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An amphora odyssey

What is an amphora?

Amphorae (or ‘Giara’) are terracotta containers of basically between 400 and 600 litres, but can be larger. This completely ancient technology is now in use by modern winemakers in Italy, France, California and now Australia.

All our Claypot Wines are made with full skin and seed inclusion and extended skin contact in the amphora, both white (Pandora’s Amphora and Taurian) and red (Pyrrha). The style of wine produced is quite different and unique offering new flavours and particularly textures. White wines are almost always fermented in the absence of their skins and seeds as these are full of astringent tannins and other weird and wonderful compounds. In order to make these extracted tannins integrate into the wine a great deal of guts and patience is required. A period of months is required for these often bitter tannins to transform into a magical, mouth-filling, full bodied other-worldly drink…. all without the presence of the usual safety blanket of Sulphur Dioxide.

A winemaker’s journey back to the old world

I first encountered an Amphorae the day I started work at Penfold’s Nuriootpa in the Barossa valley of South Australia in late 2002. There were two of them outside the very dated and a bit kitsch cellar door entrance. A bit of research has shown them to be of Spanish origin, several hundred years old.  I would often hold out my hand out as I walked past to feel their smooth and cold surface. They are equally kitsch themselves really, each painted in a cracked and peeling dubious classical motif… I even got a step ladder once to have a look inside one of them…sure enough they had become collectors of all sorts of clutter and even waste… a half eaten fossilised cake and one of those shocking printed tourist tea towels with a Barossa landscape and map. My thoughts were often on how could we make use of them. They looked to me that they were indeed real winemaking vessels and had in fact been in use…a definite crust on the inside surface and a wonderfully crafted but otherwise utilitarian brass tap at the bottom.

A few years later and a couple of major changes in my little corporate existence, Penfold’s was now part of Treasury Wine Estates and I was moved to the Group White Winemaking role for the Company. One of the great pleasures in my life is knowing Kevin McCarthy as a friend…. thank you Treasury Wine Estates! I have the very vivid memory of Kevin waiting in our very clinical tasting room (think surgical theatre) with a bottle of hazy wine and looking very nervous. He wanted me to taste the wine, I did and he immediately apologised as he often has a habit to do…for no apparent reason. Eventually he came to the point.“Will you let me bottle this?”  Not knowing really what the heck the wine style was I said yes, after finding out that it was a tiny quantity and would not be seen outside his T’Gallant Cellar Door and a few Restaurants!  He was happy with my answer, although I must say I was a bit nervous now myself.

In one of our many conversations down the track he mentioned the wine was to be launched as part of the Melbourne Wine and Food festival, it was 2008, during vintage. After hearing him say the launch was titled “Amphora Euphoria” I said something along the lines that the wine had not been made in an Amphora and he responded that it was in the same style. I think he apologised. My mind immediately turned to the Amphorae at Penfold’s and I asked if he wanted one for the event. Until March 2011 this little amphora remained… in my heart and at T’Gallant. Some corporate wrangling and I managed to secure said amphora for winemaking that vintage to create my first amphora wine, the 2011 Pandora’s Amphora.

So, there I was with a wire brush, vacuum cleaner and me deep inside that thing. It was like a birth canal, except that I had dust up my nose and throat and sharp grit in my eyes and the shrilling sound of the vacuum cleaner starting to make my ears reverberate. What was the same as a birth canal is the thought that most babies must have… will I or won’t I…? I was in a mild panic really.

The hand picked fruit from Heathcote was already at the winery. Had I enough grapes picked to fill this old thing full enough? Is this baby clean enough to wax?… WAX?! I had never waxed before (I’m an old hand now)… Was my idea of a 45:45:10 blend of Vermentino, Fiano and Moscato Giallo going to taste okay? What was I thinking?! That very, very long day during vintage has passed and I can almost smile about it. The reward is yet to be realized and many more weeks of attentive watching must occur to even get half way to a finished wine.


Vermentino Fiano and Moscato Giallo
Vermentino, Fiano and Moscato Giallo grapes


Caring for the berries

The really wonderfully fulfilling thing is that I learnt so much about winemaking and myself and some great images in my head. I’d never seen three grape varieties in the receival bin of a de-stemmer before. I’d never been so concerned about every berry in my care. I’d never looked so often in the top of an oversized clay pot! The dynamics of the wine are so close and personal as the amphora being around 450 litres allows – even demands you to be so.

Not wanting to bring up images of birth canals again… but, having your arm deep into the neck feeling for any hot spots while literally hand plunging each day, tasting what was going on inside the berries that were still whole and seeing the wine change dramatically as the alcohol increased and the bitterness increased… stuff that was quite exciting for a winemaker relearning his craft after spending far too long behind a desk , a steering wheel of a car or waiting in a QANTAS Club lounge.

Fast forward 10 vintages and my whole life has changed, having moved to Porepunkah and making the same varieties for Pandora’s Amphora from the Alpine Valleys and adding two more wines to the range – Pyrrha (Alpine Valleys Saperavi) and Taurian (Tasmanian Friulano) but through a twist of fate Pandora has returned to the original blend from the original vineyard. Bushfires on Mt Buffalo over January unfortunately caused smoke taint in our Alpine Valleys source vineyards so we looked further afield and were again able to secure fruit from the Chalmers Vineyard, just like back in 2011.

What does wine made in the amphora taste like?

As a very natural wine, the wine we make at Claypot has only the indigenous yeast found on the grapes to allow fermentation to start.  With no filtration and only minimal sulphur dioxide added after basket pressing, the resultant white wine is aromatic, complex and very textured on the palate.  The wine displays a slight haze.

With our Pyrrha, the red varietal Saperavi was the obvious choice for a red variety to make in an amphora, given the extensive history of the variety being made in clay vessels in its homeland, Georgia.  With only a single amphora used, this wine is extremely limited in quantity, and has been watched over closely throughout its fermentation and ageing.  The wine has long silky tannins, and a complex savoury palate.

Try any or all 3 of our Claypot range to really see the results of an ancient winemaking style and taste these alternate varietal wines before they sell out.