Thursday, 26 June 2014

The craft of making Kvevri (Georgian: ქვევრი) often incorrectly spelled as "Qvevri".

Kvevri are enormous terracotta urns or amphorae buried in the ground and used to store wine while it ferments. In the past I understand these magnificent storage jars were also used for storing grain, butter, cheese, vodka but primarily used for wine making in Georgia. Some wonderful wine is made using Kvevri and I thought  while in Pankisi we would try and find a traditional maker. Nazy, who is teetotal, was kind enough to find the local Kvevri maker, a gentle giant of a man called Zurab Karaulashvili, in Vardisubani Village near Telavi. The following images illustrate this exceptional process of coiling and raising Kvevri. 

Yes this is me standing by typical Kvevri. Once fired they are covered in cement to help strengthen them. Metal straps are also added to help protect them when an earthquake occurs. 

Below is Zurab Karaulashvili outside his workshop which was established in 1881. He was kind enough to take time out of his day to show us the whole process of making kvevri, a very labour-intensive process. Zurab told us he is the only Kvevri maker in this area of Khaketi. In 2014  he was charging 1 lari per litre volume = 2000 lari for a 2000 litre kvevri.

The clay is first dug from the ground 6km away. Sand is collected from the Alazani river bed  11 km away, sieved (through bed springs) and mixed 1:5 with the clay in an electric pugmill.

After the clay comes out of the pugmill, this lady removes the larger stones but retains the small white ones which give the clay its strength. She cuts off big wedges with a curved wire and rolls them by hand into sausage shapes ready for the potter to make the kvevri.

Eight Kvevri are carefully worked in a cool dry shed away from the sunlight. The bases of these kvevri are dug into the ground because the shed roof is so low (notice the pottery props around the base). The clay needs to be kept moist so each coil can be worked in. After adding on several coils, the female assistant shines her torch on the outside of the pot so that the potter sees what he is doing while smoothing the outside with a wooden spatula. As the pots grow in height, they increase the height of wooden planks that the potter walks on around the pots. 8 kvevri take 4-5 cubic metres of clay and 1 cubic metre of sand.

Here are Kvevri at the beginning of the coiling process with the potter Gocha Kbilashvili. This is their new concrete shed with a higher ceiling and more space that will allow them to make more Kvevri at the same time.

Once the Kvevri have been finished, eight of them are wheeled into the kiln to be fired together. The opening is bricked up and a wood fire is lit. Three men watch the kiln for seven days on a rota. They use big logs of wood which Zurab collects himself from a nearby forest with a tractor. He uses different types of timber for each day so that the fire burns hotter towards the end of the firing process. Eight kvevri take eight cubic metres of wood to fire them. The firing temperature is 900 - 1000 degrees centigrade. Zurab told us it takes twenty years practice to get the firing right.

After the kiln cools down, the kvevri are removed and beeswax boiled at 120 degrees Centigrade (to be antiseptic) is washed on the inside walls to seal them. The outsides are also given a protective cement coating.

This strange image of the floor in a cellar in Alvani are the tops of Kvevri ready at some point in the future for the seals to be removed  and wine syphoned out. OK it doesn't look amazing but giant storage jars buried in the ground don't.


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