Living Wines Magazine Amphorae - Quevri, Tinaja & Co.

Amphorae - Quevri, Tinaja & Co.

Text: Christoph Raffelt

In the last fifteen years, a type of winemaking has received attention that it has hardly received in the last 4,000 years or so. It is about the aging in the amphora. Where and when exactly this method originated is not known, but it is assumed that the first wines originated in the Near East and around the Black Sea. In one of these countries, Georgia, the wine making method has been preserved until today. But in another country, far away from Georgia, namely in southern Portugal, wine was still made in amphorae until the 20th century. If one puts the amphorae of both countries next to each other, clear differences become visible. In fact, the Georgians do not call their vessels amphorae, but rather Quevri. The biggest difference to the amphora is that the clay from which the quevri are fired is permeable to liquids, which is why the quevris are usually lined with beeswax. Quevris are also buried in the ground so that only the opening peeks out. So-called cellar amphorae, which were traditional in Portugal, Spain or Italy, were and are either only partially buried in the earth or not buried at all and are usually fired in such a way that they are impermeable to liquids but can breathe.

The rediscovery of the amphora

Old Qvevri zoliko wine
Old Georgian Qvevri

The renaissance of amphorae and quevri began in the 1990s in the Friuli hills of Collio, on the border with Slovenia, where winemakers like Joško Gravner and Stanko Radikon renounced the highly successful but ultimately inconsequential modern method of white winemaking and turned to traditional styles of the region, in which the maceration of white grapes played a decisive role. In search of the proper vessel to ferment and age the wines, Gravner began importing Quevri. After an initial near-bankruptcy due to his radical change of style, his wines began to establish themselves and attract attention from other winemakers as well.

Foradori: an early proponent of the amphora expansion

One winemaker who was following this very closely was Elisabetta Foradoriwho was looking for an alternative to wood in which the material would breathe but not give off any flavour. For her, amphorae were the ideal way to bring the wine back into the earth it had grown on, so to speak. She decided to use Spanish cellar amphorae, so-called tinajas from Villarrobledo with a capacity of 400 litres. It took years before she was satisfied with the results of her experiments with the amphorae. For her, it was clear that biodynamics and vinification in amphorae are closely intertwined.
In the first years after the conversion to biodynamics, the wines from the amphorae were not yet stable enough, she says. Only time has brought that with it.

foradori amphorae vinification cilindrica morei
Scheme of vinification at Elisabetta Foradori in Trentino

And so were the first official amphora wines such as the Teroldego Morei and the Teroldego Sgarzon only fermented in the amphora at the beginning and later vinified in neutral wood. As late as since the 2012 vintage, the wines are completely vinified on the grape skins in the amphorae. Yes, since this time, there has even been a supplement, in which a part of the wines is then vinified without the grape skins for another twelve months in tinajas. Cilindricas in other words, in cylindrical 350-litre amphorae.

COS: Visionaries in Sicily

When Giambattista Cilia and his friend Giusto Occhipinti received a vineyard near Vittoria, in the south of Sicily, as a gift in 1980, they founded, together with their friend Cirino Strano, the Azienda Agricola COS. At that time, they were the youngest winemakers in the country. But not only that. They quickly became one of the motors for the change of the big island from a cheap grape producer back to one of the most interesting wine growing areas in Italy. The basis for this is formed by the many autochthonous sorts of grape and, in addition, by COS' early turn towards biodynamics.

But COS was to become the spearhead in yet another field: The use of amphorae for winemaking. At the end of the 1990ies, Giambattista and Giusto traveled to Georgia. In 2000, they bottled the first Cerasuolo di Vittoria called Pithos Rosso, aged in Spanish amphorae, which at COS are dug into the sand and gravel found along the coast. They are lightly fired amphorae lined with wax like quevris. When COS moved to a new building in 2005, Giambattista and Giusto got rid of all the small wooden containers and opted instead for 150 amphorae, each with a capacity of 400 litres.

cos amphorae cellar
Amphora cellar from the COS winery in Sicily

If you want to know the difference that the wine gets when it has been aged in large, neutral Slavonian wood or in amphora, you should try the Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico next to the Pithos Rosso that offers a piquant but almost sober clarity. Quite like getting to know the Cerasuolo di Vittoria once more through a burning glass.


Francesco Cirelli: Tuscan amphorae in Abruzzo

Another winemaker who has devoted a large part of his time to aging in amphorae is Francesco Cirelli from the Abruzzo. Besides his classic line, amphora wines are becoming more and more important for him. They are maturing in Tuscan cellar amphorae. They come from the capital of terracotta processing, from Impruneta near Florence. At Cirelli, the wines are fermented in amphorae, then they are pressed after the mash fermentation, and the juice is vinified in amphorae.

Odinstal: half Quevri, half wood

Andreas Schumann from the Odinstal wine estate in Wachenheim has also taken a liking to amphorae. He is again going a different way. The fruit, which he uses in his mash fermented Silvaner [Nact] processed, comes from a vineyard that has not been pruned since 2012. Half of the grapes go into classic quevri buried in the ground next to the vineyard, and the other half into neutral wood. As with the other winemakers, his wine is so stable due to long contact with the grape skins and raps that it no longer requires any sulfur to stabilize it. If the Silvaner [Nakt] showed itself archaic and downright impetuous in the first few years, it is meanwhile of an impressive elegance and finesse, without hiding the alternative vinification method.

Heinrich: an act of freedom

amphora heinrich winery
Amphorae at the Heinrich Winery

For Gernot Heinrich from Burgenland, the amphora is also a means to produce wine in a clearly different way and to take the freedom to act beyond the well-trodden paths. He also follows a different path than the others. First, he leaves the grapes on the mash for about two weeks, presses them, and only then he puts the unfiltered juice into 600-liter cellar ephors. In order to make this type of vinification clear to the outside as well, he fills the Grey Freedom in earthenware bottles. But amphorae are not only the right choice for the white wines. "It's simply brilliant to work with amphorae," Gernot enthuses. "As small vessels with a large inner surface that is porous to a certain degree, they are perfect for an elegant style of white wine, but now also more and more for red wines, especially Blaufränkisch; because we believe that amphorae exert less influence on oxygen than wood, so the wines mature very, very slowly. It's exactly what we want: a very slow evolution that leaves a wine that clearly shows fruit and is elegant."

Aphros/Phaunus: not even electric current

aphros wine vascos
Vasco Croft from the Aphros winery in front of his amphorae

Some years ago, Vasco Croft established a second brand on his Aphros vineyard in the north of Portugal. It is called Phaunus. Phaunus is about winemaking with absolutely minimal intervention. The wines are made in a room with classic amphorae half-buried in the ground and lined with beeswax. The room has only a minimal light source and no distracting interference whatsoever. The building does not even have electricity. There arises Crofts Pet Nat and some wines from Gemischter Sätzen, niche wines that are based on very classic vinification methods and are therefore very modern again.

As different as the vinification methods may be in detail, it becomes clear that the vintners are following a path they started with biodynamics by choosing the amphorae. This is the basis for the stability of the wines. The path leads back to the roots, not only to the roots of winemaking, but also in the sense of a cycle, as Elisabetta Foradori and her son Emilio see it:

"It is the most natural way to make wine. You consistently continue the path of working with nature in the vineyard in the cellar. However, the whole thing only works with living grapes. Then special wines are created. Not superficial, fast or superficial, but those that go into depth, introverted wines that need time to open up, but then become multi-layered fine, mineral and lively and can change from minute to minute."

Text: Christoph Raffelt