All About Amphora Wine
Winemaking isn’t just an artform, it’s been part of the human experience for centuries. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when grape-based wine was first created (according to UC Davis, archeologists believe wine grapes were first domesticated and dispersed in the area around Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey roughly 5,000 to 6,000 years ago), it’s well documented that clay amphorae were one of the oldest vessels used in the creation, aging and storing of wine.
Even as modern wine production has largely phased out the need to use them, natural wine’s focus on preserving and unearthing traditional winemaking methods has revived interest in the use of amphorae. As classical wine regions with extensive history using amphorae—including several ex-Soviet and Eastern European nations—become more available on the global market, these countries’ time-honored winemaking practices have never been on a bigger stage. This is especially true when it comes to the increased global interest in “orange wine,” which has historically been produced in amphorae or qvevris.
Unlike modern oak or steel (or concrete and fiberglass), clay amphorae represent the past in the present, bringing a new perspective into the modern wine conversation that’s—ironically—as old as winemaking itself.
What is an Amphora?
An amphora is a traditional clay vessel used to hold and store liquid for an extended period of time. They have been in use for at least the last 6,000 years. While amphorae have been around since the Neolithic period holding various liquids, it’s largely understood that a typical amphora was primarily created and used to make, store and transport wine.
Today, amphorae are still largely made with clay, but it’s not the only material used to make amphorae or amphorae-like vessels. Concrete and sandstone are other materials that might be used to make amphorae.
In antiquity, of course, all amphorae were handmade, but it’s a tradition that largely holds up even today. While making templatized pottery has become much easier, you’ll find that most amphorae are still made by hand—either by the winemakers themselves or through specific amphorae production businesses.
The History of Amphora
Amphorae—if we’re talking broadly about the clay-based container—have been used in some form for centuries. It is believed that amphorae were first used in the Caucasus Region near Georgia (the country, not the American state), where they were—and are—also referred to as Qvevri. While we noted that wine grapes have been dispersed for roughly the last six millenia, some believe that the earliest winemaking amphorae date back even earlier—about 8,000 years.
Numerous documented uses of amphorae stretch back to the Roman Empire and even Pharaonic Egypt. The sheer size and geographic scope of the Roman Empire is especially important for the spread of amphorae. As the Romans conquered and absorbed nations across Europe, they also brought along the Empire’s cultural traditions—including wine. With dominance over the Mediterranean locked up for centuries, the sea became a cheap, effective way to ferry goods across the various corners of the Empire. Sealed amphorae, at the time, were one of the most practical ways to ship wine with minimal spoilage—with archeological estimates believing the average Roman amphorae to hold about 10 gallons of wine each.
Amphorae are actually a very interesting way to track the reach of Roman wine influence across the Empire as a whole, with ancient amphorae dug up as far north as modern-day Provence, up through the Rhône River and even in England. Gaul (the predecessor to present-day France) may have innovated on winemaking by pioneering the use of the wooden barrel (eventually outclassing winemakers closer to the Empire’s center in Rome), but the amphora’s introduction into Roman-occupied France is seen as the forerunner to the nation’s internationally-lauded winemaking legacy.
Regional Names for Amphora
Given that clay pottery and ceramics were not contained to a single region, there are actually a few different names for amphorae that vary based on where the container—and, by extension, the wine—is coming from. As a modern-day shopper, spotting these terms when picking up a bottle should indicate that the wine has interacted with an amphora or clay aging container (in one way or another).
In Italy and Greece, you’ll find wines labeled with “amphora,” though other names and spellings for similar containers include “anfore,” “orci” or “giare.” These will likely look more akin to a vase with long handles on either side. In Spain, you’ll find “tinaja,” which innovated on the amphorae of antiquity by increasing capacity and focusing on a distinct egg shape. Where amphorae-based wine production has its historical roots—in Georgia and Armenia—you’ll find these clay vessels referred to as “qvevri” and “karas” respectively. They tend to be large, egg-shaped pots.
Portugal’s “talha” has its own cultural roots that span over 2,000 to 3,000 years. This is so deeply rooted in Portuguese winemaking culture that in 2012, the nation created an appellation dedicated entirely to “vinho de talha.” You’ll find these wines made in the eight subregions of the province of Alentejo.
How Is Amphora Wine Made?
Amphora-made wine is special thanks to the vessel’s unique shape. Whether it’s a vase-like Italian amphora or an egg-shaped qvevri, the production methods generally have a similar process (broadly speaking).
Once the grape berries are crushed and destemmed, the must (basically the combination of the juice, skins, seeds and other parts of the grape) is placed into the amphorae to begin fermentation. Generally, due to the shape of the vessel, the skins float to the top of the amphora, where they remain for most of the fermentation process. The smaller sediment—including dead yeast lees and small seeds—will float to the bottom of the vessel.
Traditionally, the amphora are sealed up and buried underground, with the indigenous yeasts kickstarting fermentation inside the vessel. The cool temperatures and lack of sunlight underground help keep the fermentation process going until it’s completed. Keep in mind however: While burying amphora or qvevri is common in the Caucasus region, this may or may not happen depending on where the wine is being made.
The design of an amphora is interesting in that the fermentation process cycles the grape skins throughout the vessel, serving as a natural “punch down”—mixing of the liquids with the solids. Given that this exposure likely occurs for at least a couple months before being bottled, the wine is given significant skin contact and a distinct flavor development that might not occur if the wine was made in oak or steel.
All the aforementioned information aside, regional differences and historical traditions prevent diagnosing amphora-based wine production with a “one size fits all” approach. The important thing to remember is that these wines prioritize extended skin contact. This is why amphora awareness has grown alongside the rise in popularity of orange wine; orange wine is a white wine made with extended skin contact, imparting the style’s signature orange, peach or amber hues (among other things).
What Does Amphora Wine Taste Like?
Amphora wines tend to have a bigger “texture” to the wine, usually with softer fruit and a nuttier, earthy quality. While it’s unlikely that most people will be able to taste the difference between amphora, oak and steel-aged wine blind, amphorae wines should have bright, open—even kinetic—quality up front, with a long and rich finish.
It’s important to think of how other vessels impart (or don’t impart) flavor into a wine when discussing the influence of amphorae. Oak, for example, is known to impart wines—especially whites—with a creamy or vanilla-like quality. Steel is prized for its ability to have very little impact on the flavor of the wine aged in it, locking out oxygen and creating crisper wines. For the sake of this discussion, amphorae sit somewhere in the middle.
Being made of clay, amphorae are naturally porus. This means that oxygen can get into the wine through the vessel’s exterior (unlike steel), which will give the wine a more noticeable “texture” on the palate. That said, clay is also a neutral material (unlike oak), so, theoretically, the wine won’t pick up any flavors simply by sloshing around inside of an amphora. The unique result is, as Wine Folly puts it, the development of “tertiary flavors.”
Amphora in Natural Wine: Who Makes Amphora Wine?
Amphora-centered wine hits directly at the heart of the natural wine movement. Millennia of history and a non-interventionist approach make amphora wine a… well, natural fit for those interested in natural wine and winemaking. Add in the fact that these wines tend to be unfiltered, and natural wine fans will fall for amphora wines—especially those on the hazier, cloudier side of things.
Thanks to the amphora’s deep roots, amphora-made wine can ultimately be found all over the world. As we mentioned earlier, there are specific names for amphorae in various regions across Europe—ranging from Italy and Spain to Georgia and Turkey—with slight variations on wine production found in each culture. For the most part, you’ll find amphora wine from Italy and Georgia specifically, though they’re nowhere near the only nations producing wine in clay vessels.
Buzzy Italian wine label Lammidia has released “Anfora” editions of it’s signature “Rosh” and “Bianco” bottles, which add new complexity to the cult favorites. Fellow Italian producer Cirelli also has red and white amphora-focused wines, which strike the balance between solid food wines and straight-up glou-glou.
In Spain, Costador may make an amphora-aged Trepat that really hones in on the use of the traditional vessel, but all of its “Metamorphika” bottles mirror an amphora’s clay exterior, making each piece in Costador’s series conversation starters before you even pop the cork.
As we noted earlier, several orange wines from Eastern Europe—including nations like Georgia, Slovenia, Hungary—have deep roots to qvevri and clay vessel fermentation and/or aging. As you explore wines in this region, chances are you’ll stumble into a bottle that’s tapped into that several thousand year-old history.
No matter which bottle you decide to try or what region you want to explore, the best thing to do is to read up on a few bottles, and, like an amphora buried deep underground, unearth a bit of history in the process.