Andrew Beckham, of Beckham Estate Vineyard in Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains, is the first North American vintner to make 100- to 220-gallon amphorae in which to ferment and age his wines. As a ceramics teacher, Beckham says he has found the confluence of his life’s passions: clay and wine.
How did this intersection of ceramics and wine happen? It’s almost cosmic.
It is! The stars aligned. I’ve been a high-school ceramics teacher for 15 years, a potter for 25. We purchased our property in 2004 with the intent of building a pottery studio. We cut the timber, and I convinced my wife, Annedria, that we ought to try a few rows of grapes. We made our first wine in 2009, and it was in about 2011 that Annedria introduced me to a magazine article on Elisabetta Foradori’s wines in Italy. I skimmed the article, looked at the images of her amphorae and I said, “I can make these!” So I did.
Did you immediately fill the newly built vessels with your own wines?
No. After I knew I could make them in the proper scale, I consulted a chemist and we worked to develop a clay body [mixture] that was viable and food safe, using clay from the closest source for terra cotta bodies for commercial use, the Delta in Sacramento. Then I started doing a lot of tests. I made 30 one-liter vessels that we fired at a multitude of temperatures, and we filled them with the finished Riesling. I weighed them each week to see the volume lost at each temperature. That helped me hone in on the most appropriate firing temperature for making unlined amphorae.
“There’s a really distinct textural component to the wines. I liken it to brick dust or something that’s iron-driven, very earthen.”
What differences are you seeing between conventional wines and those fermented and aged in the amphorae?
We see a huge difference. The extraction coming from clay at the end of primary fermentation is so much brighter and higher toned, and it’s got more energy and tension. It doesn’t get as hot, and it doesn’t ferment as fast. During aging, we’ve got twice the oxygen in the clay as we do in the wood. Additionally, the clay vessel acts as a fining chamber. The wines finish with great clarity. And they tend to mature at a much faster rate than we would see in wood. We typically bottle our amphora-aged wines at nine or 10 months, versus 18 for wood or other vessels.
What does a clay vessel bring to the taste of the wine?
I think the amphora does an amazing job of building texture. As these wines that have fermented in clay are aging—even if they’re not aging in clay—there’s a really distinct textural component to the wines. I liken it to brick dust or something that’s iron-driven, very earthen. However, it’s very nuanced, very subtle. Consistently, we’re seeing that same textural component, regardless of varietal.
Isn’t there a “small world” aspect to your story?
Yes. We were really lucky in connecting with Elisabetta Foradori’s daughter, Myrtha Zierock. She was here for a study-abroad year at Oregon State University. She visited our cellar and tasted our amphorae wines. It was really eye-opening. She and I were in agreement that the texture is what’s common, even though these clay bodies and vessels are made in two different halves of the world.