Ancient history meets modern biodynamic winemaking at Avondale Wine Estate

Winemaker Corne Marais and Avondale proprietor Johnathan Grieve in the cellar, left, and the filled and labelled qvevri in the special containment area, right.

Biodynamic wine estate Avondale has become the first winery in South Africa to introduce clay qvevri into the cellar, marking another milestone on this family-owned winery’s journey of sustainable organic viticulture and natural winemaking.

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 8 000 years.

Such is the importance of qvevri in the history of winemaking, in 2013 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed their use on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Qvevri – pronounced kwe-vree – 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.

Qvevri first caught the imagination of Grieve, and Avondale’s winemaker Corne Marais, in 2017. In June last year Mr 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 Mr 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 – Mr Marais was able to visit a number of qvevri masters.

“I eventually settled on Nodari Kapanadze, a qvevri master in a village in the Imeretian Mountains,” explains Mr Marais. “The region is famous for its pottery, and this has been a family-run business for generations, with the knowledge now handed down from grandfather to grandson.”

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.

The qvevri at Avondale each hold between 800 and 1 000 litres, and “because these are handmade vessels each one is unique, and slightly different in shape and size,” explains Mr 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. Though the qvevri’s lower firing temperature make the vessels more porous, 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 will also work with some Rhône varietals as the harvest progresses.

“On Avondale our Rhône varietals are all aged in large older barrels, because we don’t want too much oak influence,” explains Mr 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 Mr 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 a new expression in these ancient earthenware vessels from the ancestral home of winemaking.