Qvevri Wines

One of the reasons I went to the Caucasus – and Georgia in particular – was because of the claims wine was ‘invented’ there in 6000 BCE, or 8000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. IMG_1726The Washington Post, National Geographic, The Daily Mail, the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and the ABC all ran fairly recent stories bruiting the news of radio-carbon dating of pot shards and bio-molecular and DNA archaeology of grape pips from the Stone Age accurately dating wine making to that period in Georgia.

Alvin Toffler in his seminal book The Third Wave claimed that humanity advanced in sudden ‘waves’ or periods of intense adaptation and progress. The third wave was the technological and communications one which swept the world within the last century. The second was the Industrial Revolution but the first – and probably the most important wave – was the adaption of farming and the domestication of animals by our Neolithic Stone Age ancestors. Without this first wave, Toffler claimed, nothing else could have been achieved, which brings me back to wine.

To my mind, there is no question that wine was ever invented. IMG_1685Just as no one can claim the invention of the wheel or the discoverer of fire, similarly, no one can claim to have invented wine. Nevertheless, legends lay easy claim to the latter. Noah, after he landed the ark on Mt. Ararat (on the borders of modern day Turkey and Armenia) disembarked the animals and planted a vineyard after which he got horribly drunk and made a disgrace of himself. All of which begs the question of where he originally came from because he must have brought the vine shoots or saplings with him in the ark!   Then there is the much older Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh which also details a deluge after which the eponymous hero sets out on a quest to discover wine and the immortality it can bestow. Another Persian legend describes how Jamshyd – a semi-mythical king – kept grapes to be eaten in jars. One of his handmaids, out of temper with the king and his court, attempted to top herself by drinking the juice from the foaming grapes in one jar, believing it to be poison. Instead she discovered the delights of alcoholic inebriation which she then passed on to the king who, according to the XVII Rubaiyát of Omar Khayyam (The Fitzgerald Translation 1859)

‘They say the Lion and the Lizard keep

the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep

It must have been a joyous discovery when the first Neolithic farmers found that the grapes, hoarded for leaner times, had fermented and changed magically into a drink other than the contaminated and disease ridden water that they had been dependent upon all their lives.

Three factors independently appeared, more or less at the same time, that all combined to give us the wine that we know today. Firstly the widespread presence of vitis vinifera, the wild Eurasian grape vine in the valleys between the greater and lesser Caucasus mountains, secondly the cultivation of barley and wheat which allowed food reserves to be stored, and thirdly the invention of pottery for making and storing wine.IMG_1854

But back to Georgia where the most astonishing thing is that wine is still made in the same way that our prehistoric ancestors made it.IMG_1619

First the grapes are crushed – sometimes in large, hollowed out logs – before the juice, the skins, the grape pips and even the stalks are poured into qvevri, large earthenware jars, (several hundred to thousands of litres in size) often lined with beeswax, which are then buried in the ground. The juice ferments using wild yeast while the ground maintains a steady geothermal temperature and the conical shape of the qvevri allows the wine to circulate and clarify naturally.

IMG_1623
A glass of ‘white’ qvevri wine compared to ‘normal’ white wine

These qvevri wines – also known as ‘natural’ or ‘raw’ or unfiltered wines – have a distinct orange or amber coloured hue due to the skin contact during fermentation and taste quite different to European wines which are fermented without the pulp. Nevertheless, qvevri wines can differ in style with both sweet, semi sweet and dry wine all being made from the Saparavi grape.IMG_1707

Wine is such an integral part of Georgian life that wine is made by just about every family as grape vines are ubiquitous throughout the country. Roughly 500 of the world’s 2000 grape varieties hail from Georgia although less than 20 varieties are used in wine making.

Kakheti, in the eastern part of the country is probably the most famous wine producing area in the country and that is where I went to sample the Saparavi dry red and the white Tsinandali in the town of Sighnaghi.IMG_2166

Under the Soviet rule, the Russian taste was for strong, sweet wine with extra sugar added which led to a decline in quality but since Georgia’s independence in 1991, wine makers have upped their game and while still producing wine in the traditional qvevri fashion, now also produce high quality wines in the western style.

References

https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/earliest-evidence-of-wine-found-in-giant-8000-year…

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/…/oldest-winemaking-grapes-georgia-archaeolog…

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/…/Scientists-discover-8-000-year-old-wine-bottles-Ge…

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41977709

https://edition.cnn.com/2017/11/14/health/oldest-wine-georgia-study-trnd/index.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2017-11-14/oldest-wine-georgia…pottery…/9143874

The Story of Wine – Hugh Johnson New Illustrated Edition 2002

A History of the World in 6 Glasses – Tom Standage 2005

Uncorking the Caucasus – Dr. Matthew Horkey & Charine Tan 2016
 

Georgia Reconsidered

A big red M outside Tbilisi’s main station marked the entrance to the city metro – probably the longest, deepest and fastest escalator I have ever been on and, like the bus fare from the border to Batumi which cost something like 30 ct, the trip on the metro were priced similarly or even cheaper.

The Georgians I met – generally local punters in a bar or café or wait staff in the same places – were all terribly proud of being Georgian and were especially keen to distance themselves from anything Russian, having finally extracted themselves from the sphere of influence wielded by Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia and The Russian Federation. Armed only with red roses, protesters demonstrated for twenty-three days outside the Georgian parliament in November 2003 in order to bring about peaceful change and a new slant towards westernisation.

A waiter or waitress’ recommendation from the local menu invariably followed the same line, ‘this very, very good, this very good, this very good, this … Russian, this very, very good’.

This ‘turning away’ from their former rulers led to increased tensions with Russia, culminating in the brief 2008 war where the Federation forcibly backed two separatist revolts against the Georgian state. One night in a small bar half way up a hilly side street near the Opera, a fluent speaker of English confided in me that he hated the Russians. They killed his brother during the war in South Ossetia.IMG_1759

IMG_1760 2Popping up from the metro two stops away from the main station – again an incredible ascent – onto Shota Rushtavelli Ave I was amazed to see how fashionably modern Tbilisi was. I don’t know what I was expecting – perhaps something slightly less developed than a Western capital, perhaps something slightly shop worn – but what I got was an amazing melange of old and new.

Opposite the Opera house where I was staying, it was only a IMG_1732short walk past the parliament buildings and down to Liberty Sq. and from there to the old town where crumbling buildings and shaky balconies edged fashionable pedestrian areas and parks.

IMG_1752 2Flea markets selling Russian junk crowded the bridge before a maze of small streets leading back up to Liberty Square in which the centre plinth was so high that I couldn’t actually make out what stood on top. IMG_1632

And then, as if this wasn’t enough, there was a cable car connection to the old Persian fortress overlooking the city and the hot spring baths with fashionable wine-bars and restaurants spread out below in inviting pedestrian areas and squares.IMG_1642

Despite having lived in Milan for almost three years, to my shame I never once went to La Scala, one of the most famous opera houses in the world. This time, staying opposite the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State Theatre House on broad Shota Rustavelli Avenue, all I had to do was take the underpass and the Opera house was right there.

IMG_1769 2I saw the premiere of one of Verdi’s little known (certainly to me anyway) operas – Simon Boccanegra – an opera with a prologue and three acts with one intermission, the brochure informed me. A Google search of the plot baffled me but the splendour, the lighting, the colour, the drama and the music and the voices had me entranced – although the only word I actually heard was ‘Maria’ – and I became an opera lover overnight!

IMG_1619But time to leave the capital and explore the Kaheti wine region, the major wine growing area in the southeast. After all, in this part of the world, Neolithic farmers were making, drinking, enjoying and worshipping vitis vinifera 8,000 years ago so I assumed they knew how to make a decent drop.

And then there was the idea of  hiking in the Sveneti – the mountains region up in the northeast, rubbing shoulders with the breakaway state of Abhazia.IMG_1825

More of that later.

 

2 Georgian Lari = about $1.15 Australian cents

3 Georgian Lari = about $1.70 Australian cents