An Amphora Experience
Anforak – Anhedoni – Anaphora – Aphorism – Anachronism – Anfora – Annie Hall
There was a moment of hush as Stalin’s barber cleared away the topsoil and scraped off the clay. He paused like a priest about to confer the sacraments. Only the lid remained. He stood and, so as to underline the drama of the occasion, trod deliberately around its circumference. I edged closer and willed him to take the final step.
As the lid came away, a raspberry haze rose from the ground and was swept away on the breeze. A crimson mirror reflected the scudding clouds – 400 litres of fresh young wine.
The barber took his ladle and scooped out the first glass and handed it to me. I raised it to my mouth and drank. It was a moment of magical intensity. “It’s saperavi,” he said, referring to the grape, which in Georgian means ‘pigment’. It was densely red and cool and stained my lips like blood.
Georgia and its vineyards had taken over a corner of my mind.
Rob Parsons – BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent
The more things change the more they not only stay the same, the more they hark back to the past. The rediscovery and use of the amphora, the ceramic pot, the qvevri, call it what you will, embodies the artisan desire to make wines in a natural idiom.
How does it benefit the wine to be fermented in amphora? Undoubtedly, it does have an effect – the choice of fermentation vessel, its shape, size and substance, all contribute to the final flavour of the wine. There is the intangible as well, the aesthetic component, the sense of using something hewn out of the earth to cradle and nurture the living liquid.
We are not just talking about amphora versus oak. New oak is not involved in this particular discussion – it can be assumed that the wine leaches flavours from the wood and that there is an art (and science) in coopering and winemaking to ensure that the flavours are duly integrated into the wine improving (or adding seasoning to, shall we say) the overall flavour. Or not. Old barrels, even those used on several occasions, confer something to the wine, a texture, a shape. These barrels may allow the wine to breathe; oxidation can happen or is sometimes sought according to the style of the wine. Stainless steel is the most popular medium; temperature control being a weapon in the winemaker’s armoury.
So why amphora? I think those growers who have moved away from oak and steel are looking for a less-aggressive medium to ferment and raise their wines. Whereas in ancient times amphorae were the natural vessel of choice, now it is a conscious, and one might say philosophical, decision to use clay jars. Yet, those who have made the transition, swear by them. If one tastes the same wine from, say, wood and from amphora, there is a marked difference.
The practice of using clay vessels to ferment and store wine originated in Georgia where it had a practical as well as symbolic significance.
The ancient Greeks and Romans also fermented their wine in large clay containers (dolia) with a capacity of several thousand litres and often partially buried in the ground. For aging and transport, the wine condensate (love that word) was sealed in terracotta amphorae.
The Romans, after filling the vessels with wine, sealed these amphorae, using a thick layer of olive oil at the top. As the wine was released from the bottom, for their enjoyment, the layer at the top would spread outward. The Natural Selection Theory, a bunch of Aussie vinarchistes, invoke this historical principle by making a pair of wines in glass demi-johns called “The Voice of the People” – natural wines covered with a layer of best extra virgin. They also work with ceramic eggs, the so-called “Project Egg”.
Fast forward a millenium or two and similar production techniques are being used by winemakers, especially those who work with minimal interventions. And to excellent effect. There’s no doubt that fermentation in terracotta can yield new and very fine wine characteristics.
Josko Gravner, one the foremost innovators in the use of terracotta vessels for grape fermentation, is an esteemed and innovative Friulian winemaker whose vineyards lie in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of north-eastern Italy straddling the Italian/Slovenian border. From 2001 onwards, he has used huge beeswax-lined giare made in Georgia and buried in the ground. The resulting white wines drink more like reds: deeply flavourful, dark in colour and rich in tannin.
Paolo Vodopivec‘s amphorae also come from Georgia. We should also mention the ransom story. As it goes, brothers Walter and Paolo Vodopivec had experimented with ageing their wines in wooden cask and Spanish amphorae (inspired by Gravner), but they weren’t enamoured with the results. Paolo felt sure that Georgian amphorae would be superior, and so off they went to Georgia to source some. However, the local mafia held the clay pots for ransom. The story unclear whether their demand was “Given us the lari, or the qvevri gets it!”, but the vessels were eventually ransomed and repatriated in Friuli as fermenters. Or as the anti-naturalists would have you believe, dementers.
Back to the wine. Treat it with the respect it deserves. Upon opening it is intensely tannic and grippingly mineral. Decant once. Twice. The result, if you’re patient, is a wine that has a purity and fascination that makes you want to roll it appreciatively around your mouth. Deep, rich (but not heavy) and aromatic with layers of dried peach, warm apricot and apple notes on both the nose and mid palate, a splendid Vitovska that is as bone dry as the rocks from which the vines eke out their precarious existence, yet somehow refreshing and curiously sippable with a very long finish that imparts further flavours of hazelnuts and dried fig. And interestingly different to the Vitovska that is fermented in big old barrels.
At Azienda Agricola Cos at Bastonaca, Vittoria, Sicily, fermentation is carried out in terracotta giare of 250 and 400 litres. The wine is made from 40% Frappato di Vittoria and 60% Nero d’Avola and bottled as “Pithos” (the Greek name for amphora). The wine is gorgeously soft and aromatic. Giusto Occhipinti also makes a white wine from 100% Grecanico with a certain amount of skin contact. This has grip and crunch, a slightly cloudy yellow wines with aromas of almond and straw, even vermouth-y notes and an initially astringent palate that unfolds to reveal pear, ripe citrus and herbs. See how the identities of whites and reds are exchanged – John Woo’s “Grape Face Off.”
Az. Agr. Frank Cornelissen, located on the slopes of Mount Etna is another Sicilian property using terracotta giare during fermentation. The grapes are fermented and aged according to ancient traditions in terracotta giare of 400 litres, buried up to the neck in the cellar in ground volcanic rock. Their first label is “Magma”, and the red is made using Nerello Mascalese grapes.
Castello di Lispida near Padua was converted from a monastery into a country residence and winery during the 18 C.. Towards the end of the 50’s, the castle’s wine-making activity was given a new lease of life by planting new vines and working to develop and conserve pre-industrial wine-making methods. This included underground amphoras made entirely from terracotta where the fermentation and fining of “Amphora” wine takes place. This was one of the first Italian wines made using the winemaking methods of the Romans.
While Gravner has found his perfect medium in the amphora, he will continue to experiment with various elements of the process. The maceration and aging periods, in particular, vary by vintage, yet they reflect Gravner’s intention to continually experiment with lengthier timeframes. The maceration period—which is conducted on the skins—is a minimum of seven months.
“The ground has all the life you need to give birth to grapes,” Gravner says. “A vine needs the earth to make a grape. Once you have that grape, you need the earth again to make the wine.”
“I don’t have words for that,” he goes on—Non ho parole. “How can you describe a soul? I can tell you only that these wines have real spirit.”
The best wines are like a strange and beautiful language; difficult to understand unless you open yourself to it.
The clay amphora is at the end of a process which starts in the vineyard and returns wine gently to its roots. Just as the soil shapes the vine so the soil can shape the wine, which is the philosophical and poetical underpinning of the idea. There is nothing wrong with searching for unity and harmony; out of the abstract comes something tangible and living. Virtually, all the wines I have tried which have been in amphora are extraordinary, not simply because of the amphora but in that the amphora is one living piece in the natural wine mosaic.
Roll out the amphorae:
Natural Selection Theory
Castello di Lispida
Vino di Anna
Bodega Bernabe Navarro
Domaine du Moulin
Want to read more about Amphora wines? Watch this space!
Coming soon: All you needed to know about Qvevri but were afraid to ask: An interview with John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears Winery