Amphorae Are a Fashion, Not a Philosophy

The history of winemaking goes back millennia, with the oldest evidence of fermentation vessels dating as far back as 6000 BC in Georgia. While civilization’s reverence for wine has changed little in all this time, the means by which we ferment it have changed tremendously.  From the original Georgian qveri to the modern concrete “egg,” winemakers have been inventing technologies to experiment with different fermentation methods since the dawn of wine.

 Examples of ancient amphorae. Photo courtesy of oeai.com.

Examples of ancient amphorae. Photo courtesy of oeai.com.

Ironically, as Imbibe pointed out last fall, the arc of this technological evolution has brought us right back to where we started: a fervor over amphora fermentation. Arising at a moment when 'natural' wines are having their heyday, amphora winemaking went hand in hand with increased consumer demand for artisanal, low-intervention wines that seemed more organic, pure, even. While this earthenware obsession seems to be dying down, it begs the question: does the vessel make the difference?

 Marcus Notaro of Stag's Leap Cellars. Photo courtesy of Decanter.

Marcus Notaro of Stag's Leap Cellars. Photo courtesy of Decanter.

For some winemakers, the debate will rage on for time eternal: French or Slovenian oak, stainless steel or cement? Regardless of your camp, what more winemakers can agree on today is that it is worth experimenting. In a recent article in Decanter covering trends in California winemaking, Marcus Notaro of Stag’s Leap Cellars noted that more and more winemakers are exploring different fermentation vessels. No longer is it simply a matter of new or neutral oak, but a matter of shape, size, and material. And the hype around amphorae has come under closer scrutiny.

 Winemaker Brian Terrizzi of Broadside Wines. Photo courtesy of Brian Terrizzi.

Winemaker Brian Terrizzi of Broadside Wines. Photo courtesy of Brian Terrizzi.

Brian Terrizzi of both Broadside Wines and Giornata Wines in Paso Robles has been making amphora wines for years (along with his wife and Broadside's viticulturist Stephy), first on his pilgrimages to Italy, and then in his own winery. “Amphorae do have their benefits,” Terrizzi notes, “they allow for more oxygen exchange and the vessel imparts less flavor than oak would. But amphorae are not for all wines, and not for all winemakers.”

Terrizzi was drawn to this style of winemaking due to his own Italian heritage and his passion for Italian wines. He had read up on the Italian masters of amphora winemaking (such as Josko Gravner and Frank Cornelissen) and decided to experiment on his own. “I appreciated the philosophy that by using terracotta vessels, these winemakers were bringing their wine as close to earth as possible. Now, whether that makes it ‘natural’ wine is a different story.” Since there is no standardization of what 'natural' wine actually means, winemakers could easily conflate this rustic method of winemaking with an appeal to eco-conscious consumers.

As Terrizzi explains, as soon as amphorae became trendy, too many winemakers began to count on the vessel as the as the golden ticket to producing good wine, disregarding the close attention and nuance the winemaker must bring to the process, as with all vessels. In this scenario, the amphora runs the risk of becoming just another marketing gimmick, or worse, poorly made 'natural wines' with faults that turn people away from the style entirely.

 Fermentation vessels in Terrizzi's cellar. Photo courtesy of houzz.com.

Fermentation vessels in Terrizzi's cellar. Photo courtesy of houzz.com.

Ultimately, the amphora is just another tool in Terrizzi’s repertoire, albeit one with a history that he respects. Because Broadside sources their wines from many vineyards, Terrizzi does not bind himself to tradition or to any single fermentation method. Working with vessels made of plastic, metal, concrete, and wooden of all shapes and sizes he is free to experiment. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, but Terrizzi often finds himself pleasantly surprised by results he would not have anticipated. “When you limit yourself to only one method, you back yourself into a corner. It’s like having a kitchen equipped with only an oven. By fermenting many small batches in different styles, I wind up with a broad palate of flavors to work with, and through blending you can build something much larger than the sum of its parts. It’s like seasoning a dish with the perfect balance of spices until you find harmony.”

In this regard, Terrizzi’s approach is much more in line with Cornelissen, who is just as likely to use plastic fermenters as amphorae to achieve the end result he seeks. As Cornelissen said, “Amphorae are fashion. This does not mean that they do not work as a vessel, but people have stopped using their brains in terms of what a vessel does and does not do. We are talking about a container and not philosophy here.” 


All the Swirl is a collection of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California. We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.