Devil's Advocate - Amphoras are in Fashion, but not as Simple as they Seem

Robert Joseph reports from a fascinating conference session in Milan on amphora.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

Boys notoriously love toys with buttons to press that make things happen. Girls may like them too but, apart from the Women in Wine who had a meeting at the event, the SIMEI fair in Milan was a predominately male affair. Described simply, situated in the largest exhibition centre in Europe, the biannual event is the world’s biggest toy shop for anyone with more than a passing interest in viticulture and winemaking equipment. It is also the place to attend some fascinating conference sessions. I took part in two of these this year - on low- and no-alcohol wines (about which I’ll write more in another column) and on amphora. 

Clay pots may not have the shiny stainless steel appeal of most of the exhibits at SIMEI, but the stands on which they were on show were among the most popular. I met buyers from Australia, Germany and Moldova, all of whom were seriously weighing up the costs of different sizes and models. And our conference session certainly earned the hackneyed expression ‘standing room only’.

Ancient History

Chaired by the young Italian MW, Gabriele Gorelli, it began with an enlightening historical presentation by Professor Attilio Scienza, who not only traced the ancient history of amphora but also raised philosophical questions about the fact that they were always made from clay and water and thus, like wine, have an essentially natural character.  Scienza described how regions developed their own shapes and how this, together with the inscriptions they bore, constituted the earliest form of wine branding. He also made the essential point that winemaking and transport were only two of the uses to which amphora were put. Before barrels took over, as archeologists have discovered, they contained almost everything one might imagine, including - chillingly - the skeleton of a child.

Georgia has of course earned a reputation for maintaining this ancient tradition for 8,000 years but Spain - in Castilla la Mancha - and Portugal - in Altentejo - have also continued to use amphora, though - in recent times at least - without adopting the Georgian concept of burying them underground. But until the last few years, few people outside those countries and regions really noticed. My first experience of an amphora white was a rustic effort drawn from a qvevri by a priest in a monastery in Georgia in 1988. But by then, Domingos Soares Franco of the dynamic family that owns JM da Fonseca ,and the first Portuguese enologist to graduate from UC Davis, had already begun to experiment with amphora-fermented reds a few years earlier. The company’s first fully amphora wine did not go on sale until 2015, when it promptly earned 91 points from the Wine Spectator.

As we assembled in Milan, on November 16th, it was just five days after the internet had buzzed with images of Portuguese happily drinking this year’s white talha  - amphora - wine on the 11th, the local equivalent of Beaujolais Nouveau day.  But as Paolo Amoral, senior JM da Fonseca winemaker responsible for the company’s amfora winery acknowledged, making wine in these vessels is still minority pursuit, with just 29 wineries doing so commercially. His produces 7,000 litres of red and 1,500 of white from old vines every year, which are priced at €35 and €30 respectively. Both sell out, he says, but he wouldn’t want to have to increase production, even if he had other vineyards of similar quality. Listening to him, I had the impression that the growing list of South African wineries that have followed Charles Back’s lead in making amphora wine there may have an easier time selling it than some of their counterparts in Portugal.

Not so Natural

Amoral described how his  amphora are cooled by having water hosed on them and that, while he likes to rely on native yeasts and neither fines nor filters, the final wine has around 80 parts of SO2 - rather more than natural wine fans might expect. Natural wine fans who have adopted Georgian qvevri wine might be similarly disappointed to learn how many of those are not low in SO2 and indeed are often filtered - another no-no for natural wine. 

Amoral revealed another issue that the amphora browsers at SIMEI might not have considered. Just as oak barrels vary depending on the forest where the trees were grown, clay varies too. He listed a set of villages in his region, explaining that pots from one were only used after fermentation while those from another were reserved for whites.

At this point, I chipped in with a story from Georgia where the Khareba winery (with whom I am working on a project) recently unearthed and disposed of 15 qvevri they had bought few years earlier, because of off-flavours that had developed in a few of them. Vladimer Kublashvili, the winemaker believes that the clay had not been fully dry when the pots were delivered.

Not all the Same

Even when amphora are perfect, and kept really clean - much easier for amphora sited above the ground than for buried qvevri - their contents may vary quite significantly. This is true of barrels of course, but barrels don’t usually contain  over 1,000 litres.

Whatever the size, the question I raised for the SIMEI amphora-browsers was what they wanted to do with one or more if they were to take the plunge. Did they want to experiment? Or did they already know what they were planning to produce? Was the amphora to be a talking point for visitors (and a reason to charge a little more for the wines they might buy)? And if so, where was it to go? And was it better to buy a traditionally-shaped version or the one that looked - to me at least - like a giant cremation urn.

Red amphora wine is not that different from conventionally-produced examples of the same grapes while all amphora white is at least somewhat amber or orange. But, of course, one doesn’t need an amphora to make skin contact white and some producers prefer the purity of doing so in stainless steel.

Varieties Matter

The choice of grapes matters too. In Georgia, Rkatsateli is widely used because it is the most widely planted white. But, just as new oak barrels can overpower the wine they contain, the ‘qvevri character’ often overshadows the relatively neutral character of the variety. Qvevri Kisi and Krakhuna Georgiuan whites are more interesting, just as a number of Italian varieties probably perform better in amphora than all but the best Trebbiano.

Speaking at the SIMEI session, Elena Casadei  the young winemaker and amphora pioneer of her family’s wineries in Tuscany and Sardinia acknowledged the need to select the ideal variety, saying that, with reds, she had found Syrah to be a particular success.

Casadei addressed the winemaking choices raised by using amphora. Remove some or all of the stalks, or leave them on? How long to leave the wine on the skins: three months, six or longer? Bottle a 100% amphora wine, or blend it with wine that has been in wood or stainless steel? Or, as some Georgians do, ferment in amphora and age in oak.

So many questions to be answered for anyone buying their first amphora. And even more for at  least one Australian visitor to SIMEI I met. “I’m really split between an amphora and an egg. And if I went that way, then there’s the question oif which egg, and whether to go for concrete or stainless steel.” It was a brief encounter, and I never discovered what he finally decided. As we parted, he was wondering about possibly buying an egg and an amphora. “But I don’t know if I could get that past my wife. She does all the accounts…”

 Boys, as I said, do love their toys.




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