The Georgian harvest is probably the noisiest and the busiest time for the cellar; when winemakers pray for sunny weather, each workday starts at 6:30 AM, team members become superheroes, and you witness the birth of the new vintage. What could be more exciting than the harvest joy? Follow us to learn more about the Georgian harvest, which we call Rtveli (რთველი).
The Rtveli process starts much earlier in the season than grape picking, and pre-harvest preparations play a crucial role in determining the wine quality. To begin the process, all the Qvevries, the clay pots where fermentation takes place, are cleaned several times with pure water; chemicals are strictly avoided, as they cling to the clay pores and spoil the wine. The last Qvevri cleaning is done the day before the harvest to minimize any bacteria distribution.
Rtveli then starts in Kakheti, Georgia, and next comes to Kartli, Imereti, Racha-Lechkhumi, Guria, and finally, the coastal region Adjara. Not all grapes are picked simultaneously, and some Georgian grape varieties are even handpicked in December, including Chkhaveri and Jani grapes in Guria.
In ancient times, when our ancestors didn't have refractometers or any way to measure density, they had to trust their intuition about the quality of the grapes they were harvesting. My grandfather used to say, "First, you should observe the berry itself. It tells a lot to you." White berries transform from green to yellow-golden color as they mature, while red berries gain a deep purple color. As you may know, Qvevri winemaking involves fermenting grape seeds and stems with grape juice. It is essential to use well-matured stems that are brown in color during the vinification process. Unripe skins, seeds, and stems may develop green tannins, resulting in a harsher wine.
The type of vine training system used also influences the timing of the harvest. While you will only find the Guyot trellising system in the eastern part of Georgia, the "Maghlari" (მაღლარი) system adds uniqueness to the western part of the country and leads the harvest.
Maghlari can be translated as "upper" or "higher trained," and it may remind you of the Pergola training system from Alto Adige. However, grapes are trained to grow high on tall trees instead of using wires, including cherry, mulberry, and persimmon trees. These trellising systems are an excellent solution for humid areas as they reduce the risk of fungal diseases.
Today, modern technology has simplified the harvest process, but almost all the Georgian family wineries still handpick their grapes. Rtveli is an ancient ritual for Georgians, and the entire process is done exactly as our ancestors taught us. For example, instead of using plastic buckets to collect the grapes, Georgians used wooden-handled baskets called Godoli (გოდოლი), Kalata (კალათა), and Gideli (გიდელი). These baskets were specifically adapted for the different trellising systems in Georgia's different regions.
Kalata is a small basket used in every region to collect grape bunches and different types of fruits. Gideli is a conical wooden basket from Western Georgia, where grapevines wind along with tall trees. This design allows men to climb these trees with Gideli on his forearm, collect the bunches and lower the basket with a rope. Finally, Godori is a larger basket used for transporting grapes to the cellar.
Once the grapes are picked, it's time for them to go through Satsnakheli, a traditional Georgian manual winepress. In some places, Satsnakheli was placed in the vineyards rather than the cellar. In order to minimize oxidation during the process, whole bunches of berries are crushed immediately by bare feet, while grape juice gently flows directly to the Qvevri.
This process is quite similar to the traditional Portuguese Lagares, which also involves foot treading. However, Satsnakheli and Lagares differ in shape and composition. Today, Satsnakheli is made of basswood, but it was made from the wood of giant nut trees in the past. Lagares, on the other hand, are large, shallow tanks that are typically made of stone. Despite their differences, both utilize foot treading, as this technique is the optimum way to break up the grapes and knead the skins to extract all the color and flavor possible in the short time available.
Harvest joy is always continued with a great Georgian feast. We prepare Mtsvadi, cheese, tomato salad, Georgian bread, and of course, amber wine. As a famous Georgian proverb says, "Kveli da puri, ketili guli," meaning all you need for happiness is actually less than you think. For Georgians, it's bread, cheese, and a kind heart.
By Tamuka Araviashvili, the wine-educator from Georgia