In 2017, scientists uncovered evidence confirming Georgia as the oldest winemaking nation in the world, pushing back the known origins of winemaking by nearly 500-years to roughly 6000 B.C.E.
Central to Georgia’s storied winemaking traditions are Qvevri.
What are Qvevri?
Qvevri (also spelled kvevri) are large, egg-shaped earthenware vessels used for the fermentation and aging of traditional Georgian wine. Unlike similar historical winemaking vessels, such as Greco-Roman amphorae, qvevri do not contain handles for transport purposes and are buried underground for the duration of the fermentation and aging process.
What Are Qvevri Wines and How Are They Made?
Red grapes are removed upon completion of alcoholic fermentation, usually after a period of around 2-4 weeks, while white grapes are left in contact with the wine for an extended duration of anywhere up to 6 months. This imparts a unique amber or orange hue to white wines, as well as interesting and unique aromas and flavors.
Varieties Used for Qvevri Wine
Georgia is home to over 500 native grape varieties, of which around 50 are commonly used in contemporary winemaking.
Of all of the varieties still used in Georgian winemaking, there are 3 important varieties to learn:
Rkatsiteli (white grape, pronounced "rkah-tsee-tely")
Mtsvane (white grape, pronounced “mits-vah-nay’)
Saperavi (red grape, pronounced “sah-per-ah-vy”)
What do Qvevri Wines Taste Like?
Qvevri wines are typified by two characteristics of the winemaking process: oxidation and extended skin contact.
Much like old-style large fermentation barrels, Qvevri are porous, meaning that oxygen is present during the winemaking and aging process. With the presence of oxygen generally comes a loss of primary fruit aromas and flavors and a slight alteration of color—wines appear old for their age, especially whites.
Meanwhile, extended skin contact causes increased levels of tannins in Qvevri wines, particularly white wines, producing a unique sensation which can be challenging to enjoy at first taste.
Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane whites are actually amber in color and are often combined in a blend. Rkatsiteli provides electric acidity to the blend; with floral and dried fruit aromas and a white pepper kick in the mouth. Mtsvane, meanwhile, maintains its fruit aromas and flavors better during Qvevri winemaking and adds fresh green fruits to the blend.
How to Pair Qvevri Wines
Qvevri wines can be very difficult to pair, especially the whites, owing to their high tannins. Their savory nature means that they clash with many styles of food and the best combinations tend to be with fatty and salty foods, much like with oxidized dry fino-style sherries.
Creamy sheep's cheeses offer a particularly good pairing to white Qvevri wines as the fat content makes high tannin wines taste smoother.
Red Qvevri wines are easier to pair and best drunk alongside spicy or peppery stews made with braised red meat.
Qvevri wines are truly unique in their aromatic and flavor profiles and must be sampled to be fully appreciated. While this traditional Georgian winemaking technique is gaining increasing attention from wine lovers around the world, especially given the emerging demand for natural and skin contact wines, what ultimately sets traditional Georgian Qvevri wines apart is 8000-years of winemaking experience!