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An Ancient Style of Winemaking is All the Rage

A group from Lot18 recently dined at a bring-your-own-bottle restaurant in Chinatown, sharing wines from our cellars and samples from the office. We had an eclectic collection to choose from, but the one everyone insisted on tasting first was the “funky white”: a 2004 Gravner Anfora Ribolla Gialla, which goes live on our site tomorrow.

Wines made in amphorae (spelled “anfora” in Italy), large, human-sized clay vessels, like this Gravner, are getting a lot of buzz. They’re showing up on restaurant wine lists, blogs and mainstream wine media, but I had never tasted one.

As more producers turn toward environmentally friendly methods – organic and biodynamic chief among them – they’re seeking ways to make wines completely au naturel. The most radical winemakers are eschewing stainless steel tanks, refrigeration and added yeast – all the safe methods of sound winemaking – and fermenting wines as their ancient Greek and Roman forefathers did in these beeswax-lined amphora vessels (also called “dolium” at the time) buried in the ground for primitive temperature control.

While the majority of red wines are made with the grape skins in contact with the juice, most white grapes are pressed before fermentation to create bright, clear, light-bodied wines. Many amphora winemakers are forgoing the press and leaving white wines on their skins during fermentation for more color, flavor and tannins. Amphora-made wines are darker in color, often cloudy and much more labor intensive to make, but it seems they’re worth the effort: critics are raving. The 2004 Gravner we’re offering scored 92 points and received a Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso (Italy’s highest wine award).

What will the average wine consumer think though? That was the question we asked at our Chinatown tasting.

It poured, as we heard it would, intensely amber and slightly cloudy. Jancis Robinson described it well in her review of orange wines, as a “rather worrying colour,” similar to oxidized, spoiled wine. But the wine was surprisingly vivacious. Most striking was its lively acidity, and assertive tannins – so unusual in whites – providing texture and chewiness. The aromas and flavors were complex. Apricot and sultana mingled with chamomile, resin, almond and a slight brininess. It paired well with an appetizer of salted nuts and a first course of steamed clams in a cilantro-infused broth.

We were impressed, and I think most adventurous wine drinkers will be. (The less daring might run screaming back to Pinot Grigio). More of a sipper, than a thirst quencher, it’s similar to fino sherry but with brighter acidity, less alcohol, more texture and layers. Besides our nut and clam pairing, it would match well with olives, anchovies, sardines and hard cheeses.

I’m eager to try more, and there’s a range of styles to explore. The Scholium Project out of California produces a skin-fermented Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc with the name “The Prince in His Caves.” A winemaker out of Slovenia, Ales Kristancic at Movia, who is always experimenting, also ferments Ribolla in amphora, leaving it on its skins for nine months. C.O.S. in Sicily is making wines in a combo of amphora and oak barrel from native grapes like Nero d’Avola, Greciano and Inzoli. Each of these unique methods allows the wines to evolve in different ways, creating different flavors and textures.

I hope you’ll seek some of these wacky wines out. When you pop your first open, raise a glass to our ancient winemaking forefathers and the modern mavericks.