In the ancient wine country of eastern Georgia, Remi Kbilashvili spends three months painstakingly stacking coils of clay to create a massive red, egg-shaped vat, just as his ancestors did thousands of years ago.
The vessel, known as a qvevri, will hold 500 gallons of wine once it is fired in a wood-burning brick kiln for a week, then coated in beeswax. It will be used to will be used to ferment the same grape varietals that made Georgia a wine juggernaut, chronicled by the ancient Greek poet Homer.
Over the past five years demand for qvevris has tripled, and Kbilashvili, 61, sometimes struggles to find room in his workshop for new vessels. On a visit this spring, there were 24.
Kbilashvili’s craft is a living totem to Georgia’s 8,000-year-old wine-making heritage; in 2013, UNESCO, the United Nation’s education organization, recognized the qvevri as an element of “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”
His cramped workshop also is something more – part of a push to undo three-quarters of a century of damage caused by Soviet rule, when communist planners’ zeal for standardization marginalized ancient grape varietals and wine-making techniques.
Over the last 10 years, the fruit of this effort has transformed the Georgian wine sector. The qvevri is a symbol of that renaissance – and of the wine industry’s resilience.
Made of thick clay, a qvevri is sunk into the soil. Once placed it remains there, sometimes for centuries. Winemakers pour grapes into the qvevri, skins and all, in October and let them ferment.
The ground keeps the mash at a near-constant temperature. The sediment sinks to the pointed bottom. The clay imparts none of the oaky flavor of a barrel or the mineral tang of stainless steel.
Alice Feiring, author of “Naked Wine,”who is working on an upcoming book about Georgian wine, said this method requires almost no intervention by Georgian winemakers once the grapes have been poured in.
“The beauty of the qvevri is it allows people to make wine as simply as possible,” she said.
What was an essential vessel of the Georgian wine-making tradition was, to communist state planners, an obstacle. Soviet troops invaded the tiny Caucasus nation in 1921 and nationalized the vineyards, ripping out the hundreds of varietals and replacing them with just a handful of easy-to-bottle reds and whites, the well-known full-bodied red Saperavi, the white Rkatskeli among them.
These grapes were aged in barrels or stainless steel and shipped across the Caucasus to Russian tables – be they those belonging to the proletariat or to the Georgia-born Soviet leader, Josef Stalin. Irakli Cholobargia, marketing director for Georgia’s National Wine Agency, said wine aimed at the Russian market was so sweet it was known as kompot – basically fruit juice.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its wine preferences continued to dominate Georgia because Russia continued to buy at least 85 percent of Georgian exports. Yet the same Soviet diktats that bruised the Georgian tradition have also been instrumental in restoring it.
In 2006, Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced an embargo on Georgian wines, citing health concerns. His boycott coincided with Georgian overtures to the European Union. With no Russian market, Georgian winemakers scrambled to find new drinkers – and the qvevri was the ideal marketing tool.
Winemaker Iago Bitarishvili grew up drinking wine made in his family’s 300-year-old cellars. He was Georgia’s first certified organic farmer, and in 2003 he began bottling the products of his family’s qvevri mostly because of his love of the old methods.
“I don’t make wine. I just help grape to become wine,” he said.
In October, he pours organic white Chinuri grapes, along with their skins and stems, into his qvevri. He adds naturally forming yeast and seals the lids. In April, he lifts the lids and tastes what developed over half a year. Fermenting the white grapes with their skins gives Bitarishvili’s wine an amber tint and deep tannin flavor unique to Georgian whites.
His parents were forbidden from marketing their wine under communist rule, but Bitarishvili can’t satisfy the international orders that pour in now. This is in part because he can only make 3,000 bottles a year with his antiquated methods, like stirring the grapes with a three-pronged tree branch, or cleaning the qvevri with a wad of layered cherry bark.
“I always think about how they used to work 200 years, 300 years ago,” Bitarishvili said. “Maybe they know some small techniques which we forget.”
Cholobargia said Bitarishvili is one of 30 winemakers using only qvevris in Georgia; qvevri wine makes up 1 percent of Georgian wine exports. Despite their small place in the Georgian market, qvevris have moved from the margins to the center of Georgia’s resurgent wine industry.
In 2011, Georgia hosted the world’s first International Qvevri Symposium, held in the sunny courtyard of the Alaverdi Monastery, where priests have made wine for 1,000 years. Qvevris had been so sidelined that even here, where priests sing a song titled “We are the Vineyards,” the wine was being made in barrels. Only gradually have they switched back to clay.
Now, winemakers from Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Israel and the United States are buying qvevri. Bitarishvili says he gets frequent calls from new qvevri users around the world, asking for advice.
Russia lifted its ban on Georgia wine in 2013, and exports to Russia quickly shot back up to 60 percent of Georgia’s output. However, the changes the embargo triggered have remained.
Ramaz Nikoladze, whose grandfather lost 40 acres of vineyards to the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s, founded a winery in 2007 on the remnant of land left to his family in western Georgia. As buyers in Japan and around the world took interest in his punchy white qvevri wines, he formed a cooperative with six other natural wine producers and opened the Vino Underground in a cellar in Tbilisi in 2012. He offers 60 Georgian labels to a mixed crowd of locals and foreigners.
“These winegrowers are very popular in the U.K., in Japan, in the USA and Europe,” Nikoladze said. “Georgian people are also interested to taste these wines.”
Under the stone arches of the dimly lit wine bar, Nikoladze offers wine by the glass – a novelty in Georgia, where even urban families make “garage wine” using grapes from city markets, and most people drink wine by the bottle. Nikoladze hosted Georgia’s first natural wine festival at the Vino Underground earlier this year.
Maka Tarashvili, a Georgian wine expert and tour guide, said international interest in her country’s wine had added an intellectual aura to wine that until recently was seen as a common homemade commodity, like jam or bread.
“Everyone thinks they know how to make wine and how to drink it,” Tarashvili said. “Just now the young generation has started studying, to enjoy the aromas, to take notice of the history and to be proud with this tradition.”
Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.