Austin Wineries Revive an Ancient Winemaking Technique
Locals winemakers go back to the earth
By Veronica Meewes, Fri., July 24, 2020
The crescent moon is the only light illuminating the rows of vines at Salt Lick Vineyards when The Austin Winery team arrives to pick grapes. But assistant winemaker Adrienne Ash is wide awake – and has been since 3am. "I was so excited about this harvest, I woke up early and just couldn't get back to sleep," says Ash, who grew up drinking wine with her family in Lake Tahoe and studied biology at Sonoma State University, where she was a part of the school's wine club. But she never considered pursuing winemaking as a career until she'd graduated from college and was working in Austin's service industry. After experiencing a growing interest in wine while she was a manager at Winflo Osteria, she began to handle wine education for the staff, studying each bottle, producer, region, year and varietal.
In 2016, Ash sought out a job in the wine industry and found herself at The Austin Winery, where she acted as bar manager before picking up one cellar shift a week. At the time, the winery was just two years old. CEO Ross McLauchlan, winemaker Cooper Anderson and COO Matt Smith founded it in 2014, becoming the first full production, grape-to-glass winery inside Austin city limits.
They made their first minimal-intervention wine in their third vintage and now such "natural" styles of wine make up a third of their portfolio. The team also prides itself on being self-taught and self-funded – and everyone in the employee-owned operation has a hand in the winemaking process.
While working in the cellar, Ash helped craft wines like their flagship Work Horse red blend and Friends With Benefits white, but she was also given the opportunity to begin experimenting with her own creations. It was then that she discovered amphorae, the earthenware vessels originally used to store and transport wine some 6,000 years ago in ancient Greece and Rome – or qvevri, as they were known in what is now the republic of Georgia, where they were traditionally filled with wine and buried in the ground.
"I did a lot of research on how to stand out in a crowd of experienced winemakers," explains Ash. "I ended up stumbling upon amphorae and qvevri wines. I grabbed a bunch of bottles from U.S. and Georgian producers and fell in love with the flavors. The soft, creamy fruit characteristics were so amazing, I decided this was how I would make wine."
Amphorae – and certainly qvevri stored underground – keep wine particularly cool during fermentation and aging, helping to preserve the uniqueness of the terroir and enabling extended skin fermentation. The flavor-neutral clay is filled with trace minerals, which vary depending on its source, and the oxygen exchange is similar to that of concrete. This porosity allows for micro-oxidation without imparting any additional flavors into the wine, like barrels do. Some winemakers opt to line their amphorae with beeswax to decrease that porosity, depending on their winemaking style, and to help expedite the vessels' tedious cleaning process.
"I want as much clay influence as possible, so no beeswax lining for me," says Ash, who is especially drawn to the mineral complexity and plush textures created by using amphorae.
For her first vintage under her own label Ash Wines, she purchased a 320-liter vessel from Italian producer ArteNova, made from clay sourced from outside Florence, and used it to ferment and age 100% Texas-grown Montepulciano for 6 months. Last year, she vinified Sangiovese rosé and Picpoul to produce a Méthode Traditionnelle wine, riddling and disgorging each of the 400 bottles by hand. This Champagne-method sparkling wine will soon be available for purchase at the winery.
So what's keeping more Texas winemakers from using amphorae? For one, the price tag. A 300-liter handmade clay vessel runs about $3,000 and increases about $1,000 for every additional 100 liters. "Moving giant clay pots will definitely make you sweat, because they are expensive and fragile," says Ash.
Since the vessel is all one piece, without any removable parts or valves, cleaning is also a challenge. Chemical cleaners will absorb and degrade the clay lining and extreme heat will crack it, so the best method is to use a pressure washer and water no hotter than 180°F.
"Oak barrel aging and stainless steel winemaking have a proven track record with consumers and produce quality wines," says Tony Offill, winemaker for William Chris Vineyards. "And winegrowing in Texas is already difficult. Heat, unexpected rainfall, early freezes, late freezes, hail – having another variable can seem daunting."
But Offill was up for the challenge, and the William Chris Vineyards team is always on board to add another tool to their proverbial toolbox. Offill also uses an amphora from ArteNova made with Tuscan clay, but his is 500 liters and he lines it with beeswax made in Texas.
"We were already making wines in large concrete fermenters and really loved the texture and the aromatics coming from those wines, so we wanted to experiment with something similar," says Offill. "We would age wines in oak and then amphora and then blend the wines back together. We are constantly trying to find ways to make more complex, layered wines with a focus on texture."
In 2016, he started crafting single vineyards, single varietal wines using the vessel, starting with a Mourvèdre from Lost Draw Vineyards, followed by a Tannat from the William Chris estate vineyards in 2017. For the 2018 vintage now available, he used their estate Tannat again but sealed the vessel with dry ice, filled it with carbon dioxide and added whole bunches of grapes. In this oxygen-free environment, a winemaking technique called carbonic maceration occurs when fermentation begins inside the grape, resulting in a wine that is lighter, lively, low in tannins and meant for drinking young.
"Our goal is to drive the industry forward, and we are more than willing to experiment and look for alternative techniques that could make better Texas wines," says Offill.
Another big challenge to using amphorae in Texas is simply accessibility to these massive earthen works of art. "The amount of experience you need to make one of these is a lifetime," emphasizes Ash. "Places like Georgia, Portugal and Italy have been making them for hundreds to thousands of years. But we have no producers in Texas and, if you do find a producer, you will most likely be put on a long list of people also looking for amphorae."
Tom Vincent and Dr. Brent Trela have been trying to promote qvevri wine and production in central Texas for close to a decade, but they keep hitting roadblocks. While working overseas in humanitarian aid in Georgia, Texas-born Vincent took an online course in winemaking and vineyard management with UC Davis and immersed himself in the country's unique style of winemaking using qvevri.
He returned to Austin to pursue a Master's at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and met Dr. Trela, who was a professor of oenology at Texas Tech at the time. The two bonded over their love of Georgian wines and decided to open a shop promoting qvevri vessels and the wines that are made in them.
"However, in introducing the idea to wineries and winemakers locally, it became clear that the cost, shipping challenges, customs and imports, and general unfamiliarity with the vessels, their use, care and maintenance and processes overall, limited adoption significantly," explains Vincent. "So we hope that by producing some qvevri locally, winemakers might be willing to give the process a try."
He and his partners have now purchased property in downtown Elgin to house an existing blacksmith business, EarthenMetals, plus several other crafts– including what he hopes will be the Southwest's largest ceramic kiln, big enough to produce several qvevri at once. But in addition to COVID throwing off their plans for building out the space, the main challenge he faces is finding a potter up for the challenge.
"We have been looking for more than a year, without success, for someone capable and interested, but the size and technical challenges seem to discourage everyone we have approached," says Vincent. "We're hoping that, by creating an artist-in-residence program, someone who wants a steady income stream, as well as the opportunity to access and manage an extraordinarily large kiln, will be attracted."
Last week, Ash received two more amphorae from Andrew Beckham, owner of Beckham Estate Vineyard in Sherwood, Ore. The winemaker is also a skilled ceramicist who combined his passion for the two arts and became the first commercial producer of terracotta amphorae in North America. When Ash visited his winery this January, she told him about her drive to create more amphora wine and he agreed to commission her two vessels.
"He was gracious enough to put me higher on his list," says Ash, who says his wines are a huge inspiration to her. "He seemed excited about having a boutique winemaker in Texas!"
Now three amphorae strong, The Austin Winery has purchased Ash's original vessel. They've produced a 2018 Trebbiano aged in amphora (which, at press time, was almost sold out), a 2019 Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre native ferment (now available) and a 2019 Viognier which was aged both in barrel and in clay, and will be released soon.
Right now, 580 pounds of freshly harvested Albariño grapes fill the Italian clay vessel where Ash agitates the skins, eagerly awaiting fermentation. She admits she's always wanted to try her hand at learning how to make her own amphora but has been intimidated thus far. But now that she's so invested in this unique winemaking style, she's thinking more about getting some hands-on experience with large-scale ceramics.
"I'll have a lot to learn, but I'm willing to do it!" she says.
Judging from the wines she's already putting out, we have no doubt about that.