In a quiet corner of Sussex, two cultures have collided. The renowned Plumpton College is playing host to a British first – a cellar or marani of UK-made qvevri wines. Qvevri wines have previously been associated exclusively with Georgia, but the ambition of Henry Mchedlishvili and vision of Chris Foss, recently retired head of the wine department at Plumpton, have made qvevri winemaking a reality in the UK.
In the first of a two-part series, Chris describes how he developed an interest in Georgian wine and culture, and how it encouraged him to become a vocal proponent of Henry’s game-changing project.
A little bit of Georgia in Sussex (part 1), by Chris Foss
In April 2015, as Manager of Plumpton’s Wine Division, I was delighted to be invited to present on the UK wine industry Georgia, the tiny Eurasian country between Russian and Turkey where wine was invented, eight thousand years ago. It is an enchanting place: historic Tbilisi, picturesque monasteries, unique wines, and openhearted Georgian hospitality. Little did I know that this was just the start to a deep, lasting relationship between Plumpton College and this wonderful country…
Two years later, Mako Abashidze, Director of the British-Georgian Chamber of Commerce, introduced me to her friend Henry Mchedlishvili (if you think their names are complicated, have a look at their script!), founder of Geowine, a Georgian wine importer in the UK. Henry had the idea of making wine in the UK in Georgian qvevri. Qvevri are large earthenware pots, buried in the ground, in which wine is fermented with extended skin contact and minimal intervention. Henry came to visit Plumpton College on the 9th May 2017, looking for a site. I showed him a gap between the Wine Centre building and the farm road where my dog Ruff slept in his kennel when I was teaching. We both agreed: Ruff had to move.
Engaging the help of Master Vintner, Giorgi Barisaschwili, Henry and his team buried twelve qvevris in the space between the winery and the road, and built a temporary shelter above it. It became a sort of ‘marani’, the Georgian term for a qvevri winery. The ultimate aim was to use English grapes, but 2017 was a low-yielding year in the UK, so Henry purchased imported Italian grapes (Tempranillo, Merlot & Sangiovese). The students were intrigued: who were these strange men digging around at the back of the winery? Abbie Hoskin, one of the first students to get involved, said:
“As I was living onsite it was convenient for me to carry out the punchdowns every six hours throughout the fermentations. Having the opportunity to learn ancient winemaking techniques from someone as experienced as Georgi was really valuable and interesting.”
However, it was Sarah Midgley, Plumpton’s Winemaker and Winemaking Instructor, who took the brunt of the Georgian invasion. According to Sarah:
“Making wine with Henry and Georgi was very different to my experience of conventional winemaking, both culturally and technically. They make wine the same way as it has been done in Georgia for 8000 years, and each important event in the winemaking calendar is marked by celebration! For the first vintage, we had the hand-made qvevris delivered from Georgia just in time to crush the first fruit into them. The winery was still being built around the grapes being crushed, so we had to cope with lots of sand and building materials. It a was challenging, but interesting experience: I understood the culture a lot better after visiting Georgia and tasting wine from qvevris!”
In true Georgian tradition, the qvevris were sealed after fermentation, and left to settle until the spring. Meanwhile, the British Georgian Chamber of Commerce and the Georgian National Wine Agency invited a group of Plumpton students to visit Georgia at their Easter break. At first, the trip was only conceived for eight students, but, in the end, 21 pupils attended, and I hear that they had a whale of a time. Abbie Hoskin said:
“To visit Georgia for a week really contextualised the work I did at Plumpton Marani. It’s an amazing country with fantastic food, culture, wine and history. We visited some brilliant wineries and museums and really enjoyed our time there.”
Another student, Stella Kane, said:
“I couldn’t believe how spectacular the scenery was: lush green mountains with cascading rivers. Tbilisi was so vibrant culturally: amazing museums, architecture and a fantastic traditional cuisine, authentically fusing that of surrounding cultures. The people were so kind and there was a great energy everywhere we went. The wines, of course were so interesting, how can you not be intrigued by the simplicity of qvevri wine making?”
Another student, Gina Balchin, added:
“Before the trip to Georgia, I really didn’t know what to expect. Truth be told I wasn’t even sure where it was. I was pleasantly surprised to find a lovely country with some truly unique wines and beautiful vineyards. When I think back to the trip, the first thing that springs to my mind is actually our very first wine estate visit. We were greeted by a very knowledgeable and friendly award-winning winemaker, who really set the tone for the week. She gave us our first insight into the hundreds of varieties that Georgia grow. The wine was flowing, and accompanied by lots of home-made delicacies”.
A highlight for Lindsay Holas, Plumpton’s lecturer in Wine Business was
“being greeted at Baia’s winery near Kutaisi. After discussing with our group her approach to vine growing, challenges facing producers today, our group gathered inside her family’s traditional marani to taste wines fresh from the qvevri. Of course, in traditional Georgian fashion, we were also treated to a delicious spread of local delicacies! It’s such an exciting time in for the Georgian wine industry and we had a truly unforgettable trip.”
The Georgian hospitality was outstanding, particularly the Twins Wine House in Napareuli, who not only hosted the whole group for a visit, but gave them an excellent lunch. More about them later.
Meanwhile, the wine at Plumpton marani was maturing. The qvevris were opened, and the wine was delicious! 1600 bottles were produced in all: 500 red, 200 white and 900 orange (or amber). Henry Mchedlishvili’s company, Artisan Cru, and the British Georgian Chamber of Commerce, hosted a tasting in Mayfair to launch their first wines.
In a further demonstration of goodwill, Twins Wine House in Napareuli invited a Plumpton student, Alex Tristram, to stay with them for ten days to learn the art of qvevri winemaking. Established by twin brothers Gia and Gela Gamtkitsulashvilis, this winery features a traditional Georgian hotel and restaurant and the unique Qvevri Wine Museum. When I visited it on my trip to Georgia in 2015, I marvelled at its huge model qvevri outside (eight metres high!) and the fascinating collection of artefacts and archival photos and information about Georgian grapes and winemaking. The most remarkable part of museum was three 500-litre qvevris with glass fronts, so that the visitor can watch how the special winemaking process evolves. Commercially, the Twins Wine Cellar ferments organically grown Rkatsiteli, Kakhetian Green and Saperavi grapes from their own region in 135 qvevris, most of which have a capacity of around 4 tonnes. They are actively seeking a UK distributor for their delicious wine, “Qvevri’s Mze”.
The 2017 Artisan Cru wines made at Plumpton Marani are selling really well, particularly in Georgian restaurants, and we will soon be bottling the 2018 vintage, but more about this later. This is just the start of the Plumpton/Georgian adventure: in a further article, I will be relating how the marani has been transformed into a unique Georgian wine museum, and more Plumpton students will soon be invited to enjoy another spell of delightful Georgian hospitality.