Young winemaker looks to local ceramicists to make ancient vessels

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It was while she was unpacking an imported 1000-litre terracotta amphora from Spain for her employer, Gilbert Family Wines, that Samantha Sutherland had a thought – wouldn’t it be cheaper to produce such pots locally, here in Australia?

The distinctive amphoras with their pointed bottoms and vase-like shapes were used in the ancient Mediterranean world to store and transport wine, grapes, olives and olive oil, grain, fish and other goods.

These days the clay-based vessels are experiencing a comeback amongst small and medium-sized Australian wineries, since they can hold wine or juice through all stages of fermentation. Fired at very high temperatures, they may be unlined, or lined with beeswax or a type of epoxy resin.

“We’re familiar with stainless steel and oak for wine but we’re starting to consider what happens elsewhere, and clay pots or amphora encourage the expression of the wine or grape batch,” Samantha explained.

“Stainless steel offers a neutral environment for the developing wine, oak imparts flavours and textures and lets the wine breathe, and amphoras let it breathe a little or a lot, to express the grapes’ terroir or sense of place.”

Innovative winery workplace imports amphoras

Samantha is currently studying a Bachelor of Wine Science degree at Charles Sturt University and in 2019 was awarded the RAS Wine Scholarship in Sydney.

For the past two years she has been a trainee winemaker at the sixth-generation business, Gilbert Family Wines at Apple Tree Flat near Mudgee, where Will Gilbert was awarded 2021 Young Winemaker of the Year by Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine.

It’s a positive, innovative place to work, she says, and it was while unpacking amphoras for making wine that she found out it was quite expensive to import them. A 320L amphora costs around $6000, plus the cost of domestic transport to the winery.

Samantha successfully applied for an AgriFutures Rural Women’s Acceleration Grant to research the potential for manufacturing the clay-style pots locally.

“This is an ancient art that’s practiced with different quirks and materials all over the world, but I felt like my project would be achievable because the amphoras don’t have to be big, monstrous vessels which require industrial effort. They can be small batch work and all hand-made,” she said.

Visit to Georgia to see how clay pots made and used in wineries

The AgriFutures Rural Women’s Acceleration Grant enabled her to attend the Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference in Adelaide in June, before flying out to the country of Georgia in eastern Europe for an amazing on-ground experience.

“Georgia is recognised as the birthplace of these types of vessels so I thought, why not go all the way back? I had three weeks at Ori Marani winery which produces wines in smaller 300-400L vessels, called qvevri, and it was really eye-opening,” said Samantha.

Beneath the Caucasus Mountains at Igoeti, about 45 minutes out of Tbilisi, she worked with husband and wife winemakers Bastien, from Champagne in France, and his Georgian partner, Nino.

“It was so interesting to see how clay pots are typically used in Georgian winemaking and Bastien was using a modern approach, as well as traditional methods. We got to meet Zaliko Bodjadze, a master qvevri maker and stages of the clay pots being put together. His technical skill was quite overwhelming,” said Samantha.

“In Georgia, qvevri could have interesting characteristics such as flor a film on the surface of the wine which imparted a unique herbaceous sensory element . In Australia we’re probably a bit conservative about herbaceousness or flor so it was interesting to see them push those boundaries.

Small pots mean less risk to batch

“We also discussed how to look after the pots and clean them. It’s a very good learning curve to make small pots, because if there is a problem along the way, you’re not risking your entire batch. That’s even more important when you consider the impact of climate change.”

Samantha travelled all over Georgia visiting vineyards as well as helping with the grape harvest. The eastern side of the country had a drier growing season and produced the local varieties rkatsiteli and saperavi. In the far west the climate was cooler, green and lush, with lower ripening temperatures similar to Orange and the Southern Highlands of NSW.

“The landscapes were so different. The grapes were similar but just had different ripening styles, with more white grape varieties in the cooler, higher altitude areas, and the dry side producing traditional skin-contact wines that were put into clay pots and matured over months,” said Samantha.

Amphoras becoming more popular, now to approach potters

Back at home, she’s noticing more and more people are starting to import amphoras and she’s planning her next steps – firstly, to ask winemakers if they want to use more of the pots, and secondly, to speak to potters about whether they would like to try producing the vessels.

“At Gilbert Family Wines we use 1000L amphoras, for chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and sparkling bases, and each time we put a batch of wine in these vessels it’s always so different and unique. They make such a positive contribution to our winemaking styles,” said Samantha.

Being chosen as the recipient of an AgriFutures Rural Women’s Acceleration Grant ‘blew my mind’, she says, but a year doesn’t feel like quite enough time to develop her idea and do the Grant justice.

“The experience and connections with people have been invaluable – without the Acceleration Grant this wouldn’t have been more than just a chat in the cellar with the winemaker,” she said.

“Part of the dream is to make the amphoras much more accessible to smaller producers, who don’t have the cashflow to import them.”

The Rural Women’s Acceleration Grant is an AgriFutures Australia program developed to foster the growth and development of women involved in Australia’s rural and emerging industries, businesses, and communities.

Find out more about the Acceleration Grant

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