Of Qvevri and Chinuri: Part 2 (“Feats of Clay”)

DAY 3 – PART 2

“Feats of Clay”

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Suffused with bonhomie and with the lingering whiff of cha-cha in our nostrils the intrepid travellers said their fond adieus to Iago and his family, and boarded the coach for Imereti.

First stop Makatubani and the studio of an artisan qvevri maker. Decanted by a humble outhouse we meet the man responsible for crafting the clay jars used by Gravner, Vodopivec and many other famous growers to ferment their wines.

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The vessels stand like sentinels in ranks in the small shed. The qvevri maker builds up the clay in a circular motion, using his hands to mould it. The coiling technique, as it is known, enables the craftsman to build thicker or taller walled vessels, permitting control of the walls as they are built up and allows building on top of the walls to make the vessel look bigger and bulge outward or narrow inward with less danger of collapsing. There are many ways to build ceramic objects using the coiling technique. To do this, you take a pliable material (usually clay) then roll it until it forms a long roll. Then, by placing one coil on top of another, different shapes can be formed. One of the methods used in terracotta sculpture; the clay is rolled into cylindrical strips and wound up to create the desired shape.

Enraptured by watching a craftsman at work I leaned against one of the qvevris and felt (to my horror) my fingers sinking into the moist earth on the rim = a perfect digital imprint stared back accusingly and a thick brown smear coating my forearm attested to where I had been leaning. I was mortified in case I had marred the patient work of days, but I am sure that my “claymark” was soon surgically eradicated without difficulty.

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The location of the studio was idyllic. A purling stream ran around the property on the other side of which were thickly wooded hills. The sun was belting down and we repaired outside for a little sustenance to send us on our way. No visit ever passes without the local staples making an appearance – in this case sheep’s cheese, heavenly breads, vivid tomatoes and cucumbers, joyous red and white mulberries oozing with sweetness, cherries, tiny wild strawberries plus a huge marzipan-coated cake.  People have very little money here, but they are generous as a point of principle and will always share the best of everything with you.

By the way there are about five good qvevri-makers operating in Georgia, but they are all living in poverty and the craft is in danger of dying out.  John Wurdeman and co are currently trying to solicit funding to help build a school for a new generation of qvevri craftsman to be taught the skills. They are mostly in Vardisubani village in Kakheti and Shrosha in Imeriti region. Unesco is considering adding the qvevri method to their world heritage list. If this happens it will be easier to rally support for the protection of the vessel and its name. This is an extract culled from the UNESCO application – a fascinating insight into the cultural importance of the clay vessel.


Ancient Georgian traditional Qvevri wine-making method

The element has been practised in Georgia for thousands of years. The basic technological process consists of pressing grapes in a Satsnakheli (wine press), pouring the grape must and the “chacha” (grape skins, stalks and pips) into a “Qvevri” (the mixture fills around 80-85%), filling, sealing the “Qvevri” and leaving the mixture to age for 5-6 months. 

A “Qvevri” is a traditional Georgian vessel used for making, ageing and storing wine. It is made of a type of clay historically used for qvevri making in artisanal families according to traditional technology. The vessel is buried in the ground, which guarantees an optimal temperature for the ageing and storage of wine and its egg-like shape favours the processes inside (the “chacha” sinks to the bottom; the wine becomes enriched by its volatile and non-volatile elements ; the wine then separates from the latter and stabilizes). “The methods of “Qvevri wine making in Georgia were defined by factors such as height/soil/climatic conditions, the rich variety of endemic vines and micro-zones: 

The grape must is fermented, aged and stored in contact with “chacha” for 5-6 months (Eastern Georgia – “Kakhetian” method). 

– the grape must  is fermented in “Qvevri” with a partial (2.6%) addition of “chacha” before removing it in November, the wine is left in the sealed Qvevri to mature until the spring (Western Georgia “Imeretian” method).

-leaving the crushed grapes in the wine press for 4-5 days , pouring the fermenting must into a “Qvevri” where it continues to ferment and is left to mature until the spring (Western Georgia, the Black Sea coast and Rach’a-Lechkhumi).

The knowledge required for qvevri wine making wine in ” is part of the everyday life of most Georgians; this has kept the tradition alive for millennia.

The specificity of qvevri wine making has divided its practitioners into two groups: wine-makers and “Qvevri”-makers.

Almost every single farmer and also majority of city dwellers in Georgia make wine. The main role in wine-making is played by the male head of the family: he is responsible for the wine’s quality and makes the main decisions such as when to harvest the grapes, when to rack the wine, etc. Functions and duties are clearly defined and are distributed among family members.

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Knowledge and experience of wine-making is orally and visually passed down from one generation to another through the family, neighbours, friends and relatives, who all join in harvesting and wine-making activities.

The manufacture of “Qvevri” is one of the oldest branches of traditional pottery. “Qvevri” are produced by artisanal families, and this handicraft is transmitted orally and visually down the ages.

These families possess the centuries-old knowledge of the selection of appropriate clay for the manufacture. The characteristics of clay determine the differences in mineralization of wines and consequently affect their flavour.

The knowledge of how to clean “Qvevri” is especially important because t#]he quality of the wine is directly linked to the quality of the cleaning process, which is why every village has several experienced, skilful and trustworthy “Qvevri” cleaners.

Most Georgians consider the traditional Georgian way of making wine to be an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance.

Archaeological excavations have proved 8000 years old living tradition of qvevri and qvevri wine making in Georgia. The wide chronological range of archaeological and palaeobotanic artefacts linked to viticulture and viniculture shows that the tradition of viticulture in Georgia has remained unbroken. The diversity of endemic varieties of grape (525 varieties) and of viticultural traditions confirms the continuity of the tradition of wine-making.

The traditional Georgian skill of qvevri and qvevri wine making is preserved in its entirety and continues to be actively used by communities and individuals. The oral transmission of this knowledge allowed it to be preserved for thousands of years. From a tender age, children witness and learn the processes of caring for vines, pressing grapes, fermenting wine, collecting clay and making and firing “Qvevri” from their elders. They acquire traditional knowledge and skills in this unofficial manner. It is important that this process of learning through the sharing of labour and mutual assistance among villagers, friends and relatives continues throughout a person’s life.

Since 326 A.D., the Georgian Church has played an important role in the transmission of traditional knowledge thanks to wine being an inseparable attribute of the Liturgy. The traditional method of wine-making continues to live in the centuries-old monasteries.

Other traditions linked to wine-making are also handed down from one generation to another: a) planting, cultivating and caring for vineyards; and b) choosing clay, making “Qvevri” preparing it for use.

Scientists and professionals study traditional wine-making and support the transmission of knowledge by publishing educational materials, encouraging traditional wine-makers and furthering the spread of endemic varieties of grape.

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Next on the agenda a visit to Ramaz Nikoladze, Imeretian grower and winemaker extraordinaire, and also host of Gvino Underground Wine Bar in Tbilisi.  We were led through his vineyards which were hotching with life. Extensive cover crop planting provide a veritable salad bar between the vines. The vineyard was a mere handkerchief, perhaps less than a hectare, on a gentle slope surrounded by forest. Tiny green beads of grapes were peeking out. As we emerged at the lower end of the vineyard a cow examined us curiously. Then back to Ramaz’s house to witness our second qvevri-opening in a few hours, but whereas Iago’s clay jars were buried in a spick ‘n’ span winery, these were sealed outside in the earth under a rickety pergola.

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Ramaz cut and levered a disc of mud out of the earth and carefully swept away the residual dirt (so that it didn’t fall into the qvevri). Glasses were filled with pale-gold Tsitska. Synonyms of this variety are Shanti and Mamali Tsitska and it is considered to be one of the best and most widespread cultivars in Upper and Central Imereti. This fresh-minted version had a wonderful herbal note and pure raw flavour as if it had just been dragged out of a long sleep.

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We then tried two wines which had been bottled the previous year. The first, a Tsistka, was THE wine. Shimmering green-gold, breathing apple-blossom and wild herbs, it surged across the tongue with brilliant acidity and lithe mineral energy. This wine was complete – the perfect wine for the perfect moment, seemingly capturing both the light of the sky and the blood of the earth. For all that science might wish to compress wine into a narrow microbiological liquid brick, this taste elicited (amongst all of us) a spontaneous joyful reaction, a temporary suspension of critical faculties, a leap of wine faith, as it were.

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Nor was the beautifully-balanced Tsolikouri too shabby with its apricot stone aroma, intense minerality and delicious savoury fruit. You could sense the terroir in both of these wines.

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And so to Kutaisi, the regional capital of Imereti, and another souped-up supra. The vast array of dishes morphs into vague memories – there’s always the crisp bread, the cheesy bread, the cheesy-spinachy bread, the eggy-cheesy-buttery bread, a welter of veg, salad and herbs and meat in pungent sauces. On the first night no-one could decide whether the meat was lamb or veal. I thought it was chicken (when in doubt call fowl!).  There is often a fish that is vaguely admired but oft left untouched. On the other hand I was the guy who picked up the meat dumpling, held it delicately by the stem and bit into it only to realise that it was large a bulb of garlic.

les caves de pyreneI recall some tolma (stuffed cabbage leaves) and diverse aubergine and spinach dishes but the rest evaporates in a wine fog. For the growers had brought 100 litres of wine in big plastic tubs and the evening was not allowed to finish until the last drop from the last jug had been drained. Gaioz Sopramadze was our eloquent tamada; his fellow Imeretian growers providing lusty choral accompaniment – these guys certainly sang for our supper.

The end of the evening was notable for its, ahem, skin-contact melodrama, as chuffed on cha cha and local wine grog, a few people became slightly animated. But that’s a story for another time.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Keith Mabry

    Animated! Yes, that is a story for another time.

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