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Tim James: Tasting out of barrel, terracotta pot and qvevri at Avondale

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From the origins of winemaking in Georgia to the modern wine revolution in the Western Cape is something over 8 000 kilometres – and as many years. The symbol of their unity would be the qvevri, the large earthenware vessel, shaped like a sharper-pointed egg and buried in the Georgian earth, in which indigenous grapes were (and are, on a lesser scale) fermented and matured. The revival of the qvevri in Western winemaking is only about two decades old and, along with the more common aboveground terra-cotta pots (often called amphoras), they have become a significant tool for many winemakers – notably for those seeking to avoid, for various reasons, both stainless steel and oak vessels and not convinced of the total virtues of concrete.

Corné Marais and Jonathan Grieve with the Avondale qvevri.
Corné Marais and Jonathan Grieve with the Avondale

Certainly, a clay pot or two in a cellar in the Swartland or Stellenbosch doesn’t cause a flurry of surprise any longer. They’re generally associated with a more “natural”, non-interventionist approach to making wine, as they are at Avondale, the organic (partly biodynamic) farm and winery in Paarl which I visited recently. Avondale was one of the earlier local experimenters with clay pots: “They go with our whole ethos” says Johnathan Grieve, owner of Avondale, general manager and passionate viticulturist. But, having been impressed, Johnathan asked “What more is out there?” and this last year Avondale took a remarkable further leap, way ahead of anyone else in the Cape (and pretty rare internationally), by importing 24 qvevri from Georgia.

Actually, winemaker Corné Marais went there to locate and buy them (“an awesome trip!”). Now the handmade pots, each of 700-1000 litres, are buried in farm soil within the existing underground cellar. (Not easy to clean, I ventured – but Corné claims he can actually fit inside each one of them if necessary; like Ali Baba’s 40 thieves, I suppose.) And they’re filled with wines from the 2018 vintage – each pot the locus of an exciting experiment. But subsidiary, Johnathan reminds me, to the grapes themselves. The aim at Avondale is “nurture the fruit in the vineyard and highlight it in the cellar”; clay helps to get “that clarity of fruit, that brightness”.

The Avondale terracotta pots.
The Avondale terracotta pots.

The fascinating part of my visit was a tasting of 2018 chenin blanc (from one block) fermented and matured in different vessels and/or with different degrees of contact with lees and skins. The first three examples were all wholebunch-pressed before the juice was put into, respectively, older oak barrel, terracotta pot and qvevri. Unsurprisingly the barrelled version was most “familiar”, a lovely aromatic and fairly fruity wine, with a rich, fine acidity. The amphora version was more intense on the nose, generally more earthy in character but with a honeyed note, and notably lively and bright – the acidity accentuated more than in the oaked version. The qvevri wine was initially very odd: it smelt musty and almost corked, though the palate was cleaner. But this odd character blew off quickly, and in fact the flavour had a suggestion of fresh, sweet pineapple; again the acidity was brighter than the barrel version’s and the texture was the softest and most velvety of the three.

Then came two more qvevri samples. The first from juice plus skins, pressed after four months. Still with the enhanced acidity, this was less fruity, notably stony and with the expected touch of tannin from the skin contact; a hint of attractive funkiness perhaps. The final example had been made from whole bunches put in the qvevri and the wine pressed after four months. It went in the same direction as the skins-only qvevri wine, but much further: more austerely stony, with spice and pepper rather than obvious fruitiness; a gorgeous rich tannic grip, and a strong feeling of the precision and focus that always seems to be the triumphant contribution of clay maturation to a well-made wine. Really splendid stuff.

These were all fine, valid and exciting wines (and just some examples of Corné’s experiments). I wish that there was an intention to bottle a qvevri chenin but it seems that for the time being all the different components will be judiciously used to add to the quality of Anima, the sole Avondale wine from chenin. I went on to taste three vintages of Anima. The 2009, the first under the name, is drinking beautifully at nearly ten years, with some honeyed bottle age adding to the complexity, but it is still fresh and finely balanced – a great testament to Johnathan’s vineyards and the terroir. The first vintage with an amphora component was 2013, and that has a definite hint of a pleasing stoniness; also drinking extremely well, with a long way to go.

To be launched very soon, the 2016 Anima has a 20% amphora component. Genuinely elegant, it combines gorgeous honeyed fruit with mineral freshness and a fine tannic grip. Excellent now, it’s a good buy at R270 – given general prices for top examples of Cape chenin, in which exalted category Avondale Anima undoubtedly finds its place. There are other decent wines from the estate, but for me the chenin is its most eloquent expression.

Terra est vita is the Avondale slogan: soil is life. It’s a good line, and Johnathan Grieve and his team genuinely believe it. The Italian and local terracotta pots and the Georgian ones are not fashionable accoutrements, but further means to bring the Avondale soils to fully expressive life in the wines. There’s more about the qvevri and other aspects on the Avondale website.

By the way – if you can visit the estate, I recommend you leave time to eat Dale Stevens’s food at the Faber restaurant. It partakes of the prevailing ethos: natural and excellent.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Not quite so new in the Cape. A traditional method of wine-making in the Cape is to take a basket of freshly harvested grapes, place in an old fertilizer bag (unwashed is better as you get a faster fermentation with the residual nutrients) and bury underground. Come back in a few weeks time and you have your wine. Not quite as sophisticated I grant you, but same principle?

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