Clay Culture: Qvevri Wine Storage Vessels

2 Detail of a qvevri rim, Armenia, 2014. Photos: Brent Trela.

Detail of a qvevri rim, Armenia, 2014. Photos: Brent Trela.

Qvevri (sometimes spelled as Kvevri) are large, egg-shaped Georgian wine vessels that have been used for over 8000 years, predating the Greco-Roman traditions of winemaking. One of the most interesting things about these earthenware vessels is that they are used for every part of the winemaking process from fermenting, to aging, and finally storing—or as Georgians say, “Here it is born, grows up, matures, and resides.”1 Qvevri range in size from 100–4000 liters in volume, although some have been discovered that hold as much as 8000–10,000 liters.

Using Qvevri to Make Wine
The first step in traditional Georgian winemaking is to pour slightly crushed, unfermented grapes (stems, skins, and all) into a qvevri. The mixture is stirred multiple times per day for about two weeks.3 Next the qvevri, which is usually already buried in a deep hole in the ground with sand packed tightly on all sides, is covered, sealed, and left undisturbed for a few months.4 The purpose of burying the qvevri during the wine-making process is to maintain a cool and steady temperature during the fermentation process. After fermentation is finished, the wine is siphoned off and separated from the grape skin and seed mash. The wine is then returned to another qvevri for storage and aging for a few more months to a few years. The end result is an earthenware-aged wine that is highly tannic. It is not uncommon for a qvevri to be filled at the birth of a child and left undisturbed until their wedding day.5

Dr. Brent Trela, director of research for the Qvevri Project, explained that in some cases, particularly for white wines or what is being referred to in the industry as orange wines the contents (whole fruit including skins and seeds) may stay in the qvevri well beyond fermentation. Once emptied, the qvevri is then immediately cleaned with warm water and antiseptic herbs.

1 Giorgi Dakishvili at his winery Vinoterra (now Schuchmann Wines) in Tbilisi, the Republic of Georgia, pointing at the top of one of his permanently buried qvevri, 2008. Photos: Brent Trela. Photos: Brent Trela.

3 A qvevri maker adding a fat coil to a vessel. Photo: Billy Ray Mangham.

Form Follows Function
The distinct egg-shaped bottoms of qvevri play an important role in the technical process of making wine when using all parts of the grape. The reason that the wine doesn’t become excessively influenced by the grape seeds, skins, and stems is a direct result of the conical shape of the vessel. Toward the end of the fermentation process the seeds separate from the skins and accumulate in the bottom and stop influencing the taste of the wine.

A Distinct Taste
Georgian wine that is produced in a qvevri will have a very distinct taste compared to wine that is produced in a wooden barrel or in a stainless steel-vat. In an interview, John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears (www.pheasantstears.com), a Georgian winery that uses qvevri to produce their wines, explained how the process of aging in qvevri affects the wine compared to wine made in vats and barrels of other materials: “Qvevri are porous and so closer in style to old barrels than stainless steel. . . . [because they are buried underground] they are surrounded by a constant temperature on all sides allowing for slow, gradual fermentation and relatively stable storage conditions. The technique of prolonged [fruit] skin contact is the most obvious difference [in terms of color and taste] and adds tannins, polyphenols, and a particular earthy body to the wines.”6

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Side view of qvevri storage vessels showing the egg shape and pointed bottom.

A Cultural Heritage
In 2013 UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (http://en.unesco.org), declared qvevri and qvevri winemaking a cultural heritage for Georgia. UNESCO states that: “Qvevri wine making takes its name from the distinctive egg-shaped earthenware vessel, the qvevri, in which wine is fermented and stored in villages and towns throughout Georgia. The tradition plays a part of the cultural identity of Georgian communities with wine, and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs.”7

Despite the historic and cultural significance of qvevri, there are very few makers left who know how to build these traditional vessels. Wurdeman stated that “there are about five good qvevri producers, but they are all living in poverty and the craft is in danger of dying out.” These recent realizations and concerns have led a few groups to educate people about the craft and promote the importance of it. One of these groups, Xeloba Kartuli (www.kvevri.org), states, “we intend to support this handicraft however we can, by providing the qvevri producer with good working conditions and students who are really interested in learning this handicraft and art. . . . In order to avert a big cultural threat and maintain the wonderful inheritance of Georgia, we have decided to take on the responsibility of preserving and developing this unique craftsmanship—the art of making qvevri.”8

1, 7 Here Lives Wine, Copyright of Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia. 
www.unesco.org/archives/multimedia/?s=films_details&pg=33&id=3515
2 Email with Billy Ray Mangham on October 5, 2015.
3 Qvevri and Qvevri-making, http://georgianwine.gov.ge/eng/text/130/
4, 6 Interview with John Wurdeman, www.insearchoftaste.com/blogs/feats-clay-role-qvevri-georgian-winemaking.
5, 8 Production of wine in Kevevri: History, description, analysis. Dr. David Chichua, www.kvevri.org.

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