by Massimiliano Loca
New frontiers for customers are opening up in the world of winemaking, aimed at reestablishing a direct contact between nature and human beings and recalling ancestral production methods of wine, even if revisited and readapted to the modern consumer.
Eco-sustainability involves fighting against the degeneration of crops and industrial agricultural production methods, with the aim of restoring the primordial balance between climate, seasons, plants, animals and humans. These are the basic concepts of biodynamic agricultural production methods, currently a trending topic in view of a popular will to reduce the human environmental impact on the planet. In fact, the oldest example of wine production in the world refers to such concepts: vinification in amphora, whose homeland is Georgia, a country covering 69,700 square kilometres and located in southern Caucasus.
Wine culture has been present in Georgia for centuries, representing the original strength, history and deep philosophy of the country: “Wine is the essence of life, it is the earth, the sun, love. Here we welcome new arrivals with bread and wine. Give a Georgian some bread, wine and a guest and you will make him happy”. (The Land of the Golden Fleece – Gorecki). In fact, Georgia has an ancient tradition of viticulture and is one of the oldest vine growing centers in the world. In this region, a group of archaeologists recently discovered the oldest cellar in the world, dating back to 6,000 years ago. According to archaeobotanists, the subsequent domestication of the vine makes the ancient inhabitants of today’s Georgia among the oldest winemakers in history. The Kakheti region in the east of the country, on the Azerbaijan border, is regarded as the cradle of wine.
According to the archaeologists, vines were already cultivated here 8,000 years ago. What makes Georgian wine unique are the large terracotta pots called Qvevri, used for the fer mentation and storage of wine; Qvevri are oval and have a capacity varying from 2-3 litres up to 6,000-8,000 litres. The external surface is treated with lime, while the internal one is often coated with a layer of beeswax. To safeguard this unique tradition, on 4 December 2013 the Unesco recognized the traditional Georgian method of making wine in amphorae as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. In Georgia different winemaking methods use these terracotta pots, but the Kakhetian method is the most widely used. According to this ancient tradition, whole bunches of grapes including their stalks are placed directly into the Qvevri; alternatively, they are gently trodden underfoot in order not to damage the skins too much. The must is then transferred into the traditional terracotta pots together with the skins, pips and stalks for the fermentation process which, compared with modern vinification methods, often takes more than a month.
During this period one of the most important processes is the physical movement of the skins, done with fulling, at least three times a day; this practice reduces the risk of organoleptic defects and encourages light oxygenation, in order to cool the pomace by aligning the temperature of the liquid content with the solid one and facilitate the separation and precipitation of the grape seeds to the bottom of the amphora. At the end of the fermentation period the pomace begins to precipitate, the Qvevri is filled and closed with a stone or wooden lid and, at this point, malolactic fermentation can begin. The lid is then hermetically sealed with clay.
But which are the main grape varieties originating in Georgia that have been used for thousands of years for vinification in amphorae? The main one is undoubtedly the Saperavi, an autochthonous variety native to the Kakheti region; the term Saperavi in Georgian means “coloured”, and in fact this is the most frequently used wine to blend reds which are too pale. Rkatsiteli, an unpronounceable name for us Latins, is one of the most famous and oldest white grape varieties in Georgia, from which derives wine that can be of different types, ranging from dry white to sweet wine for dessert, fortified wine and aged wine, all of them of an amber colour, with a high total acidity and a very low presence of total sulphur dioxide, which never exceeds 40 mg per litre. Wine prepared in amphorae, a surprising and primordial homage to the purity of nature…