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Gravner and new Qvevri

Qvevri Revolution: Joško Gravner, Part 2

In Part 2 of the article on Joško Gravner, we will delve into his truly unique and revolutionary use of Qvevri. This technique wasn’t seen beyond Georgia until he adopted it in Italy.

In Part 1 of this article (Back to the Future), we witnessed Joško Gravner’s remarkable resilience and innovation. After losing an entire harvest to hail in 1996, he was left with only a tiny amount of Ribolla Gialla. Undeterred, he experimented with it, reviving an old practice that had vanished in Collio before the First World War. The white wine was made using skin contact. Ribolla Gialla, with its particularly thick skin, was perfect for this process.

Consequently, the grapes were fermented in a manner akin to red wine using a process called maceration. This method, which involves retaining the grape skins, pulp, pips, and stalks with the juice, created Gravner’s first amber/orange wine. It was fermented in an old wooden vat with natural yeasts and without temperature control, heralding the revival of ancient techniques. However, a crucial element of Gravner’s winemaking puzzle still needed to be included: the Qvevri.

A Qvevri Primer

Essentially, a Qvevri is a Georgian clay amphora in an egg shape. It comes in various sizes, from 50 to 4,000+ litres. A person can fit inside a larger one with some wriggling and a ladder. Georgians use them for wine fermentation and sometimes for maturation and storage. Unlike other amphorae from the ancient world, they are not for transportation and have no handles. The word Qvevri is singular and plural, meaning “that which is buried.1

Undoubtedly, the Qvevri is a profound symbol of winemaking’s extensive history and culture. Unlike other traditional clay vessels (such as Spanish Tinajas or Greek and Roman Amphorae), a Qvevri is always buried in the earth (perhaps surrounded by sand and gravel), with only the very top visible above ground. Georgian Qvevri, dating back thousands of years to the inception of winemaking, was acknowledged as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013, underscoring their enduring cultural significance and value.

Qvevri can be claustraphobic (Source: UNESCO)

Qvevri can be claustrophobic (Source: UNESCO)

Qvevri are most common in the eastern Kakheti area of Georgia, although they are also in central Georgia in Imereti. They are made from two forms of pure red clay, which naturally occurs only rarely.

Despite the adversities of the Soviet era, families in Georgian villages demonstrated remarkable resilience in preserving the Qvevri. Due to ideology, collectivism, and the rise of modern industrial-scale winemaking to slake Russian thirst, the knowledge of how to make them was suppressed and at risk of being lost. Yet, these families held on, ensuring the survival of this unique winemaking tradition.

Qvevri-making restarted before the knowledge was lost. Now, five Georgian villages are making Qvevri again.

Burial is Key

Clay pots are inherently fragile, and anybody who’s ever had a terracotta plant pot in a garden knows how susceptible they can be to weather, especially frost. Also, the larger the vessel, the higher the risk of breakage and the higher the cost.

However, the burial of Qvevri is a stroke of genius. It minimises thermal variations and dissipates heat, ensuring a slow and steady fermentation process. The surrounding earth also lends strength, reducing the risk of breakage. As we will see below, this unique burial method brings significant advantages, making Qvevri a unique winemaking tool.

Making a Qvevri

Only when you see a newly made Qvevri can you appreciate the skill and time required in creation. Master potters inherit their knowledge and skills through the generations.

A Qvevri is a gigantic coil pot. A potter’s wheel only makes the point at the bottom. On that, the potter adds ropes of terracotta by hand. A layer of about 20 cm per day is the most that can be built up to ensure it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. The walls are about 4 cm thick, and there is no moulding to help make the shape or add temporary support; it’s all done by eye and experience. That means it takes about three months to make a large Qvevri, so they are made in batches. How do you get the experience of making a large Qvevri? Start with a small one!

But that’s not the end of it. The Qvevri must dry out slowly to avoid cracking, which can take over a month. Then, the firing is in wood-fire kilns built big enough to take several Qvevri at a time. The temperature must be consistent and around 1,800°C. Continuous attention to the firing is necessary, as there is no temperature control except for the amount of fuel. This can last up to six days, with another two days required for slow cooling off.


Now, while still warm, beeswax covers the inside. The residual heat in the pot pulls this into the pores in the terracotta, so this beeswax isn’t a glaze (which could rub off). Instead, it reduces air passage, ensures the wine inside won’t leak and makes it easier to keep clean.  Finally, a white quicklime plaster coating may be added outside for extra strength and protection. Hence, a Qvevri waiting for burial may be white rather than terracotta in colour.

No wonder Qvevri are expensive!

Josko Gravner turns to Qvevri

Encouraged by his initial skin-contact results, Gravner converted to making only skin-contact wines from the 1997 harvest. Meanwhile, he read the encyclopedic Naturalis Historiae by the Roman scholar Pliny The Elder because this contains detailed observations on winemaking using clay amphorae. Providentially, Gravner also met Georgian refugees in Slovenia, from whom he learned more about Qvevri.

The Journey

In 2000, Gravner went to Georgia. Obtaining a Visa took two months, and the authorities regarded foreign strangers with suspicion. There was political unrest from a legacy of Soviet rule and Russian political interference. Transport was difficult, and the language was challenging. Qvevri production had ceased. Nevertheless, Gravner saw the potential, and his first order for eleven Qvevri enabled production to recommence.

Most Qvevri are made close to their place of burial. However, Gravner’s required a long and arduous journey: navigating rough Georgian roads before 3,000 km by sea. Consequently, their arrival in Oslavia should have been a triumph. Instead, nine of the eleven Qvevri were broken and unusable. Despite this setback, Gravner was resolute and ordered more, this time protected with white lime plaster.

Since 2001, Gravner has used Georgian Qvevri to ferment all his white grapes. The red varieties followed suit in 2006. These Qvevri are buried in the cellar, with capacities ranging from 1,300 to 2,400 litres. This was no easy transition, but there are now 47 of them here, with another 18 buried outside in the garden. In 2017, Gravner introduced whole-bunch fermentation, and those wines are still in the final stages of maturation.


At Gravner, the hygiene is immaculate. You don’t expend all that effort on grape quality to ruin it with shoddy winemaking. Water and elbow grease are pretty much free. You need plenty of both. Maybe a bit of beeswax for Qvevri maintenance and a sulphur candle or two to kill any airborne microbes. Cleaning and sterilising are essential to prevent microbial spoilage bacteria such as Brett. Natural winemakers, take note!

But hygiene starts in the vineyard, ensuring only the best, ripe grape bunches and no rot (unless it’s noble).  Joško Gravner even insisted on cleaning my boots with compressed air before entering the cellar.  Cellar? It’s more like a meticulously clean neolithic burial chamber. The height of the cellar indicates how tall the Qvevri are before burial. Joško calls it his Posto delle Anfore.

Posto delle Anfore

Posto delle Anfore Qvevri

Posto delle Anfore: Qvevri and The Chair

No vinification equipment is necessary in the cellar save a wooden ladder (for climbing inside the Qvevri for cleaning), a wooden pole (for punching down the cap of skins during fermentation in the Qvevri), and a pipe for racking. There are 47 Qvevri buried here. Some are full (they have lids for fermentation but not airlocks), which are sealed after racking, and some are open and empty, ready to receive racked wine.

18 more Qvevri are buried outside in the garden, with more to come. Are there differences in the wines outside compared to inside? It’s too early to say, but Gravner intends to find out.

Punching down the caps of skins that rise above the juice is vital during the first alcoholic fermentation. This process avoids volatile acidity (VA) and ensures consistent extraction. Also,  as the cap gathers in the narrower and more fragile neck, it puts more internal pressure on the Qvevri, which punching down relieves.

This process is done six times per day throughout the fermentation period.

Given their literal pounding, checking the Qvevri regularly for solidity is essential. This is easy. Tap them, and they should ring like a bell. A dull thud means a fatal crack. Gravner can replace a broken buried Qvevri, though this is a four-day task.

The Chair

There is a solitary wooden chair to take a breather or sit on while racking the wines. It is also a place for quiet, zen-like contemplation of the universe.  I was fortunate to spend a few minutes alone in the cellar, sitting on that chair in that sacred space. You could say this is where the magic happens. No, the magic happened in the vineyard, so this is where the magic is captured. Here, in the silence, all is calm. I recall an aphorism from Pliny the Elder:

True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written, in writing what deserves to be read, and in so living as to make the world happier and better for our living in it.” 

Winemaking with Qvevri

At harvest, the grapes are collected in 25 kg crates. Up until 2016, the grapes were picked singly, with some stems retained. Since 2017, they’ve been whole bunches, another simplification. These fall through the trap door on the cellar roof and straight into the clean Qvevri.

A range of Qvevri sizes offers different conditions. Larger ones have more volume, so they will ferment at a higher temperature, offering more extraction of tannins and colour. Conversely, smaller ones will ferment at a lower temperature, retaining more aroma and fruit. There is no temperature control except for burial in the ground; fermentation is spontaneous using natural yeasts on the grapes and can last six months (the record is 14 months), with the exact timing varying each year.

The wines ferment to dryness. Then, they are racked and returned to a clean Qvevri. The pomace is removed by hand and pressed in the basket press, and the resulting wine is also returned to Qvevri. The Qvevri mouths are sealed, and the new wine remains in them for six months, clarifying naturally without fining or filtration.

Sulphur as a preservative is minimal but necessary at grape reception, racking, and bottling to ensure no spoilage, considering the long maturation times and a desire for clean wines. Racking is performed on a waning moon, a typical Biodynamic practice.

A Word or Two on Maturation

Gravner does not use Qvevri for maturation, which may sound strange given that other wineries usually employ their amphorae in that way. Indeed, in Georgia, the new wine is often considered ready to drink after racking off. After all, the Georgian winemaking tradition is based on families making what they need for themselves and clearing space for the following year.2

Unsurprisingly, Gravner takes a radically different view: after about a year in Qvevri, the wines require extensive maturation in a separate cellar to harmonise and prepare for release.

Those wines from the first Qvevri vintage in 2001 had 3-4 years of maturation, and with hindsight, he considers this insufficient. Hence, all the wines now undergo malolactic fermentation and élevage in old, inert Slavonian oak barrels of various sizes for six years. Some parcels considered exceptional “Riservas” get 13 years. The barrels are kept topped up to avoid too much oxidation.

A seven-year wine production cycle ensures that the wines have time to develop unmatched flavour and texture characteristics through the slow exchange of oxygen. After this, the wines are ready for release and ready to drink.

As for seven years, Number 7 is auspicious! Consider these observations: seven days make a week, seven classical planets, the sabbath is the seventh day, seven deadly sins, seven wonders of the world, seven colours in the rainbow, the opposing sides of a dice sum to seven.

A New Project Pending

Even now, the restless Joško has a new maturation project, one slowly coming to fruition after 20 years of thinking. In short, he will keep the six-year maturation timescale but replace some of the years the wine spends in old oak barrels with several new vessels made from pharmaceutical-grade glass to their specification.

I know some project details, which is a privilege. However, these will remain confidential to respect commercial sensitivities until Joško and Mateja formally announce their intentions. As every Magpie knows, seven is a secret never to be told.

And Finally

Congratulations on reading this far. Thousands of words have been spilled without mentioning a glass of wine so far.

Until now, because that’s the purpose of Part 3 of this article, Amber is Gravner’s Colour, which will cover the wines, vintages, serving suggestions, food matches and probably the kitchen sink.

Part 1 can be found here.


1 My special thanks to Carla Capalbo for this explanation.

2 This is only sometimes the case, but some Georgian Qvevri wines might benefit from additional maturation time. Of course, this can be an economic challenge for small artisanal producers.

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