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Clay Pots and Terroir

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 19, 2008 3:28am ET

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.”

Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  May 19, 2008 1:08pm ET
Great idea with the clay pots. I'm hoping these along with glass stoppers for bottles can find an increased presence in the wine world. Here's an idea for keeping the pots hygienic: it's called Nature's Miracle. Found in pet stores to clean up animal messes, it's an enzyme product which completely eats up any organic matter (removes red wine stains 100% too!). This could thoroughly remove the lees from any prior batch of wine. Tom Benezra
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  May 19, 2008 1:34pm ET
I would imagine that clay would be beter suited to red wine making...like cement in the Rhone. It will be interesting to try the wines when they are released
James Molesworth
May 19, 2008 4:45pm ET
Andrew: On the surface, the concept of clay / cement is similar, but there are some major differences as well...

Most cement vats today are lined with epoxy or tile, rendering them neutral in their flavor influence on the wine. Many fermentations in cement are temperature controlled as well (by inserting cooling plates down into the vat)...

In contrast, clay pots are still porous, which allows for the oxidative tendencies, and that will influence flavor...temperature will fluctuate too, as clay pots are much smaller in size than a typical cement vat (larger vessels allow for more stable temperatures)...
J J Gallagher
Near Napa, Ca —  May 19, 2008 11:10pm ET
Del Dotto in St Helena is using clay amphorae. Dave Del Dotto imported 4- 300 year old 2 ton vessels, and has also had some custom vessels made. We tasted the wine during their Barrels and Beasts party last Summer and it was interesting. I can't say more than that because we tasted it at the end of a long evening and my notes are fuzzy:) We plan on trying the bottled version, and the next generation this Summer. Here is an article about his efforts http://winecountry.it/articles/wine-history-and-culture/939
Carl I Wilson
May 21, 2008 9:35am ET
A somewhat recent trend in So. Africa it seems. Check out Sadie Family. Eben Sadie has been doing the same for quite some time. His wine Columella (Red Blend, 95 pts WS) is unbelievable. Waht a difference in the usage of alternate fermenting tanks
James Molesworth
May 21, 2008 1:31pm ET
Carl: Yes, I know the Sadie family wines (I'm the guy who covers South Africa for WS). The Columella is fermented in open top wood vats however...
James Suckling
 —  May 22, 2008 3:46am ET
Gravner in Italy's Friuli makes his whites in terracotta amphorae (I don't think you want to call them "clay pots"), which are buried in earth under his winery. I have been there to see them fermenting. They usually ferment for months on the skins, which make dark colored and rich whites but rather waxy and thick. It's funky wine but I like it. Gravner got the idea from visiting wineries in the former USSR. I think it was the Ukraine, if I remember correctly.

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