Nonconforming Paso Robles winemakers are so far ahead of the curve that they have traced back approximately five millennia to an ancient system of winemaking and storage under the theory that everything old is new again.
“It’s bringing the Old World back into modern winemaking, it’s fun to use such a historic vessel,” confessed Valia From, owner/winemaker of Desperada Wines who got into amphora winemaking in 2012 for production. of white wines such as sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc, and nebbiolo and barbera among the reds.
In recent years, local winemakers have embraced vinification in amphorae producing textured and nuanced wines. These flat-bottomed, shrinking, egg-shaped clay vessels were historically used in Georgia, its birthplace, and then spread around the world from China to the Mediterranean region.
So, I guess it’s no coincidence that the Paso Robles History Museum downtown is hosting an informative exhibit, “6,000 Years of Winemaking in Clay Amphoras,” curated by the wine history based in San Luis Obispo. The comprehensive exhibit includes framed maps, historical timelines, a selection of clay vessels, and an Amphora Wine Trail map that lists 12 Paso wineries and one in the Edna Valley that swear by amphora winemaking. The exhibition runs until February 28, 2022.
In 2011, Paso’s Ambyth Estate, a winery focused on Rhône-style wines, was the first winery to import amphorae from Italy. What started with a few amphoras has turned into around 20 vessels, mostly from Italy and a few from Australia and California, ranging in size from 350 liters to 750 liters. The lined humidor with matching vessels is reminiscent of a museum of Chinese terracotta warrior sculptures. Founded in 2003 by Phillip and Mary Hart, Ambyth is also Paso’s first Demeter-certified biodynamic winery.
The revival of the amphora began in the northeastern region of Italy, Friuli, primarily by a group of winemakers drawn to organic and biodynamic farming and natural winemaking practices.
These hands-off style winemakers saw many advantages to amphora winemaking: the superior insulation gives wines their freshness; the clay reacts enzymatically with the wine and raises its pH to extract the acidity; and, most importantly, the porous container allows oxygen to enter the wine twice as fast as wooden barrels.
Gelert Hart, Phillip’s son and currently Ambyth’s winemaker, calls it happy oxidation. “It’s the most neutral aging vessel that still allows wine to age in classic old-world style,” Gelert explained in an email from Costa Rica. He uses both amphoras and barrels for the fermentation and aging of red, white, rosé, orange wines and cider. And yes, there is a difference.
There is no shock when the bottle of the final product is opened, even without additives like sulphites. Additionally, amphoras smooth out acids and don’t manipulate wine flavors as much as oak barrels, he noted. “That way we find that you can taste more of the terroir rather than the aging ship.”
“Paso is an early adopter,” commented winemaker Anthony Yount, who uses amphoras for some production at Denner Vineyards, Sixmilebridge and his own Kinero label.
Indeed, it was the introduction of amphorae by Ambyth that aroused the interest of the inhabitants. Winemakers such as Giornata Wine co-founder and winemaker Brian Terrizzi got their first amphoras from Ambyth’s second Italian expedition in 2012.
The amphora phenomenon was a natural choice for Terrizzi, who leans towards natural winemaking and focuses on Italian wines. He started using amphorae for some of his Italian white varieties. “It’s part of the natural movement and we don’t add any yeast or nutrients,” Terrizzi claimed. “Barrels give wine lots of flavor, unlike amphorae, and the shape helps wines ferment faster.”
On a beautiful December afternoon, we sat at a patio table on the terrace of Giornata in Tin City. Terrizzi’s whites are anything but – they’re tinted in pastel colors of orange and pink. These “Vins d’Orange” (made by fermenting the skins of white grapes with the juice) are all the rage among millennials and are popular with winemakers using amphorae.
We tasted 2020 vintages of the Falanghina with orange hues, expressing a fresh cider house flavor; a lemony Fiano; a peach Friuliano; and a surprising pinot gris rosé.
Across the street in Tin City, Dave McGee, owner of Monochrome, known as a white wine-only house, also uses multiple vessels for fermentation and aging. We tasted the Analog in a Digital Age 2018, a Marsanne blended with a hint of Grenache Blanc and Viognier, a wine with aromatic flavors and texture on the palate. McGee’s style is to blend wines aged in amphora with whites made in other vessels to give a range of flavors. “It brings more complexity,” he said.
Sherman Thacher of his eponymous winery is another true proponent of hands-off. “We practice super low intervention; we bring in the grapes and they go their own way,” said the winemaker who tends to favor neutral oak and therefore likes the neutrality of the amphora. “The wines keep a freshness. For the bottlings of Chenin Blanc and Cinsault, Thacher will use several containers such as amphorae and neutral oak barrels for vinification.
I savored another white wine at Derby Wine Estate, a 2019 Roussanne, fermented and aged in an amphora for six months then aged in stainless steel for three months. “Roussanne is a difficult grape for winemakers and winemakers – it’s mysterious,” says winemaker Sean Geoghegan. “That’s why I chose the amphora. It tends to make wines with texture.
“The earthenware material does not impart any flavor whereas the wooden barrels, depending on the application, may impart flavor,” noted Janis Pelletiere Denner, owner of Pelletiere Vineyard & Winery, who acquired his two 500 amphoras. liters in 2015 for its sangiovese program.
While the 500 liter size is the most popular, at Denner I came across two very large 7.5 hectoliter containers that Yount uses for Sixmilebridge and Kinero, wines produced at the Denner winery. Known as cocciopesto, the large vessels are made from a combination of clay, cement and sandstone with walls five inches thick, as opposed to one inch thick in the smaller vessels . “Cocciopesto allows for longer fermentation and more tannins,” Yount explained.
From Denner, I enjoyed two iterations of Dirt Worshipper, a syrah with a touch of roussane. The 2013 vintage was fermented in stainless steel and aged in oak barrels for five months. Then the wine was divided – half in an amphora, and the other half remained in oak. Both versions aged another 17 months. The inky black wines stand out: the amphora-aged wines exhibit grassy notes with hints of olive tapenade while the voluptuous oak version proves lush with fruit and expressive tannins.
Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch admitted that she was still in the experimental stage with the only amphora she acquired for Epoch Estate in 2013. “The amphora can be more oxidative and my style is reductive vinification,” a- she noted. She has tried making Mourvèdre, aged 12 months in amphorae and eight in oak barrels, and loves the earthy character of the wine. Still, it’s an experiment: “I have to try more. I would like to put a more tannic syrah for my style,” she confessed.
So how do these local winegrowers access their amphorae?
Enter Manu Fiorentini, Jordan’s Italian-born husband and founder of Itek Wine launched in Paso in 2010. Fiorentini was already importing oak barrels, concrete wine tanks and other stainless steel equipment. In 2012, he added amphoras to his business.
“I ordered a container load,” Fiorentini said. By the time the shipment arrived from Italy, he had already sold 40 amphorae. His winery customers are located all over North America, but his biggest customer base is here in Paso. “People here are more experimental with these ships,” Fiorentini remarked. Plus, being local helps in terms of ship maintenance.
To savor amphorae wines, visit some of the above estates as well as other Paso wineries such as Clesi, Indigene, Lone Madrone, Thibido, and Chamisal in the Edna Valley.