Everyone’s talking about qvevri. At least, they are at Imbibe Towers where conversation can be a bit slow.
So here’s what you need to know if you drop in
What are qvevri anyway?
They’re big fermentation vessels made from a very particular type of clay.
Oh, you mean amphorae?
Emphatically not. Amphorae are the same shape, but a lot smaller – designed to be carried. Even Hulk would struggle to carry a qvevri. Actually, he probably wouldn’t, but you get the point.
Where did they originate from and when?
Georgia, thousands of years ago. The country is reckoned to be the birthplace of wine, and qvevri are one of the oldest forms of winemaking equipment. Their revival has been one of the most interesting trends of the last ten years.
Is it true that in East London they’re compulsory?
We couldn’t possibly qmment.
How big are they?
Tricky one. They can go from fairly small – 100 litres – right up to a whopping 4,000 litres – presumably for making the Georgian equivalent of Jacob’s Qreek.
Who makes them?
Not enough people is the short answer. They’re still made by hand, with the clay wound round in strips and shaped by people who don’t look at all like Patrick Swayze in Ghost. The craft almost died out under the Soviet occupation. Now everyone wants them, both in Georgia and elsewhere, so there’s a big waiting list.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one...
You probably wouldn’t have – even if you visit a winery that uses them. They’re buried in the earth with the opening at floor level. Creating a ‘marani’ (a winery full of qvevri tanks) is a lot of work.
So how do they clean them?
Slowly is the answer. Someone very small has to climb in the top and scrub and scrub and scrub. It takes days. They still use twigs of St Johns Wort – it’s better than anything else apparently – plus various pokers, prodders and plungers.
Stop blinding us with technical terms.
Sorry. The point is that qvevri are not an easy option. You need qmmitment.
Are they mostly used for natural wines then?
Hmm. No. Not really. Natural wine folk like them because they’re traditional and old fashioned – and Georgia’s qvevri wineries do all use wild fermentation – but, though there are a few weird examples out there, most of the wines are scrupulously qlean.
How come they’re not oxidised? Isn’t the clay porous?
It is. But it’s lined on the outside with lime and on the inside with beeswax. There’s no oxidation at all in most of the wines. Though a few brave souls are breaking the rules and flying by the seat of their pants with ancient qvevri where, frankly, anything can happen.
But the colours! Some of the whites are nearly orange.
Ah, that’d be yer skin contact, not yer oxidation.
What’s it mostly used for, reds or whites?
Orginally, obviously, both. But nowadays Georgia’s winemakers mostly use qvevri for white grapes, to qreate ‘amber wines’.
So what are they like?
It varies. Some taste a lot like traditional white wines, others are very, very different. It depends mostly on the amount of skin contact and how good the winemaker is. Generally, though, they’re less about fruit flavours than about a kind of dry spiciness (think turmeric, saffron).
Sounds a bit different.
It is. But in fact perhaps the most striking element isn’t so much the flavour as the structure. For the winemakers, it’s all about texture, and these wines are a lot less about acidity than they are about tannin. We shouldn’t, in other words, think about them as being a more intense (or different) expression of white wine, so much as something qmpletely different.
Eek. So how do you serve them?
The Georgians typically serve these amber wines just below room temperature, but not chilled. They’re more about texture than flavour – and that seems to show best about 12°C.
So should I be looking out for these wines?
Absolutely. If you don’t, you’re missing out. Their numbers are growing in the UK and will surely continue to do so. From just a handful of producers ten years ago, there are hundreds of them now, and they’re no longer just confined to importers who are addicted to the weird and esoteric.
How should I use them?
Well, since they cover such a broad spectrum of styles, that’s up to you. But they’re good for full white meat dishes that are overridden by red wines or too much for whites. Also spicy dishes. But some experts think that they could be ideal for vegetarian food as well.
What, like qarrots and roast qualiflower?
You’re totally getting the hang of this. Well done!
For a somm's eye take on Georgian wine, check out Kate Hawking's recent article here