They’ve been making wine for Eight Thousand years in this Black Sea country – and now it’s at the forefront of a renaissance in traditional methods.
The qvevri is inescapable in Georgia. Depictions of this traditional, earthenware winemaking vessel, on T-shirts, tea towels and fridge magnets, fill the tourist shops in the spruced-up centre of the capital, Tbilisi. They’re also a feature of roadside billboards and the signs of small-town cafes, bars and hotels with rows of the real things the prize exhibit in any winery tour.
The qvevri’s ubiquity is more than quaint tourist-board marketing. It’s a symbol of just how proud the Georgians are of being the oldest winemaking country in the world: in November last year, archaeologists on a dig south of Tbilisi uncovered fragments of qvevri with residual wine compounds dating back 8,000 years.
Paradoxically, the qvevri is also a symbol of the country’s pursuit of a very particular kind of modernity – one based on what John Wurdeman, an American painter-turned-winemaker and restaurateur making wine in the country’s main Kakheti region, calls “a way of living and creating informed by the past”. Along with dozens of other natural-minded winemakers looking to make modern wines in the old way, Wurdeman’s Pheasants Tears project with Georgian winemaking partner Gela Patalishvili, has returned to the qvevri as their vessel of choice.
It’s a means of production that leads to highly distinctive wines. After being lightly pressed, whole bunches of grapes are thrown into the beeswax-lined pots, which are buried in the ground, and once fermentation has taken place, sealed and left to age. The result: amber-coloured whites with the grippy structure of reds, and reds that often display a wild, spicy, herby quality.
Though it represents a small, albeit highly visible and growing, fraction of the country’s output, the qvevri renaissance has put Georgia at the forefront of winemaking fashion. Their wines have become a must-have for the world’s best restaurants and wine shops, and they’ve inspired a global movement of likeminded producers to work with clay. For a country that spent much of the 20th century making vast quantities of rough industrial plonk at the behest of Soviet central planners, it’s quite a turnaround – as well as being quite a journey for the evergreen clay pot.