South African producer Hamilton Russell Vineyards is finding that experiments with clay amphorae are creating wines with improved structure than those matured in barrels.
Clay amphorae at Hamilton Russell Vineyards
Since 2005, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley property has been experimenting with the fermentation and maturation of a small proportion of its Chardonnay in these amphorae.
“It’s not a completely biodynamic thing,” explained owner Anthony Hamilton Russell of the motivation behind this project. He pointed instead to the benefits of this technique, saying: “It’s the same air exchange as a barrel but without the flavour of oak.”
Emphasising the effect as “not so much a taste thing as a structural thing,” Hamilton Russell praised the way these amphorae “enable the wine to develop without vanillins and tannins.” In particular he observed: “It’s the best way to handle those old Chardonnay parcels.”
Having initially tried terracotta jars, which Hamilton Russell described as “too porous,” he ordered four 160 litre clay amphorae for R12,000 (£945) each from a South African potter. Each pot is lined with clay from the property before the firing process.
“It’s like buying a piece of art,” he acknowledged of the cost, but pointed out that compared to the price of barrels, which can only be used for few years, these amphorae can remain in good condition for “up to about 20 years so long as we don’t break them.”
Since the first trials Hamilton Russell has added a further nine amphorae, negotiating a reduced price of R5,400 (£425) each. An additional nine vessels are due to arrive in time for the 2013 harvest
In the 2011 vintage just 1% of the estate’s final Chardonnay wine was made from wine created in these amphorae. This increased to 3-4% in 2012 and Hamilton Russell indicated a plan for this proportion to eventually reach “around 10%.”
Following this initial success with his Chardonnay, Hamilton Russell outlined a plan to “look at it for Ashbourne”, the producer’s Pinotage blend, which formed part of the initial amphora trials. Based on results so far, he suggested that this technique might help red wines in “avoiding oak spice and getting that purity of fruit.”
Contrasting his own amphora project with the Georgian “qvevri”, which a number of producers such as Austrian winemaker Bernhard Ott are adopting, Hamilton Russell noted that the material and smaller size of his own vessels mean there is less need for the structural support, temperature control or anti-oxidative benefits that come from being buried in the ground.
Other winemakers around the world have already praised the structural benefits offered by “concrete eggs”, a similar alternative to wooden barrels or stainless steel tanks. Converts include South African producer Eben Sadie and Spottswoode in California.