Georgian wine varieties age well in a Qvevri
By Chloe Szentpeteri
Lado Uzanashvili, is well versed in the art of viticulture and Georgian winemaking. In the months surrounding vintage, he can be found commanding the attention of university lecture rooms or making wine in a very unique device called a Qvevri. Chloe Szentpeteri reports.
Georgian winemaking is a tradition that dates back 8000 years and while varietals from the mountainous Caucasian country have certainly been adopted throughout the world, its traditional roots are an art yet to be perfected outside their homeland.
Though winemakers now have access to modern facilities and machinery, Uzanashvili prefers to develop vintage with the use of an ancient device called a Qvevri (pronounced: Kwev-ree).
These containers are hand crafted from clay and vary in size and shape. Typically, Qvevris are circular and can carry volumes from 10L up to 10,000L, depending on external factors.
While slight modifications may have taken place over the years, the ergonomics and practical applications remain the same.
Lado Uzanashvili owns and operates the Vintage 8000 Estates vineyard and winery in his home country of Georgia. But he splits his time between his native land and South Australia.
It’s his dream to open a cellar door in SA and he’s ready to make it a reality.
“There will be no competition for this style [in Australia] because there is nobody who makes wine in this style,” he said.
Uzanashvili said the stylistic characteristics and traditional techniques used to make Georgian-style wines developed over time.
“The appearance of ceramics and the appearance of winemaking could not have happened in one day but rather a few hundred years in between,” he said.
“The collision of these two beginnings is a signification of joining together.
“During those times they didn’t have any metallurgical industry; no stainless steel or similar material for containers so ceramics was the only choice,” he explained.
Uzanashvili said the artisanship for vessels made during that period reached incredible levels and didn’t compromise on quality.
“The rehydration techniques they used to swell clay before shaping the Qvevris was perfect. The strength of the clay from those times is in many cases much better than materials used A.D.,” he said.
Qvevris are constructed through a step-by-step process of moulding the clay and semi-drying it in between adding multiple layers to achieve the height and width desired. Once complete, they are fired in a kiln and made ready for wine storage.
At one time, Georgian grapegrowers had access to a multitude of local varieties but many have been lost over the centuries. Of around 1300 earlier grape types from the region, only around 530 have survived through to today.
Visitors crossing the threshold of a typical Georgian home would find a marani (Georgian cellar) with a selection of Qvevris. But these distinctive winemaking vessels have yet to find a home in Australia.
Winemaking in a Qvevri
Uzanashvili plans to import Qvevris into South Australia, and with these he plans to make blends primarily from Saperavi and Rkatsiteli varieties. Vinification takes a maximum of two weeks from a selection of the healthiest grapes.
“We fill the Qvevris right to the top and create a lid from slate stone and seal with clay to form a washer. It’s then buried completely underground,” Uzanashvili said.
Qvevris can be covered with soil or sand, depending on the terroir.
“Every few weeks you open it, especially if the year was not so sound. People made different styles of wines and ideally they would make the style of wine which was in harmony with the quality of the grapes,” he said.
Maceration takes at least one month and up to six, but Uzanashvili warns not to wait a moment longer.
Wines can be fermented with skin on or off and are classified as orphan wines without the skin, or mother wines with the skin on.
“If winemakers want to adopt this technique and don’t have Qvevris, they can use stainless steel. It’s different but the qualities are similar”
Grapes will be placed in wooden or stone crush pits and crushed by feet or with a heavy object. Juice can then drain straight into the Qvevri.
“Today in Georgia and in my own company, I combine the ancient method of Georgian winemaking in Qvevris and then age in an oak barrel,” Uzanashvili explained.
“I vinify in a Quevri and then age it in oak. I would rather use oak as a membrane to soften it and let oxygen in.”
Despite the labour intensive winemaking process, he said the wine produced is like no other.
Uzanashvili said when he develops vineyards in Australia, he expects that the terroir and climate conditions will have an impact on the taste and qualities of the locally-grown and produced Georgian wines.
“Saperavi shows genomic pools as old as 3500 years – oldest technique, oldest style of wine, oldest genomic pool,” he said.
“The diversity of soils in Australia [will] allow us to choose the best source Saperavi as well as Rkatsiteli. We will recreate these styles here and I’m confident they’ll succeed.”
Adapting new techniques
Georgian wine can be produced using long maceration and batonnage at the same time. Using a percentage of stalks or crushing without de-stalking, whites and reds are vinified in the same way.
There are some primary aromas contained through the technique, but secondary aromas are different.
“It can be natural and organic. You can do inoculate fermentation to protect production but historically it’s natural,” Uzanashvili said.
“There are not as many fungal diseases as a threat in Australia which will minimise the use of sulphur.
“If winemakers want to adopt this technique and don’t have Qvevris, they can use stainless steel. It’s different but the qualities are similar,” he said.
Constructing a Qvevri is an art form that is hard to come by and artisans with the skills are few and far between.
Yet Uzanashvili said it is a viable option for Australian winemakers to adopt the technique, while still using modern methods.
“There are ways of handling vinification and temperature,” he explained.
“When you draw parallels between this technique and what we have today – lateral shoot removal to reduce acidity in your grapes and malic acid reduction to soften acidity and thus soften tannins – it’s similar.”
“Refrigeration and temperature control used to be measured by making double walled Qvevris in springs, and by channelling water between the Qvevris to act as a coolant to control temperature.”
An ancient technique that can be modified with current facilities, albeit at a price.
“The production cost is higher than modern wine making techniques and you can’t make thousands of tonnes of grapes with a small number of Qvevris,” Uzanashvili said.
“However, the quality of the wine, the taste, smell and feel is like no other.”
A new country, a new dream
If Uzanashvili’s varieties are successful in their new terroir and climate, he will become the first to develop Georgian wine using a Qvevri in Australia.
It is his dream to establish a cellar door in one of the tourism hotspots of South Australia.
Uzanashvili plans to import not only the Qvevris, but artefacts traditionally used in Georgian culture. Replicas of bowls once used to drink Georgian wine, small jars and half-cut Qvevris for observational purposes.
“The architecture and warmth, combined with the history and culture, food and the drink, will be a new experience for all who visit,” he said.
“I have no second thought that this will succeed. In all ways, the concept, visual effects and a sense of time-travel back to its origins… It makes you think immediately.”
Uzanashvili said he’s currently developing his business plan and is open to hearing from potential partners.
More information can be found online: http://vintage8000estates.com/