Wine amphorae for the 21st century

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“Everyone seems to think the Greeks and Romans used clay as a container to age wines,” John Ullinger says, reflecting on the current amphora fad among winemakers.

“They can’t have used clay to age wine, or store it for any great time. It was just too porous. I’m informed by the ancients, but if they were here today, and saw our technology, they’d fire everything at a higher temperature. They couldn’t get their kilns hot enough to get clay to glaze properly and seal.

“They probably hated amphora!

“This current fascination in amphora intrigues me. If you go and buy yourself a real one, after the style of the ancients, to prevent it from leaking you’d have to seal it with resin or wax, which seems to defeat the purpose of using natural clay. If the Romans or the Phoenicians had our kiln technology, they’d be glazing those surfaces at higher temperatures and they’d discover that everything would keep better.”

John is a potter. We’ve been mates for decades. He did what he calls “a typical standard arts/crafts/design degree” at the University of South Australia, where he says they taught some basic geology about clays and their sources. But “most people never use that stuff; that knowledge”, he says.

John’s determined to use his. He went off and did his masters at Stoke-on-Trent, which he says gave him “a full-on industrial ceramic design qualification”. He was clearly thinking industrially when he rang me a year ago to ask whether there was any clay on the Yangarra vineyard (where I rent a small flat). He said he was amused at the thought of the modern wine business suddenly copying an ancient imperfect container, which he knew he could easily improve.

He liked my suggestion that once the Romans invaded Gaul, and discovered that the canny woodworking Celts had invented the oak barrel, it didn’t take long for the brittle, leaky clay to disappear. What wasn’t on the bottom of the Mediterranean soon became builders’ landfill at the Coliseum or terra-cotta road metal.

“Like in the name of getting back to nature, what’s the point of going for something as natural and tricky as clay, and then having to seal it with a contaminant like beeswax or pine resin so it doesn’t leak, which in turn means the wine has no contact with the clay?” he asks.

“The industrial scientist in me says this is the pursuit of nature for the sake of it, and then not going the whole hog because it doesn’t work very well … that’s all marketing.