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The uniqueness of qvevri wine

By  Giorgi Barisashvili

Our goal in this book is to focus on the benefits of the traditional qvevri wine, which is unfamiliar to the public, even in Georgia, although these are ancient traditions.Even thoughqvevris arefound everywhere in Georgia, almost every region has different winemaking practices.Formerly some of these were classified as Kakhetian, Imeretian and Meskhetian winemaking. All the practices found in a specific region were conditioned by a number of factors, including local soil types, climatic conditions, local customs and habits, the vintage year and the variety of grape and their chemical composition.

For example in Kakheti crushed grapes were fermented in qvevri with the whole chacha (grape skins and seeds), whereas with Imeretian wine, only a third of the pomace was used during fermentation. The locality where the grape variety is grown and harvested affects taste as well.

A primary and very important technique of qvevri winemaking is leaving the wine on its own pomace both during fermentation and after. In this case, traditional Kakhetian winemaking--regrettably almost lost today--is of special interest.  The Kakhetian technology of making white wines in qvevri implies pouring Rkatsiteli grapes into the qvevri with the all their pomace, or else first crushing the grapes in a wine press and then adding pomace to the must in qvevri. In both cases, the alcoholic fermentation takes place using the total mass of pomace. Upon completion of the fermentation, when the floating pomace has precipitated, or settled to the bottom, the qvevri is filled up and lidded. There is some debate about whether Kakhetian wine should be left on its pomace for fermentation. Red wines are left with skins and seeds only during the alcoholic fermentation period, which may last from sevento tendays,or two weeks at most. However to determine the length of time grape juice should be left on pomace we have to consider the grape variety, the duration of alcoholic fermentation, ambient conditions, etc.

With white wines, the old Kakhetian method was to leave wine on the pomace from autumn until the following spring (beginning of March). During this period, wine acquired the typical Kakhetian character.  The widespread opinion that wine which is fermented on the pomace for a long time becomes rough and substandard is unfounded. Wine turns rough and substandard onlywhenthe necessary standardsand technological processes are not adhered to.Wine from Kakheti which was fermented on the pomace acquires a dark straw, golden or tea color; it is absolutely clear and brilliant, noted for fruity tones and, very importantly, is naturally stable.Not only is such wine devoid of cloudiness but it contains beneficial nutrients for human health.  The alcohol extracts a maximum of beneficial substances from the grape pomace. When this unfiltered and unprocessed wine is bottled, it can still be preserved and stored well.

Wine quality is influenced by more than one factorof course.  First to be considered is the qvevri itself—both its own quality and cleanliness.  Other factors are post-fermentation temperature;the grape variety;the vineyard location;thelevel ofgrape maturity and its chemical composition;the period of fermentation with the skins and seeds;and thehygiene of themarani. Also, ifincompletely fermented,or if the wine in qvevri has not been kept on itsown pomacesufficiently, it fails to develop all its beneficial qualities, and the qvevri will not have time to impart its qualities to the wine.

Imeretian winemaking techniques use only a third of the pomace at most, which is poured into the qvevri from the winepress.White-grape varieties are used here as well.  Although insufficient information about winemaking is available, we know that in Kartli and Meskhet-Javakheti wine usedto be qvevri-fermented and aged with a part of the pomace for a definite period of time, just as in Kakheti and Imereti.

Pomace-free fermentation is also used in Georgia. This so-called “European winemaking technology”, has been practiced here since ancient times although there is much less information about it. Some Georgian provinces also blended the juice and pomace of several grape varieties, then fermented and aged this blend in qvevris. For example, in the Khidistavi village near the Kartlian town of Gori, they knew how to make a wine which was famous throughout East Georgia called khidistauri.  This was created by blending the Kartli grape varieties chinuri, tavkveri and goruli.Formerly,in Racha, the famous khvanchkarawas made by fermenting ablend of alexandrouli and mujuretuli grapes.

However, Georgian winemaking methods generally call for fermenting the grape juice (tkbili) with the grape pomace (chacha) and aging it in qvevris.Even though European (pomace-free) winemaking technology has been long known and practiced in Georgia,only wine that has been fermented and aged for some time in the qvevri is customarily called Georgian “traditional wine”.

Sometimes the wine and pomaceare separated from one another after fermentation is over or even prior to its completion, asin the case of Kakhetiansaperavi. However, the wine separated from the pomaceshould be returned to the qvevri and not to a differentvessel (e.g. a barrel, tank, etc.). Although legislation on Vine and Wine in Georgia does not mentionqvevri-winemaking technology expertsbelieve thatqvevri wine should be defined as that whichhas been stored in qvevrisfrom three to six monthsbeginning from fermentation, with or without pomace.           

According to an erroneous popular view, qvevri wine can’t be stored more than a year without deteriorating.   Where the qvevri can no longer ensure quality storage of wine the cause is not the qvevri itself but poor maintenance and sanitation conditions.

Qvevri wine can be stored unspoiled for a long period of time if all the requirements are met concerning wine storage, marani design and sanitation  Formerly, wine was stored in qvevris for decades, although wine quality and condition probably required periodic check-ups and interventions where necessary.

Properly maintained and washed qvevris and a well-arranged marani are the necessary preconditions for durable and safe wine storage. If a wine can be durably stored in oak barrels and steel tanks for years, it can be preserved all the better in a qvevri. In general, if the qvevri stores wine for at least two years, it means that it can remain for much longer periods as well.

From: Making Wine in Qvevri: a Unique Georgian Tradition, Tb. 2011.

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