There is such a thing as ancient world winemaking and wines. The process of making wine in buried earthen vessels, called qvevri, is the only winemaking process to have been placed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. There is very little qvevri winemaking outside the country Georgia. However there are a few winemakers that enjoy this ancient process of winemaking.
Qvevri are vessels made from clay and fired. The vessel wall is thick. Sizes range from a few liters to 3,000 liters. The inside of a qvevri is sealed with beeswax. In order for the beeswax to seep into the pours of the clay, the qvevri needs to be heated to around 160ºF. Many qvevri artisans coat the inside of the qvevri after it reaches the desired temperature while cooling down after firing. The outside of the qvevri may have a coating of a lime-based mortar mix. This helps to protect the qvevri from roots. The qvevri is buried underground. Glycol jackets or air conditioning is not needed to provide what the earth can already do. Depending on the region of the world, there is little temperature change between the temperatures inside the qvevri throughout the year.
Red wines are made by placing the red wine grapes into the qvevri for fermentation. The wine is often racked out of a qvevri into a clean qvevri after fermentation or after a short time of maceration. It then ages for months to years. Our experience is that red wines produced in qvevri are similar to red wines aged in oak barrels without the influence of the oak. White wines are very different than old world and new world white wines.
Like the red qvevri wines, white grapes are placed into a qvevri and ferment and macerate on the skins. Unlike red qvevri wines, the maceration on the skins, seeds, a few stems and dead yeast cells continues for months. Many qvevri winemakers that produce white qvevri wines open their qvevris in late March and April. The results are white wines with a noticeable tannin structure and often an amber color. I used the phrase “kissing tannins” to describe the Georgian qvevri white wines I have had. The tannins cause you to pucker as if you were going to kiss someone.
Kathy and I have been aging Vidal Blanc in a buried qvevri for six months now. I did taste the wine prior to affixing a permanent sealed covering over the qvevri in December. At that time the wine was fine and I did notice the tannins. I then filled the area around the qvevri (eight inches deep) with sand. Now that April has arrived, the qvevri is ready to be opened. This is our third vintage of qvevri winemaking. In a few days we’ll discover how this year’s qvevri wine turned out.