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The clay's the thing

Posted by Stephen Meuse  April 6, 2012 09:22 AM

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image003.jpg An email from Hamilton Russell Vineyards this week brought an item of interest. The star South African property has begun putting a small amount of its fine estate chardonnay into small, 160 liter clay amphorae.

The amphorae, seen at left, are lined with clay from the estate, which is located about 70 miles southeast of Cape Town. Vineyards lie close to South Africa's Atlantic coast.

The idea is to ferment and age fruit from the property's oldest chardonnay vineyards in clay with a view to achieving the same amount of air exchange as would be provided by barrels, but without infusing the wine with either wood tannins or the flavors and aromas that come from toasting. 

While the use of stainless steel achieves many of the same objectives, inox doesn't insinuate the minute amounts of oxygen that promote a wine's even, natural evolution.

The press release says that juice from Hamilton Russell's older vineyards ripen to much lower alcohol levels than that from more recently-planted sites, often struggling to reach 12 percent. "These vineyards produce wines that are all too easily overwhelmed by newer wood, or lack vibrant freshness in older wood," it reports.

Experiments with pots fashioned by local artisans have been going on at the property since 2005. The 2011 chardonnay is the first to incorporate a component of amphorae-conditioned wine in its assemblage. Eventually, winemaker Hannes Storm and owner Anthony Hamilton Russell would like to see around 10 percent of their estate chardonnay fermented and aged in clay rather than barrel.

Clay amphorae were ubiquitous in the ancient Mediterranean world. Greeks and Romans stored and shipped wine (and many other commodities) this way. A typical Roman trade ship might carry 10,000 or more.  The shift to barrels came as winemaking migrated into the heavily-forested lands of northern Europe, where wood, not clay, was the standard means for storing and moving goods and cooperage was well-understood.  For some fun, watch Dan Unsworth of Ingleton Pottery in Yorkshire throw a Dressel 1 style amphora here.

I'm looking forward to tasting HRV's 2010 and 2011 chardonnays side by side later this week.  As a longtime admirer of Anthony Hamilton Russell's wines, I'm not expecting to notice any dramatic difference between them, but you have to be impressed by the close attention paid here to making incremental improvements to what is already world class pinot and chardonnay and the genuine (as opposed to merely rhetorical) commitment to elegant, traditionally-proportioned, classically-structured wines.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com 

Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.

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Read more of Stephen Meuse's columns at www.bostonglobe.com

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