February 9, 2009

What Would Julius Caesar Drink?

Returning to our historic tasting series, we've set the Way-Back machine to take us back to Roman antiquity when wine was fermented and stored in clay pots called amphorae.

A small cadre of winemakers have returned to these ancient techniques, using massive terra cotta pots buried in the ground to ferment their juice. I've grown fascinated with the idea of them, and, when supported by good winemaking, the taste of them.

The main proponent of this odd trend is iconic Fruilian winemaker, Josko Gravner (here is a picture of him with his big pots). Gravner is a strict non-interventionist when it comes to wine-making. He uses only wild yeasts, no sulfur, no temperature control and, since 2000, a lot of very big clay pots. Amongst his disciples are ex-neurosurgeon Alessandro Sgaravetti of Castello di Lispida who works nearby, and Sam Tannahill, who in faraway Oregon makes his wonder of extended maceration "Jack White" (I'll admit it's an unsubstantiated rumor that Sam is burying big pots in the ground, but I did hear that he was).

A few recent amphora wines, we've tried at the Lab:

Gravner, Ribolla Gialla Amfora, 2002. Striking deep golden color. Fino sherry, wild fennel and something sweet (like a strawberry 'n cream life saver) on the nose. Spectral, mineral, linear. Flavors of baked apple, mineral water, toffee and toasted hazelnut on the finish. This was less intellectually interesting than I anticipated, but much more lovable than I expected.

Castello di Lispida, Amphora, 2004. 100% Tocai Fruiliano. Six months on the skins, then 8 more months in amphora after the cap is removed. Coppery hued. Spearmint and anise on the nose. In the mouth, this is an austere mix of bitter plum and anise. I wouldn't say undrinkable, but I wouldn't say good either.

Cos, Cerasuolo di Vittoira Pithos, 2005. Maceration for seven months with occasional manual pumping over, no temp control, minimal SO2, no filtration. A nose of wild strawberry, rose petals and traces of spearmint. Piercing and linear. Cherry fruit, then earthy minerality, then bright, orange-y acid. A mild tannic bite on the finish. Compelling beyond the novelty of the clay pot.


Glen said...

Is it possible to find wines from the same regions, made from the same grapes that are fermented and stored in either stainless steal or amphora? I would guess changes in the wine that are due solely to the amphora would be from the ceramic adsorbing molecules from the wine either temporarily (changing the rates and types of reactions) or permanently (removing components from the wine). It would be interesting to figure out which one is happening. If this is the case, the amphora themselves might change over time so we will see wines in the future that state 30% in new amphora. Assuming of course the properties of the ceramic change sufficiently with vintage.

Glen said...

During lunch I check out the NYT article that you linked to in the post. Evidently the amphora are coated with beeswax discounting my earlier thought. It makes me wonder if you could get the similar wines by using stainless steel without temperature control.

Managing Principal, Labstuff said...

Hi Glen,
Was hoping if I waited a while longer to reply you might again answer your own question.

Alas... I'll have to make something up.

I think the answer to your second question can be found in a bottle of Francis Tannahill Jack White. It's similar and those similarities are born of extended maceration, wild yeast and no temp control. And not of clay pots. Far as I know anyway. I'm really not sure to what degree the terra cotta is fetish, to what degree function. They could well be just a novelty. But Gravners wines are crazy, and therefore, to my addled brain, interesting.

Andrzej Daszkiewicz said...

Two comments. Gravner began experimenting with amphoras in 1998, and his first official (commercialized) vintage of Amphora wines is 2001. And as far as winemaking is concerned, amphorae give you a kind of temperature control, as they are buried in the ground, which can be quite cool during fermentation and maceration, it's winter at that time. Of course Gravner would tell you more about the amphora's clay, made from earth, giving to wine some very special qualities, which he seems to believe in very strong. I have tasted side by side his 2000's (no amphora) and 2001 (amphora) wines, and the diferences were quite subtle.

And one more thing: this Ribolla 2002 is still a baby, it needs much more time in my opinion. I have just had his experimental Pinot Grigio Reserva 1999 (small quantities, never officially released) and it was fantastic, especially on the second day.

By the way, you have a great blog here! Greetings from Poland!

Managing Principal, Labstuff said...

Dziekuje Andrzej. Nice to see you at the Lab.

That's quality reporting, and spot on topic. I agree the Ribolla still has some distance to travel. I would think these wines will add quite a bit of density over time. I socked a couple away to see.