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Malolactic usually starts spontaneously quite soon afterwards, say in the next month – in 5 vintages we have never had it not happen. They are sealed inside with hot beeswax and the lid of the qvevri – after malolactic – is sealed with wet clay coiled around the top and then a heavy stone placed over it. The qvevri themselves are permanent unless moved for reinstallation, while the wine is usually racked when the temperature in the earth starts to warm up, at which time it can be bottled or moved into a newly-cleaned qvevri. There are many different means such as used cherry-bark scrubbers as well as various other “old-school” tools, but if you put powdered lime rock with clean water it starts to heat up to a high temperature searing the inside of the qvevri and cleaning any small amount of bacteria that might be stuck in the pores.
In spring, when the earth starts to warm up, we usually open the fermentation qvevri and move the wine into freshly-cleaned qvevri for storage until bottling – or bottle right away. After this we pump in fresh water and pump out the old water until pristine. For many centuries – our oldest ones date back to mid 19th century, for example.
The qvevri is not just for storing wine, but is also a part of the technological process.
The fact that wine doesn’t get excessively influenced by seeds, skins and stems (chacha in Georgian) while stored is due to the inverse conical shape of the vessel.
How would you say that the process of fermenting and ageing in qvevri affects the wine – compared to stainless steel or wood, for example?
Qvevri are porous and so closer in style to old barrels than stainless steel.
The few European producers that have borrowed this technology from Georgia – such as Josko Gravner – still call the vessel “Amphora” (or Anfor) on their labels, which bothers the Georgians. There are about five good qvevri producers, but they are all living in poverty and the craft is in danger of dying out.
They feel it sounds like a Roman or Greek cultural attribute whereas this is much older and indeed derives from Georgia. We are currently trying to solicit funding to help build a school for a new generation of qvevri craftsman to be taught the skills.
In addition to breathing they are surrounded by a constant temperature on all sides allowing for slow gradual fermentation and relatively stable storage conditions.