The current interest in amphora wines might seem like a hot new trend, but the tradition of making wine in amphorae stretches back 8,000 years, providing modern winemakers with a direct link to winemakers of the past.
So what is an amphora? The word is derived from Latin, meaning a vessel with two handles, but is generally used to refer to pottery containers used for storing large masses of liquid.
Archaeologists discovered the first evidence of winemaking in Georgia, where grapes were turned into wine by being buried in the ground in clay vessels in winter. Ever since, amphorae have been fundamental to Georgian winemaking and are used in wineries all over the world.
Different sizes and shapes of amphorae are referred to as tinajas in Spain and Chile, talhas in Portugal - where they are mainly used in Alentejo - and qvevri in Georgia.
These rounded earthenware pots come in various sizes, ranging from the 50-litre jars used for making wine in family homes for domestic consumption to much larger examples that can hold between 700 and 4,000 litres used for large-scale production.
What's interesting about amphorae is their unique shape, which allows mother nature to do most of the work in the winemaking process, with the wines getting all the protection and care they need throughout the fermentation and ageing period with minimal intervention.
Many wineries around the world have free-standing amphorae that are used for storing and ageing wine but in Georgia they are buried in the ground. This provides a cool and steady temperature that quietly shepherds the wine through the different seasons. The conical shape of qvevri in Georgia allows the wine to clear naturally. With regular stirring and a little help from gravity, the skins, pips and pulp sink to the bottom in a natural fining process.
In 2013, qvevri winemaking joined the UNESCO list as 'Intangible Heritage of Humanity'.
Making wine in amphorae is going through a fascinating renaissance, allowing winemakers to take a hands-off approach, with the substance and shape of amphorae contributing to the way these wines taste. They give the wines a neutral flavour and, unlike oak, don't add tannins.
Nowadays, amphorae are used for making white and red wine but are most traditionally used to make amber wine, which involves fermenting white grapes with skins and sometimes stems for extended periods, imparting a unique flavour and texture to the wine.
Well-made examples of amphora wines possess a unique purity of flavour and an ethereal quality which Ramaz Nikoladze, one of the founding fathers of the Georgian natural-wine movement, describes as "nature doing its thing; it's like magic". Today I have chosen five lovely examples for you to try.
Mari Sanaia runs Dublin Wine Trails
Wine of the week: Iago Bitarishvili Chinuri 2017
€26, 12pc, Bradley's Cork; Le Caveau, Kilkenny; Green Man Wines, Terenure; Redmond's, Ranelagh
Iago Bitarishvili has always worked organically and with a passion for preserving the ancient methods and traditions of Georgian winemaking. He is often referred to as "the Master of Chinuri" as it is the only grape variety he works with in his native Kartli in central Georgia. Chinuri is a white grape known for high acidity; honey blossoms, orange peel and savoury notes of quince followed by a touch of salinity on the finish.
Pheasant's Tears Rkatsiteli 2018
€24, 12pc, Bradley's; Le Caveau; Green Man Wines; Redmond's; 64 Wine
A fascinating amber wine from Kakheti, Georgia, by John Wurdeman, an American artist who moved to Georgia in the 1990s and set up a winery with Gela Patalishvili in 2007. Peaches, dried apricots and honeysuckle are balanced with fresh acidity and silky tannins. Great with food.
Niepoort Voyeur 2018
€28, 12.6pc, Sweeney's D3; Green Man Wines; Mitchell & Sons, IFSC; Woodruff, Stepaside; 64 Wine
A smooth red from the Douro in Portugal with vibrant red berries and sour dark cherries on the palate, aged in amphorae for eight months. Perfect for a summer barbecue.
Mas Coutelou Amphore 2017
€42, 14.5pc, Frank's, Camden Street, Dublin; 64 Wine; Green Man Wines
Jeff Coutelou makes very special wines in the heart of Languedoc and this one is no exception. A rich and intense red with concentrated dark berries, liquorice and a spicy finish. Lovely with roast red meats.
Celler Del Roure 2018
€16. 12 pc., Green Man Wines; 64 Wines; Blackrock Cellar; The Fumbally; Clontarf Wines; Morton's; Searsons; Wicklow Wine Company
A blend of Garnacha and Mando from Valencia. Quite light with succulent red fruit and sweet cherries. Very refershing and extremely drinkable.
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