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Winemakers look at shape of things to come

By Richard at Great Grog

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Cathy Marshal in Elgin, South Africa, makes Chenin Blanc in an Amphora.
Cathy Marshal in Elgin, South Africa, makes Chenin Blanc in an Amphora.

There is a huge array of ways to make wine, or is there? On a basic level, wine fermentation is just some fungus (yeast cells) eating some sugar (grape juice) and turning it into alcohol (wine) in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment.

This sounds pretty simple and natural. Indeed, it is thought to have been an accidental discovery somewhere around the Black Sea a good number of thousand years ago. Someone must have had a rather good surprise when storing some fresh grapes in a ceramic container, probably a clay Amphora.

An Amphora is a large clay jar that is fat in the middle, tapering off to two pointy ends. They were buried in the soil and used as storage vessels for all kinds of foodstuffs, from grains to olive oils. They were great storage cupboards because the surrounding soils and earth kept the contents relatively cool in a warm climate. They were the Scottish equivalent of the pantry, a good place to store stuff.

At some point someone was storing fresh grapes in one of these things, or possibly raisins that then got slightly wet, and they starting to bubble (Carbon Dioxide is a byproduct of fermentation). They must have thought “what the hell” and consumed the fermented contents and the world was irrevocably changed. The world’s first hangover was also discovered about eight hours later.

Amphorae fell into the pages of history books pretty much after the Roman era and were initially replaced by wooden barrels. Wooden barrels have the enormous advantage of being less easy to break and leak. Your booze was far more likely to arrive at its destination.

Additionally, they are much easier to roll and move about. A barrel that holds 300 bottles of wine (standard Bordeaux sized) is relatively easy to move about single-handedly even when full. An Amphora of similar size would be unwieldy even for four or five strapping lads. It would weigh in the region of 400 kilos (900 pounds or 63 stones in old money). God forbid you dunted the bottom of it whilst shifting it!

Barrels hence became the vessel of choice for fermentation and transport. Barrels also breathe ever so slightly and so are great for maturing wine. They are good for softening rough tannic wines. They also impart some slightly spicy vanilla flavours to the wine which some people really like.

It was many years before winemakers decided that it would be cheaper to ferment on a larger scale with bigger barrels and eventually concrete Lagars. Lagars are small concrete swimming pools. Hence the name “lager”, the beer which is fermented in these swimming pools. Will you ever drink Tennent's again without thinking of swimming?

Stainless steel was the next innovation. It was discovered that you could double-skin steel tanks and run refrigerated water between the skins. This cooled and slowed the fermentation and preserved more fruit flavour in the wines. Stainless steel is also much, much easier to clean and sterilize than concrete. This prevents any weird yeast or bacteria getting into your grape juice before your preferred yeast culture has done its job.

You would think that we have now come to the pinnacle of technology in fermentation vessels, but no. Innovative winemakers are now researching fermentation in Amphorae once again. There is something about the shape that promotes convection and circulation during fermentation. Who would have thought that we would be going full circle after tens of thousands of years?

One such innovator is Cathy Marshal in Elgin, South Africa. She ferments a Chenin Blanc in Amphorae and it is fabulous. The wine is super rare though. The whole UK only got a few hundred bottles but it is worth seeking out, if only to drink like a Roman or a Greek.

There is nothing like a bit of ancient hedonism.

  • Richard Meadows worked with a national wine chain for 10 years before setting up his own company in Edinburgh in 1999. Richard, a regular visitor to the Highlands, sells all over the UK via mail order and the internet as Great Grog.

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