Qvevri History & Wine Culture in Goergia
Winemaking in Georgia stretches back over 8,000 years of history. According to archaeological evidence, the first Georgian wines were made and stored in earthenware vessels called Qvevri. The Qvevri is Georgia’s most important and best-known winemaking vessel, and it remains the centrepiece of traditional winemaking in Georgia.
History of the Qvevri
A Qvevri (also called a Churi in western Georgia) is a large, egg-shaped clay vessel with narrow bottom and a wide mouth at the top. Though researchers believe the earliest Qvevri were stored above ground, Georgian winemakers for millennia have buried their Qvevri, with only the vessel’s rim visible above the ground.
Qvevri are uniquely Georgian vessels, different in shape and function from the clay amphorae used elsewhere. Used for wine fermentation, maturation, and storage, Qvevri are among the world’s earliest examples of winemaking technology.
Archeologists date the oldest known winemaking Qvevri—discovered in a Neolithic settlement in eastern Georgia in 2015—to 6000 BCE. These vessels are not only important historical artifacts but early evidence of an enduring cultural tradition.
Modern Qvevri typically range in size from 50 liters to 3,500 liters. We believe that 1,000 to 1,500 liters seems to be “the perfect spot for fermentation.” The largest Qvevri are big enough for a person to climb into—which is what the winemaker does when it’s time to clean a vessel.
The tradition of making wine in Qvevri is so embedded in Georgian culture that in 2013 UNESCO added it to its catalog of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage. This marked the Qvevri a symbol of the deep cultural roots of Georgian wine and the authenticity of Georgian winemaking.
Placing the Qvevri in the Marani
At farms, estates, and wineries across Georgia, the Marani is the place where the winemaking happens. The Georgian Marani, or wine cellar, can take several forms—a standalone building, a shed, the main floor of a two-story home, a cave carved into a cliff, an add-on to a home or church, or an open-air facility. Inside the Marani, the winemaker presses the grapes, produces the wine (whether in Qvevri, oak barrels, or stainless steel tanks), and stores the finished product.
Inside the Marani, winemakers “plant” their Qvevri in the ground, with the rim of the vessel standing above ground level. Around the rim of the Qvevri, the floor of the Marani is typically tiled or made of a thick layer of gravel. Most winemakers today have Qvevri in various sizes so they can experiment with different grapes and fermentation timeframes.
For thousands of years, the production of Qvevri—like the making of wine—was a skill passed down from generation to generation across Georgia. Many of the Qvevri found in Georgia today have been in use for centuries.
Today Qvevri-making is the domain of a few family-owned companies in the wine regions of Kakheti, Imereti. Vessels from each region have their own variation on the standard egg shape.
Demand for new Qvevri remains in high both within and outside Georgia. The traditional vessels are particularly popular among organic and biodynamic producers who want to make wine with no intervention.
Modern technology hasn’t changed the fundamentals of Qvevri production. Today’s vessels are still painstakingly crafted by hand from local clay. Though it can take eight weeks to build a 1,000-liter Qvevri, a master typically builds several Qvevri at once.
These are the main steps in the Qvevri-making process:
• Mine the clay from a local quarry
• Clean the clay with clear running water and add river sand
• Grind the clay to give it a smooth consistency
• Form the clay into logs
• Begin building the Qvevri on a wooden platform, working from the bottom up
• Add clay logs one layer at a time, shaping and smoothing at each stage
• Let the clay dry for two days between each layer
• Let the finished Qvevri sit for three to four weeks before firing
• Fire the Qvevri gently in a wood, allowing it to bake for up to seven days at approximately 1,000°C to 1,200°C
• Allow the kiln to cool for three days before opening it and removing the Qvevri
After a new Qvevri is removed from the kiln, the maker carefully cleans the interior; some Qvevri makers use beeswax to seal the inside walls. In addition, some winemakers order their Qvevri with a coating of lime on the outside.
Traditional Method of making Qvevri Wine
We are using the traditional Qvevri winemaking method follow the same basic process and principles Georgians developed 8,000 years ago—skins and stems (depends of grape) in the vat, natural yeasts, natural tannins. These are the main steps:
1. Cleaning. The process starts with a clean, well-rinsed Qvevri. Traditionally, one of us scoops out the solids at the bottom of an emptied vessel, then climbs inside to scrub the walls (see the cleaning tools described below). Then the Qvevri is washed out with an alkaline solution and rinsed several times until the water runs clear.
2. Crushing. After sorting the grapes, the we crush the bunches in a traditional wooden wine press, called a Satsnakheli or directly to Qvevri. The grape must is then loaded into the Qvevri, typically with all or part of the mark and stalks, to three-quarters of the vessel’s capacity. The grapes can be either red or white, but the best-known traditional Georgian wines are the amber wines produced in Qvevri from white grapes. (Red grapes are typically destemmed at this stage.)
3. Fermentation. Fermentation takes place without intervention, using naturally occurring yeasts and natural (underground) temperature control. We typically punch down the cap and stir the vat during fermentation. Fermentation often lasts 3 weeks.
4. Sealing the Qvevri. When the cap starts to sink and producers determine fermentation is complete, We seal the Qvevri with a lid (glass) using clay.
5. Maturation. We leave the solids to macerate in the Qvevri for the first three to six months of the wine’s aging before removing them. (This period is shorter with red wines and some white wines.) The Qvevri’s sloped walls allow the yeast and sediment to settle at the bottom while the wine circulates above.
6. Storage. In the spring, when the wine is ready, We either bottle it or transfer it to stainless still barrel. for short-term storage—since our wine is often consumed before the next harvest—or an extra year of aging.
Qvevri Cleaning Tools
Krazana — A U-shaped scrubbing tool made from the roots. This tool is best suited for a large-capacity Qvevri; the worker climbs inside the vessel to clean the walls, using the two ends of the tool to scrub in a wide arc.
Sartskhi — A scrubbing tool with a long handle that can reach deep inside the Qvevri. The head of the tool is a block made from layers of pressed cherry tree bark.
Tagvisara — A brush-like tool made from the stiff twigs of the butcher’s-broom plant, an evergreen that grows throughout Georgia. The Tagvisara can come with or without a wooden pole attached. Workers use the handheld version when they climb inside a large Qvevri.
Gviis Tsotskhi — A brush-like tool made from the branches of juniper bushes. Like the Krazana, this tool is used inside a large-capacity Qvevri, which a worker climbs inside to clean.
Orchkhushi — A scrubbing tool made from a bundle of corn husks bound together
and lashed to a wooden pole like a stiff mop.
Matsatsuri — An absorbent cloth attached to a wooden pole that soaks up any water remaining at the bottom of a Qvevri after it has been thoroughly rinsed and emptied.
Ochiora — A long wooden board with a hole in its center used in conjunction with a long-handled Sartskhi or Orchkhushi tool. After placing the cleaning tool in the Qvevri, a worker lays the Ochiora across the opening of a buried Qvevri, fitting the tool’s handle through the board’s center hole. Two additional holes on opposite ends of the board let workers stake it into the ground to hold it secure. The board protects the rim of the Qvevri from being damaged by the handles of cleaning tools.