Austria: Ott replicates underground wine style

21 May, 2010

An Austrian bio-dynamic winemaker has produced a wine from the 2009 harvest by fermenting grapes in clay amphorae buried underground.

Bernhard Ott – based in Wagram, Lower Austria – had long held an ambition to produce wine using the ancient European method of whole-berry fermentation, taking inspiration from the traditional method still employed in the Republic of Georgia.

Ott purchased clay vessels with a capacity of 500-2500kg, which were filled with freshly harvested, destemmed grapes, then sealed and buried in the earth. After five months the amphorae were reopened to reveal the finished, clear wine inside.

“Working my vineyards according to bio-dynamic principles has become my passion,” said Ott. “The constant work with vines, with their cycles and the exchanges between natural ambience and plants awakened the wish in me to support the autonomy of the grape after the harvest as well as before.”

The Amphorenwein 2009 was made using white Grüner Veltliner grapes and, says Ott, should have great potential for keeping for some years in bottle, thanks to the robustness of the grapes used.

In keeping with his bio-dynamic principles, Ott wanted to find out what would happen if a wine was allowed to evolve naturally, rather than being “made”. The result, he says, is not a wine in which primary fruit flavours dominate, but still has “vivacity” and a “shining core”, showing “a depth and length unheard of in conventional wines”.

In the conventional winemaking process, grapes for white wine are pressed immediately after harvest and only the pure must is fermented, whereas the ancient amphora method simply requires the destemmed berries to be filled into the vessels.

The fermentation takes place individually, inside the berry skins, and a gentle maceration occurs during the entire period, extracting tannins and aromatic compounds from the skins. The special clay of the amphora allows a small amount of contact with the surrounding soil – in Ott’s case a loess layer that is several metres deep – and the wine can develop until the fermentation process is completed naturally.

Ott was particularly struck by the time period over which the whole process took place. “Easter is the moment at which the first shoots appear on the vines, and one year later, again at Easter, the process of natural vinification inside the amphoras was completed,” he said.

“Nature has its own logic. We can understand it only if we are prepared to go with it, if we take time to listen and let go of our mania of controlling everything.”

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