The vessel in which Georgians make wine is intrinsically linked to the country’s identity—like Italians and pasta, except in this case, the qvevri was actually invented in Georgia. The form the qvevri (pronounced “kway-vree”) vessel takes and the ingredients that go into it differ slightly depending on the region. And qvevri, at their best, make a perceptible contribution to the final product but in a way that allows the other ingredients involved to shine and show their “true” essence.
Georgia’s method of making wine has been largely unchanged for 8,000 years, thanks to the qvevri itself. The country is considered by archeologists to be the birthplace of wine. The first known evidence of winemaking occurred in the South Caucasus in 6,000 B.C., when some particularly resourceful early Georgians found that burying grape juice underground in clay vessels transformed the juice into a transcendent elixir. Winemaking (and drinking) became a central part of family life in the region, the evidence of which can be found at burial sites in the form of qvevri shards, glassware and art.
“Every family has made its own wine in Georgia for thousands of years,” says Julie Peterson, the managing partner of Marq Wine Group and leader of U.S. strategy for the National Wine Agency of Georgia. “It’s considered an essential but basic part of their life, in the same way different cultures—even ours during lockdown, actually—approach breadmaking, for example.”
The first time this steady line of home-style production was significantly disrupted was under Soviet rule, which began in 1921 and ended in 1991. At that point, the tradition of cultivating indigenous grapes at home vineyards and turning them into wine continued, but large-scale commercial production was also introduced, and large vineyards were planted. Still, many families preferred their own wine to the commercial options and continued to make it.
“There will be differences from region to region, depending on the ingredients and climate, but essentially it’s the same process,” says Peterson. “And there will also be acknowledged masters that emerge in every region.”
There exist masters of not just winemaking but also qvevri-making, which, Peterson says, defines the production, culture and flavor of wine in Georgia.
The vessel is shaped like an egg, with a narrow bottom and a wide mouth at the top. It’s made from local clay and ranges in size from 13 gallons (for home wineries) to 1,000 gallons (for commercial production). Similar vessels exist elsewhere for aging wine—tinajas in Spain and amphorae in Italy, to name a couple of others with ancient roots—but qvevri are the only ones that get buried underground.
Traditionally, grapes are crushed and placed along with their juice, skins, stems and pips in beeswax-lined qvevri, where they macerate and undergo malolactic fermentation. Then they’re covered with lids and sealed and buried underground for a minimum of several months.
Suddenly in Demand
No matter what’s happening in Georgia or who’s in control of the country, its people have been making and consuming their own wine for millennia. And for the first time in thousands of years, the rest of the world now wants it.
When Georgia emerged from the fog of revolutions and war, the country’s citizens’ deep attachment to their wine culture became a calling card of sorts to the international community. State wineries were privatized, and wine lovers and sommeliers fell for these distinct natural wines when they began to emerge in markets outside of Georgia.
Those first few commercial operations enjoyed such success that an entire industry has sprung up. Between 2016 and 2020, the number of commercial wineries in Georgia grew from around 400 to 1,575.
“Georgian wines are fascinating in part because of qvevri and also because there’s such a rich array of indigenous grapes,” says Bruno Almeida, a sommelier and wine educator who was most recently the wine director of Tocqueville in New York City. Indeed, Georgia has more than 500 indigenous grape varieties under vine across 50,000 hectares. Those vines compose an incredible one-sixth of the planet’s total grape varieties. To put that even further into perspective, the entire country of Georgia is slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut.
Many Georgian varietals are so rare that vineyards have essentially become living museums. In a bid to ensure their future, the government has created a centralized space to house these endangered grapes. The National Grape Collection at the LEPL Scientific Research Center of Agriculture in Jighaura contains 437 varieties of native grapevines and 350 nonindigenous varieties.
Those grapes, which producers blend together to create the country’s unique wines, are then aged in qvevri, “which give them the distinct, fresh flavors that taste more alive than other wines,” says Almeida.
Almeida’s devotion to Georgian wine is shared by both cultural organizations and consumers. In 2013, UNESCO declared qvevri winemaking an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. More than 100 Georgian wineries have earned 90-plus scores from critics at Decanter, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits magazines. And for the past six years, Georgian wine has been consumed with ever-increasing gusto. Imports into the U.S. alone have grown 31% year-over-year by volume, and average bottle prices climbed 21.4% in 2020, after a 51.3% surge in 2019.
Reasons for Its Popularity
Qvevri wine’s draw is undeniable but, as UNESCO puts it, also somewhat “intangible.” “Most wine in Georgia comes from Kakheti in the east and Imereti in the West, and the way the qvevri are made, the grapes used and the different climates in each place mean the wines from each region are very different,” says Almeida, explaining that the wines made in the east tend to be extraordinarily food-friendly and “voluptuous,” he says, whereas the wines made in the west tend to feature “an electricity and a freshness, and they’re less complex but incredibly alive.”
Everywhere they’re used, qvevri are considered to be an optimal form of temperature control. As modern winemakers around the world build ever-more-complex temperature-control zones for the production and aging of grapes, underground qvevri keep the wine a consistently coolish temperature year-round.
Paata Kapanadze, a qvevri maker in Imereti, says that Western qvevri have narrower necks and middles than the Eastern style. Zaza Kbilashvili, a qvevri maker in Kakheti, concurs, saying that his qvevri “are broader in the center and neck, which makes it easier for a person to get inside and clean.”
Neither maker follows an exact guide when making their qvevri, and both only measure neck width at a winemakers’ request.
And while neither tells winemakers which kind of grapes to use, Kbilashvili prefers to see winemakers use local varieties, and both make minimum aging recommendations. Kbilashvili says grapes should be “on skins in qvevri for at least five months; the maximum without skins and stems is five years.”
Kapanadze, meanwhile, advises producers to keep grapes on skins in qvevri for a minimum of seven months. If they opt to go skin-free, then several years in qvevri is warranted.
In each region, qvevri makers use local clay. Kapanadze uses clay from different areas with different clays in the village Tkemlovanain, mixing them together to create the desired texture. Kbilashvili sources limestone-flecked clay from Shuamta and mixes it with riverbed clay for the optimal texture. They both believe, and Almeida agrees, that the “terroir” of the clay affects the final flavors of the wines aged within.
Both maintain that they do exactly what their fathers did and what their fathers did before them and so on. “We haven’t changed anything,” says Kapanadze. “Now, my son is following in our footsteps, so that we can continue to create qvevri as our ancestors did.”
An Expanding Industry
Until the beginning of the 21st century, it was difficult and rare to find Georgian wine outside of Georgia. Clearly, the secret is now out. And now, in addition to finding amber-hued skin-contact qvevri-aged wines in stores and on wine lists, winemakers in some of the most renowned terroirs across the globe have begun making wine the “Georgian way.”
David Dediashvili bought Story Winery, in Plymouth, California, in 2019 with his wife, Natalia. The Dediashvilis are both from Georgia and came to the Bay Area in 1992, where David pursued a career in health care.
“I wanted to bring the Georgian vision of wine to California and explore the blending of tradition and terroir here,” says David. “The winery is ideal, because, as in Georgia, it was organic and dry-farmed. It had an excellent aura and energy.”
After purchasing the winery, he arranged to have 50 qvevri shipped over from Georgia with the goal of creating a kind of “museum dedicated to Georgian wine culture,” he says. The qvevri, some of which he planned to put out on display, varied in size, with the largest weighing 2 tons and being able to hold 500 gallons.
“The pandemic has slowed us down,” says Dediashvili. “But I’m very excited to introduce classic California varietals—zinfandel, syrah, chardonnay—made in the Georgian way. The reds are in barrel after fermenting in qvevri, but the chardonnay stayed on the skins for several months.”
Dediashvili says that Georgian-style skin-fermented whites open up an entirely new avenue to drinkers because, due to the fact that they spent so much time on the skins, their flavor, color, texture and structure are deepened and transformed.
“We made a Georgian chardonnay and European-style chardonnay and released them simultaneously this spring,” says Dediashvili. “We had what we called the Birth of Wine event. People loved the Georgian wine. They were so excited to see how different it was. It smelled like spring pears, white flowers, fresh spring meadows and honey. It was darker, because it spent time on the skins.”
Just as the interest in qvevri is taking off, Dediashvili points out that many masters are aging out and the heritage of making the vessels is in danger of being lost. “There are many old men still making qvevri in Georgia, but unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer younger people getting involved,” he says. “I’m hoping that changes, and that’s part of the reason I’m so eager to get our museum up and running.”
In the end, for Georgians, the qvevri is more than a vessel that makes wine taste better and connects the ancient past to the present. “For me, the qvevri is sacred,” says Kbilashvili. “It gets energy from the ground, and the soil and the wine gets energy from the sun. These energies mix within the qvevri, creating the perfect drink.”
With the world’s increasing thirst for this “perfect drink,” perhaps it will inspire a new generation of qvevri masters.