The natural relationship between clay and wine extends beyond the water-retention abilities and agreeable pH levels that make clay soils conducive to viticulture. For close on 2 700 years clay has been used to make vessels for the fermentation and holding of wine. Since those first dubious drops of grape juice were poured into clay pots by the winemakers of ancient Greece, Georgia and Rome, the containers have hardly changed in shape and size. Amphorae, as they are known, are today not only eye-catching aesthetic complements to wineries the world over, but represent a modern vinous movement aimed at capturing the natural purity of fermenting and fermented wine.
One of the world’s oldest winemaking countries, Portugal is a leader in the amphora movement. Pedro Ribeiro, cellarmaster at Herdade do Rocim in Alentejo, deems clay amphora as being conducive to Hardade do Rocim’s philosophy of pure, minimum-intervention winemaking. And to prove his point, Pedro recently travelled to South Africa and during his stay was requested by fellow Portuguese Joaquim Sá, MD of Amorim South Africa, to host a tasting of Portuguese wines made in amphorae. Not only wines from Herdade do Rocim, but also from other Portuguese amphora acolytes that have of late helped to make their country one of the world’s most revered wine nations.
Winemakers and journalists converged on the Boekenhoutskloof Winery in Franschhoek to taste the selection Pedro had put together. Some of these winemakers were already using amphorae, others are considering it, some had hardly heard about the clay vessels in modern-day winemaking.
But during the tasting, everyone was amazed.
Seven white and six red wines from various producers, regions and price-points were presented – all characterised by the fact that the wines were aged in traditional clay amphorae pots (talha in Portuguese) of various sizes.
The two white wines from Herdade do Rocim offered insight into the diversity obtainable through various degrees of amphora contact. The Amphora Talha Wine 2018 is a blend of Antão Vaz, Perrum, Rabo de Ovelha and Mateúdo grapes. And it is about as natural as winemaking can come: the various varieties are harvested together and go into the amphorae with skin, stems and all. The stems lie at the bottom of the vessel to act as a natural filter, and to add to this primal non-intervention approach, a layer of olive oil lies on the surface of the wine to prevent oxidation and spoilage. No cooling, acidification, no non-natural yeast….nada.
Tasting the Talha 2018 shows that nature, a hands-off approach and a few clay pots can harness all the factors one seeks in a white wine.
Floral aromas lead to a bracing freshness on the palate that exudes cut fresh apples, pear and citrus. The wine is cool and linear with a slight touch of feral herbs, possibly the result of the oxidative properties of the clay container, but something that most definitely gives the wine and added dimension.
The smarter packaging on the Herdade do Rocim Clay Aged DOC Alentejo 2018 insinuates a premium offering, the grape first two varieties in this blend of Verdelho, Alvarinho and Viosinho also alluding to elements with which the South African wine fraternity might be more familiar.
These grapes were destemmed, the berries undergoing a sorting process after which they were foot-trodden in traditional lagares cement fermenters. Natural fermentation, and into the amphorae where the wine remained for nine months.
Not as breezy and instantly charming as the Talha, the Clay Aged is deep and complex, densely gold in colour with a stern presence on the palate. The lagare stomping, a laborious, slow process where the juice draws structure from skins, imparts a definite tannic thread to the wine, giving the liquid a salty, mineral chord upon which hangs delicious notes of melon, white-flowers and green-plum. Absolutely beguiling.
Pedro’s white flight also included Bojador Vino de Talha 2018, the amazing Santiago na Ânfora do Rocim Alvarinho 2018, Pequenos Rebentos Selvagem from Vinho Verde and Procura na Ânfora 2017.
With the presentation of amphorae white wines leading to agreeable nods from the assembled group, Alastair Rimmer, winemaker at Kleine Zalze in Stellenbosch, asserted the role of the amphora. “I am using amphorae on Chenin Blanc at the moment, and the results have been quite extraordinary. So much so that I have ordered another few clay-pots. I am seeing things in the wine I have not seen before.”
The red flight kicked-off with Pedro’s quaint Fresh From Amphora Talha Red Wine 2018, a blend of Moreto, Tinta Grossa and Trincadeira.
The witty label of a fellow bearing a huge amphora on his back was a suitable introduction to a no-nonsense, accessible red wine. Aged in the clay pot for three months on the skins, the wine is fresh, juicy and quaffable – showing that these amazing amphorae are capable of capturing the true fruit-forward zest of the grapes without the need of one degree Celsius temperature control.
Up the ante, though, with Bojador Vinho de Talha 2018, the Bojador project being Pedro’s own amphora project. A blend of Trincadeira, Moreto and Tinta Grossa from Alentejo, this wine shows the seamless, classic character that can be obtained through fermentation and aging in the pot-bellied clay vessels.
The wine has a deep garnet colour and such a delectable aroma of torn grape skins, pine-needle and dried figs that it is truly surreal to imagine no oak was involved. For a young wine, the tannins are gorgeously integrated into a plush palate showing dark fruit, autumnal forest floor and an intriguing hint of spice.
It is going to be immensely exciting seeing these red, and other wines, mature. Because amphora wines are here to stay. And why not – with over 2 700 years of history, they’ve always been here.
Watch this video on how these wines are made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzVGkmY41BI)