Reflecting on this wine love/wine obsession/thinly disguised alcoholism – call it what you will – of mine, I realise I tried some pretty amazing stuff in 2014: the 1990 Château Margaux, ’55 Latour, and ’42 Castillo Ygay I tried at The Sampler over Christmas stand out as howlingly good. Same goes for that birthday bottle of ’96 Château Armailhac…
These superstars were eclipsed, however, by the discovery of this extraordinary bottle:
The COS Pithos Rosso, a Sicilian red blend of rich, juicy nero d’avola and light, faintly herbal frappato. What distinguishes this wine – apart from a mouthwatering fruity freshness, scintillating clarity and a subtle, expansive textural richness – is that it is made in amphorae.
What are amphorae? These are amphorae:
They are clay vessels, of ancient design, made for carrying liquids like oil and wine. Standard amphorae are relatively small-volume and have handles for carrying them around, but they also come in the shape you see above. This type of amphorae has been used for making wine for approximately 8,000 years – since the Bronze Age.
The home of amphora winemaking is Eurasia – specifically the Republic of Georgia. Here, in 1965, archaeologists discovered an ancient settlement at Shulaveri Hill, 50km south of Tblisi. They unearthed grape pips of vitis vinifera sativa DC (the forbear of modern cultivated grapes) that dated back to 5,000-7,000 BC, giving Georgia the distinction of being the cradle of wine… at least until they dig something else up somewhere else.
In Georgia, where the clay vessels are known as kvevri, the winemaking process is as natural as can be: crushed bunches of grapes are packed inside the kvevri (skin, pips and stems – the lot), which are then sealed and buried underground (a sort of Bronze Age temperature control) for several months during which time natural fermentation, filtration and maturation happen.
What’s totally headflipping is that this is still the way most wine is made in Georgia – that’s a continuous 8,000-year-old winemaking tradition. This tradition has inspired many modern winemakers who aim to produce 1) wine that is as far as possible natural (most modern-day amphora winemakers use organic or biodynamic methods), and 2) wine that preserves as well as possible the typicity of the grapes they are using, the ‘purity of fruit’ that has become the thing I love most about the wines I drink (as it has for a few wine obsessives I know).
That purity of fruit is increasingly seen as the holy grail by wine professionals, and clay amphorae are increasingly seen as the right way to achieve it, as a sort of ‘third way’ beyond oak ageing and steel vat ageing.
This may need some explaining…
Ageing wine in oak barrels is good because wood is permeable, which allows a bit of oxygen in (the technical term here is micro-oxygenation), which the wine often needs to help it soften and develop. It’s bad because it distorts the fruit element by imparting sweetly spicy, smoky and vanilla flavours.
Ageing in steel vats is good because it does not distort the flavour at all. It’s bad because the steel is impermeable, which poses a risk of something called reduction. This is basically the opposite of oxidation, an oxygenless state which can trigger certain reactions that generate off-flavours and aromas.
Amphorae combine the flavour neutrality of steel and the permeability of wood – with neither of the drawbacks.
What I’ve found over the past year or so is that these amphora wines can be of incredible quality. I prefer the reds to the whites. With the whites, because the juice goes into the amphora with the skins, you get a lot of extraction, a lot of tannin. This can be lovely, but also be a bit weird – and turn certain amphora whites into a drink reminiscent of flat Lucozade.
With the reds, though… well, put it this way, I have never had an amphora red that was anything short of stellar – and the COS Pithos has been the brightest star in the firmament.