I was at the Food & Wine Show yesterday. It’s quite the thing – more samples than you could ever get through (or afford; you have to buy tickets and they tend to run from a dollar to four dollars for lower-end stuff, and up to 18 dollars for the top end), and actually more crowds than you could easily get through either. It’s been a couple of years since last I went, and I had nearly forgotten a striking feature of the people in attendance: a very high percentage of young women wearing plunging necklines. In V-neck veritas!
But I digress. The Food & Wine Show always has a few feature countries, and this year one of them was Georgia. That’s the country in the Caucasus (known to itself as Sakartvelo), not the state in the US. Now, Georgia has been on my mind for some time, and a bit moreso recently. A decade ago I sang with a choir called Darbazi that did music from Georgia – they have an old and glorious polyphonic tradition; it’s older than the European polyphonic tradition. And it just happens that Georgia also has a very old winemaking tradition – by some accounts, Georgians were the first to stomp grapes.
Which has something to do with why Tony Aspler, whose website I edit, recently made a trip to Georgia (see “Munching through Georgia“). So that brought Georgian wine back to mind. And naturally I tried a couple of samples. And I had a query for the first person I got a sample from: “Are these made in qvevris?”
“In qvevris?” you may be thinking. “Is that some pretentious Latin term, spelled even more pretentiously with the old angular u’s – the shape now taken over by v?” Most proofreaders would probably query qvevri immediately. It is indeed a jarring word. And even once you know it’s a real term, you’ll be wondering what language it’s from. Some Scandinavian one, with that qv (think of Husqvarna chainsaws, for instance)? But, no, you can guess easily enough in this context: it’s Georgian.
And I should say that a syllable beginning with a stop and a fricative is child’s play for Georgian. This is the country that gives us rkatsiteli grapes. It’s the country that has Tbilisi as its capital city. In Darbazi, along with the church polyphony, we used to sing a charming pop song about Tbilisi, the refrain of which was as follows:
Tbiliso, mzis da vardebis mkhareo,
Ushenod sitsotskhlets ar minda.
Sad aris skhvagan akhali Varazi?
Sad aris ch’agara Mtatsminda?
Oh, yeah, see that ch’? Georgian has ejectives, too. This is a language in which a charming lullaby has words in it like vktbe. That would not help most Anglophone kids get to sleep.
But I digress again. A qvevri is a large clay amphora that is buried in the ground – only the top of it is accessible. The crushed grapes go into it; wine comes out of it. Qvevris are used for both fermentation and storage, and they maintain a constant temperature by being buried. They can hold up to 8000 litres – and, coincidentally, the oldest qvevri so far found dates from 8000 years ago. I told you the Georgians had wine and song first!
The third member of the collocation with wine and song – women – can of course be assumed to have been present in all cultures from the beginning, even if qvevri does feature those V-necks… but only in the Roman alphabet; in the Georgian alphabet, the letter for /v/ looks like a 3. Perhaps (probably not, but perhaps) this is why in Georgia the people you’re most likely to see with the wines include spokespersons for the Holy Trinity, i.e., priests (and not female ones). The only jugs they are displaying are those for pouring wine.
How does qvevri wine taste? I’d recommend you try it and see. In my limited experience, Georgian wines are pretty full-bodied, suitable for accompanying rich foods and choral music that includes stacked fifths. But never mind fifths – there’s a whole lot more wine for the drinking than that. If you’re interested in learning all sorts of things about qvevris, I can point you to Tony Aspler’s notes from the International Qvevri Wine Symposium.
As to how qvevri the word tastes, well, it involves the back of the tongue, the lips, the tip of the tongue; it’s not really hard to say at all. It has overtones of beverage and every. Its appearance may bring to mind a quirky verve; in total, it seems geared to revive. As may a good glass of saperavi or rkatsiteli. It has been pointed out that nothing important happens in Georgia without wine and song. To that, I say – as Georgians do when toasting – Gaumarjos!