Terracotta Warriors

The implications were astonishing. 

Early into its first season in 2007, the dig at Areni-1 Cave near the village of Areni in southern Armenia, had uncovered what seemed to be a rudimentary wine press, still straddling a buried 50-liter fermentation pot. It was almost as if it were awaiting the grapes from the next harvest. Archaeologists dug deeper and found desiccated grapes, skins, stems, seeds, and the crucial red-wine compound malvidin, leaving no doubt that wine had been produced there more than 6,200 years ago. Eventually, carbon-14 dating confirmed Areni-1 Cave to be the world's oldest winery.

More ceramic pots were uncovered and systematically emptied of their contents, including early domesticated wheat and barley seeds, around 70 plant species, and the world's oldest intact leather shoe. Continued digging dated the earliest habitation back to 8,400 years ago, but contrarily, all the evidence indicated that people weren't actually living within the Areni Cave. It was used for other purposes. 

Dr Boris Gasparyan, the site's chief archaeologist, explains that "the ancients saw caves as the gateways to the next world." And with caves being naturally conducive to fermentation, "wine," Gasparyan continued, "provided a way to open this other world." 

Terra-cotta, cannibalism, and life cycle 

Here is where the story took an unexpected twist. One wine pot contained a carefully buried infant. Another held half of a (butchered?) woman's skeleton. And a third enclosed a single skull with markings indicating flesh and hair had been purposefully scraped (chewed?) away. Wine had been made and drunk, then people had been buried in those pots. 

What was going on? Previously I'd understood that the same ancient culture in nearby Georgia suggested winemaking probably had a ceremonial association with fertility rights. But here were clear indications of wine closely aligned to death, sacrifice, and cannibalism. Was this simply a place where wine was drunk in celebration/remembrance as the dead were prepared for burial? Were human sacrificial rights involved fertility or otherwise, voluntary or otherwise where both slayers and slain drank to intoxication to ease the process of transitioning from life to death? And then there's the big daunting question in the room: Was cannibalism also involved? All difficult concepts for us moderns to wrap our minds around. 

I asked Dr Gasparyan about the Areni Cave's association between winemaking and fertility on the one hand, and death ceremonies on the other. He responded, "You cannot separate the two. Death is revival. They tried to combine these two worlds." He explained further: "Wine is born from grapes, and grape juice was considered the juice of birth. Blood of the earth and human blood—this was the association." 

He continued, "There is no doubt that both sacrifice and cannibalism took place there, based on the evidence of cooking and chewing on the bone. We know sacrifice took place due to the evidence of cut marks and blood traces. The parts of sacrificed bodies were eaten. Probably this ritual was linked to the association of blood and wine. The body was symbolizing bread, and the wine was symbolizing blood." Christianity later replaced the element of human sacrifice with a purely symbolic relationship based on bread and wine. 

Early agricultural societies depended on soil and the gods who ruled that earth. Toss in some menstrual and sacrificial blood, and it makes more sense. Gasparyan believes that early agricultural cultures wrapped it all together in their religion. "Wine was a beverage in which people believed deeply. It was something to be consumed not only by the living, but by the dead and the gods as well." He elaborated, "Both the other world of the dead and real world of the living) were drinking the wine from the region where it was created." All depended on continuing this cycle. 

What is intriguing here is the continuity of much of this up to the present day. Georgian and Armenian churches and monasteries commonly have amphorae buried in lower floors or in grounds directly adjacent to churches. You see this close association in the ancient temple complexes on which early churches were built, a continuous thread running all the way back to the Areni period. Wine and death and rebirth and ritual are the leitmotifs. Highlighting this continuity, Gasparyan explains, "When we Armenians bury someone today, we drink during the ceremony and then pour half of our wine on the grave. Sharing is how both sides are guaranteeing the life cycle." 

cave interior with round pits in the stone for karas

Areni Cave interior with dish-shaped grape press and pots

ancient cracked wine pot with ochre powder in the bottom

Areni Wine Pot with Ochre Burial Powder

Ancient grapes 

On all levels, the Areni Cave is proving to be one of the richest sources of evidence documenting mankind's transition from hunter-gathering through early agriculture and the copper- bronze-iron ages that followed. Preservation has been almost perfect. So far, around 20 winemaking pots have been discovered Although the earliest pots have been dated to c.6200 BC, it is possible, if not likely, that other perishable fermentation vessels were in use long before this. Because only one percent of the cave has been excavated, there is still much left to reveal. 

Dr Nelli Hovhannisyan has been involved in analyzing the biological material from the Areni Cave. Carbon-14 dating was applied to vine-stem material to calculate the 6200 BC date. Although seeds from older levels of the dig were found, their charred condition didn't allow carbon dating. The oldest seeds confirmed by carbon-14 were a 2,600–1,800-year-old mixture of wild and transitional domesticated seeds. Intriguingly, the seeds from both the 6200 BC and the 2600 BC group share some morphological similarities with contemporary local grapes. Significantly, 3,700-year-old stems survived in good enough condition to allow DNA analysis. Dr Hovhannisyan hinted that they had found living cells in materials from Areni as well. 

All of this data is being used to hunt out the oldest surviving aboriginal Armenian grapes and to determine how close the current local grape population is to the cave's ancient grapes. Because Armenia has never had phylloxera and remains relatively isolated, it retains one of the purest ancient grape populations in the world. Given that Mt Ararat looms just over the mountain ridges above Areni, if there is any place that Noah could have planted the surviving vines from the Garden of Eden, it is there. 

One of Dr Hovhannisyan's ongoing projects is to replicate what the Areni Cave's wine might have been like in ancient times. After a year-long analysis of temperature and humidity variations inside the cave, she set about fermenting wine under exactly the same environmental conditions, including both seasonal and diurnal fluctuations. 

Some 50-liter terra-cotta reproductions of Areni's earliest pots were filled with what her team reckoned to be the oldest varieties in the region. A minimalist "set and forget" fermentation regime was followed, with each grape hand-crushed and all contents going into the pot. Fermentation averaged just over one month, with wines mostly ending up at around 9% ABV and a little residual sweetness. The pots were sealed, then after six months they were opened, and the wine was bottled. 

I had an opportunity to taste these experimental wines. The first, from the white Voskehat grape, leaned toward an orange wine somewhat reminiscent of contemporary Georgian Kakheti styles with a lot of skin contact. Aromatically it was very stemmy, with a touch of flor-driven Fino notes. It was a visceral wine, more about texture than aroma or flavor. Slightly sweet, it was nicely balanced, though more by tannins than by acidity. 

The region's premier red grape, Areni, didn't bear much resemblance to local modern versions. It had a strange black- brown color, little fruit character, and a heavy viscous texture, more weird than wonderful Two other reds were more recognizable. Tozot (meaning dusty) wore a red-brick color and shiny translucence, with stem and savory red-fruit aromas and bitter tannins. A rarer variety, Movses, produced a lighter red wine that was more modern and vinous. Again, it was very textural, almost Gewürztraminer-like in its heavy glycerine content, low acidity, and bitter tannins. 

Although unfamiliar with these varieties, my overall impression was how drinkable they were in relation to modern expectations. Admittedly, after a decade of drinking both "amphora" and natural wines, my goal posts of "acceptability have probably shifted way beyond where many others remain firmly planted. That said, I could easily see myself drinking these wines while chanting away with my clan by the light of bear-fat torches in Areni Cave. It's participating in the rest of the ceremony that I haven't quite come to terms with. 

Cliff face with 3 triangular cave openings

Entrance to Areni Cave from below

view of cave in canyon from above

Areni Cave from canyon top

Above and beyond the call 

By coincidence, serendipity, or grand design, some five years before Areni revealed its ancient winemaking secrets, Zorik and Yeraz Gharibian planted their vineyard 1,300ft (400m) above the cave. Children of the great Armenian diaspora who fled the Turkish genocide in the early 20th century, they returned to help rebuild their nation after the Soviet system disintegrated in 1993. 

Few appear to realize that the Soviets systematically destroyed Armenia's ancient wine culture by reorganizing production exclusively for brandy. Although small-scale grape growing and winemaking survived in rural villages, vodka, beer, and spirits are what most Armenians drink today. Wanting to resurrect Armenia's nearly extinct wine culture, the Gharibians established the Zorah winery in 2002, seeking to demonstrate Armenia's potential for producing great wine. 

Zorik had spent a decade searching before finding the perfect vineyard site. Breathtakingly beautiful, the vineyard straddles a sloping 4,600ft-(1,400m-) high plateau surrounded by rugged mountains. Zorik populated his vineyard with cuttings from the surrounding villages-ancient vines, many unnamed and all ungrafted, along with those surrounding the Areni Cave and others from a ruined 13th-century monastery. Another 65oft (200m) higher up, Zorik discovered an ancient abandoned plot of gnarly old vines struggling their way out of cracked boulders. This field blend of unknown vines-older than the oldest locals remember their elders remembering-would eventually become the source of his flagship red, Yeraz. 

Zorik convinced consultant enologist Alberto Antonini, former senior winemaker at Antinori and Frescobaldi, to help him create Zorah from the ground up. Originally the plan was to employ a mix of stainless-steel, large round-bottomed, conical concrete tanks, barriques, and botti (large wooden vats). But almost from the start, Zorik wanted to experiment with karases (Armenian clay pots), “because this was how wine was made not only during Armenia's ancient history but also more recently in homes in rural villages." Experimentation grew into total commitment. After the first vintage both Zorik and Alberto preferred the superior results from the karases, so they abandoned the barriques. Similarly, stainless-steel fermentation was discarded in favor of concrete, “because this was much closer to the amphora philosophy.

Sourcing karases was a challenge, because pot production had died out by the 19508, so Zorik sourced old pots from local villagers. "In some cases," Zorik relates, "houses had grown around these huge karases, so we knocked down walls, got the karases out, then rebuilt the walls!" Other villagers begged him to take out their karases, threatening to break them up because they were taking up too much space. The winery now has two dozen karases, whose capacities range from 200 liters to 1,200 liters. Half of them stand above ground, the rest are half-buried in gravel. Experimentation has shown that the wine in those above ground matures at twice the rate. 

Winemaking is minimalist, driven by native yeasts and low sulfite additions at bottling. The white, named Voski, started with ten native white varieties, methodically narrowed down to two locals: Voskeat and Garandmak, Fermented in Italian round-bottomed, porous concrete vats, Voski sees no karas. The karasi reds, from Areni Noir, are also fermented in concrete but are then transferred to karases for maturation, The flagship reserve Yeraz has an additional year in 3,000-liter untoasted botti for integration, then another year in bottle. Until now, karases have been used exclusively for maturation, but this will change in future. 

Zorah has steadily evolved through ever purer Armenian traditions, ending up with a deep love and respect for karas winemaking. A handful of other young winemakers are beginning to follow the same path. The greatest obstacle to recreating this unique wine culture comes from an international wine company that has copyrighted the word “karas" for its main wine brand and is suing anyone who mentions it on a label. The irony is that these "karas" wines aren't made in karas and are made mostly from international grape varieties. Some want to own karas as a noun, whereas enlightened Armenians see it as a verb to be shared by all. 

Exterior of Zorah winery with 2 karas

Zorah Winery

Old vines clambering over rocks

Zorah's oldest field blend vines

Interior of winery showing many karas, some on stands, some on their sides, some buried

Zorah Winery interior

Then, there, and now 

Looking beyond the mysteries of Areni and the charm of Zorah, something big is burbling under the surface of wine globally. Terra-cotta winemaking is on the verge of breaking out into the mainstream. While small enclaves of winemakers in Georgia, Portugal, and Spain carry on traditional clay-pot winemaking, elsewhere uptake is growing at exponential rates. From its early "modernist" revival, centered around Friuli's Josko Gravner at the turn of the century, terra-cotta production has steadily spread throughout Europe, across the Americas, and has now infiltrated as far as South Africa and Australia. Even remote New Zealand already has four producers who are using claypots. 

Why this has happened is most certainly related to the growing boredom with globalized, identikit winemaking practices. We all know the drill: inoculated yeasts, stainless steel, temperature control, micro-ox, market-determined styles, fruit driven reductively to a fault, all packaged in new, and more recently "neutral" old, oak barriques and yada yada yada. While many great wines of the world may not wear the same makeup, the faces below can look remarkably similar. 

And just as certainly, the open rebellion against this sameness has erased many borders. The natural- and orange wine movements that take winemaking low-tech and non- interventionist, blowing apart expectations of how wine should behave, have opened a door for pre-industrial wine technology 

The key is that terra-cotta winemaking really has little to do with natural- or orange-wine making. It can overlap, but it doesn't have to, and in many cases it doesn't need or want to It is a distinctively terra-cotta-based technology, ingeniously worked out over 6,000 years, opening up whole new approaches to winemaking and new ways of seeing wine. 

Terra-cotta satisfies those seeking the fruit clarity that stainless steel provides, but without steel's hard-edged acidity and undeveloped tannins. Riding shotgun is oxygen integration that knocks the spots off fake micro-oz Clay sculpts fine "oak barrel-like" textures, but without any intrusive vanilla confection or astringent wood-leached tannins. Terra-cotta is a technology ripe for our time. 

But herein lies the rub. Demand for clay pots has steadily outstripped supply, and demand now appears to be on the cusp of a big-bang explosion. Sadly, the Portuguese have forgotten how to make the pots. The Georgians still make pots the way they did 6,000 years ago, but only a handful of masters remain Fortunately, the Georgian government has recently established a school to help remedy current production limitations. The supply-versus-demand bottleneck might be broken by solutions from two relatively new producers. 

Clay-created terroir 

The quiet force behind the terra-cotta wine movement globally is an old Tuscan company, Artenova, based in Imprunata. Recognizing that its traditional market for ornamental objects was in irreversible decline, the company shifted to reproducing Etruscan winemaking jars in 2008. 

Artenova's owner Leonardo Parisi and his pot-making brother Andrea have developed a range of 200-liter to 800-liter giare, which have steadily evolved during a decade of real-world winemaking conditions. The final design is flat-bottomed and more barrel-shaped than conically formed qvevri, tinajas, or talhas (see WFW 49. Pp.98-104, and WFW 53, pp.116-23). Artenova's other innovation is an integrated stainless steel collar and lid that allow for anaerobic sealing. Pots take about 90 days or so to make. They can be ordered with or without a lower drain spigot, like talhas, and coated with beeswax or with epoxy or left natural. Although Artenova also produces conically shaped tinajas and a traditional Roman, heart-shaped 1,000-liter Dolium, it's the modernized Etruscan jar that has made its way around the world. More than 80 Italian wineries now use them. Even Australia has around 130 pots. 

The key advantage to these pots is their consistent oxygen transfer rates (OTR): around four times barrique porosity, due to electric firing and the local clay. Artenova sources the same clay that was once sculpted by some of Florence's greatest artists: Ghiberti, Donatello, and della Robbia. Renowned for their purity and durability, Imprunata-made roof tiles still adorn Brunelleschi's Duomo after more than 500 years of weathering. 

Artenova gives much back to its community, actively promoting research and information-sharing to help grow clay-pot winemaking globally. It has hosted three international conferences, Terra-Cotta and Wine 2014,  2016 and 2018 ( The next event will be in 2020.) The 2016 conference brought together more than 40 participating winemakers from three continents to share their wines and their techniques. Ongoing research projects examined, for example, the mineral and heavy-metal exchanges between wine and terra-cotta. One unexpected but far-from-unwelcome result was that many trace metals (including copper and lead) in the must diminish after fermentation in terra-cotta. Other studies have detailed the chemical changes on a grape-by-grape basis. 

Stefano Casadei of Ruffina's Castello del Trebbio was an important early adopter. Famous for his boundless curiosity, experimentation, and innovation, this Tuscan vigneron was looking for another tool through which to explore new vistas. Stefano and wife Anna are the guiding forces behind three winemaking projects. Their flagship Chianti Rufina property is Castello del Trebbio (famous as the place where the Pazzi family plotted a failed conspiracy to assassinate Lorenzo de' Medici and his brother Giuliano during mass at Florence's Duomo in April 1478). The second property, Tenuta Casadei, is based in the almost anything goes environs of Maremma, while the third, Agricola Olianas, is in a relatively untouched patch of Sardinia. 

All are run on an ethical farming philosophy called BioIntegral, which extends beyond organic-biodynamic and sustainability into the preservation of local farming/village economic traditions; all of the plowing is done with horses, for example. Terra-cotta winemaking has played a central role in this natural progression 

Casadei employs terra-cotta winemaking in several ways. Olianas produces Cannonau, while Tenuta Casadei is focused on Syrah, Ansonica, and Moscato. Trebbio produces Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio. There are no general rules. Some wines are treated to skin contact over many weeks; others, a much shorter time. Some are bottled under the label Le Anfore, while others become blending components. 

Casadei commissioned the university study that revealed that oxygen transmission was around four times greater than in barrel The ability to create texture in wine with oxygen is clearly one reason for using clay, but Casadei also finds that it adds "spice" while "outlining the varietal characters. Working with the technology can be tricky," he says, because "amphorae can suck aromas out of highly aromatic whites," so the winemaker “must choose the precise time to remove the wine from the vessel". Like many other producers, Casadei has increased the proportion of wine made in terra-cotta and correspondingly reduced the proportion made in barrique. 

terracotta pot decorated with large-breasted fertility goddess

Artenova's 21st Century Dolium still celebrating fertility god

Potter working on top edge of large pot

Artenova's master potter at work

Oregonians just do it 

In 2013, Annedreia Beckham, "with a little hesitation," handed her husband Andrew an article on Elizabeta Foradori's amphora wines. She knew he might get the crazy idea to start making his own." Andrew's immediate response was, “I can make those!" And "down the rabbit hole we went." 

Andrew started the next day. Working his way up from small pots through more challenging 60-gallon (227-liter) and 90-gallon (340-liter) sizes, his most recent examples are topping out at 220 gallons (830 liters). Bearing in mind that Georgian quevri, Portuguese talhas, Spanish tingjas, Armenian karases, and Artenova's modern pots are all hand-layered constructions from 300 liters to 1,300 liters, throwing such massive pots from the ground up is a tour de force. But then Andrew's day job is teaching Oregon high-schoolers ceramics, spending the rest of his time growing and making Pinot Noir and Riesling from 7.5 acres (3 ha) of vines surrounding the family home. With no museum pieces to measure, no plans, no one to talk him through, Andrew just did it. 

He's as close to Breaking Bad's Walter White as the terra-cotta movement comes. 

After figuring out the fundamentals of wall thickness and shape in relation to size, Beckham turned to the critical aspects of firing: how long and how hot. Underfired, he discovered, "the pots weep or leak or aren't strong or waterproof enough". Too much heat "vitrifies" the clay, melting its silicon like an internal glaze, creating an overly reductive environment. Knowing the ancients had glazing at their disposal, positive oxygenation was clearly a more desirable outcome. 

Playing around with different clays, timings, and firing temperatures allowed him to zero in on the right balance of density, strength, and porosity. He developed a clay that can be fired at a temperature 200°F (111C) lower than normal, with reduced clay flavor. Strength-wise, only two of the 60 pots have cracked. In terms of porosity, his pots eventually found a sweet spot that transfers about twice the oxygen of oak. 

Pot shapes have evolved as well. He determined that open-top ferments needed a wider-mouthed pot, whereas his maturation pots needed a much tighter neck in order to avoid overruns and flor development. The latter have naturally evolved toward a more Spanish tinaja-like form, with closable lids to avoid oxidation.

Experience has provided interesting insights. Andrew finds wine is much clearer coming from clay than from barrel. He wonders if there might be a negative charge involved, or perhaps clay acts like bentonite fining. His experiments showed beeswax and (more neutral) soya-wax lining made for easier cleaning, with beeswax adding a brilliance to wine.

Andrew's pottery studio quickly evolved into a research laboratory and is soon to become a factory. Using gigantic, highly sophisticated, Wi-Fi-controlled, electric-fired kilns, he can speed up or slow down firing, creating precision and consistency unobtainable with traditional wood-fired methods. His ultimate goal is to mass-produce high-quality 350-liter, 700-liter, and 1,000-liter terra-cotta pots and a 60-gallon barrel-shaped vessel with an affordability and regularity that would make Henry Ford proud. To that end, he has produced massive casting molds and developed a special machine that simulates internal hand throwing characteristics. The assembly line is about to roll and reduce the current shortage of terra-cotta pots globally. 

Winery interior showing 'Cupid's Hotdogs' sign and 2 modern terracotta pots

Beckham Estate Winery interior

mis-shapen terracotta pot in the garden

Beckham early experimental pot now Garden Art

Terra-cotta's New World beachhead

With Beckham pots already scattered around a dozen local winemakers, Oregon has become terra-cotta's first New World beachhead. One of the more thoughtful of these is Chad Stock of Craft Wine Co and Minimus. Stock has experimented with Cabernet Franc, Blaufränkisch, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Aligoté, Melon de Bourgogne, and Albarino in stainless steel, various sizes of oak, cement eggs, and Beckham's clay pots. His experience suggests that wines fermented in stainless steel "turn out hard on the palate, more backward, with abrupt tannins, more subdued aromas, and higher alcohols." Whereas cement produces "the softest texture, the pH of the wine shifts up a bit, and there is something about the texture that gets too broad on the palate. You have better fruit expression compared to stainless for sure, but the wines are too loose, as if to overcorrect the hard edges of the stainless-steel version. The clay," he feels, "gives the best of everything, not softer tannin than stainless, just way more integration, so you have the structure that props the wine up helping it to remain linear and firm." 

Stock has found that clay favors a grape variety "that can stand alone, can make a complete wine on its own merits," noting that Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and Blaufränkisch work particularly well. Observing that “older oak barrels bring additional character to most wines," in contrast he sees clay giving "very little it just allows the wine to come into focus," hence the need for a grape variety with a dynamic flavor and aroma profile full of "savory, fruity, floral, green, reductive, and other complexities. Sauvignon Blanc does this incredibly well. High-tannin and acidic varieties," he says, "have structural qualities that can withstand the aging conditions in clay. 

Shapes play an important role as well. Conical pots capture seeds under a thick blanket of lees, while the round-bottomed inverted egg spreads all this out across a much broader, thinner-skinned surface. Stock explains, "The [cement) eggs are specific to low-alcohol, low-texture, and/or highly acidic varietal wines. The constant convective forces keep lees moving and constantly suspended, making wines very lees-impacted and rounding them out. A rich white wine will just come out with too much texture from an egg". He adds, "A skin-fermented wine inside an egg would not convect. For varieties like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, the acidity can be too high for a dry expression. The convection adds richness and yeast complexity to the aromas and flavors. Egg-shaped clay would produce the same result, so it's not the material, but the shape". The broader bottom of the egg compared to his clay pot, increases exposure of lees and seeds to the wine above. Following this line of thought, Stocks says, "Because skin fermentations see a large pH shift upward due to the salt extractions, the textural weight goes up, and I don't want to increase that perception". The conical pot's smaller lees surface offers the better option to reduce lees influence during the ageing. Working all this out over time has clearly been an interesting challenge for Stock. He reflects, “I have had no failures in the clay, just better versions than previous batches— and the worst versions were still quite tasty." 

The winemaking technology of the future 

It takes little imagination to predict that many wineries using oak barrels today will be using terra-cotta pots within the next decade. Although it is an ancient technology, it's also one of the newest. Toss in the facts that terra-cotta has a proven 6,000-year-old track record, doesn't need to be plugged in or replaced through planned obsolescence, and has an extremely low carbon footprint over time, and terra-cotta is clearly the winemaking technology of the future. Increasingly one hears smart, innovative winemakers end a conversation with, "I'll be phasing out barrels over the next year or two, once I've got enough replacement amphorae." 

It sounds a lot like the early stages of the "oak barrel" revolution back in the 1970s. 

Burn those barrels—clay is here to stay.

A version of this article by Paul White first appeared in The World of Fine Wine issue 57, 2017


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