Wines in Terracota Vessels: The Perfect Circle

by | 7 Aug, 2011

Aging wines in terracotta amphorae is not only an age- old tradition but a bridge towards the cycles of nature and a simpler, more authentic life. A trip back in time using today’s winemaking knowledge.

The process of making wine is not marked by revolutions but rather by a constant progression of historic revisions, a sort of regular update with continuous u turns and rescued traditions. Critics seem enthusiastic and curious, but the market remains skeptical. While some winemakers are still waiting for a green light on transgenics, others have dared to travel back in time to emulate their grandparents and the grandparents of their grandparents. Different styles and different motivations, but all in search of a differentiating element that links their wines to the land that gave them life, hoping to achieve more honest and purer renditions, far away from today’s technology and fads.

Some winemakers focus their efforts on environmental protection and respect for the cycles of nature; others, on the preservation of those cultural manifestations that have forged or are forging the identity of the different growing regions. Such is the case of organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking. This is the realm of eccentric, nostalgic or visionary producers who char their oak barrels, despise the use of enzymes and industrial yeasts, and avoid using sulfur dioxide as much as possible to prevent acetic taint.

True, all this seems very old, but just on the outside. There is nothing more modern than retracing one’s own steps to bring the past back to life. History is no longer trapped by a cyclic or deterministic notion of time or by a hazy line of progress, as most industrialists of the 19th century once thought. Time actually plays with us, running in parables and continually taking us back to our origins.

Without doubt, one of the great revisionists of the winemaking scene is Josko Gravner from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, who in 2001 decided to age his wines in large terracotta amphorae. “After a research trip to California in 1987 and having tasted more than 1,000 wines in just 10 days, I felt completely disenchanted. I went back home and told my wife: ‘I am sick and tired of conventional wines. They are going in the opposite direction to that of safeguarding the soil and the authenticity of the product’,” he recalls.

He had read quite a lot about the early wines produced in the Caucasus, near the Black sea, over 6,000 years ago. But Georgia, the cradle of this tradition with more than 400 native varieties, was part of the former Soviet Union and amphora-grown wines were almost a secret of state. In 1991 Georgia won its independence and Gravner was ready to pursue his project, but civil war broke out in the young republic. It wasn’t until May 2000 that he could travel to the region of Kakhetian, home to the most reputed wines, and taste the jaw-dropping foundational musts that had been forgotten and buried under the weight of their violent history.

A friend of Gravner’s managed to send him a 230-liter clay amphora to Italy, where he vinified part of his 2001 vintage. “My heart pounded when I saw the grapes fermenting in the amphora. The result was so spectacular that I could not sleep for several nights, figuring out how to fit my cellar only with amphorae to produce my wines in the future,” he adds.

Together with other European producers such as Sepp Muster in Austria, Frank Cornelissen in Sicily, Elisabetta Foradori in Trento or Philippe and Alain Viret in France, Gravner rediscovered a millenary path that has kept him off the trodden road of standardization. His is a road of concentric curves that takes his varieties to a whole new dimension.

As is traditional in Georgia, Gravner began vinifying the famous white cultivars Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli with prolonged maceration periods of up to 7 months. His white Ribolla (Ribolla gialla), Breg (Sauvignon blanc, Italic Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot grigio) and then his Rosso (Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon) are expressive, complex, fatty, and commended by some critics who prefer whispering their virtues to shouting them out due to the scarcity of their production.

But why on earth would he want to get his hands soiled when he could be using spotless stainless steel tanks? What’s in an amphora-grown kvevri that makes producers dedicate the viticultural work of an entire season to it? According to Gravner, the explanation is quite simple. The amphora’s great advantage is its respect for Mother nature. There is no need for interventions during fermentation. The must needs no cooling, commercial enzymes or yeasts, just perhaps a bit of sulfur dioxide to protect it from potential oxidation.

To put it in musical terms, the amphora is like an amplifier of the wine’s attributes. If the fruit quality is excellent, its virtues will be emphasized. But it also works the other way around, and any defects will be equally amplified. “You do not try and get the purest water from the ocean, but from the mountains where rivers are born. The same applies to wine. i go to the origin,” he explains.


In Chile, the history of making wine in clay vessels is also a long one. Already in the 16th century, during the dawn of our country’s wine industry, amphorae were the most common containers among the Spanish conquistadors, who cooked and transported their rustic wines –Muscat and País (Listán Prieto)– to quench the thirst for religious faith in this nascent kingdom. The tradition remained unchanged until well into the 19th century, when little by little the introduction of vats made of raulí and later french oak began to leave their woody mark on wines.

According to some historians, clay amphorae had a negative impact on wine quality. To prevent possible leaks, their inside was customarily lined with tar or resin that contaminated the musts. The best results were obtained from the older amphorae, as the sediments accumulated through the years acted as an effective barrier against these foreign flavors. In the words of French naturalist Claude Gay, the amphorae were left open, thus causing the wine to lose its nicest attributes and surrender to oxidation, often developing unmistakably putrid aromas.

Later on, they were covered with a piece of leather tightened around the opening or with a makeshift lid made of clay and horse manure or tar. “The cellars that house the clay vessels also have the great disadvantage of being located on the patio level. The cellar doors are often left open, leaving the wine exposed to temperature oscillations that are quite significant in the northern and central provinces, sometimes as wide as 20 degrees or more,” Gay wrote.

New vinification techniques helped improve wine quality quite considerably. However, one of the problems that persisted was the limited duration of wine in good conditions. To prevent acid taint, some arrope, or in the south even a piece of raw meat, was added. However, the wine, the true wine known back then as must, was completely allergic to such intromissions.

In Concepción and other neighboring provinces, the star was Mosto Asoleado, a must made from “grapes left under the blazing sun for 15 or 20 days before being stomped. Their quality resulted in part from the amount of time left under the sun. Those grapes having spent 25 days produce a better wine than those that spent 20 or 15 days, except in the case of grapes of uncommon quality,” he added.

These wines were obtained by hand pressing the grapes and leaving them to ferment in a tub for 8 or 9 days. The wine was then transferred to the amphorae. The musts grown under the sun reached the highest prices. Towards 1840, the best representatives were the Muscats produced in the haciendas Los Majuelos, Las Palmas, Los Maitenes, Del Rosal, Ranquil and Cayumanhue. Claudio Gay, quoting comments by Feuillé and Juan Ulloa, described them as “white, almost pinkish in color, very sweet, very spirituous, and very pleasant to the palate”.

Although amphorae are still used in the Chilean countryside mainly as decorative items, the number of countrymen who vinify their grapes in these containers is far from decreasing. In the Maule, Biobío and Itata valleys, they are used for household consumption. They keep a tradition alive that started almost 500 years ago, and somehow bring it to a new level thanks to the rescuing efforts of some passionate winemakers who are not satisfied with the status quo of an industry that needs to be in constant reinvention.


“I am making wines in clay amphorae for historic as well as family reasons, to continue with what my family has been doing for five generations,” says Pablo Morandé. And just as he dared to pioneer winemaking in Casablanca, vinify Chile’s first late harvest, or bring Carignan back from oblivion, today he is determined to rescue a tradition almost lost in time and space. To that end, he set out in a quest for old clay vessels abandoned in the Maule countryside, even collecting some of the amphorae that survived the 1939 earthquake that shook the old family winery in Cauquenes.

These vessels are two meters high. “They look like big- hipped women ready to give birth,” he jokes. In the winery they look completely imposing, boasting their rounded shapes. As some of them smelled of vinegar and others of cheese, they underwent a washing process with alkaline and acidic substances prior to being filled with the juices of his dear Carignan from Loncomilla.

For Morandé, making wine in these containers is a beautiful challenge, for he can take advantage of modern- age knowledge without the once so common risk of contamination. One of the secrets is to keep the amphora’s mouth shut to prevent oxidation during the aging process. Unlike his predecessors who used mud to seal it, Morandé devised lids made of barrel wood and a ring of sanitary rubber that is pressed onto the opening. This permits him to manipulate the lid to take samples and check how the wine is evolving.

“I am very pleased with the results, especially with fermentations. The round shape of the amphorae allows for perfect convective movement. The liquid goes up along the walls and sinks again over the skins. We only do some punching down to keep the cap completely wet,” he explains.

Today, he keeps two amphorae filled with 2011 Carignan. The grapes were destemmed and fermented for 40 days at 19oC. The wine is lighter and somewhat hazy in color and its aromas are typical of this variety, with an added earthy or truffle touch. The palate is light and the tannins are less aggressive than those of traditional wines. Despite its 16o of alcohol or so, its ph is only 2.8. The goal of Morandé is to preserve this freshness and avoid a second or malolactic fermentation. “With a couple of years in barrels and another year in bottles, Carignan evolves from being a tractor to a Cadillac. But this amphora-grown wine will definitely age at a much slower pace,” he affirms.


A couple of months ago, Marcelo Retamal, winemaker of De Martino, decided to make a statement and ban new barrels forever. Besides focusing on terroir wines, his new philosophy places the stress on fruit freshness above all else, taking distance from the ubiquitous and homogenizing oak influence. His goal is to use clay amphorae to go beyond the commonplace. It is not just a question of rescuing a centennial tradition from our countryside, but to offer a natural wine free of enzymes, yeasts and sulfur dioxide.

Like a futuristic archeologist, his colleague Eduardo Jordán has taken on the task to locate and collect clay vessels. One by one the containers were shipped on his pickup to the cellars in Isla de Maipo. At the beginning of the season they already had obtained 13 amphorae with capacity for 80 to 800 liters. Unfortunately, one of them could not withstand the pressure and literally exploded. It simply could not resist the great temperature difference between day and night. The winemakers were lucky to find two more amphorae to complete 14, but one of them is leaking.

Sealing the amphorae was a mastermind’s game. Eventually they opted for untreated, rubber-lined wood lids kept in place with a mixture of 5 parts of mud and one of straw. For Retamal, this is a crucial issue. Unlike Morandé,
he wants his wines to undergo a second fermentation, for it is too risky to bottle wines with such low pH and zero sulfur dioxide, especially after seeing the amphora blow into pieces.

“Originally, the idea was to bury them to ensure constant temperature, but then we opted for leaving them at ground level on wooden sleepers to prevent the base from getting too much moisture,” he explains.

Retamal vinified two cultivars from the 2011 vintage: Cinsault from Guarilihue and Carignan from Treguaco, and conducted two tests. Part of the fruit was fermented with the whole bunch and the rest was destemmed. “The grapes that fermented without the stalks produced much better results. With the stalk on, the nose appears rather dirty, with a chemical, acetone-like aroma.”

Until now, the experience has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. The wine seems to be evolving very well, without any trace of oxidation. “Its character and acidity are incredible, which is very interesting indeed. With these wines we are exploring a new market niche which, although still modest, is growing fast,” he affirms.

A niche that got tired of the same old stuff and is now looking for a bond with wine birthplaces, new experiences, surprises and emotions. A way to reconnect with a simpler, more authentic lifestyle. “A grapevine needs the earth to produce grapes. Once you have the grapes, you need the earth again to produce wine,” Gravner points out.




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