A friend recently told me about a wonderful Georgian wine she had tried that had been created using a container that had been buried in the ground. She asked me if I was aware of this process but I was not so I set out to discover what it is.
Georgia is arguably the oldest wine producer in the world, dating back 8,000 years. Its wine production relied on the qvevri (pronounce “kway-vree”), which is an egg-shaped cavernous terracotta pot. It is lined with beeswax and buried to the mouth underground.
Use of the qvevri was halted by the Soviets after they invaded Georgia in 1921 and throughout their 70 year occupation. During that time the Soviets ripped up the hundreds of grape varieties grown on Georgia’s many family vineyards, replacing them with just a few grape varietals. They nationalized viniculture, resulting with the production of some 200 million litres of mediocre, mass-produced wine each year.
In 2006, the Georgian wine industry faced a grave threat when Vladimir Putin banned exports to Russia. Putin claimed it was to avoid rampant health violations in the Georgian wine industry but Georgia believed they were being punished for developing economic ties with the West.
A saving grace was that at the end of the Soviet occupation Georgian vintners began to return to using the qvevri method, rekindling a return to Georgia’s traditional wine industry. There are no barrels, vats or monitoring systems used in producing wine when using this ancient method.
White wine produced in a qvevri creates a unique flavour. Grapes, skins and stems all go into the qvevri in October each year where they are left to ferment with natural yeast for two weeks before being sealed in the qvevri and left buried underground for six months. The lids are then opened the following April and the developing wine is transferred to a smaller set of qvevri for a further half year of aging before bottling.
The extended skin contact gives the white qvevri wine an orange tint and a deep tannin flavour. Red qvevri wine is made utilizing the same process.
With the loss of the Russian market Georgia’s wine industry virtually collapsed. In 2009 production was only 22 million litres a year. However, by 2014 production had quadrupled since Georgia has developed more foreign ties.
Today qvevri wine still only represents less than 1 percent of the total Georgian output. However, the number of qvevri winemakers is growing as at least 30 artisanal winemakers use the ancient vessels exclusively, and larger wineries are adding qvevri wines to their inventory.
Other nations are now experimenting with this type of fermentation process, copying the qvevri using semi-porous materials such as concrete, ceramic, terracotta, and permeable plastic, to make egg-shaped fermenters.
The qvevri method ages the wine gradually, developing more flavour, softening tannins, and improving mouthfeel but it is not yet certain how popular this style of wine will become. The answer will likely come down to a matter of taste, but if my friend’s reaction to it is any indication, qvevri produced wines will have a bright future.