From a wine standpoint, amphorae started around 8,000 years ago in Georgia. No, not that Georgia. The one in Southeast Europe, with the strange buried vessels and the delicious wine and the painfully beautiful high-elevation towns. The corner of the world that very much appears to be responsible for wine as we know it.
But amphora as a term and practice goes even farther back, to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. They all used some form of the handled terra cotta vessel (the amphora) to transport goods and finished liquids.
To geek out just for a second, amphora is something of a misnomer. As Andrew Beckham of Beckham Estate in Oregon has said many times, the amphora name given to this new resurgence of wines isn’t really accurate. The ceramicist and winemaker makes his own containers, used to both ferment and age the wines. They require another name altogether, technically, he would argue. Amphorae were typically reserved for finished products. His (called NOVUM), as in Georgia (where they call them Qvevri), are used throughout the winemaking process.
But back to the general practice, which got its start way, way back in what is now the scenic and welcoming nation wedged between Turkey and Russia. Over the last decade or so, thanks to a collective desire for strange wines from unexpected places, the style has surged back to life. As SevenFifty reports, the country went from having 80 registered wineries to having 961 between 2006 and 2018. That’s an incredible statistic, but it becomes understandable when you begin to grasp the nature of the wine.
Our fascination with orange wine is a big part of the comeback picture. The Georgians are believed to have invented the stuff, essentially the product of treating a white grape like a red one. These skin-fermented white wines benefit from extended skin contact, affording added color, texture and red wine-like qualities like tannin. More time on the skins plus a style that tends to invite a little oxidation yields the signature orange or amber shade.
The flavor can be amazing, a cross between a white wine, red wine, and sherry. But amphorae are used on all kinds of wine, including many reds and whites. And, as Beckham’s purchase orders will attest, the style is growing in the States as well. Vintners are drawn to the purity of fruit the clay vessels uphold. The shape, too, can be beneficial, as often times the curved nature of the pots encourages even aging on the lees (the spent yeast cells and flavor-giving gunk at the bottom of the vessel).
Amphorae are popular for many other reasons. As the wine world looks to mimic the ancient, hands-off ways of old, this is an obvious route to pursue. To make wine in these containers is to return to the very birth of the industry. The porous nature of the clay is attractive as well, exposing the wine to some air and fostering an interesting set of flavors. Additionally, because of said exposure, the wines tend to come of age more quickly. This is to say nothing of the gorgeous nature of these uber-artistic creations.
So hop on the amphora wine train and drink like an ancient. Here are five to try:
The ceramist-vintner’s work is consistently pure and fresh. This wine is no different, showing the brightness of the vintage and the nuance of amphora aging.
This wine sums up the immense structure and depth of flavor traditional Georgian wines can bring to the table, often for a surprisingly affordable price.
This wine is made of Nerello Mascalese grown high up on the slopes of Sicily’s famous Mt. Etna. It’s raw in the best sense of the term, and wild and outspoken in its many flavors.
Another Georgian bottle to look for, with lots of minerality, and layers upon layers of zesty flavors.
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