In fact this small country, nestled beneath the Caucasus Mountains, boasts a fierce claim to being the oldest winemaking nation on Earth. Every Georgian dreams of making their own wine, I am told, and their culture is soaked in wine legend.
I travelled to Georgia for Jellied Eel to explore their tradition for producing ‘natural’ wines, an approach to winemaking that’s generating great interest here in Britain and which will be showcased in May at the RAW Fair.
Made with organic or biodynamic grapes, natural winemaking demands the absolute minimum of interventions and additives (except sulfites in some cases), in stark contrast to many larger-volume mass market wines that are more heavily manipulated to ensure a consistent product.
In Georgia, the ‘kvevri’ is at the heart of this process – and, indeed, of the national psyche itself. This large clay pot, egg-like in shape but more pointed towards the bottom, is buried in the ground, filled and sealed.
In days gone by, they were used as a general-purpose fridge: the clay and surrounding earth provides a stable cool temperature. Country houses typically had a series of kvevris in their cellars – many still do. But their starring role is in the fermentation and ageing of wine, and their unique shape is ideal for this purpose.
For Georgians, the kvevri is a symbol of immense pride. “It’s part of me, my culture. Generations of my family are making wine [this way]. When I first opened my eyes I saw the kvevri,” exclaims Ramaz Nikoladze, one of a new wave of winemakers reinvigorating the tradition.
Slow Food has now designated the kvevri as one of their protected Presidia projects, and further protection has been proposed under UNESCO.
To make the wine itself, grapes are picked, pressed and the juice is poured into the kvevri. Skins, pips and stalks are often added for extra flavour and colour, even for white wines. This is highly unusual, resulting in bright, clear wines more orange in hue.
“For me, the kvevri is a miracle of a tool as there is a natural fermentation, clarification and maturation process,” explains Isabelle Legeron, a French Master of Wine and organiser of both this trip and the RAW Fair.
Over several months, the plant debris settles to the bottom, naturally filtering the wine, which then settles in three layers – brighter at the top, more concentrated and tannic below. The fermentation is spontaneous, using the wild yeasts on the grapes. (It’s common to add extra yeast in modern wineries). The layers of wine are then decanted into smaller kvevris, often separately to allow for blending later, then allowed to age and mature.
The kvevri tradition, however, has been in worrying decline since Soviet times. Artisan techniques were rejected in favour of boosting production of low quality sweetened wines for the Russian market. Only a few families still maintain the skills necessary to make the kvevris themselves.
Nowadays, the large wineries use modern techniques, often with oak and steel vats. “Most [wine] is made in the European fashion,” explains Legeron, who believes it’s a tragedy that this ancient winemaking nation lost so much of its artisan tradition: “Only in the last five or six years are they going back to their roots with the confidence to think that they can be successful.”
Eko Glonti is one of the recent converts to kvevri winemaking. A doctor and entrepreneur, he describes how a lifetime of drinking conventional wines left him unsatisfied. He asked himself why: “The answer was very simple - because of these chemicals which the industry is using now in winemaking. They are making the same kinds of wine through all of the world, and it is boring.”
In response, he researched wines made more naturally: “When I started to taste these biodynamic wines and authentic wines it’s absolutely different. They are great – not all of them – but they are very interesting.” He has now set up his own winery called Lagvinari in partnership with Legeron.
Soliko Tsaishvil gave up his job as a translator to set up his wine company. “Bio[dynamic] for me is having an equal partnership with nature,” he says, pouring samples of his recent vintage of Saporavi, a red grape. He uses plant-based preparations to boost the health of his vines. “This knowledge existed in Georgia centuries ago,” he adds.
In some respects, Georgia is well-placed to capitalise on the blossoming interest in natural wines across Europe. There are 500 varieties of indigenous grape in Georgia, with 35 used mainly for wine production. This small nation is geographically diverse and offers a huge range of terroirs – terrains of distinctive character for winemaking.
Although the last decades saw a hiatus in natural winemaking, small producers now have the opportunity to both rediscover old traditions and learn from the experiences and mistakes of countries such as France, German and Greece – relative newcomers to the wine world.
Kvevri winemakers have come together in a formal association to represent and share skills. In May, around a dozen will travel to London to attend the RAW Fair, along with kvevri itself, culminating in a huge Georgian banquet for three hundred guests.
So there is an inspiring atmosphere of hope. Although overall production remains small, the kvevri is too embedded in the Georgian tradition to ever vanish. Glonti, the winemaker, offers the last word:
“Georgia is wine and wine is Georgia. You can’t separate, you can’t divide this.” The kvevri renaissance, he says, has a broader significance. “It’s not just for me or for Georgia. It’s really cultural heritage for the world. “
More information is available on RAW fair here.
The Jellied Eel has teamed up with RAW fair to offer readers an exclusive wine tasting on 14 May with Isabelle Legeron MW. For more information on this click here.
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