An Introduction to the Qvevri

The mother of all wine vessels.

It is a hot topic at this Symposium. Is an Amphora essentially a slightly differently shaped Qvevri (pronounced K-WHERE-VREE) or is it a different entity altogether?

Or at least as different as two vessels, both made of clay and which both hold wine at some point can ever be.

I remain, overall, none the wiser on the above question but I am now well versed in the subject of Qvevri and, for any wine enthusiast, it is a subject well worth knowing.

For a natural wine enthusiast, it is elementary.

A Qvevri then is a large, clay vessel used for both the fermentation and ageing of wine. The fact that it does both is vitally important as the Amphora vs Qvevri debate grows most heated around the subject of whether or not Amphora were only ever used for transportation.

No matter.

While the the largest Qvevri is rumoured to be 15 tons (although apparently, this is unsubstantiated), mostly the sizes vary from 800 – 3500 litre capacity. However, there are people working with anything from 20 litre Clay ‘eggs’ in Australia (we may sell some of this wine soon) to the big mama’s in Georgia. It should be noted that the larger the vessel, the more difficult it is to control the temperature, so the larger formats tend to be used more for storage.

The material is local clay (another fabulously sustainable aspect) with limestone used for sealing and welding. Once the vessel is completed and every 20 – 25 years after that, since the 18th century, the inside has been covered with a thin layer of beeswax – essential for hygiene. The lager pores which allow the wine to breathe are easily cleaned and not problematic but the tiny pores which harbour fungus and all manner of potential bacterial insurrection are not so easily maintained. It is precisely these pores which will be sealed by a thin layer of wax.

There is debate around this aspect too with some being convinced that the beeswax imparts flavour but this is incredibly doubtful. And people like Frank Cornellison on Mount Etna is an example of someone who ran into considerable problems due to his initial insistence on working with completely unlined clay.

The beeswax/clay combination is also easily and sustainably maintained – a hugely important aspect given the bacterial problems which can blight wines made naturally. A mixture of crushed limestone and water or hot water and ash or even just rigorous scrubbing with bitter cherry twigs are all effective methods which do not involve the use of anything noxious.

Some Qvevri are quite thin and some very sturdy and, particularly in places where the water table is high, some come clad in a full jacket of broken tiles, rocks and other such debris. This is significant because in Georgia, almost always, the Qvevri is buried. Sometimes fully, leaving only the lip of the opening exposed and sometimes so that about a third of it protrudes from the ground like a hungry clay creature emerging for sustenance.

And perhaps it is this which is one of the most enchanted aspects of this legendary vessel. A beautifully grown grape is the physical manifestation of the synthesis of sunlight, water and earth bought into being by an extraordinary plant. The Qvevri takes it back to its roots, wrapping the nascent wine in the earth element, coolly and quietly nurturing, encouraging it to become the very best expression of itself, entirely unimpeded by imposed flavours.

Whereas a new oak barrel can bludgeon the essence of the wine into cloying submission, more often than not imposing its own fat, thick weight at the expense of vitality and purity, a Qvevri would never be so presumptious. And those who work in this way understand completely that as with so much, what nature has done simply cannot be improved upon and should be left to be what it is.

All of this is of course the corner stone of the natural wine movement but there is more.

Many of the Qvevri wines, red and white, are made with full skin contact – whole bunches, stems and all are crushed and placed in the vessel and left there. How long is up to the winemaker but it is an essential part of arguably the best from here.

The Georgians call leaving the wine on the skins ‘leaving it with the mother’ and, particularly when the grapes are organically and biodynamically grown, she does a sensational job. She gives nutrients, protects, adds textural richness and layers of complexity simply not achievable without such close synergy between liquid and solid.

And these are not fanciful notions. Recent studies on wines fermented in the traditional method in Qvevri have shown them to indeed be higher in antioxidants, higher in Resveratrol and higher in phenols.

As important though is the fact that these wines are essentially much more stable. Why wouldn’t they be? They are in the pink of health and so any kind of additional preservative is superfluous.

So officially, Qvevri wines are a lot better for a person than wines made in other vessels and by other methods. Not all wines are made with extended skin contact though and there is currently a school of thought, even among those who do, that less is definitely better than more in this regard.

Other ‘essential’ processing for a modern, ‘made’ wine is utterly obsolete here as well. If the wine in Qvevri is given the time it needs, it will clean itself up. The shape of the vessel is perfect for encouraging both sediment to settle effectively and for pushing the cap of solid matter up into the neck. This leads to a kind of reverse racking process where the solids are scooped out when the time is right to do so.

Again, it must be pointed out that this makes these wines super natural. If the watchwords of this movement are “thou shalt not interfere” than almost no other method used anywhere makes it as easy to leave well enough completely alone.

And for me, this is what makes the Qvevri so exciting. It is a fascinating part of the history of wine which in itself is the history of civilization. At the same time, it is a vessel of the future and as the Natural wine movement grows and spreads, the use of these containers undoubtedly will too.

Which means that by looking back at the story of wine in Georgia, we are also looking forward. And that is both enormously thrilling and incredibly positive.
By Kate

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