Qvevri but were afraid to ask

An interview with John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears

les caves de pyrene

John giving a masterclass on Georgian wines at the Real Wine Fair 2012

Kvevri? Qvevri? Which is it?

We are spelling it “Qvevri”. There was much discussion on this; a few German importers prefer the Kv rather than Qv but I have had the Travel channel CNN, BBC and Jancis Robinson’s upcoming books on varietals and wine atlas all use the Qv spelling which the Georgian wine producers are using, so Qvevri.

 

The word “Qvevri” – does it literally mean amphora or does it derive from something else?

 No, it doesn’t mean amphora. Amphorae were often used for transportation, or storage above ground – they often had handles and were not permanent. Qvevri is a Georgian vessel dating back over 8,000 years predating Greco-Roman traditions of winemaking. A qvevri was totally buried in the ground and not used for transportation, it was used for fermentation and storage of wine, and, being totally immersed in the earth gave it naturally stable temperatures, advantageous for both fermentation and storage. It is a vessel unique to Georgia (oldest examples date back 8,000 years) although similar interpretations are found throughout the ancient Near East and more recently, (2,000-3,000 years ago) in Italy, Spain and Portugal. The vessels used in western Europe culture are normally above ground or partially buried. Qvevri usually have a beeswax lining inside and a lime encasement outside. The few European producers that have borrowed this technology from Georgia – such as Josko Gravner – still call the vessel “Amphora” (or Anfor) on their labels, which bothers the Georgians. They feel it sounds like a Roman or Greek cultural attribute whereas this is much older and indeed derives from Georgia. The Friuli/Slovenian producers, including Gravner, bought qvevri in Georgia and learned their open-fermentation, extended skin maceration techniques here, so we hope over time to convince them to call the vessels qvevri rather than amphora!

 

Where are the qvevri made? And by whom? Is this a widely spread artisan skill in Georgia?

There are about five good qvevri producers, but they are all living in poverty and the craft is in danger of dying out. We are currently trying to solicit funding to help build a school for a new generation of qvevri craftsman to be taught the skills. They are mostly in Vardisubani village in Kakheti and Shrosha in Imeriti region. Unesco is considering adding the qvevri method to their world heritage list. If this happens it will be easier to rally support for the protection of the vessel and its name.

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What are they made of exactly? Is there a special glaze?

It is pure terra cotta, baked red clay, built-coil method, but the quality of the clay and water used is as important as firing techniques. The vessels are usually between 100 and 4,000 litres in volume although some have been discovered that are between 8-10,000 litres. Small qvevri are good for fermentation, bigger better for storage. No glaze is used.

 

What is the customary winemaking process once the grapes are brought to the winery?

Slightly crushed grapes, stems and all, goes into the qvevri, whereupon alcoholic fermentation begins naturally in the next three days and continues for 2-4 weeks at which point the cap falls. Punch-down happens usually about twice a day during alcoholic fermentation; once the cap falls we remove the reds from the skins and stems, and leave the whites on the skins and stems, place a stone lid over the top which continues to allow small amounts of oxygen in. Malolactic usually starts spontaneously quite soon afterwards, say in the next month – in 5 vintages we have never had it not happen. In spring, when the earth starts to warm up, we usually open the fermentation qvevri and move the wine into freshly-cleaned qvevri for storage until bottling – or bottle right away.

 

How are the qvevri buried in the ground? And where? Are they sealed? If so – with what?

The qvevri are buried in deep holes with earth and sand packed in tightly on all sides. Ideally, they are in a building in the vineyard, or nearby. They are sealed inside with hot beeswax and the lid of the qvevri – after malolactic – is sealed with wet clay coiled around the top and then a heavy stone placed over it.

 

How does the vigneron know when to unearth them?

The qvevri themselves are permanent unless moved for reinstallation, while the wine is usually racked when the temperature in the earth starts to warm up, at which time it can be bottled or moved into a newly-cleaned qvevri.

les caves de pyrene

How are the qvevri cleaned?

There are many different means such as used cherry-bark scrubbers as well as various other “old-school” tools, but if you put powdered lime rock with clean water it starts to heat up to a high temperature searing the inside of the qvevri and cleaning any small amount of bacteria that might be stuck in the pores. After this we pump in fresh water and pump out the old water until pristine.

 

How many times are the qvevri used?

For many centuries – our oldest ones date back to mid 19th century, for example.

 

How would you say that the process of fermenting and ageing in qvevri affects the wine – compared to stainless steel or wood, for example?

Qvevri are porous and so closer in style to old barrels than stainless steel. The clay has pores and that takes us to the earth, but the earth is porous as well. Despite that, the wine in qvevri is subject to relatively minimal amounts of oxygen if well sealed (although they do receive some). In addition to breathing they are surrounded by a constant temperature on all sides allowing for slow gradual fermentation and relatively stable storage conditions. The technique of prolonged skin contact in the case of the whites makes the most obvious difference in terms of a strongly amber-coloured result and adds the tannins, polyphenols and a particular earthy body to the wines.

What proportion of growers (very roughly) are still using qvevri in Georgia?

Almost all families have a house in the country where there are qvevri, but due to intense labour involved in cleaning and maintaining them, many have resorted to making their home brew in plastic barrels or stainless steel. “Professionally” about 20 producers utilise qvevri, while maybe some 1 million families have them in their village homes of which probably 100,000 still use them.

 

What else should we know about qvevri winemaking?

That this tradition only works if you have very healthy grapes and a good strong yeast population. If you intervene too much in the vineyard or cellar you will likely get stuck fermentation or other problems, but if the grapes are in great condition and you don’t let them ripen “too much” – pick, say, at between 22 and 24 brix – then nature does the rest for you.

And our thoughts….

So this is more than the slavish adherence to tradition, but the preservation of an extraordinary craft.

The qvevri is not just for storing wine, but is also a part of the technological process. The fact that wine doesn’t get excessively influenced by seeds, skins and stems (chacha in Georgian) while stored is due to the inverse conical shape of the vessel. The seeds sink first, and are then covered by chacha (until it also sinks after fermentation is complete). As a result, we get wine with character and good ageing potential, rich in tannins. White wines made in such a way have an amber colour and are slightly touched with the flavour of almond, walnut and dried apple. Moreover, the long maceration in contact with grape seeds confers nourishing anthocyanins and useful properties.

While some may view this radical “natural” winemaking, the Georgians know winemaking in qvevri simply the way that wine has been made since time began. If it ain’t broke…

The inside surface of  qvevri as has been mentioned is covered with a thin layer of beeswax – essential for hygiene.  A mixture of crushed limestone and water or hot water and ash or even just rigorous scrubbing are all effective methods of cleaning and sanitizing which do not involve the use of anything noxious. There is no contact with fining agents at any stage of the process and only a very small amount of sulphites are added if necessary. Typically long extraction of the tannins ensures that the wine remains stable.

Georgians call leaving the wine on the skins ‘leaving it with the mother’, and particularly, when the grapes are organically and biodynamically grown, she does an amazing job.  She gives nutrients, protects, adds textural richness and layers of complexity simply not achievable without such close synergy between liquid and solid. The qvevri not only holds the wine, but animates it.

9 Responses to “All you needed to know about Qvevri but were afraid to ask

  • Simon Woolf | The Morning Claret
    ago4 years

    Great to read this. I wrote, badly, (here http://www.timatkin.com/articles?803 ) about how the shape of the Qvevri enables the “chacha” to sink to the bottom so it is nice to get the full detail in this interview.

    • Thanks Simon, and cheers for passing on your article as well. Qvevri are so fascinating, and it?s sad they?re becoming a dying art.

  • Simon Woolf | The Morning Claret
    ago4 years

    From what I could gather, there is renewed interest not just in Georgia, but worldwide, for the Qvevri – the challenge seems to be the tiny number of artisans who still have the expertise to make them.

    Are there any figures that show whether the volume of wine made in Qvevris has increased or decreased over the last 5-10 years?

    • There are no figures, but definitely increased use of clay fermentation vessels – qvevri and amphorae. A group of Georgian growers (who now go to some of the natural wine festivals) went to Europe and exchanged ideas about vinification with many growers in France – so Thierry Germain, Here Villemade and Thierry Puzelat, amongst others, will be making their first amphoraen wines in 2013 vintage. There is an increase in Spain and Italy has had a tradition, plus experiments in the New World. Still less than a drop in the ocean but worth remaking on.

  • Qvevri are also being made in Texas: http://www.qvevriproject.org

  • Robert L Blasscyk
    ago4 years

    My son-in-law and I are coming to Georgian next year for harvest.
    My son-in-law is in the wine distributor business here in the United States.
    And I am a project manager in telecommunication industry, we are in the process of building a small vineyard upstate Pennsylvania.
    My goal is to use Qvevri for our wines in the future, but we are having a tough time locating anyone to make a Qvevri for us in the US. Going to attempt to curate the small ones on our own. Anybody in the United States that could help please respond.
    Robert L Blasscyk
    robert @lilygirlvineyards.com
    rlblasscyk@gmail.com

  • oswyn murray
    ago3 years

    As a historian of ancient Greek wine, and a maker of hard cider by much the same method, I am fascinated by this process, which is effectively identical to that used by the Greeks from at least the 8th century BC. That is not of course to claim priority, but I’d love to know the evidence for wine-making as early as 6000 BC; McGovern (2007) mentions cultivated grape pips claimed to be of that age, but no equipment earlier than the first millennium. Nevertheless I am happy to believe that Medea and the Argonauts brought the process from Georgia to Greece in the mythic period. The important point to emphasise is that the taste of ancient Greek wine is the taste of qvevri wine.

  • Bernard Allinson
    ago7 months

    I have a small Fermette ( small farmhouse ) in the wine growing area of the Anjou in western France. A few years ago when we were renovating our property I discovered a large piece of pottery which I assume to be part of an old very large storage vessel for liquids, possibly wine. Recently I began to wonder about its use and it’s age and discovered through the web that it could well be a part of an early qvevri. The pot includes a portion of the neck for the vessel. I have often thought that there might have been a much earlier Roman settlement on our land and this vessel might well be Roman in view of the fact the qvevri method of storing wine goes back thousands of years.

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