27.09.2015. Kathy and I acquired some Rkatsiteli grapes yesterday from our friends at Bluemont Vineyards in Bluemont, Virginia. Arriving home, we began to process the grapes and prepare the qvevri. Qvevri winemaking is an ancient winemaking method and the only winemaking process on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage [see Georgian qvevri wine-making method approved for UNESCO's Intangible Heritage List]
I had learned to clean a qvevri while at Twins Wine Celler in Napareuli in the Kakheti wine region of the country Georgia. The basic process is to pour clean water into the qvevri, and using a brush, scrub the sides. Remove the water and observe the color. Repeat the process until the water is clear once removed. The first time I added water to our qvevri and scrubbed the interior wall of the qvevri, the water was cloudy and opaque. By the fourth bucket of clean water the water had just a touch of cloudiness and was translucent. After the fifth cleaning the water was clear. This paralleled the process that was done to the qvevri we made wine in at Twins Wine Cellar.
To sanitize the qvevri, I sprayed potassium metabisulfite on the interior and soaked up the extra liquid that collected at the qvevri’s base. I did not add another coating of beeswax to the interior of the qvevri. Asking Georgian winemakers how often they coat the interior of the qvevri with beeswax produced a plethora of answers. The answers ranged from reciting yearly to once every several hundred years. I prefer the later response. I noticed while cleaning, that water beaded up on the sides of the qvevri like water beads on a recently waxed car. The beeswax I applied before burying the qvevri last year is doing its job and does not need to be reapplied
Since our qvevri is small, just 23 liters, we were not working with a lot of grapes. We destemmed by hand and gently crushed the grapes before adding to the qvevri. This did take us hours and caused us to wonder about how much faster it would be with a destemmer/crusher. On the other hand, we would only use the machine once a year. Just like last year we sorted the grapes as we pulled them off their jacks. Unlike last year I collected some of the stems to put into the qvevri with the grapes.
While in Georgia, we were told that “Rkatsiteli” means red stem. Some of the stems had begun to turn red and those were the ones I added to the qvevri. In total, the stems only accounted for a small percentage of the must. Kathy and I used up all the grapes and finally had the qvevri filled to within two inches of the surface. We did add yeast, Lalvin D21. In Georgia, the winemakers use the natural yeast on the grapes. They have been making wine there for 8,000 years and the yeasts have figured things out. I did not want to risk using natural yeast so I went with a commercial yeast. After pitching the yeast, I placed a lid on the qvevri that has an airlock in the center. It is fall after all and if I let the qvevri open things would fall into it.
“Rkatsiteli” means red stem. I added more than pictured to the must in the qvevri.
We are now awaiting for the fermentation and daily punchdowns.
I wrote yesterday that we filled the qvevri to within two inches of the top or surface of the marani. Big mistake! In going to punch down early Saturday morning, I discovered that the fermentation was rather robust and juice and a few grapes escaped from the qvevri. Actually it was quite a bit of juice. The grapes had massed at the surface of the qvevri and after punching down, I had about four inches of space. We lost about 51/2 cups (1.3 liters) of juice. Minutes after punching down, the grapes rose up again gaining back two of the four inches after the punch down.
I should have known better. One of the Georgian winemakers commented that his grapes had overflown the qvevri during fermentation. A half hour after punching down, I had to punch down again since the grapes had risen to the surface of the qvevri. The next idea was to rack a litre of juice out of the qvevri and place in a small glass container with an air lock. We noticed that it was fermenting in the glass container. Once fermentation slows down, this will be returned to the qvevri.
Removing some of the juice helped. Initially the punch downs were five hours apart. That changed last evening. I had to punch down every three hours. Sunday morning arrived and I punched down at 3:00 am, 6:00 am and 9:00 am. At least I know it is fermenting and I am not loosing any more juice/wine.