Saturday, April 16, 2016

How to Make Wine in a Qvevri – Traditional Georgian Winemaking

(March 2016) Before visiting Georgia, I had only heard the word “qvevri,” but had never actually seen one, except in photos.  Though may people mix them up with amphorae, they are different.  A qvevri is used to ferment and age wine, and is buried in the ground.  An amphora is used to transport wine and is not buried in the ground.

Qvevri That Have Been Removed from Marani (Cellar Where They are Buried)

The other interesting thing about qvevri is they come in many different sizes.  Most hobby winemakers in Georgia (this includes many people who live in the country and make wine in their backyard) use a small qvevri that is easier to manage and clean. Commercial wineries, however, use different sizes, with the standard size being 1850 liters, we were told by one winemaker. “If the qvevri is larger than 2000 liters,” he said, “it is difficult to control the temperature during fermentation.”

Qvevri Buried in Ground in a Marani (Wine Cellar)


Two Methods to Make Wine In Qvevri: the Ancient and the Modern Method

At each winery we visited, the winemakers described the process they used to make wine in qvevri.  I documented these processes, and discovered that, in general, there are two main methods: the ancient traditional method and the modern method.

The most important issue for success in both methods is ‘physiologically ripe grapes with ripe stems.”  Since the wine macerates on skins, stems, and seeds for such a long time, it is critically important to have healthy ripe grapes – otherwise, the resulting wine is bitter and tannic.

The Ancient Method
(Described by winemaker at Alverdi Monastery)

1)     Select ripe grapes in vineyard
2)     Transport to winery and place whole clusters with stems in satsnakheli, and stomp by foot.
3)     Put juice and all of chacha (stems, seeds, skins – which are referred to as the “mother”) into a qvevri.
4)     Leave 15 to 20% space in the top for primary and secondary fermentation. Do not add yeast or anything else. The whole process is natural.  CO2 protects.
5)     At end of ML, top up with topping wine and close qvevri with a clay lid. Then heap dirt on top of it, and sign of cross if religious.
6)     Leave wine in qvevri for around 5 months for white grapes and 1 month for red grapes.
7)     When done*, gently transfer wine to clean qvevri for aging, using a small dipper on a long rod. Do NOT disturb chacha in the bottom of the fermenting qvevri.  The wine naturally filters itself, and all of the seeds, skins, and stems fall to the bottom.
8)     Sometimes the wine will still be a little sweet.  This is OK, because that is what nature intended for the year.
9)     Optional: sometimes add 26-27 ppm sulfur (which is natural) after ML.

* Obviously we asked when they knew the wine was done for white grapes. The answer we received was “It is according to the moon, usually the 2nd phase of the descending moon. It is when Spring comes, and the temperature and birds tell you.”  We asked for further clarification, and were told “It is usually around Easter; the first half of April at the latest.”

Winemaker at Alverdi Monastery Near Qvevri Covered with Dirt and Sign of Cross


White Vs. Red Grapes

When the wine is removed from qvevri with white grapes, the color is a golden orange and the wine often tastes like dried apricots and nuts – similar to sherry in some respects, though not as oxidized.  The acid also seems crisp and well-balanced with these wines, suggesting that the indigenous grapes and yeast create a harmonious beverage. Bishop David described it as “Golden wine filled with sunshine.”

Red wine grapes, on the other hand, are much more tannic; therefore, it is only kept in the qvevri with the “mother chacha” (skins, seeds, stems) for one month.  If it is kept longer, then is loses its beautiful ruby color and becomes too tannic.

Bishop David explained that the qvevri is similar to the “womb in Mother Earth,” and that each Spring “the baby wine is born, and we thank God and celebrate.”  To the Georgians the process of winemaking is the same as giving birth. The Bishop continued, “The tiny baby wine emerges from qvevri and gives you a sign of what it will be when it is grown up.”

Winemaker and Bishop David near Ancient Qvevri at Alverdi Monastery


The New Modern Method of Making Wine in Qvevri
(Described by winemakers at three other wineries)

The major difference between the ancient and the modern method is the ancient methods uses 100% of the Mother ChaCha (stems, seeds, and skins) for fermentation, whereas the modern method uses a smaller percentage and no stems. Following is the method for white grapes:

1)     Pick ripe healthy grapes in vineyard.
2)     Destem and slightly crush grapes. Add a small amount of So2.
3)     Let soak overnight, and then separate juice and skin
4)     Put small amount of skins in bottom of qvevri, and then add the clear juice on top.
5)     Ferment with natural yeast and allow to go through natural malolactic fermentation. Cover with clay lid.
6)     Check on wine occasionally to see how it is progressing. Take samples and measure.
7)     After ML, slowly rack clear wine off the top and transfer to clean qvevri, top up, add a little So2 if needed. Cover with clay lid.
8)      Age for 6 months.

NOTE: The modern process for making red wine in qvevri is similar, but the wine is only left on chacha for one month. In actuality, red wine making in Georgia is not that different from red wine making in other regions of the world, because the wine is usually always fermented on the skins. The difference is the use of a qvevri for a fermentation vessel, and the addition of stems and seeds sometimes.

Qvevri Cellar at Schuchmann Winery in Georgia

Winemaking Process by Region

We were also told that the qvevri winemaking process is determined by the region.  In the Eastern portion of Georgia where it is warmer, it is called the Kakheti process and uses 100% of the chacha.  In the Western region of Georgia, where it is cooler and the grapes are not as ripe, they only use about 20% of skins and no stems.  This is often referred to as the Imerti Process.

Cleaning the Qvevri

We were very interested in learning how to clean the qvevri, because they are buried in the ground and it is not possible to move them to clean. Though they are lined with beeswax when made (see video on how to make qvevri below), it would still be very difficult to clean them without using a modern pump.

Again, we were told there are two methods: the ancient and the modern.

Ancient Method to Clean Qvevri – add herbs and hot water, then use a cherry bark brush to scrub sides and bottom of qvevri.  Dip out water and repeat process until completely clean. To insure cleanliness, it is customary for the person who is cleaning the qvevri to drink the final portion of water. This is quality control to the extreme!

Modern Method to Clean Qvevri - Use citric acid or a lime solution with water. Pump out, and then repeat until clean.  Leave top open to air out and dry.

Schuchmann Winemaker Demonstrating Cherry Bark Brush to Clean Qvevri

Unesco Approves Qvevri Process as “Intangible Cultural Heritage”

It may not be surprising that this most ancient method of winemaking, with “the longest maceration in the world for white wines” was approved by Unesco as an
Intangible Cultural Heritage.”

Also the process of making a qvevri is very time-consuming, and we were told that there are currently only 2 master qvevri makers left in Georgia. This is why the Georgians are trying to get funding to create a new school at Ikalto Academy (see post) to teach this ancient craft.  Bishop David told us that the demand for qvevri is escalating, especially outside of Georgia. Currently the cost to build a qvevri is about one euro per liter, ranging from 500 to 3000 euros per qvevri.  If you look at the amount of work that goes into creating one, this seems quite inexpensive (see Unesco Video)

Historical Qvevri of Different Sizes at Alverdi Monastery






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