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Every self-respecting wine comes from the barrique. But now a few top winemakers claim that wine feels much better in stone and clay amphorae.

Winemaker-philosopher Nicolas Joly in Savennières on the Loire cultivates the generally underrated Chenin blanc, a white wine variety that can produce wonderfully subtle drops. The reasons why he entrusts his wine to wooden barrels - or more precisely, used barriques - are astonishing: "Should it be a coincidence that nature uses egg shapes to give life? Unmistakably, a barrel is something like an egg whose ends are capped. Its shape puts it in contact with its surroundings and concentrates a variety of influences inside it. What a pleasure it is to enter a room that is covered by a dome!

Whether barrique or piece barrels - many winegrowers are convinced of wood.

This always evokes a feeling of calm, and a different reality overcomes us. One gains distance from the oppressive cube shape that surrounds us almost everywhere. If you try putting a barrel next to a doghouse, it will only take a few hours for the dog to finally make this barrel its domicile." But is the wooden barrel - whether barrique or the 500 or 1000 litre piece barrel - really the best container for wine?

Hard as steel training

Riesling is the only one of the most prestigious grape varieties that has so far resisted the barrique. Even roughnecks have noticed that the elegance of this variety does not tolerate too much oak - and certainly not new oak. But winemakers are still not in complete agreement about the best method of cultivation.

Many Riesling winemakers swear by this: steel tanks

At the Robert Weil winery in the Rheingau, the Riesling lies solely in stainless steel tanks, where it ferments for between six and twelve weeks. Even after fermentation, the wine remains in the steel with strict temperature control. In this way, the patron alone decides what is to become of the Riesling. Like a pupil in a strictly run boarding school, he has no choice but to comply.

The situation is quite different at the Egon Müller winery in Scharzhof on the Saar. Egon Müller IV believes that the traditional 1,000-litre Fuder is far more suited to Riesling than a steel tank. "We only work with wood," he says, and immediately emphasises that the barrel must be as old as possible and consequently neutral in taste: "We bought the last Fuder about 50 years ago." At the Scharzhof, the wine is left to decide "where it wants to go". In some barrels, fermentation stops earlier, in others later. One could speak of an anti-authoritarian style of upbringing.

Wine slumbers in earth

Let's travel to Georgia, perhaps the oldest wine country in the world. In the fertile valleys of the wild Caucasus in the south-east of the country, sparkling clean and ice-cold water rushes down from the snow-covered peaks. Wine has been grown here for over 7000 years. In some of the remote villages, the clock seems to stand still. In autumn, the farmers fill the crushed grapes into their "kvevris". The "kvevri" is an amphora made of clay, some hold up to 3000 litres. They are all buried up to the rim in the clay soil that prevails here, and in such a way that they are additionally cooled by the numerous underground water veins.

There, the wine ferments and macerates until spring. Then the juice is skimmed off and poured into another "kvevri" previously cleaned with spruce bushes. Covered with a wooden lid and sealed with clay, the wine now slumbers in the cool earth in the shady cellar. There are families who have "kvevris" with wine that is over 50 years old. When such a treasure is lifted, the family patriarch still wears his Sunday robe with black felt hat and gathers family members and neighbours around him. He pours some wine into a shallow clay bowl and, after toasting "Galmajours!", drinks it all in one go.

Then it's time for the "keipi", the guest feast, the lively party at long tables outside the cellar. A "tamada", something like a master of ceremonies, is elected and he is assisted by a "merikipe", an assistant. They make sure that the glasses and plates are not empty, because that is the best guarantee that the toasts will be funny and courageous.

Renaissance of the amphora

Amphora cellar of José Maria da Fonseca (Alentejo)
The clay amphora was probably the first vessel in which man fermented wine. And, considering the properties of this material, it was certainly not the worst. Perhaps, yes perhaps, everything good about wine-making was invented thousands of years ago. Who knows, maybe progress today means first and foremost rediscovering these ancient insights. In any case, more and more top winemakers in Europe are returning to ageing in clay amphorae.

In the Alentejo in southern Portugal, the house of José Maria da Fonseca ferments one of its top wines, José de Sousa, in over 100 clay amphorae that hold up to 1800 litres and are over 100 years old. In Vittoria, Sicily, wine visionary Giusto Occhipinti, co-founder of the COS wine project, experiments with terracotta containers.

But probably the most passionate advocate of amphorae is Josko Gravner, who is at home in the Friulian and Slovenian Collio region. Gravner gets his amphorae from Georgia and, just like the winegrowers there, digs them as deep as possible into the earth. For the first time, he wants to ferment and macerate the 2003 harvest completely in amphorae. And Gravner is convinced that this container is the decisive factor in his search for wines that are as fully ripe and complex as possible, which he obtains primarily from the Ribolla gialla variety.

Stone resonates

The Parisian research couple Anne Marie Amblard and Jean-Louis Gavard deal with questions in the field of energy and electromagnetic fields. Recently, as part of a private research project, the two investigated the properties of various materials used in the construction of wine containers. They determined the vibration frequencies of stone, concrete, wood, steel and plastic and compared them with the vibration frequencies of large wines.

It turned out that stone clearly had the highest response to the wine. Concrete also received very good scores. Wood followed in third place, but its vibration frequency was already far removed from that of the wine.

The third highest resonance to wine - the wooden barrel

It was this study that prompted winegrowing couple Christine and Eric Saurel of the top Montirius estate in the southern Rhone Valley to plan their new cellar in collaboration with the two Parisian researchers. Because building and handling bare stone containers is difficult, they decided to build a highly unusual concrete cellar. The aim was to mix the concrete with specially prepared water, namely water that had previously been given the information "stone". To achieve this, the Saurels sent a sample of their natural soil to Paris. There, the soil was dissolved in pure spring water. The concrete manufacturer, who used only gravel from natural riverbeds to build the cellar, then mixed five litres of this informed water into seven cubic metres of already mixed concrete.

Whether this procedure in the future really gives the Saurels' wine the feeling of maturing in pure, pleasant stone will probably never be answered conclusively. Just as little as the question of whether the cosmic form of the wooden barrel can give the wine more than the amphora with its vibrational frequency, which is perhaps best tailored to the wine. What is certain is that questions play a role in the ageing of wine that have received too little attention in recent decades. Questions to which Georgians, Greeks or Romans perhaps already had the much better answers than we do.

The above article was kindly made available to us by the Vinum editorial team. Many thanks for this. Please use the following link to order a free sample issue of Vinum:

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