Sommelier Shergil Pirtskhelani of Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in Georgia. Picture: LESLEY STONES
Sommelier Shergil Pirtskhelani of Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in Georgia. Picture: LESLEY STONES

It’s fascinating to watch winemaker Zaza Kbilashvili dip a ladle into a massive clay vessel buried underground and extract some amber liquid.

He pours it into my glass and I take a sip, then cough appreciatively. I’m finally getting used to the robust, sometimes musty wines of Georgia, where semi-crushed grapes and their pips, stalks and skins are tipped into massive pots called qvevris and left to ferment naturally up to their necks in soil.

Then my ears prick up when I hear that SA winemaker Charles Back visited Georgia last year and was so intrigued by qvevris that he imported 10 of them for his Spice Route vineyard in Swartland. I sip again, and wonder if this 8,000-year-old method of winemaking could take off in SA too.

Kbilashvili makes the enormous qvevris by hand, adding a few centimetres of clay every few days and taking two months to make a 2,000l vessel. The clay is carefully chosen, since its characteristics will influence the flavour of the wine. Once six qvevris are finished, they’re hauled to a kiln and baked for a week. Then they’re lined with melted beeswax, buried, filled with crushed grapes and sealed. Six months later, wild yeast should have fermented the mush into wine, with the white wines tinged amber from slight oxidation through the porous clay.

Charles Back (left) at a qvevri-making workshop in Georgia. Picture: SUPPLIED
Charles Back (left) at a qvevri-making workshop in Georgia. Picture: SUPPLIED

Twelve thousand kilometres away in the Swartland, Back bottled his first qvevri-made wines this month and he’s delighted with the results. He discovered this ancient technique when he spent two weeks touring Georgian vineyards with Living Roots, a travel company that promotes the country’s traditional culture.

“I was fascinated by it because my late father had made wine by fermenting it on the skin, but there was no market for it. It’s a very different style. Our winemaking is clean and crisp and these were very big, bold, darkly coloured white wines,” Back remembers.

In fact in 1978, when his father fermented chenin blanc on the skins with no additives, the Wine and Spirits Board refused to certify it. “To them it tasted like very badly made wine!” Back says.

Some years later it’s a different story. While some Georgian wines have an earthy flavour you wouldn’t necessarily want to pay for, Back and his winemaker, Charl du Plessis, have added their technical expertise to the process. Du Plessis also went to Georgia last year to work at vineyards including Pheasant’s Tears, which is pioneering a revival in traditional grape varieties and methods.

Under Russian occupation, the communists ripped out most of Georgia’s 525 varieties of grapes to focus on only a few and processed them all through factories. Now sommelier Shergil Pirtskhelani of Pheasant’s Tears has helped to track down and replant more than 400 long-forgotten varieties from museums and seed banks. It’s a bold, long-term experiment, but so far every grape they’re working with is amazing, he says.

“When you sip the wine it really makes you proud that we worked hard to revive that variety.”

Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in Georgia. Picture: LESLEY STONES
Pheasant’s Tears vineyard in Georgia. Picture: LESLEY STONES

Fermenting them in qvevris is risky since wild yeast can impart odd flavours. “You need to know exactly what you are doing or the qvevri can ruin your wine. It shouldn’t have mouldy, mysterious flavours, but wild yeast can give it what I call funky flavours,” Pirtskhelani says.

Back laughs at the memory of those hearty wines. “I don’t do funk at all!” he says. “They push the boundaries quite a bit further in Georgia than we’re going to do. I wanted to blend the traditional method with the understanding of wine technology so I could make wine with the multifaceted character but have it very technically sound. It’s a really fun project to do.”

Back also owns Fairview wine estate, but chose his Spice Route cellars as the base for the 1,000l qvevris. The Spice Route grapes are grown organically, and the dry climate and wind keep them free from mould that would taint the flavour during fermentation.

“The big thing to watch is volatile acidity,” Back explains. “Natural acidity in the grape gives the flavour, but volatile acidity is from bacterial activity. A lot of Georgian wines have volatile acidity, which adds to the funkiness.”

To avoid that, glass lids were sealed on with wax to keep oxygen out, because the troublesome bacteria need oxygen to thrive.

Installing the qvevris in the Spice Route cellars in Malmesbury, Swartland. Picture: SUPPLIED
Installing the qvevris in the Spice Route cellars in Malmesbury, Swartland. Picture: SUPPLIED

Back and Du Plessis fermented different grape varieties in different qvevris for six months to see how well they fared, including sauvignon blanc from the oldest block in the country. Leaving the white wines for longer would turn them amber, but Back doesn’t think South Africans are ready for that yet. A sémillon has already turned out far more expressive than the usual sémillon, so that’s being bottled as a single varietal. “It really stood out as iconic on its own,” he says.

The 10 qvevris have produced about 8,000 bottles of wine, which will be officially launched on September 1 under the name Obscura.

“The first camera in the world was a camera obscura, where the image was inverted, and I liked that. We’re taking grapes from above the ground and putting them underground in the qvevris,” Back says.

Despite the hefty investment in the qvevri installation, the Obscuras will cost about R200 for white wine and R250 for a red blend, in line with the usual price from those vines.

Back is so confident that the time is right for a return to this natural, artisanal process that he’s asked Kbilashvili to make him another 10 qvevris that can each hold 1,200l.

“I definitely think there’s room for this kind of wine in the more sophisticated restaurants in SA, and the wine business needs a bit of a shake-up,” he says. “I have been doing this for 41 years and you start instinctively knowing if you are onto something or not, and I think I hit the jackpot with this one.”