Qvevri - what it actually is?
“Qvevri” is a Georgian word meaning a big clay vessel. In Armenia, they use the word “karasi” for the same vessels, while in Europe we simply call them amphora, in Spain and Portugal “tinajes” etc. They have many names, but one thing in common - they are made of clay and since ancient times they have been used for the production, storage and transport of wine. Ancient Greeks and Romans already used them for same purpose. Unlike amphoras which served for transport and storage of wines, qvevri were used exclusively for vinification and ageing, being fixed in the cellar. The shape of a qvevri is oval, the size can reach up to 5000 liters and according to the Caucasian tradition the vessels have to be buried into the ground in order to have the vinification at a constant temperature. Qvevri can only be crafted by hand which requires a lot of patience and hard-work. The qvevri making craft is passed down from father to son, from generation to generation. Nowadays in Georgia only few families are still practicing this ancient craftwork.
Wine in qvevri
The qvevri winemaking method was included in the UNESCO Heritage List in 2013. In the Caucasus area it has been practiced for over 8000 years, qvevri method is considered to be the oldest winemaking method known so far. The interesting thing about clay is that it is a neutral, breathing material that permits micro oxygenation in the wine and favors its evolution. Unlike oak it does not add aromas not coming from the grapes and unlike stainless steel it does not “suffocate” the wine and permits its breathing. The “disadvantage” of the qvevri is that the maintenance and hygiene require a lot of effort and handwork, the good news is that they don’t get old like wood and can be used for many years. In Georgia there are old clay vessels (over 100 years) which are still in use, passed down from generation to generation.
The qvevri method gives very interesting results in vinification with long skin contact, according to the Caucasian tradition the wines age together with “the mother”, as the Georgians call it (skin, seeds and stems in some cases). When vinified in qvevri with long skin contact, white grapes yield very rich and complex wines with well pronounced tannins and good structure. In recent years this type of wine has become known as “orange wine”, but in Georgia they are normally called “amber wines”, a term that describes them much better. Georgian amber wines are enchanting and polyphonic as the unique Georgian polyphonic singing.
The interest towards clay vessels has been very high in Europe in the last 15 years, many producers from Italy, France, Spain etc. are practicing vinification in amphoras and qvevri with curious results. Of course, this phenomenon should be regarded more as innovation than as tradition as in the case with Georgia. The pioneer of the qvevri vinification in Europe is the legendary Josko Gravner who first started to practice this method. Josko uses qvevri imported from Georgia buried in the ground and vinifies local varieties from his native Friuli region.
The interest towards this method is also growing in Bulgaria. The fi rst experiment was made by Ivo Todorov, winemaker in Damianitza, who vinified Ruen grapes in small clay vessels. I expect this method will still develop further in bulgaria. Local varieties could be interpreted in a very interesting manner, both ancient and innovative.
Master in Enology and Wine Marketing