The Noise of Time
(Zaliko Bodjidze in his studio)
Everything has its time in Georgia, and summer is the season for crafting qvevri - the warm temperatures and drier climate are ideal for molding clay. In the last week of August, we were privileged to visit Zaliko Bodjidze, one of the country's finest qvevri artisans, at work in Imereti. He was between two projects, as can be seen above: a set of very large, 1,000+ liter vessels, which he was preparing to fire and finish (above left), and smaller qvevri which he was in the midst of shaping (above right). Zaliko comes from a family of qvevri-makers, and has been working with clay over 50 years. It's revelatory to watch him work; as he settles into a rhythm, his face relaxes imperceptibly, and he seems to peacefully commune with something not quite present. While circling the rising clay vessel, his shuffling backward steps mark time with quick, rasping, strikingly metronomic notes. All is done by hand here - no potters' wheel, no ropes, no form except that given by his memory and muscle.
I'm convinced that the qvevri plays an equal part in the total terroir of Georgian wine, along with the soil, climate, varietal, and winegrower - it is immensely gratifying to witness the art of its construction. During our time with him, Zaliko was joined by his three sons, who assisted him throughout the process.
After several days, then, of visits to winegrowers preparing for harvest in Georgia's east and southwest, we traveled in early September to the island of Corsica, via Paris, to capture footage of their polyphonic singers, wine harvest, and Neolithic/Bronze Age archeological sites.
(Paris in September)
Corsican culture bears a strong, if surprising, resemblance to Georgia's; it's most evident in their shared tradition of polyphonic song, which is uniquely amenable to improvisation and ornamentation.
(Southern Corsican landscape)
"Choral singing is an extremely ancient element of human culture... Studying [its origins] may help us to have a fresh look at such questions as the origins of human social organization, intelligence, language, and speech." (Dr. Prof. Joseph Jordania, Ethnomusicologist, U of Melbourne, Australia) It is exactly this 'fresh look' as to origins which we seek in wine - a certain twinship between ancient music and wine is becoming increasingly clear.
Our visit was centered in the southern part of the island, where we were graciously hosted by a number of kind Corsicans; signally, Frederic Vesperini and his polyphonic group SPARTIMU. (SPARTIMU means 'let's share' in Corsican, and accurately describes the group's cultural openness.) Frederic organized events and performances for our visit, including a very moving set of songs in a wine cellar near Ajaccio.
(SPARTIMU (l-r): P-D. Innocenti, P. Loret, F. Vesperini, L. Boulet, G. Innocenti)
Choral singing implies harmony, expression of place, identity - and practically speaking, it also conveys vibrations which may have an effect on the growing vine and fermenting wine. I explored this possibility with biodynamic winegrower Jean-Charles Abbatucci, who was just days away from the end of his grape harvest. Like the others we spoke with, he is very happy with the 2015 vintage, which has been a few weeks earlier than usual.
(with J-C. Abbatucci [r])
Over the years, I have met winegrowers who blast Led Zeppelin in their cellar to speed up their ferments, and others who play soft string and wind instruments to slow them down. While not acknowledging a direct effect of music on vines and wine, Jean-Charles admitted to being consistenly intrigued by the idea, stating that he will himself, at times, employ a vibrato singer to perform in the vineyards. What is undeniable is the vibrancy and healthy vigor of his vines - one of which was particularly remarkable for having reached meters toward the sky only one year after being grafted!:
Jean-Charles' vines are also historically significant; among them are a collection, unique for the island, of a host of ancient grape varieties, such as Carcajola Nera and Brustiano, which both point to an ancient past for Corsica's winegrowing, and help to insure its future. Several cuttings of these ancient vines are now being planted by other growers on the island, including Yves Canarelli, near the town of Figari.
(Yves [l], supervising harvest)
Yves also ferments a select number of wines in clay amphora, similar to the Georgian qvevri, but above ground. He also was nearing the end of his harvest; we arrived just in time to participate as fresh grapes were sorted, destemmed, and poured into the vessels.
(Canarelli's receiving room)
Every amphora is slightly different in size and porosity. In the cave, we were fascinated to hear Yves' cellar master Antoine explain that he 'sounds out' each vessel, and chooses the grape varietal it will house depending on the pitch.
Our voyage to Corsica was rounded out by a visit to the Neolithic/Bronze Age site of Filitosa, where anthropomorphic stone statues ('menhirs') point to a consistent habitation in the island's southern valleys dating to the 6th millenium BC. Knowing that the first evidence of domesticated winemaking in the Caucasus dates to this same period, and ceramic arts were known to exist in Corsica at that time, we felt a special hush at the site, a sense of new connections between epochs.
(Prehistoric menhirs at Filitosa)
Now back in Georgia, the next weeks will take us to Imereti, Kakheti, and the greater Tbilisi area - as well as Armenia and beyond! - as the harvest period starts in full swing.
(with second-camera man J. Kvezereli, aka JohnnyD)
(ps. 'The Noise of Time' is also one translation of the title of a 1925 collection of prose by Osip Mandelstam.)