Five questions for…Leonardo Parisi, producer of terracotta amphorae for wine
by the blog Il Nomade di Vino Italian version
One of the themes that in recent times has fascinated us most, is that relating to wines matured and refined in terracotta amphorae. An ancient technique, probably adopted first by the people living in today’s Georgia, namely those to whom recent archaeological discoveries attribute the spread of “Vitis Vinifera” throughout continental Europe. Several thousand years later, this methodology has been rediscovered and many winemaking realities have launched themselves into this adventure; in fact, this type of container allows micro-oxygenation just like wooden barrels, but unlike the latter, it does not release aromas, allowing the wine to express the varietal characteristics of the grape.
But how is a terracotta amphora made and what are the steps needed to produce it?
We asked these and other questions to a specialist in the sector, Leonardo Parisi, founder of Artenova, a company from Impruneta (Florence), one of the most important centres in Italy for the production of terracotta artefacts. Leonardo tells us about his company, leader in the production of terracotta amphorae used for making wine and the procedures needed to create these incredible objects. It remains only to read Leonardo’s interesting account, happy reading!
- Hello Leonardo, tell us about the start of your company and how you realised that terracotta wine jars would become so “famous” and sought after on the market?
After a period of crisis in our terracotta production activity, we felt the need to reinvent and from here in 2008, the idea of wine jars was generated. At the beginning we experimented with the help of a couple of friends, Sergio Bettini, Cultural Promoter and owner of a small vineyard in Impruneta and Francesco Bartoletti, Oenologist. This began almost as a joke, but as soon as we realized from the analyses of the wine that it produced excellent results and that the wine tasted not bad at all, I, my father and my brother immediately believed in it. However, in all honesty, I didn’t think it would be such a success. In 2008 we were the first and only producers of terracotta amphorae in Italy. There were only a few Georgian amphorae in some wineries in the North-East of Italy, and some other producers in Sicily who used Spanish amphorae. Amphora wines were then very few. We started by proposing our Jars to some local wine producers and they immediately began to show interest in buying them. Realising that our idea was not so “crazy” after all, we printed a first catalogue and set up a website. Shortly after that, requests began to come in not only from all over Italy but also from France, Australia, the United States and many other countries.
- Can you describe the production phases of a terracotta wine jar?
The first step is to mix Impruneta clay with water in old mixers similar to those used for bread, until the “dough” reaches the desired density. Then we begin to work it, essentially with two techniques: the oldest, which has remained unchanged over the centuries, is what we call in Impruneta the “colombino” technique (the coil pot technique) It consists in preparing “wicks” (clay cylinders or “worms”) and moulding them one on top of the other 10/15 cm per day until the complete construction of the product. Depending on the size of the jar, it can take 3 to 5 weeks to complete the work. The other type of processing is the so-called “cast”. In this case, plaster moulds are used into which the clay is pressed. In both cases, once finished, the jar is left to dry for the time necessary for the evaporation of all the water we used initially to knead the clay, till in fact, only the clay remains. Only after this process is it possible to fire it in the kiln. To dry a jar completely in winter it can take up to three or four weeks, while in the summer, the process is obviously faster. Once fired, they must be filled with water to test their water tightness.
- We have noticed how many wineries are increasingly allocating a part of their production to wines in amphora; what response is the market giving today and what are your predictions for the future regarding the use of terracotta for wine production?
As I said before, the market for amphora wines has grown a lot in recent years, and from what I hear from wine producers, their customers really like it and, in most cases, it is sold quickly. Probably the quality of the wine chosen to be put into the amphorae and the curiosity of the final consumer is making the sale easier. For the moment it is growing and we obviously hope that it continues to grow. I am optimistic and I believe there is still scope for growth, since terracotta as an oenological container has been rediscovered only a few years ago. In a moment like this when the world is becoming aware of the damage caused to nature, I believe that the return to “the earth” and natural materials, can be an interesting road for many reasons. Amphorae and terracotta jars, as well as being a romantic product that takes us back many centuries, are a hymn to slowness and a caress to nature.
- During the event “Food & Wine in Progress” at the Leopolda exhibition space in Florence, where you were present with your stand, you illustrated the situation regarding other producers of amphorae in Italy and abroad; can you tell us and explain the geographical map of amphorae producers in Europe and in the world?
Certainly the merit must be shared with our Georgian and Spanish friends, who in the past centuries have continued to produce Amphorae for winemaking, which in our country had been abandoned since the times of Ancient Rome. In particular, in Georgia and Armenia there is a very old tradition of amphora wine, which has spanned the centuries until today. After all, wine originates from those areas where viticulture already existed in 4000 BC. In the past 4/5 years, in the wake of our success, producers of amphorae have increased dramatically. They are the logic of the market and its competition, but unfortunately I feel the duty to point out that there is a bit of confusion on the topic. There are many producers who use ceramics, stoneware or other mysterious mixtures for their production of wine jars. I believe that the real Jars or Amphorae, wherever they are made in the world, are those produced in terracotta. The rest are only copies … which, by all means, can work very well, but have little to do with the ancient tradition and the charm of the authentic terracotta vessels. Even the results are quite different, in fact terracotta “breathes” while jars made from ceramics, stoneware or similar, are closer to concrete or steel. Today, terracotta amphorae producers are springing up in America, France, China, etc. I think it’s great that a material like terracotta, which seemed destined to almost disappear has become a protagonist once more!
- Last question concerning Impruneta, the town in the province of Florence so famous for its terracotta processing; what makes its terracotta so sought after and so requested by wine producers?
Definitely greater water tightness than the other clays found around the world. The ability of jars made with Impruneta clay to contain the wine inside, maintaining the right oxygenation without using other products or having to bury the Jars, is an advantage. Another quality of the clay of Impruneta is its characteristic rose pink colour which makes it much more beautiful than most of the terracotta found on the market. Last but not least, the great competence and skill of the artisans of Impruneta, and I am not referring only to those who work here at Artenova who are very good, but to all those craftsmen who with effort and passion try to keep alive an ancient tradition. I can assure you that it is not an easy thing to do in this particular moment in history, especially in our country!!
Leonardo Parisi’s production is certainly a growing sector and one of the last professions in which manual skills are fundamental; this is one of the reasons why terracotta amphorae go so well with wine.
For our part, a big thank you to Leonardo, for his availability and his very interesting account!
See you at the next interview!