Clay Qvevri vessels are the foundation of Georgia’s UNESCO-Listed winemaking tradition. There are only five villages where you can still see the Qvevri-making process done the old-fashioned way. One of them is Shrosha, 50 kilometres southeast of Kutaisi in Imereti.

This is where I met Sergo Bozhadze, a fifth-generation Qvevri-maker who works alongside his father, renowned clay master Zaliko, in their home-studio. Sergo showed me the ins and outs of Qvevri-craft and explained the traditions behind one of Georgia’s oldest and most esteemed trades.

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Small clay Qvevris resting on an outdoor platform, decorated with the shadows of a grape vine.
Clay and vine.

It doesn’t take long for most visitors to Georgia to become acquainted with the latter-stages of the country’s 8,000-year-old winemaking tradition – that is, drinking. If you happen to be travelling to Georgia in late fall during the Rtveli, you might get lucky and witness the ceremonial harvesting of the vines.

But before a single grape is plucked or squashed – long before the Tamada raises the first toast – another more basic component of the winemaking process must first be perfected.

Sergo Bozhadze, a clay Qvevri maker, stands in front of a Qvevri at his workshop in Shrosha, Georgia.
Sergo Bozhadze, master Qvevri-maker.

Hidden away from sight – usually right under your feet – clay Qvevri are the silent heroes of Georgian wine. According to tradition, wine is born, grows up and lives in the Qvevri. These buxom clay vessels are expertly hand-crafted with nothing left to chance – not the composition of the clay nor the grade of the curve.

“If you don’t have a good Qvevri, it’s impossible to make good wine.”

– That’s how Sergo Bozhadze puts it. And he’d know.

Sergo Bozhadze and his father Zaliko are among the handful of people who still possess the knowledge required to make a flawless Qvevri. This article documents several stages of the process, as demonstrated and narrated by Sergo.

Note: The more accurate spelling of Qvevri (Georgian: ქვევრი) is Kvevri. Most wine producers use ‘qv’ instead of ‘kv’, and since I’ve used Qvevri elsewhere on the website, I’ve chosen to stick with this spelling for consistency.

Large Qvevri wine vessels in a workshop in Imereti, Georgia.
Fresh Qvevri in the Bozhadze workshop.

What is a Qvevri?

A Qvevri is a large earthenware vessel used to ferment, age and store wine. Similar containers have been found in Italy, Spain and Portugal, but the Qvevri unearthed in modern-day Georgia predate them all. Some of the oldest Qvevri date back to the 6th millennium BC and helped Georgia earn its nickname ‘The Cradle of Wine’. 

Unlike a Greek or Roman amphora, a Qvevri doesn’t have handles. Where other ancient societies used similarly shaped vessels for storing and transporting brandy, grain and dairy, in Georgia, Qvevri were almost exclusively used for wine. Burying the Qvevri up to its neck in soil achieves stable temperatures, a winemaker’s dream, while the shape of the vessel allows the contents to circulate quite organically during fermentation.

Qvevri come in a variety of sizes with the largest specimens holding up to 10,000 litres. Anything from 100 to 4,000 litres is about average. Craftsmen like Sergo drive home the point that a Qvevri is a completely natural product: Made from unglazed red clay, treated with beeswax on the inside, and encased in lime.

Qvevri-making traditions

“He learned from his father, who learned from his father, who learned from his ancestors. This is the main idea of Georgian wine: It’s not only just for drinking, it’s a tradition that comes from centuries ago. It’s a constant chain that starts from old times and continues until today. Qvevri-making and winemaking are rare traditions that are not changing. It’s always been like this.”

– The words of my guide, Ani, after a long and animated exchange with Sergo about the roots of his family’s Qvevri-making business.

Immortality of Nation might be the loftiest business name I’ve ever heard in my life. It was Sergo’s father, Zaliko, who Christened the enterprise – and I only wish he was here so I could ask him how he came up with it.

Together with their staff, the father-son team produce Qvevri for local winemakers in Georgia and for export to faraway places where the clay cult has caught on: Japan, South Africa, India and Italy.

The outside of a Qvevri workshop in Georgia.
The Bodhadze’s Qvevri workshop in Shrosha.
A sign points the way to a Qvevri workshop in Shrosha, Georgia.
The sign out front bears Zaliko Bodhadze’s name.

They’re part of a long tradition. Different styles of pottery are practiced all throughout Georgia: Just down the road in Ubisa you can find stalls selling clay Ketsi pans and little pots used for Lobiani. I later learned a bit about Mingrelian black-smoked ceramics when visiting Zugdidi.

Clay vessels for sale at a roadside shop in Georgia.
A clay shop in Ubisa.

But Qvevri-making is unique. It’s a specialised skill – it has to be considering the scale of the finished product – and over time, it’s become associated with a couple of villages: Shrosha, Tkemlovana and Chkhiroula in Imereti, Vardisubani in Kakheti, and Atsana in Guria in western Georgia, where the vessels are known by the name Churi.

No one teaches it (although the idea of a Qvevri academy has been entertained), rather the knowledge is handed down from father to son.

How to make a Qvevri

Qvevri-making is men’s business, and it can only be done during the warmer months of the year (if the clay gets cold, there’s a greater risk of the Qvevri breaking in the oven).

Thus when we arrived at the Bozhadze’s on a blistering hot summer’s afternoon and entered the workshop – which must be kept warm and stagnant for the clay’s sake – it was only a matter of minutes before we were all pouring with sweat. Especially Sergo, who was doing all the hard work.

Blending the clay

The Qvevri-making process starts with the selection and blending of the clay. Since the raw material influences the mineral content of the finished wine, only specific types of clay can be used.

A man holds out a log of soft red clay.
Sergo uses a blended red clay to make Qvevri.

Sergo sources local clay quarried just 30 kilometres away from his workshop. To make the pottery more stable, he uses two types blended together with the addition of pure water (using dirty water is a rookie mistake, he tells us).

When someone asks about the percentage makeup of the blend, he tells us he doesn’t have a recipe – he knows the ratios by touch.

Hand-forming the vessel

Every Qvevri is individually hand-formed using something like a coil pottery method. Building the vessel up is a slow process since only 15-20 centimetres of clay can be added at a time, with a full 24-hour break in between for the previous day’s layer to sufficiently harden.

The Qvevri that Sergo is working on today already reaches his thigh. Propped up on little stilts to keep the bottom nipple shape intact, it sits in the middle of the workshop floor next to a block of raw clay that reaches as high as the ceiling.

This is the beginning of a large Qvevri, Sergo explains, that will hold around two tonnes of grapes (equal to around 1.6 tonnes of wine) when complete. It takes him a full 90 days to build up a vessel of this size.

Removing the plastic sheet and paper tape used to keep yesterday’s layer of clay soft and malleable, he starts by scoring the Qvevri with a diagonal crosshatch pattern using a thumb-shaped tool.

Sergo scores the wet clay.
Scoring the clay in preparation.

Meanwhile, a colleague seated in the corner next to the great clay wall starts preparing thick sausages of fresh, wet, sticky clay. He passes them to Sergo, who firmly presses each one onto the Qvevri from the inside, using his other hand to support the vessel from the outside.

The Qvevri grows inch by inch, with Sergo briskly working his way around the entire circumference in no time, applying one clay sausage after the next.

Sergo applies a layer of wet clay to the base of a semi-formed Qvevri.
Applying the fresh layer of clay.

Getting the proportions and shape right is an entirely intuitive process done by eye and without any measuring. Sergo knows exactly when to start tapering the sides to achieve the correct volume.

Using a curved wooden tool he calls a ‘Gonk’, he scrapes and smoothes the clay, first from the inside and then from the outside. Finished, the freshly applied layer blends seamlessly with the stem of the Qvevri.

The finished vessel will be much taller than Sergo. I look around for a ladder but can’t spot one. The final stages must be spectacular to watch as the curved top comes together.

Drying the Qvevri

Once fully shaped, the Qvevri is ready to be dried. Sergo leads us to the furnace, which is the size of a small apartment. Several finished Qvevri are already inside waiting to be joined by their brethren and a couple of flat-bottomed Tone, clay ovens used to make Georgian Shoti bread.

Three finished clay Qvevris sitting inside a firing furnace.
Sergo’s Qvevri furnace.

Sergo explains the firing process with animated hand gestures that suggest a towering inferno of flames. Once the oven is full, the open portal we just walked through will be completely walled off with bricks. Small peep holes will be left so that Sergo can spy on his clay babies.

Fire will engulf the room, and Sergo will incrementally feed the fire with two truckloads’ worth of logs poked through the peep holes. The fire will rage for five to six days, he says, reaching temperatures of up to 900 degrees Celsius.

When the flame flickers blue-white, that’s when he knows the process is finished. The temporary wall is then dismantled so that Sergo can enter the still-smouldering oven to extract the Qvevri.

The lip of each vessel is stamped with a maker’s mark bearing the Bozhadze family name.

A maker's mark with the artist's initials decorates the lip of a finished clay Qvevri.
Each Qvevri bears Zaliko Bodhadze’s initials.

Finishing the Qvevri

The Qvevri must still be warm for the final step in the process when a slab of beeswax is thrown in and the Qvevri is rolled to coat the interior surface with a thin layer of wax. This natural sealant makes the Qvevri easier to clean.

Before it’s ready to be sunk into the earth, the outside of the Qvevri is coated with limestone mortar. This strengthens the vessel while keeping it porous and breathable, crucial to the winemaking process. Natural winemakers prefer limestone but Sergo sometimes uses concrete.

Egg-shaped clay Qvevris coated in limestone sitting in the grass.
Lime-coated Qvevri.

The future of Qvevri-making

“Until it breaks.”

– How long you can use a Qvevri, according to Sergo.

The finished Qvevri that dot the yard in Shrosha are so beautiful, it almost seems a shame to hide them underground.

We might not be able to admire their perfect forms for much longer, but it’s not like Sergo’s hard work won’t be enjoyed – someone, somewhere will soon be sipping on the fruits of his labour.

When installed properly, being sure to steer clear of mulberry and hazelnut trees that can crack the clay with their encroaching roots, a Qvevri can be used over and over again, expertly cleaned (that’s another specialty skill) and re-coated with wax every year. Some of the oldest Qvevri found in commercial wineries date back to the 19th century and many families use ancestral Qvevri, a bit like a master stock pot.

Like many handicrafts in Georgia, Qvevri-making is at risk of disappearing. But as long as Georgia’s new generation of winemakers continue to embrace Qvevri techniques and place value on natural wines, there will still be a demand for Sergo’s trade.

Artisan Sergo Bodhadze poses for a photo in front of several finished clay Qvevris.

Such a specialised skill confined to such a small number of villages and so few individuals… It’s up to Sergo to continue the tradition, one clay sausage at a time. When he’s old enough, Sergo assures me he will teach his son everything he knows, everything his father Zaliko taught him.

They are the links in the constant chain. Perhaps that’s what Immortality of Nation really means.

I visited the Bozhadze Qvevri workshop as part of my Georgia Kaleidoscope tour with Karavanly. The workshop is only open to tour groups for prearranged visits. If you want to visit independently, it’s essential to call ahead first. An interpreter is required if you don’t speak Georgian. The workshop is located on the Tbilisi – Senaki – Leselidze Highway just outside Ubisa.

There are several other Qvevri workshops around Georgia, including in Kakheti. For ease, I recommend joining a wine tour that includes a visit to a Qvevri-maker, such as this itinerary with Eat This! Tours.

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  1. Would be interested in buying a Quevry amphora of 8-900 liters for a trial in Portugal, where can I buy such?

    Thank you,

    Sten Invest AS

  2. Thank you for explaining the process. It had long been a mystery to me. I couldn’t imagine a kiln large enough to fire those large Qvevri. Now I know how it is done.

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