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Ancient Wine Technology

Del Dotto winery to release an amphora-fermented Cabernet

by Alan Goldfarb
Punching down ancient amphorae
St. Helena, Calif. -- Dave Del Dotto, the owner of Del Dotto Vineyards, with facilities in the city of Napa and a phantasmagoric new winery south of St. Helena, has more than a touch of P.T. Barnum in him.

The new up-valley property is anchored by a 50-foot high marble-columned room that resembles a Neopolitan museum, and is a shrine to the history of wine. Along with its caves, when it's completed shortly, it will cost nearly $18 million.

To augment the historical aspect of the winery, as well as to make a wine that may turn out to be one of the most unusual ever produced in the U.S., Del Dotto has been fermenting some of his wines in clay amphorae. Aside from an eccentric winemaker in northern Italy, as far as we can ascertain, the Del Dotto winery (6,000 cases estimated production) may be the only facility using the huge jars--whose history dates to the beginning of wine production--to make wine today.

Del Dotto insists that he's serious about using the raw terra cotta-lined vessels--which are four-feet high, six-feet in diameter and hold about 2 tons--because they lend a pure fruitiness to the wines, as well as a definitively organic earthy quality. Additionally, and not to be overlooked, Del Dotto, a marketer at heart, sees a great tale in his adopting the use of the amphoraes.

Del Dotto says he got the idea from studying the history of wine and, "I thought it would be good to try to duplicate (the methods of) the ancient winemakers." He read an article about Josko Gravner who uses the jars, made in the Caucasus, to produce his highly individualistic wines in Friuli. Gravner (pronounced GROW-ner), may be the only other winemaker in the world using this low technology.

Del Dotto purchased four amphorae in Tuscany that were said to be 300 years old. He says they cost him $15,000 each. He began experimenting with them in 2005, and has made Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon in them. His first commercial release of amphora-fermented wine will be a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (100%) bottled in clay magnums only, to be available probably in September. The clay bottles that will set him back another $10-15 each. He estimates the price-point will be somewhere near $100.

Now, Del Dotto says, he's going to order more fermentation vessels custom-made at about $5,000-$15,000 each, and he will incorporate them into his yearly regimen.

Del Dotto's new winemaker, Gerard Zanzonico, thinks the experiments may lead to "a new renaissance" in winemaking. The former Staglin Family winemaker, who also worked many years at Chateau Montelena, says the wines he's tasted that were fermented in the clay vessels are "very earthy," and they are not like those from concrete containers, with which many winemakers have been experimenting. "They're earthier. They're not like anything you can imagine ever tasting.

"It's got a primordial character," Zanzonico says. "You get the feeling it's part of the earth. The smell is totally different from stainless steel or wood. It's more pure, and real grapey of what the variety is; it accentuates the variety."

Zanzonico is using natural yeast, and he punches down by hand three times a day with pump-overs at two-to-three intervals daily.

He says the fermentation temperatures are a little high, because the amphorae cannot be electronically regulated. Early on in the process, the temperatures elevated, but they came down to 82°. "They didn't run away," he says. "It's a matter of managing the cap and getting the fermentation going. It was a challenge," he acknowledges.

The tops, 32-inch in diameter, were covered in plastic and sealed with beeswax, which kept in some CO2 until fermentation began. "You might think it would be sluggish, but it wasn't," Zanzonico says. Maceration lasted up to 10 days but he plans a longer period with the '07 vintage.

Del Dotto believes the clay softens the tannins, which will aid in fermenting white wine. Also, no sulfites were added. "We'll try not to add sulfites but I have to be realistic," he says. "Our goal is to be sulfite-free. Anything that we can cut back to keep that poison out of the wine is good." He will also bury some of the jars, as was the custom in ancient times.

Will we be seeing clay amphorae-fermented wines as a matter of course from the Del Dotto winery?

"I think you will, because I think the wines are good and different," Del Dotto says. "I think it could be a big wave. This is going to create a huge line of wines, because everything is going toward natural and organic and we're going to be right there. This has got a beautiful hook (marketing-wise)."
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