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How Producers are Returning to Winemaking’s Roots

Vinifying wine in clay is far from a new practice. With a history that dates back more than 6,000 years and origins in the Caucasus region, its lineage is longer and deeper than that of steel and barrique. While the last century saw the use of clay diminish drastically, a return to wine’s roots is afoot.

First, clay is simply the raw material used to make the vessel. After being fired at low temperatures, the resulting earthenware is known as terracotta. When it comes to aging wine, those finished vessels go by different names, with slight differentiations in shape and size.

In the country of Georgia, terracotta egg-shaped containers are known as qvevri, which are traditionally buried. In Spain, rounder clay pots are referred to as tinaja, while in Italy, the overarching term amphora is commonly used. But what do these do for the wine?

The Middle Ground

Vinification in clay is best understood when compared to steel and oak. Fermentation and aging in stainless steel provides an oxygen-free environment where no flavors are imparted into the wine, allowing crisp fruit notes to shine through.

Oak, in the form of barrels, provides plenty of benefits as well, specifically in regard to oxygen from the air exchanging with wine. But oak, especially new oak, does impart the wood’s flavors into the juice.

Clay is the happy medium between the two. Like oak, clay is porous, allowing for an exchange of oxygen. Like steel, clay is a neutral material, so it doesn’t impart additional flavors.

“People assume that something coming from terracotta is going to be orange or heavy, clunky or tannic, which is absolutely not true,” says John Wurdeman, winemaker at Georgian-based Pheasant’s Tears. “You can make a clear, bright, acidic white in a qvevri. The qvevri is just a vessel.”

Wurdeman believes that skin maceration has more to do with the final texture of the wine than the clay pot itself. “The beginning and most important part of the process is the work in the vineyard,” he says. “The level of life that’s going to be in the wine is determined by when you pick [the grapes] and skin maceration choices.”

But the clay’s porosity does play a role. Wurdeman says that qvevri wines develop a rich and deep texture, “without the cosmetics of oak flavor.” Sometimes, they even mature quicker because of their fermentation in open space.

“If you make wine in a closed space, like stainless steel, it’s going to develop age in a much slower way because of its lack of exposure to oxygen,” he says. “There’s more space and textural layers to dig through in a wine that’s made with an exchange of oxygen.”

Prepping the quervi at Pheasant's Tears
Prepping the qvevri at Pheasant’s Tears / Photo courtesy Pheasant’s Tears

Trentino-based winemaker Elisabetta Foradori transitioned to clay in 2008.

“Rudolf Steiner [an Austrian philosopher and founder of biodynamics] often speaks on clay as an element between two polarities, one that harmonizes extremes, gives and takes, returns purity and [delivers] a clear message,” she says.

Foradori says that the quality of clay is important, and she likens her transition to it as if an incredible world had been opened to her. Foradori now works with 180 clay amphorae at her winery.

Clay does bring certain risks, specifically bacteria.

“You have to be very careful with hygiene to assure that you don’t have any bacteria hitchhiking its way into the wine,” says Wurdeman. He believes the meticulous upkeep is worth it. “If you take the extra effort that goes into hygiene, I don’t see why not to use clay, aside from the fact that it’s time consuming.”

Olivier Rame
Olivier Rame / Photo by Ruggero Ughetti

Size Matters

Languedoc-based Olivier Rame begins vinification in concrete for temperature control, followed by aging in clay jars. Rame uses two types of clay jars: roughly 32 gallons and 140 gallons.

“The larger jars are thick, benefiting from a slow micro-oxygenation, where freshness is preserved,” he says. “The character of the land is not distorted.”

The 32-gallon jars are thin and porous, which provides strong micro-oxygenation. “The idea is to focus on texture by evaporation, but aging is generally shorter,” says Rame. “Otherwise, we will oxidize the wine.”

“Purity and clarity: These are the characteristics of the message that the clay brings,” says Foradori. She says the vessel brings the fruit’s vitality to the wine, as well as a biodynamic energy-rich environment for fermentation.

Rame concurs: “I choose this type of aging because clay jars do not change the aromatic profile of the wine, and therefore, [they] respect the aromatic expressions of the grapes and the land.”

Shops, restaurants and wine bars are carrying more wines aged in clay than ever before.

“I love telling the story of these wines, the thousands of years of history behind their production methods,” says Lauren Friel, wine director at New York City’s vegetarian hotspot, Dirt Candy.

“One can produce a pure expression of the wine’s terroir that could arguably be influenced by barrel,” she says. “It does everything a barrel does in terms of softening and ameliorating reduction in a wine without the influences of oak tannin, new oak flavors and the like.”

Friel says that wines vinified in clay can have rusticity about them, especially if there’s a period of skin contact.

“Eventually, you start to prefer elegant rusticity over glossiness,” she says. “The wines feel more alive, more complex, and more honest.”

“What I really love about wines in terracotta is that they are a pure expression of place, and I want to honor that expression by cultivating a nuanced, true-to-terroir pairing,” says Friel, highlighting her focus on pairing these wines with cuisines that come from the same soil that particular grapes are grown in.

Is the true expression of terroir, therefore, best displayed when fruit is vinified in clay? The debate remains open.