In antiquity, the amphorae in the style of the Qvevri, which were first used in the South Caucasus and Anatolia, spread around the entire reaches of the Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks called them 'Pithos', the Romans 'Dolium', in Spain they are known to this day as Tinajas – which mostly have a maximum capacity of 400 litres, have somewhat thicker walls, and are not necessarily buried in soil. The Qvevri remained the sole winemaking method in the Caucasus until well into the 20th century, and for Georgian farmers, their 'Marani', the wine cellar, is both a sacred place and the centre of their home. John Wurdemann is an American painter who has been living in Kakheti, eastern Georgia for over ten years, and who, as the proprietor of the 'Pheasant's Tears" vineyard, produces excellent wines.
He estimates that around 100,000 families continue the age-old tradition of making their own wine in amphorae. Wurdemann believes the number of professional producers, however, is only about twenty. The secret of good Qvevri wine? – "As few interventions in the vineyard and cellar as possible, and healthy grapes which are not overripe. Nature does the rest."
Around two thirds of the Qvevri production is accounted for by white wines from autochthonous varieties of grape such as Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane and Kisi. The wines, characterised by their tannin and with their unusual flavours, often present a real challenge to unseasoned noses and palates. "You either like the oxidative style or you hate it. There does not appear to be anything in between," claims German wine critic Manfred Klimek. Dr. Dakishvili, who is regarded as something of an authority on Qvevri culture, and who with German businessman Burkhard Schumann produces some of the best wines from Kakheti, loves his unaltered wines, produced in the traditional way, and which do not fit into any particular category: "The white wines in particular are very intense, and much more complex than normal wines. They are also richer in flavour, have a good structure and have up to fifteen times more polyphenols. They have an ageing potential of 40 to 50 years despite no addition – or only the minimal addition – of sulphur."