The sight of a dimly lit wine cellar laden with rows of oak barrels is a lovely reminder that some traditions never change. Wooden barrels were first developed during the Iron Age, and without them, we’d be missing out on some of the world’s finest beverages. But, archaeological remains suggest that fermented grape juice was contained in underground clay jars long before coopers crafted oak.
What comes to mind are ancient Egyptian earthenware and artifacts, particularly the double-handled pots or amphorae, which originated from the Greeks. These vessels were used for storing and transporting dry goods—as well as wines—as evidenced by the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, which revealed a treasure of wine-filled amphorae.
However, in order to fully capture and appreciate the rich culture and history of winemaking in clay vessels, we would have to go back in time to the country of Georgia, where the practice of using clay jugs started some 8,000 years ago—and since has never ceased.
The winemaking style’s long history has led some scientists to believe that Georgia was one of the likely birthplaces of wine. The traditional method of wine production continues to be based on the use of these prehistoric amphorae, called kvevries. In Georgia, they have been producing natural wines without the use of chemicals, foreign yeasts or filtration long before it became a stylistic trend. And fermentation of red and white wine in clay involved prolonged contact with the skins.
Winemakers have begun to rediscover “natural” wine, of which traditional Georgian Kvevri-based wines are a subtype. Grapes that are harvested in the fall are left to mingle with their skins in clay vessels until the following spring. Similar production techniques involving clay are being used throughout the world by natural, non-intervention winemakers, as the ideal vehicle for expressing the true character of their wines. An increased interest in this winemaking style has displayed itself in food and wine circles for its authenticity, freshness, purity, quality, and quirk.
“These wines are a compelling example of applying ancient, all-natural winemaking techniques to make a fascinating and authentic expression of place, as well as an intriguing new arrow in a sommelier’s quiver,” says wine educator and writer Kirk Peterson.
Peterson describes the process as he’s experienced it firsthand. “It’s as simple as possible: grape juice and skins, natural yeast, and time. No temperature control, no additives, as little manipulation as possible. It’s to wine what old-school blues is to music,” says Peterson.
Simple as the process may be, the taste is unique. Possessing characters of both red and white wines, often with varying amounts of tannin, as well as a variety of flavors, these wines – include the orange wines made of white grapes – are excellent for food-pairing. Also, white amphorae wines are noted for their beautiful color. The extended time with skins imparts pigment to the juice, ranging from butterscotch to orange, hence the name “orange.”
One of the foremost innovators who uses terra-cotta vessels for grape fermentation, Josko Gravner, is an esteemed Friuli winemaker. His vineyards lie in northeastern Italy, in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region, straddling the Italian-Slovenian border. Since 2001, Gravner has been using huge Georgia-made kvevries that are buried in the ground. The resulting white wines taste closer to reds—flavorful, dark in color and rich in tannin.
“The ground has all the life you need to give birth to grapes,” says Gravner. “A vine needs the earth to make a grape. Once you have that grape, you need the earth again to make the wine.”
Gravner relies only on wild yeasts to make his wine. The grapes are then left to macerate for several months in clay. At the moment, Gravner employs the use of 46 kvevries—a single 500-liter and the remaining range from 1,300-2,400 liters in capacity.
“The long skin contact you have in amphorae allows the wine to develop accompanied by the grapes that generated it, with no hurry. Using amphorae permits us to produce wine with no technology and limited human interventions,” says Gravner.
His amphorae wines are Ribolla, Bianco Breg and Rosso Breg. The Breg white wine is a blend obtained from different wine varieties, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, and Riesling Italico. They are fermented separately in clay, then aged together. After the drawing off and pressing phases, the wine is poured back into the amphorae for at least five months before it is aged in large Slavonian oak barrels for six years. The Ribolla wine comes from the autochthonous Ribolla Gialla varietal. Rosso Breg is a red wine produced with Pignolo grapes and bottled during a waning moon.
Throughout the world, winemakers have invested in terra-cotta vessels and are now tasting the fruits of these wines, from Italy, Slovenia, France and Spain, to Portugal, Croatia, Chile and Australia.
With thousands of grape varietals to choose from in this world, conventional winemaking vessel options literally can be counted on a single hand. The use of clay is a conscious decision among natural winemakers, who believe that the mere choice of fermentation vessel—its shape, size and substance—all contribute to the individuality of the wine and captures the sense of place. Then, of course, there’s the mysterious and sentimental intangible: the idea of using something hewn out of the earth to cradle and nurture the wine, which originated from the land. Those who have made the transition swear by them. For the rest of us, it’s time to raise a glass and taste them.