In such world as wine industry, which hardly accepts innovations, there are still some gems to discover, and where else you can find, if not in the cradle of wine, Georgia.
Teimuraz Basilaia, Diplomatic-Counselor of The Embassy of Georgia to the Kingdom of Spain.
At a small elevation less than 40 kilometres south of Tbilisi, capital of Georgia on mound called Gadachrili Gora (trans. "The cutted mound"), 8,000 years ago the stone age farmers produced the wine in the vessels of clay, what after 80 centuries was recognized as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, denominating it as an old Georgian method of traditional wine-making in Qvevris.
At the Gadachrili Gora, expedition combined of University of Toronto and Georgian National Museum has uncovered earliest winemaking in the world. Excavations showed that clay vessels found on the place, dating back of around 6000 years BC, had residue of the wine. This fact demonstrates that people in this area had been using this kind of pottery for producing first examples of wine.
As a human started using the clay from the Neolithic period, big vessels, regarded as predecessors of Georgian Qvevri, start to appear in the modern Georgian territory. Contemporary form Qvevri was developed in III-II millennial B.C. Before that period, small size vessels were widespread, with flat bottom and wide belly. Nowadays, Qvevri capacity starts from several hundred liters and reaches several tons. Kakheti, the most prominent Georgian wine region, is known for particularly large size vessels, where it can have a 6-8 thousand liter capacity. The most common are of 1-2 tons.
Qvevri making is a historic tradition of Georgia. The profession is being inherited from generation to generation, and only handful of craftsmen are left, who endeavor to pass this mystic intuition to their descendants. As masters tell, the vessel is built only in the closed environment where the slightest breeze is absent and temperature is even. Qvevri is built as a house, slowly, step by step, making circular layers, keeping humidity, and giving a shape of an egg. Next stage is drying out in oven. While baking, if the proportions are not regarded, fresh clay will drop and be destroyed. This is exactly how the masters’ intuition guides the process and vessel preserves its unique shape. Qvevri has to stay with fire at least for three days. After baking, while still warm, vessel is covered by wax to prevent from getting outer fluid from the ground. Pure beeswax also has waterproofing and sterilizing properties that make it more hygienic and easy to clean.It takes on average three months to finish 2 ton Qvevri. When all the process is done, while knocking on the vessel it must have characteristic ringing voice.
If associate this article to the Georgian Supra (aut. traditional Georgian feast, an important part of Georgian culture), this part of story is all about entrée, or first course. Let's jump to the main course, and tell why Qvevri-made wine is so special.
First of unique details worth to emphasize, is that the entire Qvevri wine-making takes place within the vessel. Other distinctive is that, on the fermenting process, grape juice is being left on the skins and even grape stems, what creates wines of exceptional flavour and colour. As the wine ferments, Qvevri's shape promotes circulation and more natural oxygenation. Fermentation continues about two weeks. Then it is mixed with seeds and is closed for maturing, up to 6 months. Maturation of the wine continues in the vessel. The clay provides natural temperature control and a little oxygen exposure, all of which creates very distinctive and complex taste. Skin contact gives white wines that iconic amber color and more tannins than conventionally made whites. After that, wine matured the grape residue, is been filtered and transferred to clean vessel. Throughout the process, special instruments are used for Qvevri. Winemaking is free of additions and even no filtration or preservatives is added at bottling.
These wines are characterized with amber colour. Today, Qvevri is indispensable for amber wine market, which adds to their cachet. Nowadays Qvevri wines are made by dozens of producers who are giving their own shape to the wine. Some minimally manipulated examples can taste rather homemade and farmyard at times. But the best are at full ego to compete against the most exclusive European wines.
With the boom of natural and bio wines, producers of those fields have also embraced Qvevri. While you see small Georgian winemakers rejoice of having their wines presented in finest European and US restaurants, people from all of the parts of the world, from Australia to Argentina are getting to introduce Qvevri in their cellars.
The importance to the history of winemaking of Qvevri, was honored by the United Nations, who placed it on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2014.
Even though Qvevri is a big part of Georgia, still it accounts only 5% of Georgian wine sales, therefore are other important facts of wine culture of this small country of Caucasus can surprise you.
In the world there are around 4000 kinds of grapevines and from them 532 are Georgian. A nursery just outside Tbilisi, the capital, has living examples of each one. During the soviet occupation of Georgia, highest-volume varietals as Rkatsiteli and Saperavi (one of the few teinturier grapes), has been planted on vast fields, while more delicate, lower-yield varietals have been ripped out, but many families kept small plots, which is how so many grape types survived the soviet boots.
Lately, Georgian wine has emerged from ashes, it seems that hard times are passed. Some factors, as Russian embargo of 2006, have definitely played a positive role, when Georgian producers where obliged to seek other markets (Russia accounted 80% of Georgian wine sales). Producers had to improve wine-making notions, attracted more foreign know-how, consequently creating better quality and sustainable wines. Today, you can taste tongue-grippingly tannic Qvevri Saperavi or vibrant Rkatsiteli made in European style in every part of world and that sui-generis taste will travel out of the modern society and dive you through the deep and intense history of Georgia, where 8000 years ago settlers blessed with toasts.