Bringing Tradition Back: Amphorae & Eggs

A winemaker has many options for vessels to ferment and age wine in. While you’re probably familiar with stainless steel tanks and oak barrels, you might not know about amphorae – large, egg-shaped clay vessels – that are growing in popularity in recent years. While it might seem a trendy new thing, amphorae-ageing is in fact a practice that dates back thousands of years. Let’s find out what they’re all about.

Various Amphorae lined up in two rows.

Amphorae: What are They?

It is believed that winemaking has its roots in the South Caucasus, known as the Republic of Georgia today. Archaeologists have found seeds of grapes and remnants of clay pots dating back more than 8,000 years. Ancient Georgians used the clay vessels, called ‘qvevri’, to ferment and store wine in. The vessels were usually buried in the ground up to the neck. This was to keep a consistent temperature while the wine fermented.

During the Bronze and Iron ages, amphorae spread across the Mediterranean. They served the Greeks and Romans as a means of transporting and storing wine, olive oil, grains, and other foods. 

Qvevri Amphorae, which is large and rounded compared to its Roman counterpart

Different types of amphorae were used for different purposes. Amphorae used for fermentation were similar to qvevri. These were quite large, and rounded. Buried underground during primary fermentation, the wine would be transferred to smaller amphorae. This was important for transportation and ageing, and smaller amphorae such as the Roman amphorae were used.

Roman amphorae which is longer, and more slender than the qvevri amphorae

Roman amphorae were slender and smaller than their qvevri counterparts. They had slender necks with large handles on their sides to assist with transportation. Another characteristic that stood out were their long and pointed bottoms. These assisted in stacking them, since the bottom of the amphorae would fit into the space between the amphorae necks.

Why are Amphorae Making a Comeback?

Modern winemakers in Georgia were the first to re-embrace their qvevri roots. The practice of fermenting and ageing wine in amphorae was then adopted by a few Northern Italian winemakers who were interested in making minimal-intervention wines. Today, amphorae have spread to winemaking regions across the globe and are no longer only used by natural winemakers. It’s important to note that the practice isn’t adopted on a massive scale or used for mass-produced wines, but it’s becoming more and more common for quality winemaking. Why?

Most importantly, clay (which amphorae are made of) is porous. This porosity allows for microoxygenation to occur within the vessel, aiding in the softening of tannins, and ultimately the development of a more supple and delicious wine.

Secondly, amphorae keep a stable and cool temperature and (due to their clay composition) are neutral in flavour, so it does not impart any flavours like oak does. This allows the wine to slowly evolve, aiding in the creation of fresh and fruity aromas. 

Lastly, the shape of the amphora allows for movement of particles within the wine. The rounded shape is especially important, because there are no corners for wine to collect in. This creates a constant suspension where the wine is in contact with the skins that float on the surface. The shape also allows for the yeast lees and sediment to sink to the bottom of the vessel. 

three ceramic wine eggs lined up next to each other

Wine Eggs: What are they?

Now that you know what amphorae are, do you think you can guess what a wine egg is?

You guessed it! Eggs are another type of vessel used for ageing wine. They are made from concrete, oak or stainless steel instead of clay and yes, they look like giant eggs. While the use of concrete vessels to age wines does go back a few thousand years as well, it wasn’t until 2001 that the first modern concrete wine egg was made. 

Tradition to Trend 

In 2001 Michel Chapoutier, a winemaker pioneering in biodynamic viticulture, collaborated with Nomblot, a French company specializing in creating concrete wine containers. Together, they produced the first modern egg-shaped wine fermenter out of concrete, and from there the popularity rose as Nomblot continued to create these fermenters for other wineries. 

Similar to the amphora’s, the egg’s properties led to its popularity in the winemaking world. 

A concrete egg does not impart any aromas or flavours to the wine in the way that oak does. The concrete provides a neutral vessel for wine to age and develop in, allowing the fruit and terroir to shine within the wine. 

Secondly, similar to clay, concrete is porous and provides the opportunity for microoxygenation to occur in the wine. Similar to how a cork lets oxygen in, the concrete pores allow for small amounts of oxygen to enter the egg, softening the tannins and making the wine more plush. This process happens much faster in concrete than it would in stainless steel eggs or barrels. 

And lastly, the shape! The large egg shape allows for a similar current or vortex to form within the egg like it does in the amphorae. As yeast ferments the wine and increases its temperature, the (already fermented) wine would rise to the top, and the cooler wine sinks to the bottom of the vessel. This allows the wine to circulate throughout the vessel without the need to stir it. 

Concrete and Clay Versus Steel and Oak

It’s likely that concrete and clay are not here to replace stainless steel and oak, there is a change coming as winemakers bring back traditional winemaking practices back in some of their vintages. 

If you’re interested in learning more about wines that are aged and fermented in amphorae and wine eggs, check out wineries like Tenuta Casadei, Chapoutier Winery or even Beckham Estate vineyard that use traditional vessels to ferment their wine. 

And if you’re looking for some unique, tasty and world-renowned wines, be sure to check out our WineCollective member store where you’ll save up to 50% off retail pricing! If you’re not a member yet, what are you waiting for? Sign up for a “no-strings attached” membership that gets you great wine, wine education, recipes, pairings, and other member perks! 

Bordeaux and its History: Trading Wine for Slaves

Join us to explore the history of Bordeaux as part of this year’s Black History Month. February is Black History Month, and every year we use this time to acknowledge the hardships and struggles – while celebrating the success and innovation – of Black individuals and communities.

As many wine lovers here know, Bordeaux produces some of the most famous and most sought-after wines in the world. But why are Bordeaux wines so famous? Location! The region’s climate and soil bring out the best in the grapes. Its close proximity to a major port has allowed local winemakers easy access to export to markets around the world. With all of the history surrounding this port city and famous wine region, there may be some parts of that history that would surprise you.

Many wine lovers are aware of Bordeaux’s success in winemaking. However, many people are not aware of the city’s involvement in the slave trade from the 17th to the 19th century. Before their involvement in slave trade activities and triangular voyages, Bordeaux would make straightforward transactions with the Caribbean. This included exchanging wine, oil, and flour for local produce. 

A Triangular Voyage from Bordeaux

A triangular voyage or trade triangle however, would involve fully loaded vessels leaving Bordeaux. They would arrive on the Eastern Coast of Africa six to eight weeks later. Upon arrival, the enslavers exchanged the food, clothes, arms, wine, and trinkets for the slaves. The enslavers then forced enslaved people into the ships to be ferried dangerously across the ocean. Additionally, enslavers removed the ship steerage cramping and forcing as many slaves as possible to fit into the ship to the Americas. The diagram demonstrates the conditions in which enslaved people were shipped across the waters. 

Diagram representing how slaves were cramped into ships during the Trade Triangle to be taken to Bordeaux

The enslaved people were so poorly and inhumanely transported that at least 10-20% of the individuals would die before arriving. Upon arrival, the enslaved who survived would be sold or auctioned off and set to work on plantations. Due to the harsh conditions they were exposed to, the enslaved people would have a remaining life expectancy of 5 to 6 years. 

Meanwhile, the ships would return to Bordeaux carrying tobacco, cotton and other produce and goods. This allowed them to make a hefty contribution to the city’s wealth. This carried on for about 150 years, with over 130,000 people captured, transported, and enslaved. 

A City Built on Slavery: Bordeaux Acknowledges the Past

Some former slave-trading cities have come forward to acknowledge their history with large, public memorials. So what is Bordeaux doing to remember its part in the slave trade? Bordeaux’s city government has formed a group to study its slave-trading history. In the mid-to-late 2000’s the city’s government decided to erect statues, plaques and public memorials to address its history in slave trade. 

One of the most notable sites is the Square Toussaint L’Ouverture. The square was named after the father of Haitian independence who fought for freedom in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).

Designed in the shape of a triangle, The “square” symbolized the Trade Triangle. Within the square is a bust of Toussaint L’Ouverture himself. Ludovic Booz, a Haitian artist, sculpted the statue. The Republic of Haiti then donated it to the city of Bordeaux in 2005. 

The bust of Toussaint L'Ouverture in Bordeaux donated by the Republic of Haiti

One of the most recent additions to the Bordeaux landscape came in December 2019. This marked the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. It was a sculpture by Réunionnaise artist Sandrine Plante-Rougeol. She sculpted it in the shape of “strange fruit” and it resembles a tree of some sort. Its three branches echo back to the Trade Triangle, and each one carries a wine barrel hoop that contains a man’s head. To symbolize the lack of their own identity along with fear, pain and abandonment, the men have been blindfolded.

Strange fruit in Bordeaux installed by artist Sandrine Plante-Rougeol

Walking the Streets of Bordeaux with Diallo

Although Bordeaux has risen to acknowledge their dark history, it was not without efforts from people like Karfa Diallo. Born in Dakar, Senegal, immigrated to Bordeaux in 1995. Diallo confronted Bordeaux’s past and had a realization.

 “I realized this town enriched itself on the blood and sweat of my ancestors and did nothing to remember this…” 

With this, Diallo moved forward and founded a small association “Memoires et Partages” (Memories and Sharing). Their mission is to raise awareness about Bordeaux’s legacy which he believes it has yet to confront. His association was responsible for lobbying municipalities of the cities, to erect plaques and statues to spread knowledge of Bordeaux’s past. Diallo asked the Bordeaux municipalities to take down old street names that were named after enslavers involved in the trade. These included owners and traders. To further educate the public on Bordeaux’s legacy, he requested installing plaques at the streets instead. The municipalities began implementing this in December 2019. 

Mémoires et Partages also plans out two-hour walking tours to showcase the history and make it accessible to everyone. Diallo explains in some of the many interviews that his discourse isn’t to shame or be bitter. Instead, his tour “is measured and thought out.” Diallo’s aim is “to try to tell the story of slavery around the world, not just the west…”

Karfa Diallo on his Bordeaux Nègre tour

As we look back on Bordeaux’s history, it is important to remember, acknowledge and continue to raise awareness for the history of the city. What can you do about it? Talk about it at your next wine get-together! Raise a glass of Bordeaux wine when you do. When you get the chance to visit the famous city, be sure to embark on the Bordeaux Nègre tour by Diallo himself!