Over the past few years, amphorae have been making a come-back in the world of winemaking. Things have changed though since the Dressel classification of Antiquity. French Tava amphora importer Nathaël Suils explains.
Whether amphorae are used to ferment or simply mature wines, the idea is to deliberately avoid the customary contact with barrels. Ironically, Suils worked in the cooperage industry for 15 years. His decision to include amphorae made by the Italian ceramicist Francesco Tava in his range was prompted by their unique contribution to wine. Baked clay usually stays extremely porous and wine growers therefore risk losing 15 to 20% of their wine through evaporation – the famous ‘angel’s share’. Also, when wine comes into contact with too much oxygen, it can turn to vinegar, and the vessel is difficult to clean. But if amphorae are baked for approximately 50 hours at temperatures rising to 1,200 °C, the technique becomes so close to glazing (1,260°C) that an amphora’s porosity is similar to wood. The amount of oxygen is then ideal – the wine can ‘breathe’ without spoiling but no longer shows any oak influence.
In Georgia, the historic birthplace and still the home of amphorae winemaking, the technique is used mostly for white wines. The same is true in Italy where the trend is gaining traction. But in Bordeaux, the home of red wines where Suils is based, Cabernets and Merlots are prime candidates. Deprived of all contact with oak, the wines develop a strong fruitiness, and unlike wines matured in old casks, which have lost their oakiness, wines in amphorae are less ‘drying’ on the palate. The tannins seem particularly supple and it is reported that once a bottle is opened, it keeps slightly better.
The influence of famous wine critic Robert Parker, who used to be such a lover of highly oaked Bordeaux, is now waning. Fashions come and go.