Winemakers Give Clay a Close Look

Trials indicate clay fermentors provide characteristics different from steel, concrete

by Andrew Adams
Chad Stock tends to Gruner Veltliner in an amphora made by clay artist Andrew Beckham.
San Rafael, Calif.—Winemakers at several different wineries are reporting they’re impressed with early results from fermenting and storing wine in clay vessels.

In another example of how what’s old in winemaking often becomes new again, imported amphora and clay vessels produced in the United States are finding a place in cellars. Those who have used clay say it imparts unique flavors and aromas to the wine while also giving it a different texture.

Alex MacGregor, the winemaker at Saracina Vineyards in Hopland, Calif., said his work developing fermentors with supplier Mission Clay remains “dynamic.”

Varied glazes and firing
MacGregor said this past harvest he filled ten, 10-gallon clay cylinders with Chardonnay juice, fermented it and left it on the lees. Each clay vessel underwent slightly different treatments to help determine how different firing temperatures and glazes affect the wine.

“What this study with the 2013 wines will tell us about is whether or not some glazing is better than just naked clay,” he said. “I think we’re gravitating for a glaze; you want it to be porous, but you want to control the ullage on it.” By this year’s harvest, MacGregor said he’s hopeful Mission Clay will have some large-scale prototypes for him to use.

Saracina also has about 500 gallons of 2011 Syrah that MacGregor has aged in a clay column with lids on both ends sealed with beeswax. He said he’s fairly confident he’ll be able to release the wine on the market. He said the Syrah in the clay tastes distinct compared to oak and steel, and in fact MacGregor preferred it.

He likened the clay-aged Syrah to that of a Rhonê wine aged in foudre featuring a “wet, granitey” aroma and—although he admitted a distaste for the term—a minerality.

“It’s got to be related to the porosity, I think,” MacGregor said. He said the wine in the clay container wouldn’t retain free SO2 at all, yet it hasn’t suffered from excessive VA or Brett.

In February of last year, MacGregor also filled four clay “barrels” that hold about 57 gallons and can be laid on racks with 2012 Sauvignon Blanc.

Italian amphora finding an audience
Jeff Cohn, owner of JC Cellars in Oakland, Calif., readily admits to a propensity for experimentation. This past harvest he tried using an Italian amphora for fermenting and aging a small lot of Sonoma County Zinfandel. He said he’s impressed with the results. “Every time we taste it we’re like, ‘Wow, that’s kind of neat.’”

The fruit came from the Cassata vineyard, which is a Biodynamic property near Glen Ellen, Calif. Cohn split off about one bin of the 10 tons he purchased from the vineyard for an amphora. He said the fruit from the vineyard can yield Zins that evoke wines from the southern Rhonê or Italy, and so he thought clay could be a good match.

He said an Italian harvest intern, whose family owns a winery where they make wine with amphora, kept an eye on the project during harvest. Cohn said it appeared everything happened faster in the amphora, and the finished wine came out rounder and silkier. The wine also has a creaminess that’s not unlike milk chocolate, Cohn said.

The amphora is an Artenova imported through Ipak Wine, which is owned by Emanuele “Manu” Fiorentini. He said he’s received a tremendous response from winemakers since bringing the amphora over in 2013, selling two dozen of them to wineries in California, Oregon Washington and British Columbia. Fiorentini said he is bringing in another two shipping containers of amphora this year. “Honestly, every winemaker I sold one to likes the wine and is doing a special bottling of its own,” he told Wines & Vines.

Most of the amphora Fiorentini has imported hold 500 liters or slightly less than a ton of grapes, but he said he’s sold a few 800-liter amphora to clients in California. He said the natural micro-oxygenation of the wine through the clay creates a “silky smooth” texture in both reds and whites. “The wines seem to show well a richness in minerality and bright, fleshy fruit character,” he said.

Domestic clay supplier
Chad Stock works in the cellar and the vineyards at Johan Vineyards in Rickreall, Ore., and in his spare time he’s building his own wine brand Minimus Wines

Stock said he’s using his brand to dabble in winemaking experiments that go beyond the limits of conventional, clean winemaking. He said he’s used extended maceration to push wines beyond their typical varietal characteristics and explored how “flaws” like reduction and Brettanomyces can actually result in interesting and unique wines. “Where do you draw the line between good and bad, and who decides that?” he asked.

Always on the lookout for new and novel techniques, Stock said he was quite interested to discover vintner and clay artist Andrew Beckham in his neighborhood.

Beckham has been making amphora for his own wines, and Stock wanted to try using one as well. This past vintage, he destemmed Gruner Veltliner clusters directly into the amphora, filling it about 90% full. He then let the wine ferment on the skins for about 30 days. Once primary fermentation was complete, Stock sealed the amphora up and let it sit for another 40 days before scooping out the skins. He then pressed the skins and added the press wine back into the amphora and let it rest for another 30 days. Finally Stock raised the amphora on a pallet with a forklift and siphoned the wine out for bottling.

He fermented some of the same fruit in steel and concrete but said the clay lot exhibited the most expressive fruit flavors and aromatics. He said he thought the clay also gave the wine a unique earth quality “somewhat reminiscent of iron, kinda ferrous, kind of blood-like.”

Beckham came to making wine amphora in a bit of roundabout manner. He’s a ceramics teacher at a high school in Beaverton, Ore., and several years ago he and his wife purchased a rural property for a clay studio. In 2005, they decided to clear the property and plant vines. A few years after that, they began making their own wine. Beckham and his wife Annedria now own Beckham Estate Vineyard in Sherwood, Ore.

A few years ago, Annedria happened upon an article about winemakers using clay amphora and brought it to Andrew’s attention. “I looked at that article and said, ‘I can do that,’” he told Wines & Vines.

Soon after his initial efforts garnered some publicity, Beckham said several wineries were eager to order the vessels, yet he decided to hold off on selling them.

Beckham said he wants to find just the right process for making amphora for wine so winemakers don’t produce anything foul out of something with his name on it. His vision is to get the right firing and glazing protocols in place to offer winemakers a set of options like coopers can provide barrels with varying toasts and wood types to fit specific winemaking styles.

He said he’s also developing a steel cage so the amphora can be lifted and moved with a forklift as well as drained. Currently the vessels need to be filled and emptied by hand. Beckham is also working on a terracotta egg-shaped fermentor with a drain valve.

In using clay for his own wines, Beckham also said he perceives an earthy tone and mentioned the texture. “I think the wines are more cohesive coming out of the amphora early on,” he said.

Beckham plans to have amphora ready for sale soon and said he expects they will be in the range of 60-86 gallons in capacity and cost between $2,000 and $2,500. He admits it’s been a bit of a “magical ride” from ceramics teacher to winemaking supplier. “The wines are so interesting. It’s just super fun to be venturing into ground that’s lesser known,” he said. “I’m excited about where this is going.”

Posted on 03.10.2014 - 14:40:54 PST
Nice article. There are also others working with and producing qvevri- particularly the Qvevri Project (www.qvevriproject.org) in Texas, since 2011.
Brent Trela