On a trip to Georgia last year, one of the highlights was a visit to a qvevri maker’s workshop. We clustered inside a low-ceilinged room with an earthen floor, jostled between massive, glistening qvevri, six feet tall, like monstrous clay beehives under construction. 

Our host, Zaza Kbilashvili, is one of three qvevri makers in Kakheti. He’d turned his back on a career in law to return to his home village and help his father in the workshop. Business was good. 

Orders were coming in from far beyond Georgia and each qvevri was selling for around US$2,000, even though it was painstaking work to construct them, layer by layer, entirely by hand. There were only three families in the qvevri business a decade ago. Now, there are nine. 

Qvevri have become fashionable for fermentation and ageing, and winemakers outside Georgia are understandably eager to experiment with these romantic vessels, despite the daunting cost and logistical difficulties of transporting them. 

As we walked back out into the bright day, dazed from the gloom, I remarked to one of my colleagues how extraordinary it was that I’ve never known anyone to be invited on a cooperage visit. She smiled and told me it used to be commonplace, back in the day, when barriques were a prerequisite for fine wine. Of course! My time in wine had begun just as the fashion for wooden barrels started to decline. I was young enough to have drunk great barrique-aged wines, but old enough to have seen it become a little gauche.

INFLUENCE ON AGEING 

In low-intervention wine circles barriques, with their highly active influence on ageing wine, are often seen as an expensive contaminant, imbuing their sweetly spiced, toasty flavours to wine and giving it a suspiciously slick polish and sophistication. 

Concrete, on the other hand, is making a comeback as an ageing vessel, and, being more neutral, suits current notions of wine being made in the vineyard, not in the barrel cellar. 

If 30 years ago the focus was on making the very best wine out of a small number of noble grape varieties, now it is much more on ideas of terroir and varietal expression. With several hundred commercially significant grapes in Italy alone, it’s no wonder that the smoothing, homogenising effect of the barrique is displeasing to some. 

A wider range of approaches is certainly welcome. Far too many wines are still clumsily aged in oak because it’s the done thing for “serious” wine, yet the majority of grape varieties don’t actually digest oak well. In these cases, concrete or stainless steel can be ideal alternatives, allowing us to enjoy an unencumbered experience of the grape without the undue influence of Bordeaux or Burgundy. 

But we should be careful not to take the post-Parker backlash against the wooden barrel too far. Barriques still have a place in the 21st century, and magnificent wines continue to be made with them all over the world. Larger-format oak is also gaining traction outside stalwart defenders such as Alsace and Barolo — witness the quiet fame of Austrian cooper Franz Stockinger. 

Even in Georgia, despite the strong affinity with traditional qvevri, there’s often a busy barrel cellar in a separate room for what they astutely call “European-style” wines. 

Personally, I’d like to be in a world where all top Cabernet Sauvignon is allowed to harmonise with new French oak barriques, and all Nebbiolo isn’t. Likewise, I’ll always enjoy the hedonistic waft of toasted oak floating off a traditional Rioja, even if I really don’t want to taste it in my Rkatsiteli. It’s not an either/or choice, thankfully, and it would be a shame if the barrique got thrown out with the bathwater.