Old World Vintners, Ancient World Methods (June 26, 2014)
Everything old is new again. Wine and winemaking may seem impervious to change but the industry is as susceptible to the whims of fashion as are the hemlines of women's skirts. And many vintners around the world are reverting to the antediluvian origins of winemaking.
The first evidence that Stone Age man made wine from grapes was found as pits in pottery shards during archeological digs in Georgia near Mount Ararat (where Moses is presumed to have planted the first vineyard after the Flood). The shape of those pits suggested that they were not wild grapes but had been domesticated and grown specifically for the purpose of making wine. Carbon dating placed the pits back in time to 7000 BC.
Neolithic winemakers would have fermented their grapes in clay pots, which they would bury in the ground and seal the aperture with mud. In Georgia they are making wine that way to this day, and now the rest of the wine world is beginning to take notice. Call it the Natural Wine movement – no additives, no sulphur, no artificial yeasts. On the island of Corsica, Yves Canarelli at Clos Canarelli is an ardent champion of this style of winemaking. "The amphora protects the wine from oxidation in a natural way," he says. "I do not need to add any sulfur. The porous clay protects, the wine does not oxidize."
Josko Gravner, in Italy's northern province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, uses huge bee's-wax-lined amphorae buried in the ground to make both his red and white wines. Arianna Occhipinti, the young winemaker at Azienda Agricola Cos in the south-eastern tip of Sicily, uses 250- and 400-litre amphorae for her acclaimed wine "Pithos" (Greek for a large storage container, which was another historical use for amphorae). On the west side of Sicily, Frank Cornelissen makes a red wine from the indigenous Nerello Mascalese grapes from the slopes of Mount Etna, called, appropriately enough, Magma.
Inspired by the Sicilian wines they tasted in 1999, Alain Viret and his son Philippe, proprietors of Domaine Viret at St. Maurice sur Eygues in the southern Rhône Valley, began making wine in clay amphorae too, a method that harmonized with their desire to produce biodynamic wines.
If you want to see how wine was made in Roman times you can visit Castello di Lispida near Padua, a former monastery now a hotel where they make wine in buried terracotta amphorae and in open wooden vats. Other notable European producers who have switched from stainless steel tanks to clay vessels are Elisabetta Foradori in Italy's Trentino Alto Adige (who has 70 amphorae); Luigi Tecce in Campania; Adega José de Sousa in Portugal's Alentej region; Marino Markezic in Croatia; and in Austria's Winzerhof, Franz Landauer-Gisperg and Ploder Rosenberg.
And not only winemakers in the Old World are going back to the ancient methods of fermentation. Last October the Okanagan Valley's Laughing Stock Vineyards imported two amphorae from Italy. The first wine to be produced in these clay vessels will be a blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.
Recently, I was in Chile and visited the De Martino winery in Isla de Maipo. The first thing that winemaker Marco De Martino showed me, with great pride, was his amphorae cellar. He has collected 156 amphorae that he purchased from local farmers and is currently producing a range of wines called Viejas Tinajus ("Old Jars").
Another aspect of a return to bygone technologies I noticed when touring Chilean wineries is a move away from stainless steel fermentation tanks to the same method used by the ancient Romans – cement tanks. Stainless steel tanks are inert, which means there is no oxygen exchange and the fermentation temperature has to be regulated by cooling. Cement tanks are porous and allow the wine to breathe, making for a slow, gradual fermentation, and the volume of wine maintains a lower temperature. Vivianne Navarette, the winemaker at Viña Leyda in Chile's coastal region of the same name, says fermentation in cement is particularly good for Pinot Noir.
Continuing on this theme of reinventing the wheel, if you thought that foot-treading grapes went out with Lucille Ball, you'd be very much mistaken. Virtually all the best vintage ports are still pressed by foot and more and more table wine producers are reverting to it. In California alone, Arnot-Roberts, Wind Gap, A Donkey and Goat, Core Wine Company, Donelan Family Wines, Neyers Vineyards, Morelet Family Vineyards, Old World Winery, Clos Mimi and Joseph Swan Vineyards all put their foot in it.
The human foot is, in fact, the ideal tool to crush grapes. The naked sole is firm enough to break the skins of grapes and squeeze the pulp but malleable enough not to crush the pits and stalks that contain harsh, bitter tannins. And the heat of the human leg warms up the must (the crushed berries) and helps the fermentation to start. (But I'm here to tell you – food-treading is damned hard work.)
In wine and in life it seems there is no substitute for the wisdom of the ages and its accumulated experience.