Increasingly adapted by modern-day wine producers, the age-old practice of vinification using clay containers is becoming more recognized by today’s beverage lovers. Yet, “amphora” remains misused as a blanket term to refer to any clay vessel used to ferment and age wine.
From the Greek word amphiphoreus for “something which can be carried from both sides,” amphorae are oblong, two-handled vases with fat bodies, pointed ends and narrow necks, a 15th-century BCE invention of the Canaanites who inhabited the Syrian Lebanese coast. They were crafted from clay not for vinous reasons, but because it was an abundant natural resource.
The vessels were easy to produce, ship and reuse. Utilitarian, their bulbous shape provided maximum storage space, tapered ends allowed for rolling and slender necks helped manage pouring.
With interiors pitched in pine resin to render them waterproof, amphorae were used to hold wine, but were also packed with goods like oil, grains and nuts. Sealed with a plaster stopper, they would be layered in the hull of a ship, sent across the seas and exchanged widely throughout the Mediterranean Basin.
The use of clay jars for wine production in particular can be traced to 6000 BCE Georgia.
Massive stationary vessels called qvevri, some more than 250 times the size of amphorae, were kept cool underground.
Here, clay was used to the wine’s benefit.
Granularly speaking, clay is inert and porous, which allows for steady temperature regulation and microoxygenation without absorbing flavors, aromas or tannins like other materials like oak.
Utilized throughout the entirety of production, intact containers were reused indefinitely.