Am I becoming an amphore-bore?

Update 2.5.2018(1.5.2018)billn

The red wine that I loved the most from the 2015 vintage was Domaine de la Pousse d’Or’s Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets – but not the standard cuvee – rather it was the wine that was raised in an 800 litre amphora. That small cuvee had a clarity and purity that was a wonder to behold.

Benoît Landanger, who took over the responsibility for the Pousse d’Or from his father this year, explains that not only does he not like additives in his wine, and he classes the aromas, flavours and textures of oak as additives, he also doesn’t like the name amphora either – which he says has too many connotations of natural wine – he is not looking to make a natural wine, rather he is simply looking for an inert container in which to do his elevage.

Unfortunately ‘inert’ is not quite enough for a red wine – some oxygen is also required during elevage – to help fix the colour. ​Cement does have a very modest oxygen transport but much less than clay (variable depending on both the type and firing temperature of the clay) which itself has less porosity than oak. A red with elevage in stainless-steel, will lose a lot of colour after its malolactic fermentation, but will lose progressively less colour if the elevage is in cement, fired clay or barrel.

Having tasted at Domaine Longère in the village of Perréon in February, and found his amphora wine – he likes to call it a ‘jarre‘ – equally pure and thrilling. I decided it was time to dig a little deeper, choosing two different exponents of the art; again Domaine de la Pousse d’Or from Volnay, plus Athénaïs de Béru of Château de Béru in Chablis – two different styles and approaches:

Château de Béru

Here are some questions that I put to Athénaïs:

What were the positive experiences that led you to buy your first amphora?
For a long time I had some favourite wines made this way. For instance wines such as the wines of Friuli in northern Italy with long macerations in amphorae or tinajas … and then of course I found the extraordinary winemaker, Elisabetta Foradori. It wasn’t just the energy of the wines but also by the accuracy of the white wines in tinajas too. The ‘click’ moment came at a tasting in London: the first RAW fair organized by Isabelle Legeron. Isabelle had invited some winegrowers from Georgia – this tasting was a shock – wines of a character that I had never before tasted. Not that I liked everything but I was transfixed by the diversity and energy provided by those traditional practices. The following year I decided to visit Georgia, to meet this new world (for me) but what is really a very old world in the history of our civilization!

So where did you buy your jar and with what criteria did you choose?
I came back with 2 small Kvevries from Georgia – and a truck came to France with the other Kvevries – they arrived just in time for 2013 the harvest. At the same time I had a lot of discussion about methods/practices with Elisabetta Foradori. She suggested I also try a tinaja from Spain, a little larger than those I received before the harvest. What matters is the quality of the clay and expertise in producing the jar. So I have a true selection of amphorae, from Georgia and Spain.

If I remember correctly, both of your fermentations are done in your jar – is that always with skins and pulp, or? Then you have a long elevage – more than a year.
We vinify our whites with maceration in the amphorae; chardonnay, aligoté, pinot gris – with their skins but no stems – with pinot noir or gamay I use whole bunches. The duration of elevage depends on the grape variety and of-course the vintage – anywhere from 2 months to 8 months. After emptying the amphora to remove the skins/pulp the wines see further elevage in either amphora or barrels – but old barrels at least one year. For example we still have to bottle our 2015 Chardonnay! – end of February 2018

For the finished wine, what are the most important features you looking for,the things that you cannot achieve when you do your aging in wood or stainless steel?
Wines made this way have nothing to do with wines made in barrel or tank, they have another profile, another energy. It is like being in a laboratory, it’s a different adventure.
I noticed with longer elevage that we did in 2015 that we put the terroir at the core of the wine, wine with a very special energy – personally I love these wines!

La Pousse d’Or

Discussions with Hubert Rossignol and Benoît Landanger – right

Hubert is such an amphora enthusiast. “For such a long time I had studied the ideas behind amphora when thinking about how to make wines without wood to mask the flavour – to have a ‘neutral’ elevage. I had such luck to be working with Patrick Landanger, as he’s an engineer with a different view to most winemakers and he was always looking to innovate. After half an hour of me outlining the principles, followed by some discussion, he said ‘Yes, let’s do it’ and that was that!

So what was it that drew Hubert to a clay vessel as a possible alternative to wood? “I tasted wines raised in amphora at a lot of domaines, and for me there was a common denominator, and that was the purity of the aromas.

Pousse d’Or now has 9 amphora, with volumes varying between 650 and 850 litres. Hubert explains that the production of these amphora is artisanal, for that reason the capacity of each is a little different – but the one part of the process where there is no room for error, says Hubert, is the clay-firing temperature, which is highly regulated during curing because it defines the oxygen transport properties. “It’s really the combination of the type of clay and the firing temperature. A good porosity is what we want for the reds, consuming the oxygen during elevage and making the tannins more supple. We chose an Italian manufacturer of amphora – from just south of Florence – there are some producers in France too, but those that I’ve seen have had too much permeability. Firing at 1,080°C seems the optimum for us, any more and the clay is almost impermeable – though perhaps that would be good for a white – one day, lets see!

So how has the winemaking with jars evolved here?
We started with 2 amphora for alcoholic fermentation. A third amphora arrived after fermentation but before the wine saw any wood, so we directly decided to try it only as a vessel for elevage. Our timing made it the perfect comparison; older and newer barrels plus the amphora. But the jar wasn’t prepared for cooling the grapes so that was different to the thermo-regulated version of the wine – so there was some difference at the start. Interestingly, though still porous, about 6 times less wine is lost to evaporation versus barrel elevage – okay the jars are in quite a humid room though.

Whilst discussing with Hubert and Benoit, I tasted a couple of 2017s (end of February) where the malos were about 2/3rds finished.

Volnay Clos de la Bousse d’Or, had a slight reduction. The Caillerets was perfumed and beautiful. The Clos de 60 Ouvrées was more reduced again. The domaine is currently using 9 amphora, 3 for each of the 3 cuvées. “For now it will stay that way,” says Benoit, “As we also need to follow how these wines evolve. There isn’t much so you could almost say it was an affectation in 2015, we have more in 2016 though!

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?

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