by Andrew Chalk
In ancient history wine emerged in the region around the Caspian Sea. The archaeological evidence shows that fermentation and ageing took place in large clay vessels known as amphorae. Wind forward to the present day and this practice has almost totally conceded its place to ageing in oak or stainless steel. In an age of innovation such blanket conformity can hardly expect to be unchallenged. Part of that challenge is a return to amphorae in established wine producing regions such as the southern Rhône and Iberia.
As part of a media tour I recently visited a Portuguese producer, Adeja José de Sousa, in the Alentejo, the region that stretches out west and north of the capital, Lisbon. They have moved from the conventional oak ageing process to the widespread use of clay amphorae for fermentation and ageing. In fact, they have a total of 114 amphorae.
One amphora-made wine that we tasted was an example of Jose de Sousa’s super premium wines, Puro Talha. It illustrated the way that amphora wine making is done and its effect on the wine’s organoleptic properties.
The grape blend in Puro Talha varies with the vintage, but to take the 2015 vintage that we were offered as an example, it was grand noir, trincadeira, aragonez (tempranillo), and moreto. Grapes were hand-harvested, partially crushed under foot, and manually destemmed. Each amphora (named talhas) was 1600 litres and fermentation was carried out with 30% stems at a temperature of 28 degrees centigrade. This temperature was maintained by spraying water four times a day on the amphorae. Fermentation took around 8 days but the wine remained in the amphorae, in contact with the skin, until November.
At that point the wine was pressed before part of it went back into amphora for 16 months, depending on vintage. A layer of olive oil was poured over the surface to prevent oxidation. The other part of the wine went into 500 litre chestnut barrels. Chestnut was chosen because of its flavor neutrality. It contributed the oxidative experience of oak without imparting flavors. The other 70% of the stems came back into play at this point. They were fermented with some juice in 300 litre talha known as tarefa. This produces ripanço wine which is added in small quantities to the final blend to ‘season’ it (the Portuguese liken the effect to salt and pepper on food).
The resulting wine was so different from conventionally produced wines of that blend that I stopped and dictated my tasting note right there at the winery.
“The color is a translucent cherry-red. A contrast with the opaque wines made conventionally from these grapes. The nose is extremely herbaceous and very forward. Despite the absence of oak there are tertiary aromas of wood. There is also a burned barbecue aroma in the nose - not unpleasant. In the mouth the visual translucence of the wine is shown to be a deceit if one expected it to lead to an anemic palate. The wine has a strong, grippy, slightly caustic tannin layer that impedes the tongue moving around. One’s tongue feels like it has been welded in place. The flavors are much more typical of the grapes in the blend than the result they produced in the nose. The finish is one of those old wine finishes that goes on for ages. I say old wine because in many respects this comes across as an old wine.”
Later, when writing this up, I discovered that Robert Parker had reviewed this wine. His Bobness gave it a respectable score of 91/100. I was more generous, based on my winery tasting. The wine was so unusual that, even at $50 from the winery shop, I had to buy a bottle and try to get it back without breakage, confiscation, or it catching COVID.
A CAUTIONARY NOTE
The bottle made it safely but with a surprise. It was not at all like the one I had drunk at the winery. It was drier and had a hollowed-out core as though it had been denuded of fruit. I don’t know if it was the journey, the storage on display in the gift shop, or something else, but I would like to get back my winery version.
LOOK FOR AMPHORA-MADE WINES
Assuming the above is just a sample error, I recommend wine lovers look for amphora-aged wines as an alternative to conventionally-made wine. At a time when pundits throw around terms like clean and biodynamic and the terms make no difference (or less) to the organoleptic experience, here is a technique that has real taste implications.