Ancient Vessels, Modern Wines

Like their historic counterparts, Italy’s winemakers have embraced the use of clay amphorae, crafting a new breed of beverage.
Photo by David Yoder

For thousands of years, terra cotta containers called anfore, orci or giare in Italian were the only option available to early winemakers transforming grape juice into wine. Originating in what is now Georgia—the part of the Caucasus credited as the birthplace of wine some 6,000 years ago—these large ceramic jars are still used in the region.

Georgia’s amphora wines remained virtually unknown to the rest of the world until the turn of the 21st century, when Italian winemaker Josko Gravner visited the area and brought some of the clay vessels, known there as qvevri, to Italy.

Today, a small but growing number of producers have adopted amphorae of varying sizes and origins. For most converts, amphorae are the natural progression of a holistic approach to winemaking that includes avoiding harsh chemicals in the vineyards and a hands-off approach in the cellars. Winemakers who have switched to amphorae say the vessels produce the purest expression of their grapes and vineyard areas.

From beguiling honeyed whites to earthy reds boasting radiant fruit purity, you’ll never forget a wine vinified in amphora.

Jasko Gravner, Gravner
Jasko Gravner / Photo by David Yoder

Gravner | Pottery Pioneer

Before he switched to amphorae, Josko Gravner had turned in his traditional casks for stainless steel. Gravner, whose vineyards lie in the heart of Friuli’s Collio zone in northeast Italy and stretch into Slovenia, later settled on barriques, believing these were essential for quality wine.

His rich, fragrant wines received critical acclaim, but still, he wasn’t satisfied. He went to California in 1987 for inspiration, but came back disillusioned.

“I came home and told my wife that I was sick of conventional wines, which were going in the opposite direction of safeguarding the soil and authenticity,” says Gravner.

After studying the history of wine, he decided to go to Georgia, in the Caucasus region, where winemaking began.

Because of the country’s instability, Gravner waited until 2000 to make his way to the Caucasus. His first sip of wine there, ladled out of an interred amphora, changed his life.

“Amphorae amplify the good and bad in wine, so it’s essential to have perfect grapes.”

He returned home energized. Gravner imported several of the large amphorae (1,300–2,400 liters) to his winery in the hamlet of Oslavia. Following his new role models, he lined them with beeswax and buried them.

In 2001, he made his first wines in clay: Bianco Breg (a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Riesling Italico) and Ribolla Gialla, from the native grape of the same name. The first amphora wines were fermented with no selected yeasts, and stayed in contact with the grape skins for another six months, followed by three years of aging in large oak casks.

The amber-colored wines created a sensation when they were released. While some people were put off by their color and austere minerality, others were intrigued by their unfettered purity, dried apricot and honeyed sensations.

“Amphorae act like loudspeakers…” says Gravner. “They amplify the good and the bad in wine, so it’s essential to have perfect grapes.”

Gravner embraces biodynamic viticulture and uses no additives or technology in his cellars, not even temperature control. Starting from the 2007 vintage, his wines age seven years before being bottled. He’s phasing out international grapes to focus on Ribolla Gialla.

Recommended Wines

Gravner 2007 Bianco Breg (Venezia Giulia); $80, 93 points. Rich and smooth, this wine is a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Riesling Italico. Fermented in amphorae and aged for six years in oak casks, it boasts flavors ranging from mature apricot to ginger. Drink through 2022. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits. Cellar Selection.

Gravner 2007 Ribolla (Venezia Giulia); $115, 93 points. This amber-hued wine is Gravner’s calling card. It helped kick off Italy’s orange wine movement and put Ribolla Gialla on the map. It’s not  for everyone, but it’s an impressive effort that combines structure, restraint, depth and complexity. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits. Cellar Selection.

Giusto Occipinti and Giambattista Cilia, COS

Giusto Occipinti and Giambattista Cilia / Photo by Susan Wright

COS | Southern Ceramicists

About the same time that Gravner was on his pilgrimage to Georgia, Giambattista Cilia and Giusto Occhipinti of the COS winery in the Ragusa province of southeastern Sicily, were also researching amphorae.

Founded in 1980, COS is credited with reviving Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a local traditional wine. For the first few years, the firm used recycled barrels, but by the late 1980s, influenced by California’s Napa Valley, it was buying new barriques.

“Then we took a huge step back,” says Occhipinti. “In the mid-1990s, we tried some of our earliest bottlings—those matured in recycled barrels—and we were shocked at the difference. With their mineral notes and earthy sensations, the wines were so much more interesting than later vintages matured in new oak that had sensations of vanilla and toast.”

“They let the wines breathe, like wood does, but they don’t impart any wood aromas or flavors.”

The winemakers began experimenting with barrels of different sizes and ages, concrete tanks and amphorae. The clay vessels from Georgia were too big for their needs, and because they sought amphorae that didn’t need to be lined with beeswax or other substances, they tried out amphorae from Sicily, Tunisia and Spain in 2000.

“The 400-liter jars from Spain proved the best for vinification, partly because of the clay, but also for the pure quality of the water used to make dough,” says Occhipinti. “They let the wines breathe, like wood does, but they don’t impart any wood aromas or flavors.”

COS’s first amphora-produced wine was the 2002 Pithos Rosso. A blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola, this stunning, soulful red quickly became a cult favorite for its succulent berry, floral, mineral and earthy sensations, bright acidity and silky tannins.

In 2008, COS added Pithos Bianco, made from Grecanico. Both wines ferment in unlined amphorae, where they stay in contact with the skins until mid-April, followed by bottling.

COS follows the principles of biodynamic viticulture and has a hands-off approach to winemaking, which includes spontaneous fermentation with wild yeasts. Beside its amphora-aged Pithos wines, the firm’s other offerings ferment in cement. Some reds are aged briefly in large Slavonian casks for added complexity.

Recommended Wines

COS 2014 Pithos Rosso (Vittoria); $27, 95 points. This blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola expresses dark-skinned berry, leather, sun-baked earth, sea breeze and a floral note. The creamy palate combines supple tannins and fresh acidity. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits.

COS 2014 Pithos Bianco (Terre Siciliane); $25, 89 points. Made with Grecanico, this amber-colored wine offers hints of candied nectarine zest, sea breeze, tilled soil and Mediterranean herb alongside bright acidity. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits.

Elizabetta Foradori, Foradori
Elizabetta Foradori / Photo by David Yoder

Foradori | Return to Tradition

In 1984, as a 20-year-old fresh out of oenology school, Elisabetta Foradori took over the family winery, located in Trentino’s Dolomites mountain range. She wasn’t content with the technically perfect wines resulting from commercial clones and mechanized vineyard practices. So, in 1985, she began a massal selection of her estate’s Teroldego grapes, eventually registering 15 clones that she later replanted in one of her largest vineyards.

While quality improved, Foradari still wasn’t satisfied. Something was missing.

“The wines I produced back then lacked soul,” she says.

In 2002, she started to convert to biodynamic viticulture. The winery earned its Demeter certification in 2009.

“Biodynamic isn’t just a certificate, it’s part of a way of life that’s about respecting nature,” says Foradori. In 2009, she sought just the right fermentation vessel for her native white grape, Nosiola

“Years ago, winemakers used to macerate Nosiola on the skins, and the wines had complexity and character, nothing like the lightweight wines made from the grape today,” says Foradori.

“Wines vinified in amphorae give the purest expression of the grape and terroir.”

Giusto Occhipinti from COS suggested amphorae from Spain: “I was intrigued, because amphorae are made with four symbolic elements: earth, fire, water and light,” she says. “I tried them out, and found what I was looking for. They completed the process I started in the vineyards 15 years ago.

“Wines vinified in amphorae give the purest expression of the grape and terroir.”

She warns, however, that working with the clay vessels  isn’t always easy.

“They’re full of surprises,” says Foradori. “Wines vinified in amphorae are more alive, and because of this, they are always changing. They have good days and bad days.”

Fermented and aged for eight months on the skins in unlined amphorae, Foradori’s fragrant and elegantly structured Fontanasanta Nosiola has good midterm aging potential. Her two single-vineyard Teroldegos both show juicy fruit and earthy sensations, but reveal distinct personalities. All the wines benefit from long aeration before pouring.

Recommended Wines

Foradori 2013 Morei Teroldego (Vigneti delle Dolomiti); $48, 93 points. This offers hints of black-skinned berry, blue flower, licorice and flint, delivered with concentration, finesse, firm acidity and lithe tannins. Drink 2017–2023. Louis/Dressner Selections.

Foradori 2013 Fontanasanta Nosiola (Vigneti delle Dolomiti); $48, 89 points. Enticing aromas of Alpine wildflowers, chopped herbs, toasted nuts and citrus zest join with energizing mineral and refreshing acidity. Louis/Dressner Selections.

Giovanni Manetti / Photo by David Yoder
Giovanni Manetti / Photo by David Yoder

Fontodi | Molding Tuscan Clay

Founded in 1968  in the heart of Chianti Classico, Fontodi makes highly acclaimed  wines from Tuscany, including its Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Sorbo (formerly a Riserva) and IGT Toscana Flaccianello della Pieve.

The estate’s production is certified organic, and wines are fermented with wild yeasts. Its 100-percent Sangiovese, vinified and aged in amphorae  and released in late 2014, intrigued the Italian wine world.

“Gravner was a pioneer and definitely an inspiration,” says Giovanni Manetti, who runs the family-owned winery.

His brother, Marco, manages the other family business, a ceramics firm specializing in terra cotta flooring and tiles. Its products have helped restore key Tuscan landmarks, including Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence.

With Marco’s collaboration, Giovanni decided to try fermenting in amphorae.

“My family has eight generations of experience with terra cotta, so we decided to use our own amphorae instead of buying,” says Giovanni.

The firm has long made amphorae—called orci in Tuscany—for gardens and olive oil, but stopped making them for vinification in 1930. In 2008, they restarted production of 400- and 550-liter vinification vessles. Each takes a month to complete.

“But the best part is that the clay for our amphorae comes from the same land where our grapes are grown, bringing the production full circle.”

“At first, wine leaked out of the pores, but we didn’t want to line them internally,” says Giovanni. “We combed through company documents and found the missing step—we had to wipe down the clay with a wet sponge just before the drying process.

“This reduced the size of the pores. The wine breathes, but doesn’t pass through.”

The orci are fitted with custom stainless-steel closures that never have contact with the wine.

“But the best part is that the clay for our amphorae comes from the same land where our grapes are grown, bringing the production full circle,” says Giovanni.

Fontodi’s first release was the 2012 Dino, named in honor of the Manettis’ father. The wine is fermented and left on the skins in amphorae for nine months, then racked and aged another six months in the clay jars. No sulfites are added. Dino offers a pristine version of Sangiovese, delivering freshness, bright fruit, balance and finesse.

Recommended Wine

Fontodi 2013 Dino (Colli Toscana Centrale); $70, 95 points. This 100% Sangiovese reveals red berry, iron, blue flower, underbrush and dark spice, while  the palate delivers vibrant acidity and polished tannins. Vinifera Imports. Cellar Selection.

Alessandro Righi, St. Pauls
Alessandro Righi / Photo by David Yoder

St. Pauls | Ancient Vines, Ancient Tech

St. Pauls in Alto Adige is one of the oldest but most dynamic cooperative cellars in the region with a longtime focus on quality wines. Named after the local parish church, the winery was created in 1907 and has 200 members that supply grapes from approximately 425 acres of vineyards.

The steep hillsides naturally limit grape yields. The growing areas, protected by the Alps and which benefit from 1,800 hours of annual sunlight, enjoy warm days and cool nights during the ripening period, which allows for ideal grape maturation. Over the years, St. Pauls’ growers have embraced sustainable farming methods, and the winery has adopted environmentally friendly cellar practices.

Alto Adige is best known for its vibrant, aromatic whites, including Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco. And though Pinot Bianco has been abandoned in much of the Old World and never took off in the New World, it remains a focus for Alto Adige growers, where it boasts delicate apple sensations and lively acidity.

“We have what’s considered the oldest Pinot Bianco vineyard in Alto Adige, planted in 1899.”

In addition to the winery’s Pinot Bianco, vinified in stainless steel, and its barrel-fermented and -aged Passion Riserva, St. Pauls recently introduced its newest Pinot Bianco, Sanctissimus Riserva—fermented and aged entirely in clay vessels.

“We have what’s considered the oldest Pinot Bianco vineyard in Alto Adige, planted in 1899,” says Alessandro Righi, St. Pauls’ managing director. “We wanted to combine the old age of the vines with the origins of winemaking by using amphorae.”

In 2009, the winery began to experiment with amphorae made by TAVA Ceramiche in Trento. After years of trials, it decided on custom-made, unlined, 300-liter jars made using clays from Tuscany, Lazio and Veneto. In mid-2016, the cooperative released its 2013 Sanctissimus.

“The clay jars allow for a long, slow fermentation, which creates more complexity and a tannic structure that is more similar to a red,” says Wolfgang Tratter, the firm’s winemaker.

Fermented spontaneously in amphorae with wild yeasts and aged in clay for one year, Sanctissimus has an energized mineral vein and shows good aging potential.

Recommended Wine

St. Pauls 2013 Sanctissimus Riserva Pinot Bianco (Alto Adige); $99, 92 points. Glossy and structured, this opens with aromas suggesting acacia honey, toasted hazelnut, crushed stone and a hint of light spice. The smooth palate offers mature yellow apple, tangerine zest and a honeyed mineral note while fresh acidity brightens the creamy flavors. Drink through 2020. Ethica Wines.

Published on August 3, 2016
Topics: Amphorae
About the Author
Kerin O’Keefe
Italian Editor

Reviews wines from Italy

Italian Editor Kerin O’Keefe reviews all Italian wines for Wine Enthusiast. Previously she wrote regularly on Italian wine for Wine News, World of Fine Wine and Decanter. She is the author of Franco Biondi Santi: The Gentleman of Brunello (2005), Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy's Greatest Wines (2012) and Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine (2014).


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