A couple of years back, concrete egg-shaped fermenters were all the rage in the most fashionable winery cellars. Today, you just aren’t with the times if you're not fermenting or aging your wine in a vessel that’s been around for millennia: the terracotta amphora.
But with only a few terracotta artisans manufacturing amphorae, supply is slim and prices are steep – particularly for New World producers, who must pay to ship the fragile vessels from traditional production zones such as Tuscany. (The going rate in the U.S. for Italian amphorae such as Chianti-made Artenova vessels is around $2,700 to $4,500.)
In Oregon, however, one winemaker possesses an unusual pair of skills, leaving him poised to begin domestic production of clay fermentation vessels on American soil.
By day, Andrew Beckham is a skilled ceramicist, who creates intricate, original gallery pieces that sell for up to $2,500 a piece. He’s also a full-time ceramics teacher at Beaverton High School, in a suburb west of Portland that’s near Willamette Valley wine country.
By night and on the weekends, Beckham is a winemaker and vine tender, living on a small vineyard on Parrett Mountain in the Chehalem Mountains AVA with his wife, Annedria, and their three small children. The Beckhams originally purchased their rural property in 2004 because it had plenty of room for a kiln and a ceramics studio. But after getting to know their vine-growing neighbors, the couple realized that their property was ideally situated for wine production, as well. They planted vines… and before they knew it, they were winemakers.
The Beckhams connected the dots between Andrew’s daytime profession and their family vigneron business last April, when Annedria read an article about Elisabetta Foradori, the renowned Italian winemaker who uses amphorae extensively at her Trentino estate.
Seeing the Italian terracotta vessels, Andrew realized that he could craft something similar himself. In fact, his high level of expertise in both clay pot-throwing and fine winemaking left him extremely well prepared.
Producing a watertight amphora that’s large enough to ferment a commercial quantity of wine grapes is not a simple proposition. Beckham first worked with a chemist to arrive at the ideal clay composition: nontoxic, and strong enough to hold massive quantities of fermenting liquid. He finally settled on a clay that isn’t as color-stable as a commercial flowerpot, but is much better suited to wine production.
The next challenge: determining the proper temperature at which to fire the terracotta. Burn it too hot and clay vitrifies, or turns to glass. Too cool a kiln temperature, on the other hand, results in a vessel that’s weak and leaky.
Beckham made 16 small test amphorae, fired them at different temperature values, then filled them with riesling, sealed the tops with wax and weighed them weekly to measure seepage and evaporation.
After much experimentation, he found a firing temperature that rendered the terracotta water-tight, precluding the need for sealing the inside walls of the amphora with beeswax (a practice common among amphora-using winemakers). Beckham felt that the sanitation of a beeswax lining would be more difficult to manage, and wanted to allow for some oxygen transfer.
Side-by-side barrel comparisons of Beckham’s 2013 pinot noir fermented in terracotta with pinot fermented in standard “macro” bins indicate that the terracotta brings an earthier, spicier component to the wine, with broader tannins.
The terracotta raised the pH levels of his test lots of riesling, so Beckham has learned to season the inside of each amphora with tartaric acid prior to use, ensuring that the acid levels in the wine will remain unchanged. The final piece of the puzzle will be incorporating a gasket-sealed lid and forklift-friendly steel components into his next amphora design.
For the 2013 vintage, Beckham produced three 40- and 60-gallon amphorae (approximately 150 and 230 liters). He used them to ferment pinot noir and a skin-fermented, “orange”-style pinot gris; in the future, he plans to age his wines in amphorae, as well. He’s currently loaning his first crop of amphorae to a couple of winemaker friends for experimentation purposes.
Well, two of the amphorae, anyway. “I had terrible accident with one of them other day,” Beckham admitted recently. “I was cleaning it and had it full of tartaric solution clear to the top. I was wheeling the pallet and the pallet jack hit my toe. It teetered, I lunged, I caught the rim, and…”
“It reinforces the need for reinforcement,” his wife, Annedria, said with a sigh.
“It was a good lesson to learn the first year,” Andrew Beckham concluded. His designs for future amphorae include a wire cage and a steel base, to avoid similar incidents.
Beckham plans to begin producing larger amphorae, at 90- to 100-gallon capacity, over the next year.
When he has finished a dozen or so for his own winery, he will handcraft amphorae for other local winemakers. Given that each clay pot takes two weeks to shape, four to six weeks to dry, and then 40 hours to fire, these amphorae won’t be cheap. However, at $2,000 to $2,500, they will be less expensive than those imported from Italy.
And for Oregon vintners, they’ll take the notion of “local, handcrafted wine” to a whole new level.