Qvevris are clay vessels used for fermenting and aging wine. Unlike amphorae, qvevris are not used to transport wine, rather qvevris are buried underground and can remain in use for centuries. Qvevri production is mostly taking place in the country Georgia, where there are a handful of artisans left to create these vessels. We met two qvevri makers while in Georgia during September 2013. Remi Kbilashvili is a qvevri maker in Vardisubani, Kakheti in the eastern part of Georgia and Zaliko Bodjadze crafts qvevri in Makatubani in Western Georgia. Are there qvevri makers in the United States?
While researching for our book: Georgia, Sakartvelo: the Birthplace of Wine we discovered that there is a group in Texas crafting qvevris and making qvevri wines. Their website Qvevri Project encourages people to learn about qvevris and make wine in qvevris. Billy Ray Mangham, of Sleeping Dog Pottery, San Marcos Texas, is a master potter who is now crafting small qvevris up to 220 liters. That is a perfect size for winemakers to use in experiments. Along with Billy Ray two other partners are involved in the Qvevri Project. Dr. Brent Trela works in the enology program at Texas A&M and Texas Tech University. He previously studied wine production in Georgia. Now he is studying the wine made in Billy Ray’s qvevris. Tom Vincent, a winemaker, spent three years in Georgia and obtained his winemaking certificate from UC Davis.
Wine Trail Traveler conducted an email interview with the Qvevri Project group. One of our interests was the use of beeswax to coat the inside of a qvevri. Remi Kbilashvili told us it has always been done. The beeswax seals the qvevri and offers some antibacterial benefits. Other interests include sealing the qvevri and if Americans are ready for qvevri-made wines.
Wine Trail Traveler: Will the beeswax lining on the inside of the qvevri interact with the wine? If so, how will it interact with the wine?
Tom Vincent: One of the most important things to understand is that many aspects of qvevri production have never been studied in the lab. We do believe that the Russians carried out some studies, but it is not clear whether they would be available, reliable or applicable to Western standards. We have done preliminary trials with beeswax from hives in Central Texas and believe that some interaction is likely.
Brent Trela: We noticed some chemistry going on from our one time trial in wine and model wine. Qvevri that we used were permeable even with beeswax coating the interior of the vessels resulting in some liquid volume loss, somewhat similar to oak barrels. This can have a concentrating effect on some of the compounds in the wine, such as pyrazines that can contribute vegetable type flavors. Beeswax glaze absorbed some compounds such as terpenes and esters that can contribute to floral and fruity flavors, but these were not significantly reduced in the wines.
Author’s Comment: I noticed that there can be some honey on the aroma and taste of wines that have been made in qvevri that are new or recently had beeswax applied. This was evident in some of the wines we had in Georgia and a cider made in qvevri at Castle Hill Cider in Keswick, Virginia. The honey influence was not as apparent on qvevri wines that were produced in qvevris that had not been recently recoated in beeswax. It is important to note that the honey influence was not a negative on the wines or the cider tasted. It added another decision to the wine.
Wine Trail Traveler: Why seal the inside of the qvevri with beeswax as opposed to other things such as epoxy that some wineries use to seal cement vats?
Tom Vincent: Qvevri production is thousands of years old. Tom Vincent has visited present day Vani, in Georgia, the site of the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece and there are locations that have been in continuous use since that time. Wine production evolved in times pre-dating industrial techniques of almost any kind.
Brent Trela: Looking at qvevri as made from natural materials using traditional handmade techniques, beeswax lends itself as an effective natural sealer, not unlike wine barrel manufacture – most of which are handmade and toasted over traditional fires.
Author’s Comment: In Georgia, through the millennia other items were tried to seal the inside of the qvevri. Nothing worked as well as beeswax. In July of 2013 while in Bordeaux, France a producer studied the wines made in cement vats that were sealed with epoxy and those made in cement vats not sealed with epoxy. His conclusions stated that there are traces from the epoxy in the wines from those vats sealed with epoxy. This was only one study and the topic needs to be further researched. It would be interesting to see if beeswax would have a potential use in other winemaking vessels.
Wine Trail Traveler: Are the qvevris coated with beeswax only once or after X number of uses?
Tom Vincent: Qvevri are recoated as needed, but it is a difficult process once the qvevri are buried in the ground. As a result, it is not uncommon to “retire” qvevri and bury new ones rather than continually rewax them. In fact, we do not really know how producers make that decision.
Brent Trela: However, older, buried qvevris can also be heated and waxed and commonly are resealed if necessary.
Author’s Comment: I asked this question to every qvevri winemaker we met in Georgia. Each had a different answer. The answers ranged from every year to “I have not done it yet and the qvevri has been buried for over a century.” For those who do reapply the beeswax, they have a container in which they build a fire and lower the container into the qvevri to heat it. Once the qvevri reaches 170º the inside can be recoated with beeswax.
Wine Trail Traveler: How do you seal the top of the qvevri once fermentation is completed?
Brent Trela: It used to be customary to pour vegetable oil onto the wine’s surface to ensure airtight storage of the wine but this can be problematic if the oil becomes rancid. Melted beeswax has also been poured onto the wine’s surface to seal the wine, but the most common method to ensure the airtight storage is to properly seal the vessels with lids which are the right size. Lids can be made of wood, generally found in West Georgia, or stone, which is more popular in East Georgia, especially in Kakheti. In West Georgia, lids are placed directly on the opening of the buried qvevri then covered with earth. In Kakheti, clay is applied first to the dry qvevri opening where it sticks. Then the clay is covered with a stone lid which is strongly pressed into the clay before covering with earth.
Billy Ray Mangham: We are making lids using the same clay as the Qvevri and plan to seal them with beeswax.
Author’s Comment: While in Georgia, Kathy and I observed qvevris covered in slate, glass and wood. Slate and glass were used in Eastern Georgia and wood was used in Western Georgia. Some wineries place a layer of clay on the qvevri opening, then cover with slate. Through the clay they place a small tube and run a gas through the tube to replace the oxygen at the surface of the wine.
Wine Trail Traveler: Are Americans ready for qvevri wines?
Tom Vincent: Yes! There are already some popular wines which take on aspects of qvevri produced wines, such as the now passé “orange wines”. In addition, we expect that even common grape varieties may take on new life when fermented in qvevri.
Billy Ray Mangham: I attended the Qvevri Symposium in Georgia several years back and this was a major concern of the producers. Among other questions they wondered if America/Europe wine drinkers were ready for the color of Qvevri produced wine.
Author’s Comment: The most striking color difference is with white wines. They take on a gold to amber color. Also the white wines can have very bold tannins because of the prolonged skin contact. I personally enjoy very bold tannins in a red wine. When I tasted some qvevri-made white wines in Georgia they also had very bold tannins, I consider tannins a gift to wine. Red wine drinkers may enjoy qvevri-made white wines. As far as qvevri-made red wines are concerned, one can also experience wines that are full bodied and have bold tannins. What is not noticeable is the influence of oak. As a result, in my opinion, qvevri-made wines have more of the grape expressing itself than wines aged in barrel.
Kathy and I have visited some wineries in America that ferment one of their white wines on the skins and seeds for one to two weeks then press. These wines are a dark yellow to gold color and have noticeable tannins. Fermenting and aging in a qvevri is a logical next step for these winemakers.
I recently spoke to a person from Pennsylvania who purchased some property near the Pennsylvania/New York border. He plans to plant a vineyard and bury qvevri. He wants to make qvevri wine. In his travels through Pennsylvania, he met two other people who are making wines in qvevris. There may be more qvevris buried in the United States. It would make sense to create a database of those making wine in qvevris and a database of qvevri makers with contact information.
Wine Trail Traveler: Do you believe that qvevri wine producers in the United States will embrace the word qvevri, or are they likely to use the word amphora as some qvevri wine producers in Western Europe are doing?
Tom Vincent: That’s up to the marketers. However, amphorae are not the same as qvevris, and it seems possible that Europeans have an association with the word “amphorae” that Americans may not. Therefore, it may be easier to introduce the word. More importantly, the Georgian wine culture is accompanied by great food, song, dance and heritage. Using the word qvevri would allow producers to go beyond a simple production technique and talk about an entirely different aspect of enjoying wine.
Billy Ray Mangham: We are marketing the qvevris we are making as “Texas Qvevri”. I believe the winemakers should go with qvevri. As I post pictures of the vessels we have made I find my audience takes the time to look up the word and thus gain more knowledge and more interest in the wine.
Author’s Comment: This is an opportunity to educate people as to the difference in the words amphora and qvevri. When Kathy and I talk about our book Georgia, Sakartvelo: the Birthplace of Wine and qvevri-made wines, people are fascinated. We constantly hear, “I didn’t know that.” We have also noticed that people want to learn more about traditional/historical ways of making wine.
We hope to join those Americans making wines in qvevri with grapes from the 2014 harvest. Our plans include making a 2014 Viognier in a small qvevri.