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“Satsnakheli” Winepress

Andro Lekiashvili

A traditional Georgian marani (masonry wine house) features a variety of tools and equipments that have been an integral part of the ever-existing art of winemaking. One such equipment is “Satsnakheli,” a foot-stumping wine press.

There are three types of Satsnakheli that are common in Georgian marani: the first type is made of masonry, the second type of Satsnakheli is hollowed out of rock and the third type is hollowed out of a log. 

Masonry winepresses are mostly found in the maranis of Kartli and Kakheti regions. These press-cum-vat systems are usually built in a marani wall, which serves as one of the four sides of the vat, the rest of the three sides being made of the same masonry as well. At the bottom of Satsnakheli there are holes through which the grape juice flows out and is channelled down so-called “induri” – short clay or iron pipes. Rarely, one can find a Satsnakheli that is divided into two sections. This kind of system allows different grape varieties to be crushed and pressed within it without being mixed. There are many evidences that prove there is a long-standing tradition of masonry winepresses in Eastern part of Georgia. The oldest remains of Satsnakheli are often found in different historic sites of the country including monastery and church complexes. The archaeologists have unearthed many findings that prove that masontry winepresses were being used as early as in the ninth or tenth centuries.

Satsnakheli, hollowed out of  rock, is common in quarry-rich sites of Georgia, mostly in Kartli and Imereti regions. Even a monolithic Satsnakheli that has vine and grape ornaments on its surface can be found in the villages of Imereti. There are dozens of remnants of hollowed-out-of-stone Satsnakhelis in the areas of the cave town of Vardzia, which prove the viticulture and winemaking used to flourish one time in this part of the country. There are also rock-cut Satsnakhelis in Vardzia cave town and in its surrounding villages – Chachkari and Fia. Uplistsikhe (literally “Lord’s Fortress“), another rock-hewn town even has remnants of 2300-year-old Satsnakhelis.

The third type of Satsnakheli that is hollowed out of linden or chestnut logs is common throughout Georgia. It is called “Navi” (meaning “boat”) in Kartli and Kakheti regions, as “Satsnakheli” in Imereti and Guria, in Samegrelo they call it “Ochinakhi” and in Racha and Lechkhumi regions – “Khorgo” or “Khapi.” There are Satsnakhelis of different capacities and sizes starting from small-capacity ones with the volume ranging from 20-40 poods (one pood equal to about 36.11 pounds/16.38 kilograms) to large-size Satsnakhelis with the volume of 500-poods. The one that has the capacity of 200-300 poods is most common. The length of Satsnakheli ranges from 4 to 10 arshines (1 arshine = 0,711 m = 2 ft 4 in). A drawing of a huge Imeretian Satsnakheli from the 17th century album of an Italian missionary, Cristoforo Castelli describes the process of wine pressing. In a chink-like marani one sees a huge Satsnakheli with a small ladder attached to it. The harvesters are going up the ladder and empty their baskets full of grapes into Satsnakheli. There is even an old saying related to this ‘wooden giant’ that goes like this: “I looked at it and it was black, I went closer to it and it was ravine.”

There are different  types of Satsnakhelis in different parts of Georgia. The two most distinctive types are “angular” and “round” ones. The angular Satsnakheli, as the name suggests, has evenly-trimmed, plain sides and is usually common in Kartli, Kakheti and Imereti regions. They are usually hollowed out of a log that has thin walls/sides and relatively massive back and front parts so called “foreheads.”

After a long-term use, the “foreheads” crack. That’s why maranis are often equipped by Satsnakhelis that have “replaced foreheads.” Three plank pieces, so called “sartauli,” are firmly attached to the front and back part of this wine equipment.

The second main type of Satsnakheli has a round shape both inside and out. They are mostly common in Guria, Samegrelo, Racha and Lechkhumi regions. In some cases, its back and front parts are fixed by a round board instead of ”sartauli.” What’s most important about this type of winepress is that its shape has been determined by the winemaking technique that is common in Guria, Samegrelo, Racha and Lechkhumi regions. Not only grapes are trodden within it, but it also serves as a wine fermentation vessel. It has narrower mouth compared to an angular Satsnakheli and therefore it is better for the wine fermentation process according to one of the locals.

The diligent work of an experienced carpenter can easily be recognized as soon as one looks at this giant wooden equipment of marani, at its nicely refined sides and massive “foreheads” that are reliably firmed by wedges.

Satsnakheli carpentry is quite common in Western Georgia. Even in maranis of Kartli and Kakheti one can find this “boat shaped” wine press that has been made in Imereti region.

Imeretian carpenters start looking for the trees in the woods ahead of time. Usually linden trees are best for making Satsnakheli wine presses. First of all, the timber of linden trees is soft, lightweight and easy to trim; and second, it has very little grain and is very dense that doesn’t crack easily while trimmed. They usually cut down linden trees during fall or winter and  make logs of a particular length from them. Next they strip all the bark off and start hollowing out the center. They use an adze to make the defining cuts for the sides and edges and then use an ax to hollow it out. They refine Satsnakheli with “lari” – a special string that has been dipped in ground coal. Finally, Satsnakheli is allowed to sit at a particular humidity level where it is air-dried and obtains a desired weight.

It takes 20-30 people, usually men, to transfer this heavy equipment to marani. A team of 10 to 12 carriers puts it on their shoulders. They are followed by other “helpers,” who substitute them from time to time. They follow a track up a hill, even sing gallantly every now and then. They “don’t fail each other, just like the bulls…” as they feel the pressure of the huge burden on their shoulders.

This is how they get to “Sakharo” – a bullhouse. From here, the bulls drag Satsnakheli up to a roadway. Finally, satsnakheli is arrived at its destination with the help of a bullock cart.

Once Satsnakheli is in marani, it is peeled and refined once and for all. They also drill a special hole in it for the grape juice to be released through it and place it on the specially made logs. Now Sastnakheli is ready to serve several generations.

There are various traditional methods of Satsnakheli winemaking in different parts of Georgia. According to the Kakhetian method, the grapes are first crushed slowly by the feet of a treader. Once most of the juice is released, the treader starts stumping his feet and then diligently presses the grape skins with his heels. He also stirs the grapes with an oar from time to time, allowing the grapes to drain and then “heels” them again. Treading grapes in Satsnakheli requires not only an experience, but also the strength of the knees.

A good amount of juice still remains in the grape skins even after food-stumping them in Satsnakheli. There is another equipment – mechanical grape skin press, that is used for the purpose of extracting the remaining juice from the skins. The equipment has various names including “Sakajavi,” “Sakachavi,” “Sakachveli,” “Tsberi,” “Sastberavi,” “Chakhraki,” and “Kharkhini.”

© Georgian Wine Club/vinoge.com

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May 2023