As told by Charles Back…
During my 40-plus years in the wine business, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to a very large part of the world. From the vine-filled hills of the Rhône Valley to the snow- covered architecture of Moscow, wine has taken me to more places than I’d ever dreamt of visiting. I like to think that Fairview and Spice Route have always been at the forefront of innovation in the South African wine industry, and it would be safe to say that a massive part of the inspiration behind this innovation stems from my travels. Georgia was one such inspiring trip.
A large number of things appealed to me about Georgia. Their culture around food, family and, of course, wine was fascinating. They have found a way to mesh the three together in a completely holistic and authentic manner without it being in the least bit contrived. The food is beautifully cooked and of a high quality. Their traditional feasts are called “supras”. A supra involves food being continuously brought to the table and a mammoth amount of toasting lead by a toastmaster known as a “tamada”. A tamada is typically someone who possesses great rhetorical skill and is able to consume a large amount of alcohol without showing any sign of drunkenness. A highly skilled individual if you ask me!
Another thing that I was amazed by was their cheesemaking techniques, some of which have been around for generations. Their sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses are delicious and enjoyed with almost every meal. One of their sheep’s milk cheeses (unfortunately the name escapes me) is made in a sheep’s skin that has been turned inside out so that the cheese is matured in the wool! This whole maturation parcel can often be seen hanging right outside a kitchen. Although tasty, there really are a few local dishes that you’ll need to be rather adventurous to try.
It was at a supra just after my arrival that I tried my first kvevri-made amber wines in their own home. My immediate reaction was one of sheer satisfaction, quickly followed by a feeling of excitement. The fact that such a simple, process with little to no interference could produce the kinds of flavors that I was tasting excited me immensely because, in essence, I’m a very very lazy winemaker! Thanks to John Wurdeman and Elene Bukhaidze, I was able to setup a meeting with the individual who makes arguably the best kvevris in Georgia. As simple as it was to set up the meeting, getting to the appointment was quite a journey.
Perched high up in the mountains, I was taken to the “factory” where the kvevris are manufactured. After being welcomed I was taken to the craftsman’s “office,” consisting of two shin-high stools, a third stool with a sheet of plywood on top serving as a table, a ruler and an old busted up car seat sat on top of two bricks. I was assigned to a stool and the craftsman took up his car seat. Together with the translator, the craftsman explained his philosophy about kvevris. The idea is using earth as a holder and submitting your grapes back to the earth for fermentation. In so doing, your fermentation takes place in the terroir from whence the grapes originated.
After a brief, broken discussion, I witnessed first-hand how the kvevris are made. What we saw was nothing short of remarkable. These huge earthenware vessels, some of which can hold 1500 litres of wine, are made completely by hand. No template, no blueprint, only the craftsman’s hands and generations of skill and technique. Sadly, this craft, this ancient artform, is on the verge of being lost. The young Georgians are not necessarily interested in continuing the legacy of the kvevri, opting rather to move to the city and pursue modern employment. The problem is that the kvevris are so uniquely shaped that industrialization is near impossible. Hopefully the resurgence in popularity of these wines will inspire a new generation of craftspeople.
After a few hours of back and forth, a lot of laughs and a few toasts, I was able to negotiate a purchase. Ten kvevris were to be made and shipped to Cape Town.
This is the third of four parts of Back To The Future to be released over a period of 4 weeks. Be sure to keep an eye out for the remaining chapters!