Avondale is the first winery in South Africa to introduce clay qvevri (pronounced “kwe-vree”) into the cellar.
The United Nations Educational Organization defines a clay qvevri as:
“The qvevri is an egg-shaped earthenware vessel used for making, ageing and storing the wine. The wine-making process involves pressing the grapes and then pouring the juice, grape skins, stalks and pips into the qvevri, which is sealed and buried in the ground so that the wine can ferment for five to six months before being drunk.” Source May 2018
These egg-shaped earthenware vessels used for fermenting and ageing wine hail from the European country of Georgia. Sandwiched between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia, on the shores of the Black Sea, Georgia is widely regarded as the cradle of modern viticulture, with a tradition of winemaking dating back more than 8000 years.
Qvevri have long been a crucial aspect of that winemaking heritage. And while these vessels may have ancient roots they are set to bring a brand new dimension to the terroir-driven wines of Avondale.
“The qvevri are new for us, but they are also a progression from our use of locally hand-crafted clay amphora, which we have been utilising for years, and tie in perfectly with our natural winemaking philosophy,” adds Avondale proprietor Johnathan Grieve.
Grieve, and Avondale’s winemaker Corne Marais first came across qvevris in 2017. In June last year Marais spent a week in Georgia, visiting leading natural wineries in the winemaking regions of Kakheti and Imereti.
“I soon realized that if this is the quality of wine that’s made in qvevri, Avondale has to have some!” says Marais.
With the help of John Wurdeman – winemaker at Pheasant’s Tears Winery outside the Georgian town of Sighnaghi, and a passionate proponent of qvevri – Marais was able to visit a number of qvevri masters.
Finally the master was seleceted – “I eventually settled on Nodari Kapanadze, a qvevri master in a village in the Imeretian Mountains,” explains Marais. “The region is famous for its pottery. Kapanadze learnt his trade from his grandfather, and the knowledge has been handed down through many generations.”
Avondale’s 24 qvevri arrived just in time for the 2018 harvest, and the cellar team has been hard at work experimenting with these ancient vessels. Avondale’s qvevri each hold between 800 and 1000 litres, and “because these are handmade vessels each one is unique, and slightly different in shape and size,” explains Marais.
“At this stage we’ve brought our learning from the amphorae and fermenting the Chenin Blanc in three ways; whole-bunch, de-stemmed with skins, and lastly pure pressed juice. Naturally the reds will only make use of whole-bunch and de-stemmed methods. For now we’re really enjoying experimenting to see what characters the qvevri brings to the wine.”
As with clay amphorae, natural micro-oxygenation is a key aspect of working with qvevri. The vessels are more porous due to the qvevri’s lower firing temperature, this is countered by the application of a beeswax lining, and the fact that each qvevri is buried in soil for stability. While the first grapes to grace the qvevri come from a late-ripening block of Chenin Blanc, the team have also included some Rhône varietals.
“On Avondale our Rhône varietals are all aged in large older barrels, because we don’t want too much oak influence,” explains Grieve. “With their excellent potential for micro-oxygenation without any wood influence, the qvevri are ideal for our Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache.” Aside from adding a new dimension to the natural winemaking on Avondale, the worldwide enthusiasm for qvevri is also helping to revive a traditional craft once in danger of dying out.
“The use of qvevri has really exploded on the natural winemaking scene. In fact, the qvevri master who made our vessels now has a waiting list of two years!” says Marais.
By that time the first wines from Avondale’s qvevri may just about be ready for release. Inspired by this ancient tradition, yet guided by the estate unique biodynamic approach, Avondale’s motto of Terra Est Vita – Earth is Life – has certainly found an exciting new expression in these ancient earthenware vessels from the ancestral home of winemaking.
To sample the effects that the amphora has had on our wines please try our recently released Amphora red wine – we have found it light, refreshing and a perfect balance for autumn days. Buy now