Wines elaborated in Amphora, a special product with a bright future

By Helmut Kaiser and Gerhard Sacher (www.amphorenwein.at)

The modern winemaking and the modern winemaker of today are highly professional specialists on several levels. The focus is on the cultivation of the vine, the understanding of soil and vines, trellising, canopy management, harvesting time and the correct use of the necessary machinery. As a second focus, the work in the cellar requires expensive technical equipment with controllable tanks, pipes for hot and cold water, steaming, CO2, nitrogen and oxygen. An elaborate cellar technique requires a profound training, pressing, fermentation, vinification, storage, wine stabilization and so on. Finally, it has to meet extensive legal regulations regarding processing, ingredients and wine description up to the font size on labels and to withstand various test methods. The ultimate goal is a high-quality “high-tech product” wine, which can be produced in continuous quality in large quantities, regardless of random events. A defined regionality in quality and diversity of varieties, tailored to the taste of the consumer, is permitted or even wanted.

The producers are thus subject to a tight corset, which has the advantage of the direct comparability of their product wine to that of the competition.

It is not surprising that alternatives to this very strictly defined production are sought everywhere, either wholly or experimentally, to a lesser restricted mode of production.

Thus, more and more winemakers are drawn “back to the roots”. Jŏsko Gravner (Friuli), Elisabetta Foradori (Trentino), Marino Markezic (Istria), Giusto Occhipinti (Sicily), Jean Claude Lapalu (Beaujolais), Yves Canarelli (Corsica), Amédée Mathier (Valais), Kabaj (Slovenia), José de Sousa (Alentejo) or Peter Jakob Kühn (Rheingau) are among the first to develop their wines in clay amphorae. In Styria, Sepp Muster was also a pioneer, inspired by Carl Smith (violist at the Grazer Oper and winegrower in the South Styria) after a study stay in Karchesia (Georgia). Either amphorae from Spain, so-called Tinajas or quevris from Georgia are used. In today’s Georgia (considered as the birthplace of wine) the tradition of the ageing in amphora has been preserved since the old days. These clay vessels are produced up to a volume of 2,000 liters. Unfortunately, the old technology of production is dominated by only a few specialists, there are no apprentices and so it is to be feared that this old art will be lost if no actions to prevent it are taken. Our 3 amphorae (volume between 250 and 350 liters) also come from Georgia.

Opposed to traditional winemaking, wine made in amphora is a “natural product” that best reflects the interaction of terroir, cultivation and care of the vines, climate, etc. and the natural, unadulterated character of the grapes.

Keeping in mind these variables, each vintage will be different and the traceability from year to year is comparably lower. Our work in the Weingarten Grafendorf/Reibersdorf is performed according to the tradition of amphora cultivation:

Only absolutely clean, healthy and mature grapes are used. The grapes are handpicked and then they are carefully checked before sliding them into unsulphurised amphorae.

The fermentation is spontaneous, i.e. with pure yeast and enzymes. Red and white grapes are fermented in the same way, together with berry skins. It is only after weeks or months that the skins are separated from the wine – a special pressing process with high-performance press machines is therefore not necessary. A simple basket press is enough. After one year of ageing in wooden barrels, our amphora wines reach their optimum drinking point after another year in the bottle.

The wine obtained is characterized by tannins with a dense polyphenolic structure, orange color and aromas of spices, herbs, dried fruits and nuts. Thus, fermented wine from white grapes also corresponds to production according to the criteria of Orange Wine of the “Fourth Color of Wine” (Egon Berger). Sulfurization can be omitted or limited to a minimum because of the tannin content.

However, high cellar hygiene and, above all, the best, healthy grapes are required to achieve a good result. Control of the fermentation process or correction of wine defects is not possible in the amphorae. A special feature is the constant temperature in the vessels buried underground and free of any kind of vibration. The Georgian Quevris also allow micro-oxidation and some exchange with the surrounding soil. Thus our amphorae are buried into the Earth where the wine grows.

Amphora wines usually come from organic or biodynamic agriculture and therefore they meet the criteria for being considered as bio-wine. Our vineyards are also biologically cultivated, for plant protection we use only sulfur and copper products approved for biological viticulture. The weeds in the vineyards are mechanically removed. The lanes are not driven and the grass is mowed by hand. The slopes between the terraces reveal semi-dry grassland with high biodiversity, which is promoted by mowing and removing the mowed material. For the fertilization of the terraces we use compost, terra präta (a type of dark fertile manmade soil based on a mixture of charcoal, bone and manure) and occasionally bio fertilizer.

In summary, it can be said that in contrast to conventional wines, amphora wine is also called natural wine. By fermentation and maceration with the skins, more tannins and color are extracted. Appearance, aromas and taste can vary considerably. This is a millenary method based on continuous cooling by the soil and also on static grounds to prevent the bursting of the amphorae. There are no possibilities to carry out any correction during fermentation in the clay vessels, so it is necessary to harvest perfect grapes. The ageing is to a certain extent oxidative.

Our thanks go to the authors of this article.