What Is Amphora Wine?
Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine
Long before oak barrels arrived on the scene, winemakers depended on terracotta jars for their craft. These vessels, called amphora (am-for-ah), have played a role in winemaking and wine storage since antiquity. Today, many modern-day winemakers have rediscovered the compelling properties of clay.
What is an amphora?
The term amphora (plural amphorae), refers to storage jars used in ancient Greece. A Greek amphora was conical in shape and used to transport goods throughout the Mediterranean in the hulls of ships. Their unique shape was specifically designed for sea-faring trade. The jars were filled with the merchant’s goods, in this case wine, and sealed with a wax or resin plug.
With the decline of Grecian civilization, the use of clay jars gradually fell away. Small pockets of civilizations continued using clay, but the Romans popularized oak barrels for winemaking. Soon, barrels became the container of choice of fermenting, storing, and shipping wine across the vast Roman empire.
Which winemakers use traditional amphora?
Fast forward a few millennia. Today, winemakers from regions with a rich legacy of using clay jars for winemaking have won over enthusiasts who are smitten by traditional methods. Additionally, a new generation of winemakers has embraced the amphora wine vessel for the different steps in winemaking, from fermentation to aging, as a way to craft bespoke wines. Many small to medium-sized producers have now fully co-opted amphorae into their winemaking toolbox.
How do winemakers use terracotta for winemaking?
If you’ve ever had to keep a plant watered during a hot spell that’s residing in a terracotta pot, you might intuitively understand an amphora for wine making. Clay is porous and evaporates liquids - a quality that transfers to the winery. Some producers will coat the inside of their clay vessel with wax to limit evaporation, others will leverage this property to concentrate flavors, much like using an oak barrel.
Some vessels are buried underground, with nothing more than their tops visible in order to access the wine. Other jars are held in place with joists. But the differences don’t stop there. Some vessels have the traditional conical bottoms, whereas others are flat. Winemakers select the style they want depending on their intended use for the container.
Why use an amphora for winemaking?
Winemakers attribute several unique properties to clay and amphora winemaking. The clay acts as a natural way to control the wine’s temperature during fermentation. Fermenting wine in amphora reduces the need for jacketed fermentation tanks and makes for more environmentally friendly production. Other winemakers cite the mineral qualities that clay imparts to an amphora aged wine. Still, others believe that terracotta allows for gentle oxygen transfer through the clay’s porous walls, mimicking a similar effect attributed to oak barrels.
Winemakers can use clay for red, white, and orange wines. Most producers leverage clay vessels as one production method to be used in combination with more mainstream winemaking techniques. For example, a winery will have a few amphorae in addition to stainless steel tanks or wooden barrels. The winemaker will blend batches together before bottling to craft richer, more complex wines.
Other producers use amphorae exclusively. This is certainly the case in regions where clay jars are part of a long winemaking heritage, to include regions in Spain, Portugal, and Georgia.
Finding Amphora Wine
How do you know if a wine was made using clay vessels?
Wine producers want to advertise the fact that they are using traditional winemaking techniques, so you’ll find plenty of clues on wine labels. Apart from the word ‘amphora’, look for any of the following:
Qvevri or Kvevri – Perhaps the most well-known term for terracotta vessels from Georgia, but you’ll find this word used by savvy wine marketers targeting wine enthusiasts
Tinajas – Used in Spain and in Spanish-speaking winemaking regions
Talhas – Used in Portugal
Clay – Used on wine labels for mainstream consumers
Can you taste that a wine is made using terracotta?
Winemaking is half science and half art. A magical combination of variables transforms grape juice into wine. Each variable a winemaker plays with will change the final bottle. Will you be able to tell that a wine was made using amphora specifically? Probably not. But could you taste the difference between two wines made from the same grapes, but different vessels: one in clay and the other in stainless steel or barrel? Absolutely.
So, the next time you see anything on a wine label that hints at clay containers during production, give it a try! You’ll be sipping a modern interpretation from wine’s antiquity.
Here at Gold Medal Wine Club, we've been lucky enough to have the opportunity to feature a winery that specializes in amphora wine! Amphora Winery still practices this ancient tradition and the process results in remarkable wines unlike any other! Be sure to check them out to experience this unique winemaking process!
Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.