Ancient Winemaking: Amphora-Fermented Wine Produced in the US
Loris Scagliarini - July 21, 2007
New World winemaker won't be left behind, even if it means going back to centuries-old technique.
Dave Del Dotto, owner of Napa's Del Dotto Vineyards, is completing an amazing $18 million winery just south of St. Helena. The estate includes a 50-foot high room with marble columns, designed to be reminiscent of an Italian museum, where mementos of the history of wine are housed.
What caught our interest is the fact that Del Dotto has quietly been fermenting some of his wines in clay amphorae. This technique, which was used back in Roman times, so far had been adopted by only Josko Gravner (pronounced GROW-ner), an eccentric winemaker from the northeastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, in Italy, who had his amphorae brought over by trucks all the way from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
Del Dotto, whose winery's production is around 6,000 cases per year, says that he got the idea from studying the history of wine.
"I thought it would be good to try to duplicate the ancient winemakers," he said in an interview.
After reading about the technique in an article dedicated to Josko Gravner, who uses the jars to produce his decidedly unusual white wines in Friuli, Del Dotto found four amphorae said to be 300 years old in Tuscany and purchased them for $15,000 each. He began experimenting with them in 2005, with Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The first release of amphora-fermented wine by Del Dotto Vineyards will be a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, which will be bottled in clay magnums only, and is expected to be available in September 2007. The clay bottles cost around $10-15 each, and the estimated final price is expected to be around $100 per bottle.
Del Dotto believes that clay softens the tannins and lends a pure fruitiness, as well as an organic, earthy quality to the wines. He said that he plans to have more amphorae custom-made at the cost of $5,000 to $15,000 each.
The amphorae that he's currently using are four-feet high, six-feet in diameter and hold about 2 tons of wine. The 32-inch diameter tops were first covered in plastic, then sealed with beeswax, to trap some CO2 inside before fermentation began.
"It's got a primordial character. You get the feeling (that) it's part of the earth," said Gerard Zanzonico, Del Dotto winemaker, of the wine fermented in the terra-cotta vessels. "The smell is totally different from stainless steel or wood." He said that it's more pure and quite grapey, reflecting the type of grape useed to make the wine.
The more wine becomes popular among consumers worldwide, the more we expect original entrepreneurs to experiment with winemaking. Some will search for futuristic innovations, others will look to the past, while still others will probably mix ancient techniques and cutting edge equipment. The winner in this trend, we hope, will be the consumers, who will have more types of quality wines to choose from.
Some experiments will undoubtedly flop, others will find the favor of the public, while others will probably achieve cult status. In any case, we believe that buzz and attention are good for the market and tend to push the overall quality forward.