I’ve been checking in with winemakers in the regions of the Southern Hemisphere that I cover (Chile, Argentina and South Africa) as their harvest is wrapping up, as I want to get an early read on potential quality for the 2008 vintage. I’ll file individual reports on each of these regions in the next week or so.
While getting lots of information on each region's harvest time weather, grape tonnage and more, one winemaker went off on an interesting tangent regarding their latest experiment. Duncan Savage of South Africa’s Cape Point Vineyards is trying out clay pots—and not for baking chicken. He's fermenting wine in them.
There’s nothing new about wine in clay pots. Temperature-controlled stainless steel wasn’t exactly en vogue during ancient Roman and Greek times, when wine was an important part of their culture. But over the last few thousand years or so, the vessel has fallen out of favor with winemakers. In his search to let his vineyards express their terroir however, Savage is now reverting to some small-batch, clay-pot fermentations.
“I just don’t think dead stainless steel or overpowering new oak are the answer,” said Savage, 30, who since 2002 has been with Cape Point, a cool-climate, white wine specialist winery located on the sliver, fingerlike peninsula that juts out from the southern tip of the country.
In an effort to be as natural as possible, Savage is using pots hand made with local clay by a local craftsman( in Savage's eyes, to use pots made from materials sourced from outside South Africa would mask any terroir-enhancing effects of the vessels).
The 2008 vintage is Savage’s first for trying out clay pots, again, all experimental, and he’s using small 120-liter sized vessels (just more than half the size of a standard wine barrel). Eventually Savage plans to use pots made from clay sourced directly from the winery’s own vineyard sites so that the grapes are fermented in a vessel made from the earth they're grown in. Additionally, the local potter Savage is employing has just finished a new kiln that will allow him to fire even larger pots in the 250- to 1,000-liter range.
Fermenting in clay pots is a more oxidative approach to winemaking, which in turn would result in whites with a more waxy texture and broader flavors than the chiseled versions typically produced in stainless steel. Maintaining proper hygiene and a sense of freshness in the ensuing wines will be a tricky task when working with the vessels, which Savage is admittedly finding his way with.
"The style will be more oxidative, but within reason," said Savage. "Acidity is the key, but at the end of the day we will allow the wine to find its own path."
“I’ve yet to taste wine done in pots other than my own, but have read a fair amount about the likes of Gravner,” added Savage, referring to the northeast Italian winery which has helped bring clay pots back into the modern day winemaking conversation. “My reason for this is that I want to find my own path and not be influenced by others, along with the fact that it makes the journey more of an adventure.”