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The ancient art of terracotta-fermented wines gets new life in Oregon: Wine Notes

Ceramicist-turned-winemaker Andrew Beckham in his studio with some of his terracotta amphorae.

by Katherine Cole
For most of us, the sight of a wine cellar laden with wooden barrels is a charming reminder that some traditions are timeless. But for devotees of "natural wine" (the oenophile's version of the Slow Food movement), bent-oak barrel staves represent a relatively recent blip on the winemaking timeline.

The what's-old-is-new-again fad in food and beverage has, in winemaking, delved deep into antiquity in recent years, as winemakers all over the world have begun experimenting with clay vessels, very like the amphorae used by the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans.

Until now, American winemakers looking to dabble in clay had to rely on imports from Italy or the European nation of Georgia, where winemaking and oversized pottery production have never fallen out of style.

But for Slow Food fundamentalists, there's something paradoxical about importing massive, fragile stoneware — expensively and inefficiently — from overseas.

For those of you who lie awake at night tormenting yourselves over quandaries such as these, we now have an only-in-Oregonian solution: heirloom-style wines fermented in terracotta vessels that were made right in our backyard.

In short, we Oregonians are among the privileged few who can truly claim to enjoy "Slow Wine."

Of course we are.

Here's the back story: Once upon a time, Andrew Beckham was a ceramics artist and instructor, looking for a chunk of land with enough square footage to accommodate his growing family as well as a ceramics studio. He and his wife, Annedria, settled on a treed slope atop Parrett Mountain.

Then they noticed that many of their neighbors farmed grapevines. And before he knew it, Andrew Beckham was a master ceramicist by day, and a winemaker/vineyard manager by night.

This rare convergence of skill sets eventually, inevitably, led Beckham to become convinced that he could fashion his own terracotta amphorae for winemaking.

(A quick aside: Strictly speaking, "amphorae" are narrow jars fitted with two handles. More appropriate terms for large clay wine-fermentation vessels might be kvevri (Georgian) or pithos (Greek). However, the better-known terms "amphora" and "amphorae" are used loosely in wine circles.)

This was easier said than done. Pottery on a wine-production scale requires a deep understanding of the architectural capabilities of clay. Beckham also wanted his clay to allow for a bit of oxygen transfer without seeping wine.

It's standard practice to coat the inside of a wine amphora with propolis, a resinous sealant made by bees, but Beckham was convinced he could create vessels that didn't need the wax-like linings. The ceramicist spent months working with a chemist to develop the right type of clay, then baked 16 prototypes to determine the optimum "firing" temperature.

Typically, massive clay pieces are fabricated in sections, which are later combined. But Beckham is an artist. He insists on forming his inch-thick-wide vessels in one handsome piece. "Sometimes I get hung up on the form and have to remind myself that it's really all about the function," he admits.
Over the past year and a half, Beckham has worked his way up, from 40- to 200-gallon vessels. He's now developing a customized potter's wheel and 7-by-5-foot kiln to accommodate even larger pieces.

Beckham fermented two wines, a pinot gris and a pinot noir, in his first round of amphorae. Then he loaned one to his friend Chad Stock, who fermented and aged a gruner veltiner.

Stock was the ideal guinea pig for this project. His own label, Minimus (he's also the winemaker for Omero Cellars and makes a pinot for Durant Vineyards), is devoted entirely to experimentation. Each Minimus wine is a different, numbered, project, and he hasn't made any style of wine twice. For example, Stock recently released his #9, a rosé of the obscure Austrian variety, blaufrankisch. Stock vinified the blaufrankisch as a "pet nat," or petillant naturel-style sparkling wine, made according to the ancestral method of bottling during fermentation, to naturally capture expelled carbon dioxide.
Stock's gruner veltliner, #8, fermented and aged for 117 days in one of Beckham's terracotta amphorae. Like Beckham's pinot gris, it's an "orange wine": Instead of pressing the juice off the skins, Stock allowed the juice to macerate on the grape skins for 77 days, soaking up color and tannins. This antiquated method renders wines of startlingly apricot-toned hues, and aromas and flavors that don't conform with our palate memories of whites, reds and rosés.

As with all Minimus releases, Stock allowed the gruner veltliner grapes to ferment and develop without any additives, including the final dose of sulfur most winemakers add as a preservative. The result is a wine that's more conversation piece than easy sipper; but that's fine by Stock, who describes his winemaking philosophy as "asking an important question, political or social."

Beckham's terracotta-fermented wines, a pinot gris and a (yet-to-be-released) pinot noir, are likewise made without yeast additions. But they're less esoteric, with identifiable notes of bright fruit. "There are some commonalities," observes Beckham as he and Stock taste their wines together. "Texturally, the wines coming from the amphorae are quite unique. They tend to have a brick-like, dusty tannin that's very iron-driven."

In short, they create the not-unpleasant sensation of tasting liquified clay.

The first two homegrown terracotta wines, Beckham's pinot gris and Stock's gruner veltliner, were produced in tiny quantities, but Beckham plans to step up his terracotta program significantly in the coming years. He already has sculpted larger amphorae for his own 2014 vintage, and has sold a few to other local wineries.

But don't expect this trend to explode. Since Beckham carefully shapes each vessel by hand, production moves slowly.

Which is, after all, the point.

Tasting Notes:

A.D. Beckham "MMXIII" Amphora Willamette Valley Pinot Gris ($38): Fermented for 30 days on the pink grape skins in terracotta, this pinot gris looks like a rosé. It's hauntingly fragrant, with a nose of rose hips and cardamom, then ripe peaches. The palate is watermelon and citrus; the texture is halting, like the sensation of placing a piece of blotting paper on your tongue. It aged in neutral acacia (rather than oak) barrels, which lend a floral note to the finish. 12.3% alcohol by volume. Find it at Storyteller Wine Company or through the Beckham Estate Vineyard wine club.

2013 Minimus "#8: A.D. Beckham MMXVII" Johan Vineyard Willamette Valley White Wine ($40): Stock left his biodynamically farmed gruner veltliner grapes in the amphora for 117 days and worked as primitively as possible, adding no sulfur and bottling by hand. The result is a window into wines of eons past. It looks a bit like apple cider and tastes somewhat savory, like miso soup, finishing waxy. 11.9% ABV. Find it at E&R Wine Shop and Storyteller Wine Company.

Note: You can taste Oregon's first entirely homegrown terracotta wines at Storyteller Wine Co. from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 5, at Storyteller Wine Company, 5511 S.W. Hood Ave.

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May 2023