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Winemaking in Kvevri

Viticulture and wine making in Georgia have been widely practiced since ancient time. As evidenced by archaeological findings, kvevri -amphora manufactured in Caucasian Georgia s in the third-fourth century AD did not differ much from the shape of the modern kvevri, and they were also buried in the ground, as it is currently practiced now. So the method of wine making in kvevri which is still prevalent in many parts of Georgia is continued for at least eighteen centuries. This is probably the oldest technology of wine is still used on the planet!

harvest Kahketi

Traditional Georgian wines do not represent a uniform style. A common feature is that their vinification is carried in kvevri completely buried in the ground, so that even the outlet neck of it remains below ground level.  In Georgia, these vessels are commonly called kvevri (Kakheti, Kartli regions- Eastern and Central Georgia) or churi (Imereti, Racha – Western Georgia).  At the beginning of the twenty century, they were widely used even in the mass production of wine. Today kvevri could be found in almost every rural home in the Georgian wine-growing regions, where they serve to make the wine for home use.

Now kvevris are back in vogue also among commercial producers, not only in Georgia. Several European manufacturers have begun using this ancient technology. ( read why KVEVRI has become so popular all over the world here>>>).There is a small chance that it will once again be used for wine production on an industrial scale, for at least for two reasons. First of all, the so-called "mass consumer" is already accustomed to a completely different style of wine. Therefore, kvevri wine remains rather niche proposition, pointing to the discerning consumers looking for new wine experiences. Secondly, this production is simply a costly and cumbersome. Good kvevri- amphora, calculated for each litre costs as much as the best French barrel. Besides of this the kvevri winemaking requires manual drudgery. Just imagine how difficult it is to wash a kvevri after fermentation, a clay vessel sunk completely into the ground, which is only available through a small hole!

Production of kvevri

Winemakers use kvevris of various sizes, from 20 to 5000 liters, while currently the most popular are those with a capacity of 1-2 thousand litres.  Kvevris are produced   from sticky clay using only hands without a potter's wheel and fired to dry out in a special ceramic furnace.  This is a very labour-intensive and hard job, requiring precision, skills and patience, and today only a few potters throughout Georgia continue such production. Good quality kvevri can be used to make the wine for a hundred years and more, without losing its flavor.

The quality of kvevri depends on many factors. It is very important to use the right kind of clay, clean clay of the stones thoroughly, and mix the uniform, plastic clay dough. Kvevri is made gluing together, circular layers of clay, several centimetres girth. This requires a good eye to properly maintain the regular shape of the layers and the future vessel, crimping layers inch by inch, like pasting a huge pie.

This work must be broken down into several phases; after the formation of each layer of about 30-40 cm kvevri is to be dried in order prevent to freshly moulded wall from deformation under its own weight. The drying of the whole kvevri follows before burning process. This process can not proceed too rapidly (on the sun), which could result the formation of micro cracks in the clay walls.  S0 drying is done in the shaded room, and if necessary, kvevri is covered with damp cloths.
The dried kvevri is fired in a brick tunnel kilns fired with wood. This process should proceed slowly also, in very high temperature in order not to cause cracking in clay walls. Hastening the production was the main cause of poor quality kvevri produced in bulk in the middle of last century, for large soviet wineries. Kvevri from the soviet period are now in Georgia are easily accessible and cheap, but it is difficult to find good ones among them, most of them have numerous cracks and defects (most commonly repaired with cement and steel wire).

As a closing kvevri were once flat, round disks carefully cut in stone slate were used.  Wooden caps are more often used for this purpose; and most recently –and more often - also lids cut from thick, tempered glass, which has the advantage of monitoring of the winemaking process without opening the kvevri. This closure is sealed with clay, and sometimes beeswax. Sometimes the whole interior of kvevri is coated with a layer of beeswax, but today it is not a universal custom.

old marani


Traditional wine-making facilities


In Eastern Georgia, and especially in the Kakheti wine traditionally is made in brick or stone cellars, called Marani. The marani usually is built on the ground floor of winemaker’s house, or partly recessed in the ground, mostly with thick stone walls and small windows - or no windows at all - to keep the inside temperature constant as possible.  Kvevri are buried below the floor level or basement of the floor, so that the kvevri outlet located in the neck is surrounded by recessed basin, usually lined with brick or stone.
By contrast, in Western Georgia, where the climate is much milder kvevri is buried in the soil directly "under a cloud" - in court or in another part of the backyard shaded by trees . Sometimes a kind of a wooden shed or open shelter is installed above them. This place is called traditionally Churi-Marani. 
Marani or Churi-Marani often keeps wine press, called sacnaheli (a traditional Georgian "press" for the grapes)

“Kakhetian method " step by step

The most unusual and archaic, out of the traditional Georgian wines are of course white  Kakhetian wine ( also known as orange or amber wine), macerated for several months with the skins, seeds and stems of grapes in buried kvevri. This ancient “Kakhetian method is still widely used in Kakheti by small winemakers who make wine for their own needs. Recently, the renaissance of the method is also observed in the commercial production of wines.

rkatsiteli

Traditional Kakhetian wine is usually based on some of the local white varieties, such as Rkatsiteli, Mcvane, Hihvi, Kisi, or Kakhuri mcvane (although some wine makers are experimenting with other varieties, such as Chinuri). These varieties are characterized by relatively neutral flavors (low content of terpene compounds) and a higher content of phenolic compounds in the skins, which form a characteristic spicy wine notes. The Kakhetian varieties usually reach a large sugar content (often about 15% potential alcohol) and moderate acidity (about 5-6 g / l). Due to the very long maceration of the must, the production of such wine demands more attention not only to the sugar and acid content but also to the proper maturity and sanitary state of grapes stems and skins, than in the case of more conventional white wines. The perfect ripeness of the grapes is determined not so much the sugar content of grapes as phenolic and tannin maturity, otherwise unripe tannins give a green, stalky taste to a wine. In poorer vintages, winemakers have to be extra careful and gentle during the harvest and fermentation to ensure they do not extract any unripe tannin. A vintage usually falls between mid September and mid October, depending on the variety, and weather in a given year.

sacnaheli

In the most purist version of the kvevri wine making technology, the harvested grapes go to the archaic "press" called sacnaheli. It is actually a wooden bed - often carved from one piece of massive stone or tree trunk with a grate from plaited willow on the bottom. Then the grapes are stomped with bare feet. The squeezed grape juice leaves sacnaheli through a hole in the bottom of the trough and is decanted into the prepared kvevri.

fermentation in qvevri


Then pomace consisting of skins, stems and seeds of grapes (in Georgian “chacha”) remaining in sacnaheli is added into the kvevri.  As a rule, the all “chacha” is added, but in some cases, winemaker decides to reject part of the “chacha” (some green, unripe stalks). It depends on the quality of grapes and intended nature of the wine.  Sometimes “chacha” is left in sacnaheli to contact with air. Even a very short contact helps to release some aromatic compounds (aliphatic aldehydes) from “chacha”, giving later in the wine notes of dried apples and raisins.
Today, however, many producers, instead of embarrassing sacnaheli use much more modern and convenient crushers which do not separate the grapes into “chacha” and juice. So the whole pulp goes directly to kvevri. Thus, there is no any partial oxidation of the “chacha” and this, as it turns out, then impinges on the character of a wine, which in this case is more fresh, fruity, but often do not receive such a complexity of flavors.

Kvevri is usually filled roughly three-quarters with the fermented mash to prevent from "boiling over".  During alcoholic fermentation, which usually lasts about a 10 -20 days kvevri remains completely open, a winemaker must to punch down  the cap  of “chacha” floating  on the on top several times a day in order to assist the extraction of polyphenols and other compounds found in the skins, seeds and stems.  Since the kvevri is underground, the fermentation temperature is maintained a relatively low up to 23 ° C (73F).

punch down cap


Winemakers generally use a spontaneous fermentation with wild yeast, which in the local climatic conditions usually goes without any major problems. But recently, some commercial producers started using selected yeasts to have better control over the process of vinification. The effect of this is often too alcoholic wine - a power even more than 15 percent - since the "clean" selection of Saccharomyces cerevisiae are generally more efficient in the conversion of sugars to alcohol, than the "mixed" populations of wild yeast. Such wines have a lower complexity of flavors than the wines made traditionally have.

When the fermentation of grapes is completed “chacha” sinks to the bottom, and kvevri is topped up with wine to the edge of the neck. The kvevri is covered with a lid loosely, to escape the excess carbon dioxid gas, to allow Malolactic fermentation. The kvevri is tightly closed only after the cessation of any activity of yeasts and bacteria usually after mid-December.  Kvevri is sealed with a wooden or stone cap and a glob of wet clay and then more wet clay is put around the edges to make it airtight. Sometimes winemaker places an additional layer of soil or sand on the top to provide better thermal insulation.

aging in kvevri

The wine ages with chacha and dead yeast cells (sur lie) remaining after fermentation until the following spring (3-4 months). This process takes place in a relatively constant temperature of about 12-15 ° C, which again is possible due to the kvevri buried  below ground level. During this time the wine is enriched by a number of substances derived mainly from the skins, stems, and the lees. However, the seeds which during fermentation sink to the bottom first, have only limited contact with the wine, thanks to the shape of the kvevri, which prevents the excessive extraction of bitter tannins. From time to time, the Georgian winemaker opens a kvevri to see how the wine is progressing. He uses a scoop made from dried wild pumpkin to take out a small amount of wine to taste.

In March or April, kvevri is opened, and the wine is racked to another kvevri or vessel. There the wine  pretty quickly settles another solid and more or less in two months - usually in late May and early June - has already completely once a clarified than the wine is poured into the clear kvevris or bottles.  Traditional Kakhetian wine is an annual product. People drink the year’s wine from spring of one year to spring of the next, and then begin drinking the new wine. Sometimes, the wine matures in kvevri for a further two or three years, and rarely even over 20 years. During adolescence, despite the tight closure, the slow oxidation of the wine and the evaporation through the porous clay walls kvevri happens. So every few weeks, if necessary, the level of wine is controlled, so that the kvevri is always filled completely.

The unique character of Kakhetian wines.

Wines produced by the traditional “Kakhetian method" are completely unlike any other white wines produced on the planet.  Their color is intriguing - dark, almost orange, tea, or amber, often with a pink tinge. But the most distinctive feature is unprecedented in other white wines content of polyphenolic compounds, often exceeding 2000 mg / l. This is rather typical concentration for light red wines, while the average European white wines contain polyphenols in a concentration seldom exceeding 300 mg / l.
Research indicates that the source of polyphenols are here primarily grape seeds (47%) and stems (about 42%), and only subsequently skin (11%). That’s why the unique technology for white “orange” Kakhetian wines with long maceration with stems has a crucial impact on the nature of the wines. Stems are a primarily a valuable source of flavonoids. They enrich the wine with many aromatic compounds (complex esters, aldehydes, terpenes, aromatic alcohols, etc.) as well. High density of polyphenolic compounds that makes the traditional Kakhetian wine relatively susceptible to oxidation, has the adverse microbiological effect (mainly due to antiseptic properties of flavonoids), which provides, inter alia, the possibility to limit the sulfuration. Many manufacturers do not use sulphur at all or use a small addition of SO2 (about 25-40 mg / l) just before bottling. The researchers also stress the health and preventive properties of these wines, comparable to the red wines.

 Imeretian Method.

Outlined above “Kakhetian method" is like an extreme current of Georgian wine making tradition (it is hard to imagine a more traditional wine), while the moderate faction represents the so-called  Imeretian method.
In province Imereti (Western Georgia), the white wines are made from such local strains as Tcolikauri, Cicka, Krachuna, Tetra and others.  From “Kakhetian method, it differs in amount and quality of the chacha used. The Imeretian method uses only part of the chacha, roughly one-tenth, and stems are not used at all. The rest of the production process proceeds in basically the same. The result is a wine much closer to European standards, not as tannic as the traditional Kakhetian wine, although in this case a long maturation in kvevri gives them the undisputed Georgian stigma.
Intermediate place between the Kakhetian style of and Imeretian style take place the traditional white wine from province Kartli (Central Georgia), where the one third of chacha with stems is added to kvevri.