At the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, Georgia is considered the homeland of viticulture and winemaking. New levels of investment have allowed Georgian producers to improve quality through modernization and innovation while reviving the region's ancient winemaking traditions.
Discovering the Old Being Made New — Appreciating Georgian Wine
Upon visiting Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi, more evidence of the importance of wine in the culture can be found. At the top of Sololaki hill overlooking the old city, there is a monument to Georgia's national character called Kartlis Deda. In her right hand, she carries a sword to greet her enemies, and in her left hand, a bowl of wine to greet her friends. After tasting Georgian wines, one should certainly have nothing but feelings of friendship towards this wine loving culture and country.
While there are over 500 indigenous grape varietals found in Georgia, the most widely planted and highly regarded ones are Rkatsiteli for white wines, and Saperavi for reds. Rkatsiteli is a combination of two Georgian words: rka meaning “vine shoot” and tsiteli meaning “red”, and was named as such because of its red stems. Saperavi means “dye” or “paint” in Georgian which refers to the grape's deep black skin and pink hued juice.
Qvevri winemaking: a unique Georgian tradition
It would be an oversimplification to say that a qvevri is a clay vessel used for centuries to produce wine in Georgia. The traditional practice of qvevri winemaking has been producing natural wines without the use of chemicals, foreign yeasts, or filtration long before it became a stylistic trend.
A qvevri is a thick-walled vessel buried deep in the ground in a marani, or Georgian wine cellar. As such, it naturally maintains wine at optimal temperature during fermentation and allows it to age for many years without spoilage. Additionally, its conical shape and small pointed base allow for the seeds, pomace, and other sediment to settle to the bottom of the vessel. The interaction of the wine with its sediment adds more complexity and body to the wine while also keeping it chemically stable. Once fermentation is complete, the wine can be racked into another qvevri, leaving the heavy sediment behind.
The liming of the exterior of qvevris is another unique practice. This helps prevent mold buildup on the outside and preserve the wine when higher than normal temperatures occur during fermentation. The inside is also sometimes lined with beeswax when the clay is too porous, preventing the wine from becoming oxidized or contaminated.
When the wine is ready, a lid either made of clay or wood, is placed over the top of the qvevri. The lid is secured with clay, and often sulphur wicks to create a clean environment and form a vacuum between the wine and the lid when the sulphur burns. A covering of earth is packed around the lid to insure a secure airtight closure.
While the wine is aging in the qvevri, it interacts with the vessel in a unique way that enhances its distinctive character. White wines made in qvevri are often noted for their color. The extended maceration on the skins provides more pigment to the juice, resulting in “white” wines that appear amber, orange, or gold.
Sadly, the art of making qvevris is being lost as modern winemakers often choose to vinify their wines in barriques for a more Western style. Qvevris are also harder to make, clean and repair than wooden barrels. There are only a few artisans left who understand the difficult art of qvevri winemaking. Thankfully, there is support to continue this unique tradition. In 2013, UNESCO added qvevri winemaking to its Lists of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. So as you sip a wine from Georgia, consider how 8,000 years of practice have gone into the production of the special liquid you hold in your hands.
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