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Monday, June 6, 2016

"Wine & Spirits": Crazy for Qvevri

by Tara Q. Thomas

“Maybe qvevri wine is more interesting for people in the US and in Europe, but from my point of view, the most important thing in wine is the vineyard.”
—Malkhaz Jackelli

06.06.2016. There’s a scene in For the Love of Wine, a new book on Georgian wine, where author Alice Feiring dreams of a SWAT team swooping in to protect the country’s qvevris. Georgians have vinified their wines in these huge earthenware vessels for most of the country’s 8,000-year winemaking history, but by the time Feiring visits a qvevri maker in 2013, there are only three manufacturers left, and she fears there will be none if Georgia succumbs to the pressures of the outside world.

It’s an ironic situation, as Feiring points out in her book, as the winemaking world outside of Georgia is crazy for qvevri right now. Josko Gravner was an early adopter, along with his neighbors in Slovenia and Italy’s Friuli, Stanko Radikon, Edi Kante, and Giorgio and Nicolò Bensa of La Castellada. The French grew more interested in 2013, after Feiring brought a couple Georgians to La Dive, a gathering of natural winemakers in the Loire. Thierry Puzelat began importing Georgian wines to France, along with some qvevri. Jean Foillard, Thierry Germain, Nicolas Reau, Philippe Tessier and Hervé Villemade ordered amphorae as well, she reports. In the US, winemakers from Long Island (Channing Daughters) to California are making wines in clay vessels; in Oregon, winemaker and ceramicist Andrew Beckham is firing amphorae both for his own wines and to sell.

Sommeliers are fascinated by Georgia’s qvevri wines, too. “There are some very interesting grape varieties in Georgia,” says Roger Dagorn, who lists Georgian wines at Tocqueville and The Fourth in NYC, “but what makes Georgia unique is its history, and most of it was in qvevri. These are things that I can talk to people about; they are curious and interesting.”

Brent Kroll, who pours qvevri wines at Sovereign, Eat Bar, Iron Gate and Partisan in Washington, DC, adds that the wines play well with a wide range of food. “They are incredible to pair with,” he says, “great with a cheese plate, like a funky cider would be. They can stand up to things like boar and pork rillettes. The oxidative notes and acid cut through cream and cheese like a dry Sherry would.”

Yet qvevri wines are estimated to make up less than one percent of Georgia’s wine exports, and, while wines made in stainless steel and cement tanks have long been associated with Soviet-era bulk wines, a number of quality wines vinified in stainless steel are emerging, raising the question of whether qvevri is the only way forward for Georgian wine. Malkhaz Jackelli of Jakeli wines is one winemaker who’s not banking on it—and not because he’s caving to “the pressure to commercialize and homogenize” that Feiring fears. Back in 2001, when he started his winery, he couldn’t afford the land he really wanted, and didn’t want to sink his qvevri into land he wasn’t certain about. “Once you put it there, it’s there,” he explains. He may sink some qvevri into the ground when he finds the right place, but right now,  there’s too much research and work left to do in  the vineyards to make a confident decision.

“Maybe the qvevri wine is more interesting for people in the US and in Europe, but from my point of view, the most important thing in wine is the vineyard,” Jackelli says. With 500-plus known grape varieties, only a small portion of which are used in winemaking, and 18 appellations—none officially recognized yet—much remains unexplored.

Lisa Granik, a Master of Wine who has lived in Georgia, believes the qvevri question has evolved as winemakers get a better grasp on what they have in their vineyards. “Now the question is, are all of their grape varieties better in qvevri?” The question really came to light after a series of tastings she recently organized in Georgia featuring solely non-qvevri wines. “What we saw,” she recalls, “is that qvevri is a great equalizer.” The qvevri has the most noticeable effect on white grapes, she points out, though whether those earthy, spicy, amber flavors are more attributable to “qvevri taste” or to skin contact is debatable. Either way, she says, it’s harder to distinguish between one grape variety and another in qvevri wines. “The delicate aromatics get lost.”

Many people would gladly give up those delicate aromas in order to drink in a culture as fascinating and exotic as the one Feiring paints in her book. Great qvevri wines, with their richness of texture, punchy tannins and mouthwatering acidity, seem to provoke hunger on an elemental level, their unusual flavors demanding full engagement— they’re not light, fleeting quaffs. On the other hand, they might not show the sheer deliciousness of a stainless steel–fermented saperavi in all its spicy, succulent juiciness. While Jeff Berlin prefers to pour qvevri wines at À Côté in Berkeley for their unique flavor and history, he’s not about to declare that it’s the only thing the country can do. “Georgia is such a beautiful blank canvas with a whole new palette of colors,” he says, “and they should be encouraged to experiment however they can.”

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