A Few Words about Amphora with Andrew Beckham, Beckham Estate Vineyards
Andrew Beckham has been a ceramics potter for 25 years. This was his first love before he got into winemaking. In 2004, he and his wife, Annedria moved to their home in the Chehalem Mountains and planted their first vineyard in 2005. By day, he is a high school ceramics teacher, but over the last few years, he has become an international star on the amphora winemaking stage, traveling as far as Italy and Georgia to attend conferences and advise other winemakers. His wines are even sold in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. When I set out to devote an entire newsletter to amphora, it seemed only natural to discuss this subject with Andrew. Here are some excerpts from our correspondences.
PSB: How and why did you decide to start vinifying with amphora?
AB: I started making wine in amphorae in 2013. My wife showed me an article on Foradori’s use of terracotta in her cellar and after looking at the images I decided to make one. The first vessel I made was about 40 gallons. A year later I was able to construct (a) vessel at 225 gallons. I have about 50 of them now with a commercial version to come in December.
PSB: Would you say that universally there is one of type clay or certain components or minerals that work better for amphora production?
AB: Terracotta is the most suitable type of clay, however, I am interested in experimenting with stoneware and perhaps even glazing some of the vessels in the future.
PSB: How does heating affect it and how do different temperatures alter the outcome of amphora?
AB: There is a sweet spot in the temperature range. I have my containers fired over a forty-degree spectrum. At the low end the vessels weep and are wet – the wines are more expressive. At the high end of the spectrum, the vessels are just under the point of vitrification – the wines are more reductive. I am using the aging vessels like one might use oak from different forests and with different toasts – except with clay. I blend the wines made in vessels fired at varying temperatures like some winemakers use oak. I have two different clay compositions that I use. The two clay bodies have varying zones in the “sweet spot” – one body I can fire about 150 degrees cooler than the other, providing more interaction between wine and clay and more potential for gas exchange between environments inside and outside the vessels.
PSB: Have you noticed that clay sourced from different locations has a terroir-like effect?
AB: I have noticed that regardless of the clay’s origin there is a consistent mouthfeel that wines made in terracotta have – dusty and brick-like but universally pure.
PSB: Why do you line it with beeswax?
AB: I have only lined a couple of them in beeswax. My preference is to fire to the correct temperature zone and not line them. The vessels that are lined in wax take several years to become neutral but they are far easier to keep clean and hygienic.
PSB: I’ve heard vintners talk about melting and scraping the wax after every vintage and relining them before the new harvest. This is not really a question but do you have any thoughts on this?
AB: The vessels I have lined in beeswax – only a couple – were lined at firing cool down. In order to get the wax to penetrate the wall of the vessel and not leave a visible lining the wax must be applied when the vessel is hot – like 450 degrees – so it must be done when the amphorae comes out of the kiln. Otherwise, the wax is just on the surface. Waxing the surface without heating the clay would not be very effective. I can sterilize the vessels if they have a microbial issue by putting them back in the kiln and heating to sterility.
PSB: Does the size of the vessel make that much of a difference? What are some typical/standard amphora sizes and why does it make a difference?
AB: If the vessel is too small you will not have enough thermal mass to generate enough heat for the ferment to be successful. Terracotta vessels range in size from 250 – 1000 liters, even bigger in some parts of Georgia and Armenia. I am producing a commercial terra cotta vessel at 350 and 700 liters.
PSB: How about the shape? I’ve been hearing people talk about this a lot lately.
AB: I am working with different shapes from varying geographic regions. Qvevri from Georgia and Armenia – round and bulbous with open top, tinajas from Spain – large storage jars with closed tops, and amphorae with a really pointy bottom. I ferment pressed juice in the tinajas and use them for aging red and white wines, ferment reds in the qvevris, and use the amphorae for long duration skin contact wines. The shape is paramount in the outcome of the wine. The first lot of wine I made in terracotta, Pinot Noir, was remarkably different and quite special.
PSB: Do you think some grape varieties do better in amphora than others?
AB: I have vinified Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Vermentino, Pinot Blanc, Dolcetto, Syrah, Viognier, Grenache, and Malbec in amphora. I much prefer these wines made in clay vs. wood. It seems that many varietals work well in clay.
PSB: Are you making amphora for other winemakers?
AB: Yes, this winter I am launching a commercial terra cotta vessel available at 350 and 700-liters. It has a variable capacity-floating lid. I am also working with brewers and spirit manufacturers.
PSB: How will these be priced?
AB: Terra cotta amphorae will be priced at $2500 for the 350-liter and $5000 for the 700-liter. I have a terra cotta barrel in development.
PSB: What do you see as the biggest advantages to fermenting and aging in amphora, vs. other vessels?
AB: Primary fermentation in amphorae occurs at a much cooler temperature and longer duration – peak temperatures at about 22 Celsius. The wines after primary seem to be brighter and higher toned when compared to conventional ferments. The vessels are quite porous and the wines develop at an accelerated rate in clay. The vessel has a negative charge and fines the wine like bentonite or other clay-based fining agents would. The wines aged in clay have far greater clarity than wines aged in wood or steel. The vessels are tremendous hosts for flora. The amphora is an amazing catalyst for purity. In my opinion, wines aged in clay are a more true expression of the variety than when aged in wood.
Destemmed and fermented in amphorae for 40 days. Half aged in amphora, half in acacia. Unfiltered, bottled with 25ppm total sulfites. 13.3% alcohol
Fresh yet weighty, with lush macerated fruit, floral notes, and a long, zesty finish.
Estate fruit. Jory soil at 580-foot elevation. Own-rooted, moving to biodynamic. Thirty-five percent whole cluster fermentation in amphorae. Unfined and unfiltered. 25% total SO2. 13.5% alcohol
Bright and a little spicy with high-toned red fruits and an underlying minerality. While absolutely delicious now…especially with the chanterelle risotto I made the other night…I think this wine will age well for at least another decade.
Estate fruit. Jory soil at 580-foot elevation. Own-rooted, moving to biodynamic. Thirty-five percent whole cluster fermentation in amphorae. Aged in 12-year-old oak barrels. Unfined and unfiltered. 25% total SO2. 13.5% alcohol
Darker, broodier and slightly more tannic than the Creta, with an undercurrent of licorice, this serves as an extremely interesting comparison as it was partially aged in wood. I think it is age-worthy though am not sure if it will evolve as much as Creta.
Made from LIVE certified Rogue Valley fruit. Eighty-five percent whole cluster fermented. Fermented in amphora, 50% aged in amphora, 50% aged in ten-year-old oak barrels. Unfiltered, 25-ppm sulfur added at bottling. 13.7% alcohol
Texturally this wine is a trip as it is both chewy and crunchy, with softly pointed acidity supporting a mound of brambly berry fruit. While likely to age, it is nearly irresistible now.