The Near-Lost Art of the Qvevri and Its Makers
08 Monday Sep 2014
Religion is omni-present in Georgia, and the qvevri is The Vatican of winemaking vessels. It is revered and celebrated.
Wine plays a double role in Georgia. It is an everyday grocery, but it is also a hallowed liquid. More often than not, it seems, that wine is made in a qvevri (pronounced k’-wev-ri).
Almost every family that doesn’t live in an urban area has a vineyard and makes wine. Some use qvevri; others use plastic bins or small stainless steel tanks. In professional wineries, almost everyone uses qvevri, even if they also have stainless steel tanks or concrete fermenters, too. A line-up of qvevri wines seems to give wineries authenticity here.
Qvevri and qvevri winemaking are so important as to have earned a UNESCO designation for intangible cultural heritage. Qvevri are hardly new. Some date back to the Bronze and Iron Ages.
So, why is the qvevri and its wines only becoming known today? In recent history, these vessels fell out of favor during Soviet occupation because they are not easy to clean. (They are cleaned by scrubbing the interiors with water and cherry bark brushes.) Sadly, qvevri were used to store all sorts of chemicals, making them unsuitable for wine thereafter.
Before the Soviet days, the world was a much different place. Transporting a 1,000-liter qvevri is a delicate task today. It was far more difficult back then.
So, the craft of the qvevri remained very close to home. It is a craft that was dying until about a decade ago. There are only four qvevri makers in all of Georgia today. One is in Kakheti, one is in Guria and two are in Imereti. It is rumored, however, that another has set up business in Racha recently.
Learning to make qvevri is a genuinely artisanal undertaking, passed from father to son. One qvevri maker said one must “love the qvevri” in order to make them properly. And, there’s no doubt one must “feel” the qvevri in order to make it well.
I visited the qvevri maker Remi and his son in Kakheti. Remi’s son is a fifth generation qvevri maker. I am certain they were amused at my many questions about qvevri making. They eventually opened up a bit, probably in part because they sensed I’d just keep asking questions. They could send me on my way quicker if they just answered! I quickly realized, however, that it was such an imprecise art that it was hard for them to answer my questions. Measurements and tools do not play much of a part in their process.
Remi and his son make eight qvevri at a time, and it takes several months to complete each one. They only ship fully finished qvevri. They won’t take the risk of their wares being broken in shipment, and that is more likely to happen if the qvevri are shipped in pieces.
Qvevri differ in their clay, which is always sourced locally. Remi’s clay comes from the Shuamta mountains, about 20 minutes away from his home. It is a dense clay with high lime content. He explained that lime is good because it is an antiseptic and has natural cleansing properties. The primary element to avoid in qvevri making is iron, which can impart bad flavors to wine.
However, the wine doesn’t actually touch the clay surface. A thin layer of beeswax is applied to the inside of a qvevri while it is still hot after firing. This would seem to be one of the most important quality control issues, so I was surprised that Remi didn’t seem to think that. He didn’t know from where his beeswax came, and his son explained that different price brackets determine beeswax quality. They simply buy the most expensive wax.
Remi and his son begin the qvevri making process by sifting by hand through the clay that sits in a heaping pile under a tarp in their back yard. They are looking to pull out rocks or other impurities. Surprisingly, the clay is so dense there are no living creatures, like worms or ants, to sort out.
Next, they add unfiltered tap water to the clay and check it the next day to see if it is soft enough to begin molding. It sometimes takes several days to get the right cosistency.
Once the qvevri is formed, a roaring, blazing hot fire is created in the large, brick firing house. Remi’s is rather new, being only about ten years old. The oldest in Georgia is forty years old. Qvevri are fired for ten days with the temperatures creeping up each day. Nothing but wood is used in the fire, which is quite amazing considering that temperatures reach 1,000° Fahrenheit. How do they know how hot the fire is? “The fire talks to you,” Remi said. The fire must constantly rise in temperature until the last day. If it cools down, cracks can form in the qvevri. However, it’s impossible to know how the qvevri is getting along in the process. The fire almost entirely is walled up with bricks once it gets going. That seems like a good thing, as there’s no fire extinguisher near by, and I suspect there’s no quickly-responding fire department either.
Qvevri are fascinating and so are their makers. While winemakers tend to be the superstars, I see qvevri makers waiting in the wings for their chance in the spotlight.