Isabelle Legeron MW talks Kvevri (quevri) Wines
Isabelle Legeron MW, author of the website That Crazy French Woman, has been a long time champion of organic, natural wine making, including helping to create the Lavinari range of wines in Kakheti in 2012-13. Here she tells us a bit more about Kvevri wine making:
Your Lagvinari project involved growing organic rkatsiteli and saperavi grapes for your wines. Why did you choose those two grapes in particular, and what are their characteristics?
Rkatsiteli is a Kakhetian grape, meaning ‘red horn’ as the stem of the grape is pink/redish when it is ripe. Rkatsiteli is very popular in the Alazani Valley in Kakheti, but is can also be found in Kartli and in small quantities in west Georgia too.
Rkatsiteli prefers hot climate conditions but it is a pretty resilient variety that adapts well to its surroundings, which is why it is quite widespread in Georgia. It is also quite a vigorous and high-yielding variety, which I presume is why the Soviets favoured its adoption for mass production, so it does need some restraining. We decided to produce our first wine using rkatsiteli because it is readily available and since I am only interested in working with organic grapes we were also that much more constrained. I was also curious to see whether or not it was possible to create a truly fine wine from such a tough, workhorse grape, and we were delighted with the result. Rkatsiteli is excellent for producing traditional Kakhetian style wine.
Saperavi means “colouring” in Georgian – more specifically, “peri” means “colour” because this is a teinturier variety, which means that it gives off a LOT of colour when you press it. In fact, last autumn I made a tiny test batch of saperavi that I was experimenting with in our friend’s kitchen in Tbilisi and even though I decided to separate the juice from the pips and stems after only 10 mins, the juice was already thick and very dark purple – our arms and feet took days to scrub clean!
Like rkatsiteli, saperavi is widespread in Kakheti, mainly because it is hardy (it can survive in extremely cold weather conditions) and because it is a high-yielding variety. Saperavi shows surprisingly different tones depending on its place of origin and the microclimate of the area. In fact, we founded the vineyards where we did precisely because of an old Georgian Ampeological Research manual from the 1960s that stated that “the best full-bodied, traditional saperavi wine came from Kardanakhi & Bakurtsikhe, where rich forest soils dominated”.
Many people might consider the presence of stems in a wine as a mistake or a fault, but like many other kvevri wines you macerated the wine on the skins and stems for up to 6 months – why was this? What impact does this have on the final product?
The use of stems in white winemaking is a practice that dates back thousands of years. Stems, when ripe, add floral notes and more complex tannins to the wine. Stems are widely used in red wine making so why not do the same with whites?
How is a kvevri used in wine-making? What qualities and characteristics does it bring to the wine, and why?
Kvevri making has a long history in Georgia – it is an ancient winemaking vessel. Thousands and thousands of years old. But what is perhaps more remarkable is that they are still very much in use today. It is not just commercial companies that use them, in fact, it is extremely common for individuals to have their own kvevri in their backyard or basement!
Kvevris are fermenting wine vessels made from clay, which are buried underground – which is great as the earth insulates the vessel and regulates the temperature of the sleeping wine. You basically just harvest your grapes and you stick them, pips, skins, stems and all into the pot, which you then leave to ferment and eventually seal off until spring when you open up your kvevri (always a bit of a gut-wrenching experience as you are never sure how it will have turned out since you don’t have a tasting tap like in modern wineries!).
Because the juice is left to macerate on the skins and stems for such a long time, whites are orange, tannic and show a lot savoury notes like dried herbs.
The quality of the clay used in the making of the kvevris is very important and there are particular regions in Georgia that are famous for the quality of their clay – as kvevri.org once explained to me, some of the particularly good clays contain high amounts of silver content, which is of note as silver has pronounced anti-bacterial properties. Kvevri.org is an NGO dedicated to the understanding and use of the kvevri and they work closely with German research institutions for the advancement of ‘kvevri science’ if you like – they are coming to the artisan wine fair that I organize each May called RAW (www.rawfair) and are bringing with them a real, life-size kvevri that you will be able to get up close and personal with!
Kvevri-making is an artisan craft. Each one is handmade and takes a long time to build – they are effectively giant pots and, because of their size, can be very fragile. They vary in size but the biggest ones are generally hold about 2 tonnes of wine, although I have heard rumours that in times past, kvevrimakers used to build kvevris that were the size of houses!
Why is Kakheti such a good wine producing region?
The valley floor in Kakheti, where most of the vineyards are located, has a very rich soil and a multitude of different microzones, which I imagine must be a key reason for why winemaking developed in Kakheti. It is also extremely hot and dry in summer in the lead up to harvest, which makes the farming part a lot easier (less likelihood of mildew or disease for instance).
Kakheti has been an ancient viticultural land for centuries. In fact, the oldest winemaking academy in the world (I guess it was probably the UC Davis of its day!) is located in Kakheti – Ikalto Academi. For centuries, during the Dark Ages of Europe, Ikalto was a centre of learning, with a particular emphasis on winemaking and winemaking technologies.
Given that you come from France, the most prestigious wine producing country in the world, what attracted you to Georgia as a country to produce your wines?
Georgia is a wonderful country, where seasonality and simplicity of produce are still paramount. This is a quality that has to some extent been lost in western Europe. In Georgia, that is not the case. Everyone eats properly and produce is delicious – coriander smells powerfully of coriander and tomatoes of tomatoes. You only have to step into a food market in Tbilisi to get how true this is. I fell in love with the country the minute I set foot out there a number of years ago. It is an infectious country.
Georgian wine making has been completely transformed since The Georgian Wine Society first started. How would you characterise the current state of Georgian wine making, and what major developments can we expect over the next few years?
I hope we’ll be seeing lots of delicious, organic, natural, kvevri wines hitting the shelves over the next few years. Georgian wine production is currently dominated by large, volume-driven brands, focused on ‘European’ winemaking techniques. I hope we will see a renaissance in high-quality, traditional, artisan wines – there are only a dozen or so producers who sell this type of wine commercially. I’d love to see more come out of the woodwork as I really believe that there is a market out there for them.