Most wine lovers know that the Republic of Georgia has been producing wine for over 8000 years, and is considered to be the ‘birthplace of wine.’ Though the neighboring countries of Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and Azerbaijan occasionally challenge this claim, Georgia is the only country, to date, that has scientific proof.
This is due to the 8000-year old Qvevri, a 2.6-foot tall clay fermentation vessel used for winemaking, that resides in the Georgian National Museum in the capital of Tbilisi. The qvevri, unearthed in Georgia, contained ancient wine grape pips and wine compounds dating to 6000 BC, as verified by mass spectrometry and chromatography methods.
The qvevri is not only special because it is rare – and UNESCO has named it an Intangible Cultural Heritage– but because it is used to produce the extraordinary ‘amber wines’ of Georgia. This is due to a handful of modern-day Georgian winemakers that continue to embrace this ancient method of making wine in qvevri.
Crafting Amber Wine in Qvevri
“Only 5% of the wine produced in Georgia is made in a Qvevri,” stated Christy Canterbury, MW, current Campaign Ambassador for Wines of Georgia, in a recent webinar. “Both red and white grapes are used to make wine in a qvevri, but in Georgia, they call the skin-contact wines made with white grapes, ‘amber wine,’ because of the beautiful golden color of these wines.”
Canterbury cautions that in Georgia they do not use the term ‘orange wine,’ because their wines are truly ‘amber’ in color.
The amber wines, often made with local Georgian white grapes, such as Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, and Kisi, are amber in color because the wine is fermented on the grape skins. The grapes are harvested from the vines, slighted crushed, and then put in a qvevri with skins, stems, and seeds. The qvevri is sealed with a clay lid, and buried in the ground.
“For amber wines, I like to ferment in qvevri for around 6 months,” reports Lado Uzunashviili, Chief Winemaker with Mukado Wines in Georgia. “However, for red wines, I prefer to macerate in qvevri for only 30 to 45 days, because red grapes have more tannins.” A common Georgian red grape that is used to make qvevri wines is called Saperavi.
Uzanashviili explains that qvevri come in different sizes now – some up to 6 feet tall – and that different types of clay are used, depending on the winemaking region. He further explains that cooler regions, such as Racha usually use less skin contact, than warmer regions, such as Kakheti.
Tasting and Serving Amber Wines
So what is the taste of an amber wine from Georgia? In general, most amber wines are dry and have notes of golden apple, honey, nuts, and a hint of a savory flavor with orange zest and herbs. Some may even have a touch of oxidation, but this can be part of their unique character.
“Every qvevri wine is different,” stated Uzanashviili. This is because the taste depends on many factors: the type of white grape used, the size of the qvevri, the clay used to craft the qvevri, and how cold the ground is in which the qvevri is buried – which can fluctuate by vintage.
When serving an amber wine made in qvevri it is very important that it be served at around 55-65 F. “Don’t chill them,” cautions Canterbury, “they are not rosés. I’ve never seen any wine drinking culture so sensitive to temperatures than Georgia’s,” she continued. “They usually put the serving temperature on the back of the bottle. Amber wines should be drunk like red wines.”
Amber wines can also be paired with food in a similar fashion as red wines. Due to the fact that they are more structured on the palate, in Georgia they often pair them with spicy lamb dishes, steak, fatty fish dishes, and hard cheeses
Seeking Out Rare Amber Qvevri Wines from Georgia
Since only 5% of the wine produced in Georgia is made in qvevri, and some of that is red qvevri wines, finding an amber wine made in qvevri may take a little effort. But it is worth it. Some fine wine shops in the U.S. carry these wines, and a few may be found online. Also the Wines of Georgia provides a list of U.S. restaurants and wine shops that may have them. Prices range from $18 to $65 per bottle.
The wines will generally state on the label that they have been made in qvevri, and often will include a description so you know what they taste like. However, half the fun of trying an amber wine is discovering the unique tastes and surprises in the bottle. The other half is knowing that you are experiencing a wine that has been made in the oldest winemaking vessel in the world – a qvevri.
About Georgian Wine Production and Tourism
Georgia now has 10 wine growing regions (see map below), over 1000 wineries, and produces around 93 million bottles of wine annually, according to Wines of Georgia. In 2019, it exported to over 340 countries at a value of $238 million. A recent report showed that wine exports to the U.S. increased by 7.18% in 2022.
The majority of wine made in Georgia is produced according to modern wine-making styles, such as use of stainless steel and cement fermentation, and oak barrel aging. Therefore, many of the wines are classic or international in style, but are produced from unique native grapes. However, a small percent is small made in qvevri.
The largest wine region, Kakheti, located in the Eastern part of the country, produces 75% of the wine. The second largest region is Imereti, close to the Caspian Sea, and produces 15% of the wine. The third largest wine region is Kartli, which surrounds the capital city of Tbilisi. In 2020, Georgia had 25 PDO’s – Protected Designations of Origin, which may grow in number as the wine industry continues to expand.
There is a thriving wine tourism industry in the country, which welcomes thousands of international visitors each year to taste the wines and mouthwatering cuisine of Georgia. Caressed by the Caspian Sea on the West, and towering mountains inland, the country of Georgia is also blessed with many historic sites and monasteries.