Sarah Abbott and some considerations on Qvevri.
Qvevri (#ქვევრი), loom large over Georgian wine culture, despite the small proportion (about 10%) of Georgian wine made in them.
Qvevri are an example of intelligent engineering. Their form, material and application were developed by the world’s first winemakers to solve winemaking problems. Which problems?
Making Wine in Qvevri, written by Giorgi Bariashvili, explains in detail. But in essence: promoting a strong yeast growth for initiating and completing fermentation; managing the ‘cap’ of skins; controlling fermentation temperature; clarifying the wine off the sediment; and protecting the wine against oxidation during ageing.
Qvevri are not some luddite indulgence: they are a living expression of centuries of wine culture and diligent craft.
I was reminded of this as I walked into Qvevri-maker Zaza Kbilashvili’s workshop recently and into a herd of huge Qvevri – a work in progress. This was a special order of many qvevri of unusually large capacity. They seemed to be growing like slow, stone mushrooms.
The earth Zaza uses is shown in this photo.
It was rich and loamy, and textured. Zaza digs the earth from a particular, time-honoured, spot of the nearby woods. “Do you have to apply for permission or licence to take it, or is it protected for Qvevri use?” Nope. (But official research into the soil composition for Qvevri is underway.) Soil is cleaned of sticks and stones and then milled before use. The pliable clay is kneaded and molded and smoothed into place. The Qvevri-maker works on multiple Qvevri at once. Each layer of clay (10cm thick) is applied and left to dry. And then for the next, and up and round the Qvevri grow.
This Unesco video, created when Qvevri were awarded the status of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013, shows the mesmeric process of qvevri makers working the clay, forming qvevri and firing up the kiln.
I am always learning about the subtleties and craft of qvevri making, and qvevri wine-making. At this most recent visit, in June 2022, Zaza stressed how making qvevri is as seasonal as growing grapes. He must submit to and work with the weather. Conditions must be mild to work the clay, and sunny and hot to dry and fire. In this way, qvevri have a season for their own cool slow growth, and warm ripening, as do the grapes that they have been transforming, for thousands of years, into wine.