[QVEVRI can be made in sizes small enough to carry by one person
or even bigger than this one above] (Image from here)
Let’s begin with the most basic question: what’s the actual difference between amphora and qvevri? Amphora, historically notable in ancient Greek & Roman civilizations, is a clay jug or vessel with a handle where wine is stored and/or transported. Qvevri (pronounced KWEH-vree), specifically a Georgian invention, is an egg-shaped clay vessel made in volumes of 100 liters to 4,000 liters (though larger ones have been discovered) and is primarily used for making wine. They are both made of terra cotta, so no difference there, but way they were made does differ. Amphora most often was a “wheel-thrown” clay construction while qvevri was built in the “coil method” by layering different lengths of clay coils in rings one on top of the other (you can see the rings in the picture above where each layer was constructed).
[These are examples of amphora. Image from here]
In the eyes of a Georgian, to compare the two would be like comparing a bread box to a baking oven. Obviously, this is more personal to them because they invented what is likely the original clay winemaking vessel. Based on the earliest evidence of both vessels qvevri pre-dates amphora by millennia. Regardless of this fact, today it is more common in the wine industry to use the term amphora to refer to the clay tanks used to make the wine no matter their historical use.
When in use the qvevri is buried in the ground. In western Georgia where temperatures are milder it is only partially buried. Alternatively it can be buried all the way to the neck, leaving no part visible above ground, as is customary in eastern Georgia where temperatures are more extreme in the winter. The further down it is buried the less the fluctuations in air temperature will affect the fermentation process because the ground temperature is constant and naturally at cellar temperature.
Pictured above: new qvevri waiting to be used at Iago’s Winery. Pictured below: the qvevri room for making wine at Iago’s Winery. Each hole is the opening to an individual buried qvevri]
The egg shape of the qvevri is also very important. When the qvevri is initially filled, the juice sits with the mother (skins, pips, and sometimes stems) floating as a solid cap at the top of the tank near the neck [see below image; left]. During the time the wine is sealed in the qvevri, the cap begins to break up and little by little the mother falls and collects at the skinny end of the egg [see below image; right]. When it comes time to separate the wine from the mother the process is quite easy because it naturally collects cleanly and neatly as a solid mass in a small area at the bottom of the qvevri. The resulting wine is less jolted by the filtration process because it can be done with a more gentle touch.
This is a less-is-more process. By putting the wine into a clay vessel that’s buried in the ground allows the earth do most of the work. There is no temperature control panel to cool or heat the tank to usher along fermentation thanks to geothermal temperature regulation. There is no need for machinery to filter the wine because gravity and the qvevri’s shape takes care of the skins. There is no need for the addition of yeasts that naturally occur in the vineyards. And the more you talk to people who are making wine using the most basic and traditional of methods the more strange and out of place the standard questions to understand the winemaking process become. So many problems had been solved with this ancient “technology” that the modern problems in the wine industry do not necessarily apply. Simply put, qvevri is the “Easy-Bake Oven” of winemaking fermentation tanks.
The production of qvevri has been reduced to such a level that the number of producers of this ancestral Georgian fermentation vessel has shrunk to only 5 master qvevri makers. It is a craft rooted in old tradition where one must spend their lives working with the earth and learning how to shape it into these perfect vessels. So alarmingly small is this number that just this year UNESCO added the production of clay qvevri to the the category “Intangible Heritage” in the hopes that more attention and value will be placed on their continued production. [Click here to visit the UNESCO site and watch a 10-minute video on Qvevri history and production.]
[Collecting clay to use for Qvevri production. Image from here]
As in any trade there is a system of apprenticeship, but over time fewer and fewer producers remain alive to pass on the tradition. Regardless of the fact that just about every Georgian family owns its own qvevri, the national demand has slowed to purchase new ones because they are less often used by the average household to produce their own wine. Family qvevris have been passed down from generation to generation and are kept around for most often for sporadic use.
Except for their use on a small scale in commercial wine production qvevri producers have fewer non-commercial winemaking customers by the day. The good news here is that producing wine in clay tanks is making a comeback thanks to a recent international obsession with making Orange Wine – a wine made by allowing the mother to sit with the juice during fermentation. And regardless of anyone’s opinion on this style of wine (for it often incurs a love/hate relationship) the use of clay fermentation tanks – like amphora, tinaja, and qvevri – goes hand in hand with making this style of wine.
[A brand new Qvevri cellar being built. Image from here]
Thankfully there is a new interest in the use of qvevri in and out of Georgia. And the good news for broader commercial purposes is that there is no reason it has to be directly linked to skin-contact wines alone. Beautiful wines can be made in a fresher style without having to create bold Amber or Orange wines. The silver lining is that it seems that for the time being that the 5 master qvevri-makers will have plenty of new work for the foreseeable future. I even hear that currently there is a wait list for new qvevri to be shipped locally and abroad.