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.