The Georgian kvevri winemaking process
As I’m currently in Georgia for a research trip (order the book), I thought it might be a good moment to discuss production of wine using the ancient kvevri method. For most people, just even the name kvevri seems difficult to wrap your head around but it’s actually not (read up on Georgian/Sakartvelo pronunciation.) And as foreign as this method may seem to anyone who is used to wine being aged in oak barrels, it’s actually quite simple and has been in use for over 8,000 years.
The kvevri is buried in the ground with a layer of lime around the exterior for sanitation and then a layer of beeswax on the inside. Once the grapes are harvested, for both red and white wines, everything (seeds, stems, skins, and juice) is tossed in to the kvevri after being lightly crushed for fermentation and stays there for at least six months although the total time can vary. This differs greatly from “modern” practices as white wines are pressed off from the grapes immediately before fermentation and red wines are left to macerate just with the skins and some of the stems for several weeks.
Once everything has finished in terms of winemaking, they open up the kvevri and find that at the top is the wine, the middle the skins and stems and at the bottom, the seeds. The wine is pumped out, settled, and bottled with the remaining solid portion of the grapes going to make chacha or Georgian Brandy. I’ve heard that sometimes they grape seeds aren’t using the the Brandy and further pressed to extract their oils.
There are different approaches to this method however. Out in the east, in the main wine producing region of Kakheti, they practice the extreme version and do the longest skin and stem contact with the wine. In Imereti, in the northern center, they only do alcoholic fermentation with the skins, stems, and seeds, pulling them out once finished, pressing, and then aging the wine in kvevri in a manner that more resembles how people work with oak barrels.
What are the advantages of the Georgian method? The main one is body and taste profile. The wines produced from this method are considerably more potent in structure, especially in terms of the white wines. The red wines can be especially strong and tannic, needing many years of bottle aging like good Barolo, which they unfortunately don’t often see, although hopefully this will change. Despite the fact that such aging methods if using oak barrels would produce nearly undrinkable wines with European grapes, the end result with the kvevri wines are incredibly nuanced when at their best.
This is an extremely perilous method of making wine. While some of the kvevri can be only 200 liters, much like a standard oak barrel, they can often range up to several thousand liters in size. As the fermentation is via ambient yeast and the entire process is without any temperature control (unlike most wines made in Europe) the alcoholic fermentation and malolactic conversion can get really out of whack and result in what most people deem as flawed wines simply because the winemaking process didn’t finish or went astray in an unfortunate manner.
There are some kvevri winemakers who don’t use any SO2 (sulfites) in their wines which is seen as a great plus by fans of “natural” wines but can allow undesirable bacteria and yeasts to flourish initially during the fermentation process and then again once bottled. In an ideal world, while SO2 is naturally occurring in wine, adding more would be completely unneeded but this requires minute inspection of each grape going in to the wine to ensure pure sanitation and even then, things can go wrong.
This is essentially impossible unless one were to charge ludicrous prices for each bottle. Thus, many of the kvevri producers use at least a little SO2 to ensure that they don’t lose the wine both during fermentation or then after once bottled. It’s not unreasonable as it’s something that’s been part of winemaking since Roman times. Plus, scientific studies have shown that using now SO2 will result in a potential surge of undesirable bacterias creating histamines and other problems for some people just the same as if too much SO2 were used.
Given the renewed interest in this extremely old process, more analysis and science is being applied to method by some producers to achieve a “best of both worlds” scenario and some, are already succeeding greatly. We can only hope that more take it on in the future as it offers and very unique wine in a world that is still drenched in too much Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay.