Georgia winemakers revive old-school technique
08 September, 2015
Georgia winemakers revive old-school technique
TBILISI, GEORGIA - In the ancient wine country of eastern Georgia, Remi Kbilashvili spends three months painstakingly stacking coils of clay to create a massive red, egg-shape vat, just as his ancestors did thousands of years ago, the Miami Herald informs.

The vessel, known as a qvevri, will hold 500 gallons of wine once it is fired in a wood-burning brick kiln for a week, then coated in beeswax. It will be used to ferment the same grape varietals that made
Georgia a wine juggernaut, chronicled by the ancient Greek poet Homer.

Over the past five years, demand for qvevris has tripled, and Kbilashvili, 61, sometimes struggles to find room in his workshop for new vessels. On a visit this spring, there were 24.

Kbilashvili’s craft is a living totem to Georgia’s 8,000-year-old winemaking heritage; in 2013, UNESCO, the United Nation’s education organization, recognized the qvevri as an element of “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”

His cramped workshop also is something more — part of a push to undo three-quarters of a century of damage caused by Soviet rule, when communist planners’ zeal for standardization marginalized ancient grape varietals and winemaking techniques.

Over the last 10 years, the fruit of this effort has transformed the Georgian wine sector. The qvevri is a symbol of that renaissance — and of the wine industry’s resilience.

Old technique

Made of thick clay, a qvevri is sunk into the soil. Once placed it remains there, sometimes for centuries. Winemakers pour grapes into the qvevri, skins and all, in October and let them ferment.

The ground keeps the mash at a near-constant temperature. The sediment sinks to the pointed bottom. The clay imparts none of the oaky flavor of a barrel or the mineral tang of stainless steel.

Alice Feiring, author of Naked Wine, who is working on a book about Georgian wine, said this method requires almost no intervention by Georgian winemakers once the grapes have been poured in.

“The beauty of the qvevri is it allows people to make wine as simply as possible,” she said.

What was an essential vessel of the Georgian winemaking tradition was, to communist state planners, an obstacle. Soviet troops invaded the tiny Caucasus nation in 1921 and nationalized the vineyards, ripping out the hundreds of varietals and replacing them with just a handful of easy-to-bottle reds and whites, the well-known full-bodied red Saperavi, the white Rkatskeli among them.

These grapes were aged in barrels or stainless steel and shipped across the Caucasus to Russian tables — be they those belonging to the proletariat or to the Georgia-born Soviet leader, Josef Stalin. Irakli Cholobargia, marketing director for Georgia’s National Wine Agency, said wine aimed at the Russian market was so sweet it was known as kompot — basically fruit juice, the Miami Herald reports.

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