Natural winemaking with amphorae

Attending a recent Wine: Baptism of Fire event, and the “winemakers” comments on natural wines got me thinking again about the term natural wines. There has obviously been a lot interest in this term and these styles of wines in the last few years. There are many definitions for this term but I think the broadest is probably the best – natural wines are wines made with the least possible use of additives, chemicals and technological processing. The idea is that the fruit expresses itself from the vineyard to bottle, rather than the winemaker manipulating the fruit to express a certain style.

I thought as a supplier we should not get into the debate about whether these wines are the future or not or about how wines should be made but we could offer something useful on how equipment used in these processes should best be utilised. Following is an extract from a presentation we did last year at Winetech and WEA on the use of ceramic eggs and terracotta amphorae in winemaking. These findings are the result of information from our suppliers and discussions with winemakers using the vessels;

Artenova amphorae

Artenova amphorae

What you need to know if using an egg or amphora:

1) Living, Breathing vessels – care needs to be taken of environment. 

These vessels are actually what they claim to be, they are more of a living vessel than stainless steel or even oak. We had the AWRI analyse from a taste and chemical perspective a number of wines produced in both eggs and amphora.  From the analysis we actually saw that in one winery a taint was prevalent in both the egg and amphora in higher levels than in the barrel samples.  This just proved to us that these vessels are really as reactive as they claim and they do take in the environment around them. The same general rules that apply to all winemaking obviously also apply to eggs and amphorae, care needs to be taken of the environment in which these vessel are stored and care also needs to be taken in their cleanliness.

2) Natural ferments 

The history and traditional style of wines produced in these vessels tends to be more hands off, natural winemaking.  Most the winemakers we have spoken to have also gone for this less interventionist approach, which has worked well with this medium and produced great results.  It must be remembered when conducting a natural ferment that these vessels will have no natural yeast in them.  Users have spoken of extended lag times as air bound yeast has to find its way to the vessel. This could also in turn affect the health and variability of the ferment. We have had some winemakers comment that their ferments went a little stinky while others have had a smoother cleaner ferment than usual. They have put this down to the porosity of the vessel they mentioned that the ferment doesn’t get smelly and that there is no need for aeration.

3) Sulphur dioxide

Users have commented that they have needed less sulphur dioxide in wines made in eggs and amphora. For natural winemakers this is a given but those who have used these vessel with more mainstream winemaking methods have noticed a significant difference.

4) Storage and cleaning. 

Eggs and amphora need to be cleaned after use. The eggs can actually be pressure washed and then just put out in the sun to dry and left empty. Unlike barrels there is no need to keep these vessels full they won’t dry out or go volatile. Amphora can also be easily cleaned and kept empty.  It is recommended that each time the amphora is emptied that the beeswax is removed; this can be done with hot water or hot air. Once cleaned the amphora should be filled with pure water and left for 10 days to stabilise in the environment in which it is going to be used the amphora then needs to be re lined.

Do not store your amphora in direct sunlight whether it is empty or full.

Do not pressure wash either the outside or inside of the amphora

5) Stabilising

Terracotta acts as an inert membrane with varying capacity to transport moisture in and out of the amphora. The rate of movement in either direction will depend on the type of clay used in the production of the vessel, the temperature at which the amphora is stored and the humidity around the amphora. Thus stabilising is necessary. To stabilise the amphora it needs to be placed in the area it will be used and filled with pure water and left for 10 -14 days. The stabilising is literally just balancing the water content in the clay to the environment.

6) Temperature control

Obviously both terracotta amphora and ceramic eggs have good insulation quality which helps to stabilise temperature over a long period of time – this is ideal for maturation but can be an issue for ferment control.

The egg isn’t such an issue as the shape encourages movement in the wine with cooler wine at the bottom and the warmer wine at the top mixing in the vessel.

Some winemakers have reported very fast ferments in amphorae as a result of the heat sink of the vessel, but others have said that they like the amphorae for its ability to control ferments without the need for cooling.  It is recommended that you allow your amphorae to temperature stabilise in its long-term storage area prior to filling.

Those who do feel the need for cooling have been transferring their amphorae in and out of cool rooms as necessary. Cooling plates are also available which can be fitted to the lid of the vessel.

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If you have had any experience with these vessels and are happy to share it, please let us know.