Falling into a qvevri in Georgia

I first heard about qvevri in about 1999. I was sitting next to a young winemaker at a Jacobs Creek premium wine launch, just returned from an educational sojourn in Georgia. All I remember of the story was that he was fairly impressed with the winemaking, but had lived in something about as fancy as an Iron Age lean-to and the Russians kept on turning the lights off (this was just post Soviet collapse, and Georgia was struggling under a highly corrupt Eduard Shevardnadze-led government). I wish now that I could recall his name (rather than the hazel of his eyes), so I could look him up and touch base to chat about my new-found appreciation of this most ancient form of winemaking.

You see, I’ve just returned from a trip to Tbilisi and I find I just can’t seem to adore any wine except those in shades of amber. I have only 3 bottles left from my customs allowance. I want to drink them, I want to save them. I want to go back to Georgia and drink only this wine for the rest of my life.

Orange wines have been snowballing in popularity for the last couple of years, and you’ll find them everywhere, from the wine lists of Michelin-starred restaurants in London to back-alley wine bars in Melbourne. They’re very niche and nouveau, and if you’re one of the ignorami who believes they’re either from Orange or made of orange juice, then you better get savvy. But even most of the orange-informed don’t realise that the Georgians have been making wine like this for around 8 millennia – so in actuality, it’s decidedly retro.

The fortunate thing about drinking amber wine (yes, same as ‘orange’, just a more sensible name) in Georgia, is that because the style is de rigueur there, it’s everywhere and deliciously cheap. In fact, if you’re not in a tourist trap, I would almost venture to say it’s harder to get a clear, straw-coloured wine than it is to get a murky, rusty one. It’s fabulous. This makes it very easy to try a great spectrum of styles and flavours, even if you’re only on a short trip, so I could suggest you throw yourself into the alcoholic waters of the qvevri with abandon. But these pointers could also help…

  • Qvevri is the name of the style of wine produced in a terracotta vat of the same name. You’ll see many amphora-shaped effigies around if you visit – this admirable worship of their wine will be found on souvenirs, holding herbs in front gardens, in corner displays at restaurants, on clifftops near 10C chapels, printed on your hotel doormat. For home winemaking, these are usually quite small – about the size of a beer keg – but working wineries are more likely to have larger ones, up to 2000L or even more. When in action, the qvevri is buried up to the lip, so you’ll probably never see one this large in its entirety. If you’re so inclined, there’s plenty of good info on qvevris linked here. Interestingly, there is a rise in the use of concrete eggs at boutique new-world wineries, because the shape allows a continuous flow to the juice over time, and don’t we all love a little natural homogenization? Again, they’re totally copying Georgia, who are only about 8000 years ahead of the game.
  • You don’t get a hangover from Georgian amber wines. I’ve tried several times now, and I’m sure it’s nigh impossible. These wines are so gorgeously natural, there are no nasties in there to amplify the effects of alcohol. There are absolutely no additives to most qvevri wines – they are just grapes, pure and simple, left to ferment and filter themselves through gravity. This means they are also suitable for vegans and allergy sufferers because there are no preservatives, artificial yeasts, finers or clarification agents, sulfuites or stabilizers added. Combine this with a slightly lower average alcohol of around 11-12% (most grapes are picked before full ripeness for ease of production), and you can feel better about your excessive wine consumption. I would note that all that skin contact probably increases the level of histamines, however I’m yet to find evidence, and as I mentioned, I did not notice any ill effect despite quite a bit of guzzling. For further information, Simon Woolf, writing for Tim Atkin MW has some interesting info on the natural process of qvevri winemaking and the efforts taken to avoid faults (e.g. brettanomyces, volatile acidity and excessive oxidation).
  • Don’t be put off by the amber colour of the wines. It’s not necessarily oxidation (although this can happen), but comes from the tannins and lignin in the grape seeds. Most of the time, you still get all those fresh aromatics and zesty acid that you’re used to in modern white varietals. The white wines we’re all accustomed to drinking are pressed before they are fermented, which means the juice does all the hard work in isolation. When you leave the skins and seeds in, you get colour, flavour and texture, just like you would in a red wine. Some would therefore say that amber wine is white wine for rouge-ifiles, or perhaps rosé  for people with good palates. Most of the wines are also unfiltered, so it’s not unusual to have something that more resembles kombucha than a glass of Chardy. Enjoy the extra protein and get on with it.
  • Not only are the wines made naturally, so are the grapes. Georgia has a history of exceptional food production and a population who do not tolerate adulteration of their produce. Not only grapes, but most of the other produce you will find in Georgia, are organically produced, or at least made with only minimal intervention. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but if the word qvevri is on the label, there’s a 90% chance that this is good quality organic wine.
  • Grape varieties in Georgia are generally ones you have never heard of. There are over 500 indigenous grape varieties, most with so many consonants, pronouncing them feels like you’re talking with a mouthful of Georgian walnuts. A few of the big ones:

* Mtsvane is the Chardonnay equivalent, with white peach, floral, citrus and tropical aromas, and often a light mineral undertone. It also produces good European-style white wine

* Rkatsiteli is perhaps more like a white Bordeaux blend, with quince, apricot and apple, often a honey backbone and a long, hazelnutty finish

* Chinuri could be drunk by Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc lovers. It’s usually laced with florals and crisp pear, and is sometimes quite herbal. It’s usually light, forward and easy-drinking.

* Tsolikouri is cheap and cheerful. Young ones are usually fresh and vibrant, often with plenty of melon and peach characters, but they can lack in acidity meaning you’ll want a respected producer for an older vintage.

* Khikhvi is for those who love nutty neutral whites and dry sherries. It’s still got primary fruit, but it’s often subtle with dried fruit, walnuts and hazelnuts taking centre stage.

* Kisi seems to be the revered one, and unfortunately it’s quite rare. Florals, green tea, pear and citrus are usually the primary characters, but it can get all rich and apricotty. Like most of the other varieties, it’s stupendously nutty on the finish, but superior in complexity and known for its length and structure.

  • Whites (or ambers) are usually served at room temperature. Don’t despair. When chilled, volatile wine flavours hide and the tannins can become oppressive, so this usually makes sense. If you are drinking a white made in the modern fashion however (yes, there are plenty of them – some good, some not so good), it’s not unreasonable to ask for an ice bucket, or you can always drink it like your mum does, with ice directly in the glass.
  • Qvevri are not just used to produce amber wines. Georgia has a healthy level of production of red wine, and many will have heard of the syrupy Saperavi, which can be excellent, sturdy red, but often is powerful enough to strip the enamel off your teeth. Those looking for lighter reds should keep their eyes peeled for the cherry-coloured Chkhaveri. Aleksandrouli blended with Mujuretuli produces the deep garnet, velvetty and slightly fruit- sweet Khvanchkara.  Usakhelouri and Otskhanuri Sapere are the Shiraz equivalents, complex and peppery for the former, plums and herbs for the latter. Finally, there’s chacha – Georgia’s grappa – made from the skin and seed residue after the wine has been racked off (distillation is not done in the qvevri). It’s as lethal as you’d expect, with alcohol levels seldom under 45%. It’s usually clear, but sometimes it’s distilled with walnuts or infused with local fruit. Trust me, this stuff WILL give you a hangover. More information on different kinds of Georgian wine here.

Now, the biggest problem I face is that I have just accidentally drunk two of the aforementioned three bottles of qvevri I had remaining with me at home. One to end them all it seems… Despite quite a bit of press hailing the virtues of Georgian wine, there is a bottle to be found. I have discovered Tamada, but they only had one I would bother ordering. Fortunately there is a rise in the production of orange wines locally (e.g. BK WinesJamsheed, Cullen, Simha) and there are international styles such as Ramato and the wines of Jura to explore. I guess these will have to keep me busy until I can figure out how to wrangle an import licence…


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