The Impact of the Soviet Union’s Occupation on Georgian Winemaking

Nothing has changed from the original qvevri to Ninidze’s qvevri in Georgia’s winemaking history, which is the oldest in the world. This includes everything from how to bury qvevri, and the construction of clay pots, to enabling crushed grapes to ferment naturally within the qvevri[1].

Russia’s takeover in 1921 pushed an ancient winemaking tradition into the shadows, where it almost totally disappeared[2]. As a result of the civil war, Georgian winemakers were compelled to either surrender their land or forfeit the whole grape crop. Many of them were forced to leave their homes and land behind. Wild vines growing on hillsides, in forests, and even on the borders of town streets would have to be harvested if they wanted to make their wine[3].

Before the Soviet Union Imposed the Rule of Georgia

Before the Soviet Union seized possession of Georgia and imposed its rule, more than 500 varieties of grapes flourished in the country’s temperate climate. Georgia’s closeness to the Black Sea has contributed to its mild climate. Natural circumstances make it possible to produce wine grapes with little human intervention. Most of the grapes were picked by hand and crushed by foot back then. This was followed by putting everything, down to the twigs and stems, into the qvevri along with some of the liquid[4].

A qvevri’s size mostly depends on where it is located, with pots in western Georgia being smaller than those in eastern Georgia. They are buried at least half a mile below the surface, where the temperature is always the same. It cannot be dug out and examined as soon as it is put in the ground[5].

Georgia wine industry

Figure 1. It takes a village to bury this huge vessel.

Wine Fermentation and Production

It takes around six months for the naturally existing yeasts to begin the fermentation process in the containers. Because the solid components of the grapes filter the liquid, the liquid naturally falls to the bottom of the container. After fermentation, the wine is either suctioned or scooped from the fermenting barrels and then bottled.

Alternatively, it may be stored in smaller containers. After then, the cleaning procedure will begin. Now that technology has advanced, winemakers may use high-pressure water, ash, and citric acid to clean qvevri barrels and vats. They then use sulfur smoke to clean the boats. This is a trait that has stayed constant. When winemakers decide where to store their qvevri, they are locked into that spot until they either sell it or replace it with a new qvevri. Qvevri is an object that cannot be transferred from place to place[6].

After the Soviet Union imposed the rules on Georgia

For a long time, this technique remained unaltered. After that, in 1921, the Soviet Union invaded Georgia and seized it. J.S. Stalin’s five-year economic plans were incompatible with the slow-moving Georgian way of life and the qvevri cycle. These plans laid out the economic goals, and several industries, notably the wine business, were pushed to be industrialized. It would be necessary to automate the production of wine in rural regions and keep the vines under control. Government authorities in the Kakheti area have eradicated more than 500 indigenous plant species. Steel tanks ultimately replaced the fabled underground clay jars[7].

The Impact of Soviet Rules

The site used for wine production was repurposed, and sterile buildings were erected on top of it. The Soviet Union’s concrete constructions are sturdy but lacking in aesthetic appeal; they are instrumental. To top it all off, the architecture of the Georgian [buildings] is genuinely unique, with hand-carved woodwork adorning the facades. Everywhere you go, you can sense the Soviet [look] that attempted to erase the culture and mood of Georgia. The Georgian aesthetic is primarily influenced by Georgian tradition[8].

In contrast to the sprawling vineyards they had previously cared for near their homes, families were given only one acre of land during that period. The old vines were ripped up and replaced with rows of high-yielding varieties, including Saperavi and Rkatskeli. Even though they could be found in plenty and were indisputably wonderful, Georgian vines lacked the taste depth they possessed. The country’s produce was [processed] by a small number of state-owned facilities. After Stalin’s rule and the five-year plans, the production strategy was industrial, and neither the manufacturers nor the farmers cared about grape quality. Especially during Stalin’s era, this was the case[9].

Manufacturing wine with qvevri also eliminates the need for any form of scale. People who produced their own wine usually did so by planting vines in their backyard and harvesting fruit from bushes and trees in the surrounding area. In this historical era, making qvevri wine was not strictly forbidden, but it could only be done in the free time of the populace. Because qvevri wine was not profitable, there was little incentive to manufacture new qvevri containers[10].

To Russia and other Georgian towns and cities, Georgia was exporting more than 440,000 tons of commercial wine annually by the 1980s. Almost no part of it was made in qvevri. On the other hand, many people in the countryside stored their qvevri in their houses’ basements[11].

After the Fall of the Soviet Union

Due to limited manufacturing techniques, it is difficult to assert that qvevri wine thrived during the Soviet Union. A significant change in the dynamics of the wine market began with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Civil unrest ensued in Georgia due to the country’s transition to an independent state. Alcoholic beverage production has decreased by a factor of ten, according to Al Jazeera’s report. Despite this, about 80% of Georgia’s wine was sent to Russia since there was no market for wine made in the Soviet-style anywhere else in the world. Another setback was dealt with by Georgian winemakers in 2006 when the Russian government, led by President Vladimir Putin, banned the import of Georgian wine. Even though it corresponded with Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration’s efforts to promote Western values, the ban’s enforcement coincided with this period[12].

Georgian winemakers were compelled to concentrate their efforts on exports to countries outside of Russia as a result of losing access to the Russian market. Unfortunately, commercial wine would not suffice. Qvevri, on the other hand, has been around for a long time and is produced in tiny batches so that it may be safe. A new field of work was made possible since the same commercial restraints did not bind the creators. Because of this, in 2004, a farm that the Soviets had previously taken over was used to bottle Russian wine. Some new wineries were born out of the embargo, even if the overall economy was negatively affected[13].

For the second time in 2013, UNESCO included the production of Georgian qvevri wine on its list of intangible cultural treasures. The same year it lifted its own, Russia lifted a prohibition on Georgian wine imports. Even though qvevri wine is just one percent of Georgia’s total export market, there has been an increase in demand from Western nations in recent years[14].

Top Wine Documentaries Timeline

ON THIS DAY

February 20, 2018: On this day, ‘Our Blood is Wine,’ a documentary from Amazon’s Prime Video service, was aired. The documentary focused on the rebirth of Georgia’s 8,000year-old winemaking culture. Jeremy Quinn, a sommelier, worked on the film with filmmaker Emily Railsback. This documentary focuses on the winemaking process in Georgia before, during, and after the Soviet Union’s demise[15].

Want to read more? Try these books!

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References

[1] Kym Anderson, The World’s Wine Markets : Globalization at Work (Cheltenham, Uk ; Northampton, Ma: Edward Elgar Pub, 2004).

[2] Nickolaus Hines, “How Georgia’s Winemakers Went Underground to Survive Soviet Occupation,” Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2018)

[3] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[4] Nickolaus Hines, “How Georgia’s Winemakers Went Underground to Survive Soviet Occupation,” Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2018)

[5] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[6] Kym Anderson, The World’s Wine Markets : Globalization at Work (Cheltenham, Uk ; Northampton, Ma: Edward Elgar Pub, 2004).

[7] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[8] Nickolaus Hines, “How Georgia’s Winemakers Went Underground to Survive Soviet Occupation,” Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2018)

[9] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[10] Nickolaus Hines, “How Georgia’s Winemakers Went Underground to Survive Soviet Occupation,” Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2018)

[11] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[12] Kym Anderson, The World’s Wine Markets : Globalization at Work (Cheltenham, Uk ; Northampton, Ma: Edward Elgar Pub, 2004).

[13] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[14] Nickolaus Hines, “How Georgia’s Winemakers Went Underground to Survive Soviet Occupation,” Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2018),

[15] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

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