Clay Wine Tasting at Cambridge University Wine Society

So I came from the other place (as they say in Cambridge) to chat about wines made in clay vessels to the Cambridge University Wine Society. The tasting was held at St John’s College, a venerable institution in a venerable institution, straddling the Cam.

Overlooked by a portrait of the Leviathan himself, Thomas Hobbes, I made sure that my talk was not “nasty, brutish and short” (can’t vouch for the first two) in a room named after another writer who attended the college, William Wordsworth. The wines were lovely and fluid, hopefully bringing suitably imaginative poetic responses to the fore: “The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”


Matthew Prior, alumnus of my former school, and famous old chum of this august seat of learning, was at my back puncturing my oratory.

Lysander talks extremely well;
On any subject let him dwell
His tropes and figures will content ye
He should possess to all degrees
The art of talk; he practises
Full fourteen hours in four-and-twenty.

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.” (Lao Tsu). And in these cases the emptiness held some delicious wine from the drink-by-yesterday Domaine Lucci Gris Gris (let’s agris to disagris) to the stony sternness of Elisabetta Foradori’s Morei Teroldego.

Clay comes in all different shapes and sizes and gives rise to wine in all shapes and sizes. And colours. Lucci Gris Gris, so good they named it twice, is fermented in one of those dinky 675 litre Flowforms ceramic eggs beloved of our Australian friends. The fruit source, as for many Lucci wines, is Rob’s Farm in Adelaide Hills, Pinot Gris picked on the early side and fermented whole berry in amphorae. This wine is fresh and juicy and has a beautiful playful acidity that dances on your tongue. Flavours of pomegranate and raspberry make it bright and punchy, with a stalky tannin and touch of earthiness. After a bit of time nectarines and peaches come out to play and a prickly acidity is present. This wine is delicious, untamed and very easy drinking. 10 weeks skin contact and eight months in ceramic eggs – and then it is hatched – part yolk, part joke. The egg is not an incidental adornment to proceedings, an amulet-omelette as it were, but essential to the free style of these wines, the wine inside subject to biodynamic motion through the convection of liquid in the container.

2014 Aphros Vinho Verde Palhete is made in a silent, almost monastic cellar, without technology and electricity. This was an extension of Vasco Croft’s investigation into the biodynamic/holistic culture, completing in the winery the process that starts in the vineyard. Vasco prefers to call the place where the wine is made “the medieval cellar”, writing: “It is hard to credit what a natural and effortless endeavour it was to make this conversion. The amphorae (which are very difficult to find) that found their way to me were from Alentejo, all six from the same supplier, lined with beeswax by a marvellous potter (who is also a healer and is conversant with plant medicine)”.

“The Palhete is in line with the tradition of ancient Portuguese wines. Most red wines in Iberia were in fact blends of white and red grapes before the XVIII century. That is why they were called Tinto, meaning tinted. In medieval times the symbolic image that monks had in mind, when making red wine, was the blood of Christ. A wine that to contain light and transparency within itself. In Alentejo, the Portuguese region where the amphora tradition has been established for 2000 years, white wines (from amphora) are the most typical and appreciated, but they also produce palhete, blending white and red grapes, which they call petroleiro (petroleum boat) because of the similarity of the colour.”

A blend of white Loureiro and Vinhao the Palhete was a shiny reddish-pink, slippery, silky and composed, a wine that whilst harking back to the past also has relevance for the future with its low-intervention approach and pure flavour.

Skin contact wines may vary enormously in colour. We may call them orange or amber, but even from vintage to vintage the colour is always subtly different. This may be due to the length of maceration, but is more likely to do with the weather during the vintage, the timing of harvest, the ripeness of the grapes and the actual colour in the skins. Next in our quest to taste “50 Shades of Vin Gris” in clay we came to the 2014 Benimaquia Tinajas, Rafa Bernabe from lá de Lliber, Marina Alta (Alicante).

Bennymaq, as I call it, is one of Rafa’s Vinos Culturales wines from organically grown grapes vinified with whole bunches in tinajas of 400, 300 & 250 litres, fermented with indigenous yeasts at ambient temp (around 15 c)  for 30 days and natural settling.  This maritime flame-hued beauty has the seductive grapeblossom, tangerine/orange zest aromas of Moscatel, whilst the palate exhibited sapid salinity and phenolic spice-crusted fruitskins.

Talking of clay leads one to Georgia and the very origins of winemaking. I have written about qvevris at greater length elsewhere, how the terracotta pot has both a function (fermentation and storage of wine) and a powerful symbolism.

2013 Ramaz Nikoladze Tsolikouri, comes from a special place, an artisan’s vineyard and even more so, an artisan’s winery. Though winery would be perhaps to exaggerate a lean-to in the backyard with a few holes into the soil to house the underground qvevris.

The wine is Imereti style, in other words fermented without stems (around a tenth of stems are added to the pressed must) in the chacha (the marc). It’s natural – seven months fermenting and ageing in one qvevri before being transferred to another to age for another year. The wine is not as tannic as the Kakhetian ones, but the traditional Georgian fingerprint is there, thanks to the long maceration in qvevri.


When people look at the golden-amber colour they automatically assume that it will be a sweet wine, and subsequently feel that the wine was writing visual cheques that the palate was not honouring. Even the relatively gentle Imeriti style is disconcerting to those who do not expect astringency and wild aromatics in their “white” wines.  And whereas just sniffing it transported me back to the natural beauty of the vineyard and the surrounding smells of sap, wild mint and earth, that “madeleine” moment was peculiar to me. The synesthetic power of wine only works if you have strong memories or associations to flesh out the wine, or, are relaxed, tuned in and therefore sensitive to what lies beneath/beyond the liquid. However, if you create a vivid sense of place for those tasting, describing the ritual, the faces of the people and the mounting expectation as the top of the qvevri is removed and the golden liquid is brought out of its slumber to catch the rays of the midsummer sun before being decanted into outstretched glasses, then you are transported, you allow the wine to come you in the moment. The art of wine tasting is not to anatomise the liquid, but to allow it to find its context.


Locally-made amphorae play a part in several wines made by Phillip Hart of AmByth, whose biodynamically-dry-farmed vines are in Templeton, Paso Robles. One of these wines is Priscus, a Rhone-blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Viognier and Roussanne, which spends twenty-four hours on the skins before pressing into a mixture of vessels including 800 litre amphorae. The wine is utterly distinctive displaying golden sun-baked fruit (and fruit skins) with an array of exotic dry spices and herbs, pronounced balsamic notes remarkable acidity and even a certain saltiness. My thoughts when tasting Priscus is that this wine will never cease to surprise me; it has the restless energy of a living wine.

And so to the reds. In the world of clay-made wines one may generalise and say that the whites/ambers tend to result in wilder wines. There are various reasons for this – one being that the balance of phenolic extract and fruit is trickier to find. These wines tend to explore the extremes of palatal recognition with astringency, bristling acidity, dry skin fruit aromas and flavours.

De Martino’s Viejas Tinajas Cinsault is a good place to start – stylewise – if your intention is not to frighten the horses or the consumers. The vineyards for the Cinsault are located 500km south of Santiago in an area called Guariligue, just 22 km from the Pacific Ocean. Thanks to the influence of the Pacific Ocean, this is a cool climate and the terroir is characterised by rolling hills and granite deposits from the Coastal Mountain Range that date back to the Jurassic period.. Residents of this area have preserved traditional viticulture techniques such as sustainable management and using horses to work the soil.  The grapes were destemmed and then the clusters underwent alcoholic fermentation in terracotta amphorae for 15 days, as a result of carbonic maceration. The wine was subsequently aged in the amphorae throughout the winter and then in the spring, once the malolactic fermentation had been carried out, it was bottled without filtration.

Using the tinajas for the De Martino family is partly about reconnecting with tradition and also looking forward to a new terroir-focused style of winemaking. Using clay as a medium rather than oak barrels you seek the gentlest of extraction, to capture the coolness of the climate and the delicacy of the grape (Cinsault) and something of the minerality of the soils (decomposed granite). The result is light, floral as well as fruity and gastronomic and communicates the climate of Itata.

Elisabetta Foradori has moved away from the more structured, polished, dare-one-say Bordelais style of Teroldego that made her international reputation to something altogether lighter, brighter, fresher and more beautiful, and undoubtedly more authentic. She makes a variety of wines in amphorae including the Morei and Sgarzon, two single vineyard expressions of the Teroldego grape. The results obtained during years of use of biodynamic preparations and the balance achieved in the vineyards have greatly enhanced the character of the individual vineyards, so much so as to “require” a separate vinification of these two vineyards. It is through the use of amphorae (tinajas from Villarobledo, Spain), their shape, and the porosity of the clay, that all the phases of the transformation from grape to wine are carried out with purity and balance. ‘Morei’ means dark in the dialect of Trentino and the grapes from this vineyard mirror this meaning. Their roots plunge deep in the stones and sand of the soil carried downstream by the river Noce giving rise to wines with a dense and mineral texture. Thus, Teroldego Morei takes shape and is reborn, amplified and transformed.

It was fascinating to juxtapose this wine against the 2014 Pithos Rosso from Giusto Occhipinti. I asked the assembled throngitude to taste the two wines and tell me which they thought was made by a woman and which by a man. To a man (and woman) they votes for the Cerasuolo as the female of wine species.

The region of Cerasuolo di Vittoria has a remarkable microclimate. Whereas grapes in Marsala are being harvested in mid August, the harvest at COS finishes in November and yet a quick inspection of a map of Sicily will reveal that Vittoria is south of the northern tip of Africa. The vineyards are relatively close to the sea and bear a distinct maritime imprint with the wine displaying beautiful aromatic freshness and almost cool fruit flavours.

Giusto waxes lyrical on the benefits, real and moral, of biodynamic viticulture. Biodynamics for him is inextricably tied to a sense of place; the wines must always have personality and naturally reveal where they come from. They should be derived from the auchothonous grape varieties: in this case Frappato and Nero d’Avola for the reds and Grecanico and Inzolia for the white. Giusto is adamant that interventions in the winery should be kept to a minimum. Cerasuolo di Vittoria (which is the name of the DOC) must always be a blend of two local grapes: Frappato (40%) and Nero d’Avola (60%)

Vinification is traditional. The COS wines are neither filtered nor fined; wild yeasts are used in the fermentation and there is no addition of sulphur at the bottling. The winery is gradually abandoning oak and stainless as fermentation and ageing vessels in favour of the traditional amphora, the idea is that the clay jars allow the wines to breathe naturally. Pithos, a typical Cerasuolo blend of 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato, is fermented in these large clay amphorae. It is a beautiful wine with a delightful nose of sweet violets and a whisper of spiced cherries. The wine is very smooth, almost silky and the bright berry flavours cascade over the tongue to their lip-smacking conclusion. The nose has a haunting perfume combining red fruits of great purity with fine minerality, spicy, earthy notes that frame the fruit quite precisely. Think of the aromatic profile of a great red Burgundy, warmed up a notch or two by the sun. Is the wine feminine? Perhaps that is an antiquated term; certainly it is perfumed, shapely and harmonious. The Morei, also raised in amphorae, was pure in a different way, darker, precise showing stone fruit and rock salt.

Although the tasting revealed the usual spectrum of styles, the wines shared a certain identity. They were all from organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, from cooler (or temperate) regions or microclimates, and light in alcohol. In the mouth the fruit tended to be bright, energetic and sappy with a certain earthiness (remarked on by several people at the tasting).


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