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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Amphorae, folklore and memory

by Vincent Pousson

05.03.2013. “Voleur d'amphores, au fond des criques” (thief of amphorae deep into the coves), sang Bashung, and little did he know that he was also writing the soundtrack of my life at the time; it was so fitting and as hopeless. D'estrade en estrade, j'ai fait danser tant de malentendus, des kilomètres de vie en rose… (From stage to stage, I made so many misunderstandings dance, miles of Vie en rose...) Between those disreputable nights where lies spiced up antics on the carpet and the days spent away from reality, an authentic dealer from Agde told me about the differences between true and false amphorae, their weight, their appearance, their handles. Near the white skin of the Consuegra mills whose vision made my nose sting, we admired these decorative “tinajas”* in which, just before the onset of stainless steel, wine growers from La Mancha developed their old wines, ultimately no worse than the new. J'ai fait l'amour, j'ai fait le mort (I made love, I played dead). “Aliam vitam, alio mores” (Other times; other customs), only faded photos remain, terribly jolly, excerpts from a body that was supposedly offered, smiles which were just as fake as the nights featured in Bashung’s song. I did, I answered a "mountain of questions". Moving on now.

The amphora is therefore a tool that I put away on the shelves of memories to be buried, those that we want to forget at the bottom of the sea. The past has passed.

Lately however, quite a lot of people in the wine world have started telling me about the amphora. I will not deny that it made me cringe a little at first: one could easily do without Puy-du-Fou type pageants with screaming “boudègues”** and clog dancing. I imagined folkloric wines; light orange for the whites and dark orange for the reds, being more akin to a teenage challenge than real drinking pleasure.

Closer to home, there are of course the wines from Clos Romain, in the Languedoc. I must admit that I have not yet had the opportunity to stick my nose into the Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignans of this small poly-cultural property located near Cabrières in the Hérault region and which vinifies part of its production in terracotta amphorae made in the Aude region. Those that came before the interesting cuvée Dolia by Philippe Viret, the Professor Calculus of the Rhone Valley in Saint-Maurice-sur-Eygues. But also the Mondeuse from the Domaine Belluard*** in Savoie, the Cahors, the Italians (the great Elisabetta Fordadori in the north and the Azienda Cos from the Occhipinti family in Sicily), the Spanish, the Galician, the Lebanese and the Austrians.

Obviously, we cannot really speak of an unbroken tradition for most of those who make wine in amphorae today. Except for the country that is known as the cradle of wine; Georgia. Historians have shown it; people have been making wine since Neolithic times in this former Soviet republic, and the first signs of production go back to 8000 B.C. It is even believed that the word "wine" comes from the Georgian language!

Even during Communism and its disastrous effects on the economy and viticulture, the ancestral way of transforming grape hardly changed in the villages of Mtskheta-Mtianeti, in the same region where the Mukhrani valley is located and which produces among the most famous wines in the country, about 50 km north of Tbilisi.

In Chardakhi, Iago Bitarishvili, a Georgian with a false air of Vladimir Putin (which, I admit, may seem ironic...) produces 3,000 bottles per year of a dry white wine that must be awfully close to the original. Is it the best the world? I don’t know, in any case, tasting it is an "experiment" (in the words of uncreative ad people).

Since Neolithic times, this wine is produced in huge ceramic jars that are buried in the ground. The Chinuri grape, one of the 500 native varieties, are crushed and macerated for three to 6 months with their skins on, a process which stains them and gives them an amber, fawn-like color which cannot easily be confused with a New Zealand Sauvignon which becomes as black as an animal...

The nose shows signs of oxidation, but more as would a sherry wine than a failed wine. There is a lot of material on the palate, with notes of dried fruit and resin, and we are surprised by the volume and tannic side which is not very common for a white. This Chardakhi wine is almost like the witness of a touching journey through time to the origins of viticulture. I think there are interesting pairings to try with it, with white meat, perhaps?

As fashion dictates, vinification trials in amphorae are becoming more and more frequent along with the necessary "marketing hijackings". Never missing a beat, the Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac has recently filled about 50 with 900 liters each to try to find an alternative to aging in barrels (excluding new wood).

However, once the feeling of newness will have passed and which, in its essence, does not last long, we will have to find wines which are produced using this method and which really go beyond what is marked on the label and uttered by the seller; its taste will have to be convincing. Well, I just want to say that this is now a done thing; I drank an intense, fine, deep, vibrant, amphora juice. In short, something entirely different. And I would have drunk a lot more if I had been able to get my hands on it. It is a red from the Jura from, a Trousseau 2011 by Bénédicte and Stéphane Tissot**** . A marvel, a piece of intricate lace, a UFO which solves an impossible equation with grace. It is the kind of wine, with or without amphora, which does not bother with folklore, which etches itself deeply into your memory, and which does not lie, neither night nor day.

* The “tinajas” are huge terracotta amphorae, Hispanic heirs of the Roman dolia. They are usually made around Albacete, namely in Villarobledo. Their capacity, measured in arrobas (16.133 liters - 4US gal lqd 2 US pt lqd), can (or could) reach 80 hectoliters. The wine was vinified in them until recently, before the techno wave swept across Spain. They are still found in La Mancha, often to mark the entry to a winery.

** Like old Occitan or Catalan bagpipes (bodegues).

*** Just a word on Ayze (an AOC from Savoie) of the same Domaine Belluard, the 2011 Le Feu blanc. It is a Gringet variety which is not vinified in an amphora and which I do not regret having tasted again as its incredible energy contrasted with the blandness of the old vintage (2006) which I talked about before.

****We already knew the Savagnin by the Tissots, aged in an amphora. Regarding the Trousseau, it's a bit more complicated, there is very little of it, it only comes in magnums and I'm on the waiting list (right, Olif?).

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