Natural wine from Georgia

A new book highlights the beauty of traditional winemaking in Georgia using clay pots known as kvevri. For publication in the week starting 7 August 2017.

Wine has been made in Georgia for at least 8,000 years, making it one of the earliest wine regions in the world. Georgia is celebrated for the way it produces wine in clay containers called kvevri (also known as qvevri or churi in different parts of the country).

Kvevri are large egg-shaped vessels used for the fermentation, storage and ageing of wine. They look like amphorae without handles, and are either buried so that only the top shows, or set into the floors of large wine cellars. Kvevri vary in size from 20 litres to about 10,000 litres, though the average tends to be about 800 litres.

This traditional method using clay jars has been recognised as part of UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage”. The UN body established its list to protect important cultural practices, which it sees as a repository of diversity and creative expression.

Kvevri feature in an excellent new book by Carla Capalbo, Tasting Georgia: A food and wine journey in the Caucasus. Capalbo is the author of Collio: Fine wines and foods from Italy’s north-east, which won the Andre Simon wine book award in 2009.

Early in the book Capalbo says that her focus is on winemaking via traditional methods, despite the wide range of other wines produced in Georgia. “The so-called natural winemakers who are bottling wines made in this way [with kvevri] – now more than 50 – form only a tiny percentage of Georgia’s enormous wine output.”

But these wines are attracting the interest of wine enthusiasts around the world, she writes, noting that kvevri winemakers have become “cultural ambassadors for Georgia” as their wines appear on the lists of leading international restaurants, and the unique method drives wine tourism to Georgia from around the world.

Kvevri are handmade using the coil method where clay is wound in a coil from the base to create the pot. After the pots are fired, beeswax is spread on the inside to seal the container. A coating of powdered lime with cement and sand is applied to the outside to strengthen the vessel. This also acts as a disinfectant. The clay used to make a kvevri must be carefully chosen, because its characteristics will influence the flavours of the wine inside.

An external wire support is provided on larger pots to help deal with the pressure of the liquid inside and any earth tremors. Pots tend to be buried up to their lids in sand and gravel to manage the range of temperatures during the year, and to absorb any shocks from the ground, Capalbo writes.

Grapes traditionally are pressed by foot but more recently a hand or mechanical crusher is employed. The juice is poured into the pot along with grape skins, stalks and pips. Some regions do not include stalks, depending on the local winemaking style.

Juice is left to ferment in the kvevri for at least five to six months before being decanted and bottled. Wines tend to be consumed within a year, though some winemakers are experimenting with methods that produce longer-lived wines.

During fermentation a cap forms as skins float to the top, buoyed by carbon dioxide. The cap is punched down into the must using a long pole. After fermentation, solids in the wine settle naturally into the kvevri’s pointed bottom. Red wines tend to be removed from their solids soon after. White wines generally receive more skin contact, varying from days to weeks, to produce so-called “orange wine”.

The most archaic and unusual of traditional Georgian wines are known as Kakhetian (orange or amber wine), which have been macerated for several months with skins, seeds and stems. They can be very tannic. Wine-makers who use kvevri claim that their wines are stable and do not require chemical preservatives to ensure longevity and superior taste. Capalbo points out that wines from west Georgia are often paler, lower in alcohol and fresher because they spend much less, if any, time on the skins.

When fermentation is complete, the top of the pot is sealed, though small amounts of oxygen enter through the pores of the clay. After wines are bottled, the empty kvevri is washed, sterilised with lime and re-coated with beeswax, ready to be filled again. Kvevri can last for “decades, if not centuries, if they are well cared for,” Capalbo writes.

Leftovers from the winemaking process, known as pomace, consist of a mixture of pips, skins and stalks. The Georgian word is “cacha”. It is distilled into a high-proof brandy called “chacha”.

Capalbo quotes wine historian Giorgi Barisashvili from Ilia State University in Georgia, who said that kvevri wines were forbidden during the Soviet era, but noted a revival in recent years. The skill of making kvevri has been handed from father to son, and is believed to have happened for at least 8,000 years.

Wine is supremely important for the people of Georgia. Capalbo illustrates this through the charming story of when two Georgian men meet, the first greeting is “How are you?” while the second is “How is your vineyard?”

Capalbo has created a beautiful book after years of extensive research. It is well written with an approachable style, and organised in a natural flow based on trips from the capital, Tbilisi. It is also superbly illustrated with almost 400 photographs the author has taken. The 70 recipes are appealing because of the use of fresh ingredients and the authentic nature of the simple yet elegant fare. The book also contains details of 60 restaurants and wine bars, and 40 family wineries that specialise in natural wines.

Capalbo admits she loves the Georgian way of eating, with “multiple dishes arranged on the table at once”. “It’s both an ancient and a modern way to eat, dominated by fresh vegetable cookery with aromatic herbs, nuts and delicate spices that make the flavours distinctive. If the cooking techniques are mainly simple, complexity is attained by combining diverse dishes.” Noted chef Yotam Ottolenghi calls the book a “love letter” to the food and wine of Georgia.

This splendid book would make an excellent Christmas present, or indeed any form of gift for family or friends. It is published by Pallas Athene (464 pages).

Words: 1,031

2 replies »

  1. Very interesting and informative post. I have been following the development of the ancient Georgian Grape, Saperavi here in the Northeastern U.S. I have named the wines produced from the very few producers here, 6 at last count, “New World Saperavi”. There are also a small number of producers in Australia. If you are interested in Saperavi please visit my blog and since I am the only one covering “New World Saperavi” it has become an information resource.

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