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Italian Wine’s Amphora Revolution | Wine-Searcher News & Features

Amphorae have been used for millennia, but they are getting a new lease on life in Italy right now.

© Tom Hyland/Wine-Searcher
| Wine ferments happily in tinajas in the Foradori cellar in Trentino.

A quiet revolution is taking place in winery cellars across Italy.

Dozens of producers are now using the amphora, a vessel that dates back more than 8000 years to when the first wines were crafted. Given that tradition and heritage are always such an important part of the conversation regarding Italian wines, the current use of amphorae is especially appropriate.

Many historians believe that winemaking began in the country of Georgia in the Caucasus region, as the winemakers centuries ago used amphorae known as qvevri (also spelled kvevri) to store their wines. These vessels were made from different materials, with the most common made from local clay, and varied in size from less than 50 liters all the way up to 2000. The qvevri would be buried in the ground and the wine inside would be matured for many years.

This type of winemaking attracted the attention of several Italian producers, most notably Josko Gravner, a vintner from Friuli, whose cellars are located in Oslavia, a small village near the border with Slovenia. Gravner started producing wines in the early 1970s with traditional equipment at the time, but was fascinated by the use of amphorae, which he read about in history books in the late 1980s, according to his daughter Mateja. “He wanted to know if there was still someone somewhere who was still using amphora to produce wine,” she recalls.

Starting in 2001, Gravner released his first wines made in qvevri in the marketplace; today he has 47 of these vessels of various sizes ranging from 500 to 2500 liters. He produces white and red wines in these containers, which are buried underground in the Georgian custom; the reasoning here is that the qvevri are very thin, and the pressure of the liquid inside the walls could break them. His top wines made in this fashion include Gravner Rosso, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and Ribolla, made from the eponymous local white variety; today the Gravner Ribolla is one of Italy’s most iconic wines.

Terracotta or notta?

While many Italian producers that employ amphorae use ones made from terracotta (literally “cooked earth”) crafted from Tuscan clay, there are a few well-known Italian wineries that use amphorae from Spain, known as tinajas. Producers such as COS from Vittoria in Sicily, and Foradori from Mezzolombardo in Trentino, have been encouraged by the results they have achieved with the tinajas. Biagio Danilo Destefano, a cellar worker at COS, says that, compared to qvevri, tinajas have different characteristics, as they are made from a different type of clay and are less porous. “It’s a much more compact clay, so there is less micro-oxygenation involved.”

At Foradori, Emilio Zierock, son of proprietor Elisabetta Foradori, who has been the winemaker since 2013, comments: “For me, the quality of the clay of the amphorae from Juan Padilla (the manufacturer of these tinajas) is just outstanding, which is why we work with Spanish amphorae.”

For Zierock, the difference in the clay used to make the amphorae is critical. “Our idea of making wines in tinajas is a neutral approach, which is given by the clay. There is a cleanliness, a brightness in Padilla’s tinajas that we did not find on other amphorae, some of which leant an herbal taste to the wines.”

Zierock only uses the tinajas for the single-vineyard wines at Foradori; other wines are vinified in more traditional methods. “We have an extended maceration, kind of the Georgia method. Fermentation happens in the tinaja. After fermentation, we closed the whole container with the skins, and the wine stays with the skins in the tinaja until April, and then in concrete and into the bottle in July.” This process is the same for whites (Nosiola, Pinot Grigio) and reds (Teroldego) made at Foradori.

There are other variations of amphorae also currently in use; one of the most unique is cocciopesto, manufactured by the Tuscan firm Drunk Turtle. At Fattoria Nicodemi in Abruzzo, Elena Nicodemi notes that her father and she had tasted many wines made in terracotta and, as she remarks, “these wines had some taste of terracotta. We wanted to have a wine with no influence of the amphora.”

Nicodemi explains that cocciopesto is a material combining clay, sand and gravel that dates back several thousand years and was used by multiple civilizations in winemaking; it was also used to coat aqueducts and thermal baths. “This is a particular material that has no influence on the liquid inside. This is what we wanted.”

Nicodemi has used cocciopesto for only one wine currently available on the marketplace, a Trebbiano d’Abruzzo labeled, appropriately enough, Cocciopesto (a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cocciopesto will be released later in 2022 or next year). They also produce a Trebbiano vinified in steel, so how do the wines differ? “The Trebbiano in cocciopesto as compared to one made in steel, is more elegant,” she comments. “Even though both age on the lees, the cocciopesto is a wine that is more delicate.”

Francesco Cirelli in his winery cellar in Abruzzo with his terracotta amphorae.

© Tom Hyland/Wine-Searcher
| Francesco Cirelli in his winery cellar in Abruzzo with his terracotta amphorae.

No matter what type of amphora a producer uses, the end goal is similar. Francesco Cirelli in Abruzzo who currently makes Trebbiano, Montepulciano and Cerasuolo (the local rosato) in terracotta amphorae, explains his decision to use these vessels. “Amphora is great because it doesn’t add, and it doesn’t omit anything. It’s a very minimal, neutral container that is able to express the real authentic taste of my grapes in that particular soil in that particular vintage. For me, that’s the main difference between amphora and any other wine container.

“Plus it helps the wine to get in touch with oxygen, almost at the same rate as a 20-hectoliter wooden cask, so a very balanced oxygen rate. And it helps me to have more ready-to-drink Montepulciano compared to any other container. If I put the same Montepulciano in amphora and in wooden casks, the Montepulciano that has been aged in amphora will be more approachable than the other Montepulciano, softer in tannins in a shorter period and more drinkable in a shorter period.”

Mixing it up

Chiara Ciavolich of the eponymous family estate in the province of Pescara in Abruzzo, produces a line of wines known as Fosso Cancelli, including Trebbiano, Pecorino and Cerasuolo that are partially or entirely made in terracotta amphorae. Along with the neutral effects of these containers, she points out another benefit: “The exchange of oxygen is very high, higher than what you have in barrels.” However, she believes that her wines made using both amphorae and barrels have a greater complexity and deepness.

In the Roero district in Piedmont, Bajaj winemaker Adriano Moretti crafts Arneis, Nebbiolo and Barbera employing amphorae. Explaining that he wants to produce a Nebbiolo that “is very easy to drink”, he uses amphorae with this variety strictly for aging, which lasts nine months, followed by six months in the bottle. “My purpose with this kind of vinification is to make people understand the authentic soil of Roero.”

Paolo Manzone at his eponymous winery in Serralunga d’Alba is one of the very few producers to use amphora for Barolo, in this case his riserva Barolo. “My system for using amphora is different. It’s not really amphora in concrete. It’s like a terracotta amphora with a special paint and then it’s put in the oven like ceramic. This practically has only a little porosity, very low.  In the oven, it is cooked to 1200 degrees, which creates a very good protection, but at the same time, there is a little porosity inside,” he explains.

Manzone ages his riserva Barolo for three years in large oak casks and then puts the wine in amphora. “You increase the character of your wine in the oak, and then the evolution of the wine continues in the amphora. There is less oxidation, less maturation in oak, but the evolution continues on an upward movement and not down and then it continues its progression in a forward way. You don’t have the reduction as you would if the wine was put in stainless steel.”

There are also producers of Nascetta, a local white variety in Piedmont that employ amphorae with their versions. Enrico Rivetto of Serralunga used to produce an example of Nascetta that was made only in amphora, but after a few releases, he thought that he would have better results by combining amphorae and concrete tanks when crafting this wine; currently his Langhe Nascetta is a blend of 30 percent amphora and 70 percent concrete. “If I only use amphora for Nascetta, I realize I don’t have too much oxidative qualities in the wine, so a blend of amphora and concrete is good. However, the vinification in amphora gives me a little more body, more concentration.” (Rivetto also uses amphora for his single vineyard Nebbiolo d’Alba.)

At Ettore Germano in Serralunga, Sergio Germano ferments his Nascetta in stainless steel; after racking he fills the amphorae with the wine where it stays for eight to 10 months. “My idea is that maturation on the skin helps give the Nascetta more personality, more character because Nascetta doesn’t have a lot of potential in aromas; it’s quite delicate,” he remarks. “By keeping it in amphora for some months, we give a small micro-oxygenation, and the wine is also open, it’s never becomes reduced. The aromas are always open, and after we bottle with screwcap to skip the oxygen after bottling.

“It’s important for me to say that I don’t use amphora now because it’s trendy now, but for me, it’s a good instrument for this specific wine.”

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