AMPHORA: Bringing the Past Into the Present

By: Nan McCreary

Wine fermented, aged and stored in clay amphora, a practice that originated in Georgia 6,000-8,000 years ago, is experiencing a renaissance around the globe as winemakers realize that this ancient technique brings new opportunities to viniculture.

  An amphora is “an ancient Greek or Roman jar or vase with a large oval body, narrow cylindrical neck and two handles that rise almost to the level of the mouth.” In ancient times, amphorae were the principal means for transporting and storing grapes, olive oil, wine, oil, olives, grain, fish and other supplies. Georgia was the center of amphora winemaking, where the vessels were known as “qvevris.” The technique is still practiced throughout the country today. In fact, qvevri-winemaking is so integral to their culture that this winemaking technique has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.

  Today, partially inspired by the popularity of Georgia’s qvevri-aged orange wine, winemakers in Old World countries that once used and abandoned the ancient practice are now using amphorae to bring their wines back to ancient roots. Others, including New World winemakers who have no history of using amphorae, such as Chile, South Africa, Australia, Argentina and the U.S., are also using the age-old method to make new and original wines. So far, the reviews have been positive. According to proponents, modern use of this technique allows for slow micro-oxygenation, naturally-controlled temperatures, pure expression of the fruit and softening of the acidity – or, if fired at a very high temperature, preservation of acidity.

  These benefits of fermenting and aging in amphora are due to the unique properties of the vessel, just as winemaking in oak barrels and stainless steel offer their own distinctive characteristics. Oak barrels are porous and allow exposure to oxygen but also contribute flavors from the wood’s tannins. Stainless steel tanks are hermetically sealed and provide an oxygen-free environment, resulting in fresh, crisp wines. Clay amphorae fall somewhere in the middle. Because clay is porous, the vessel allows oxygen exposure as wines age, which helps soften tannins and flavors. Also, since clay is a neutral material, the presence of oxygen enables wines to develop without imparting any additional flavors. In addition, clay is an excellent thermal conductor, which releases the heat from fermentation, so there is no need for temperature control, especially if the vessel is buried in the ground according to Georgian tradition. The wine evolves slowly, preserving the fresh and fruity aromas.

  In the early days of winemaking, amphora size was generally around 30 liters. Today, amphorae may range from 320 liters to 1600 liters. The winemaking process begins when the pressed must is placed into the amphora, which is then sealed. Fermentation is spontaneous due to the presence of indigenous yeast in the fruit. During fermentation, the curved nature of the pots creates a swirling motion that gently extracts flavors and some tannins from the grapes and forces solids to settle at the bottom, leaving a clear, bright wine. There is little or no need to filter. Natural tannins found in grape skins, pips and stalks provide a natural preservative, so adding sulfur is unnecessary.

  Amphorae are generally free-standing, but some winemakers bury their vessels according to Georgian customs. Fermentation and maturation times will vary depending on the winemaker’s goals. In Georgia, they leave the qvevri underground to ferment for at least five months before being decanted and bottled. According to some experts, fermentation in amphora can take longer, resulting in a higher extraction level. Wines aged in amphora tend to mature faster, too, because of the micro-oxygenation. Both red and white wines can be vinified in amphora, with whole grapes stemmed or destemmed.

  Amphora wines are especially popular among proponents of biodynamic winemaking, who prefer minimal intervention and a natural approach to viticulture and viniculture. Since these wines are unfiltered, the process appeals to fans of natural wine and winemaking. Also, the sustainability of the amphora, compared to wood or steel tanks, offers an environmentally and financially advantage: On average, wood barrels must be replaced every four to five years, but clay amphora can last decades, if not centuries.

  So how do these wines taste? Because the wines fermented and aged in amphora are exposed to more air, they have a deep, rich texture. The presence of oxygen also softens tannins and accelerates tertiary aromas of nuts, baked fruit and chocolate. Clay is a neutral container, so wines show less oxidation than their oak-aged counterparts. They also show less reduction than wines aged in stainless steel. Generally, tasters say wines have an elevated expression of fruit, open with a bright quality and close with a long and rich finish.

  While we are seeing a quiet revolution of fermenting and aging in amphora, there is no “one size fits all” to the containers because of regional and historical differences. The vessels come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Most are made with clay, including terracotta. Others may be made with sandstone and concrete, but they are usually not referred to as “amphora.” Traditionally, amphorae were hand-made, and most still are today, either by the winemakers themselves or through specific amphorae producers.

  The unifying thread is that these wines prioritize extended skin contact, regardless of the composition. In Georgia and Armenia — where amphorae-based wine production has its origins — the vessels are called “qvevri” and “karas,” respectively. The amphorae are large, egg-shaped pots and, for hygienic reasons, are lined with beeswax. Ancient Romans used a large oval clay vessel called a “dolium,” which had a large opening at the top and a rounded body attached to a flat or rounded bottom. The dolia, often six feet in height with a 2500-liter capacity, were kept underground with a constant temperature all year. The Spanish used a massive clay vessel called a “tinaja,” which tapers at the top and the bottom like an egg. Tinaja are used by some contemporary winemakers in La Mancha, Valdepeñas and Montilla-Moriles. In Portugal’s Alentejo region, many winemakers are reviving the country’s tradition of fermenting in amphorae called a “talha.” The talhas are massive and can produce 1000 liters of wine. The region even has the world’s only appellation dedicated to wines made in amphora, Vinho de Talha. Italians use the terms “anfore,” “orci” or “giare” for amphorae. Tuscany has been the center of clay vessel production for generations.

  The revival of amphorae is leading innovative producers to experiment with improvements in the vessels, specifically in the areas of oxygen transfer rates, porosity, effects of different firing temperatures, testing of elements released by amphorae, durability and ease of cleaning/improved sanitation, among other areas. Many of today’s amphorae are far from those used 6,000 years ago, with producers offering hermetically-sealed ceramic lids that minimize temperature fluctuations and add-ons such as doors, drain holes, valves and sample taps to facilitate fermenting, aging and cleaning. Some have produced vessels with varying porosity, within limits, due to high-temperature firing techniques, amphorae that limit contact with yeast by their design, and larger-sized amphorae that can maintain original reliability performance. It’s also possible to use vineyard soil in the clay to form an amphora with a local footprint.

  Today’s amphorae are not inexpensive: Generally, prices begin at around $3,000. A stainless steel tank starts at $1,000, and an oak barrel can range in price from $900 to $2,000, depending on whether it’s American or French Oak. Concrete tanks, which offer benefits similar to amphorae, may cost as much as $14,000 for a 470-gallon capacity vessel. While amphora and concrete represent a significant investment, those who use them say the benefits are worth the expense. Not only do the vessels last for decades, but they also yield competitive wines of all varieties.

  With amphorae technology continuing to evolve, winemakers considering vinification with this method should research their options seriously. First of all, confirm that the amphorae selected are specifically made for wine and have been tested and certified to ensure there is no risk of contamination. Potential buyers should also consider how much oxygen the wine needs, ease of sanitation and cleaning, thermal insulation properties, the safety of materials and durability of the vessel.

  Amphorae are taking us back to the future. Winemakers, who by nature are continually looking for innovative ways to produce wines, are embracing this old technology with enthusiasm. For them, opportunities with amphorae abound.

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