Then the Lord shaped the man with dust from the earth. He infused the breath of life, and the man became a living beingGenesis 2:7: 7

The wine has been tied to clay throughout the millennia. This plastic sediment, easily malleable and within reach of almost all peoples, has successfully allied itself with the elixir of gods. Today this contract still stands, producing wines that seek their originality looking back in time. Wines that try to find their maximum Mediterranean expression through the conjunction of clay and grapes. But what do we know about the history of this relationship?

The first containers we know used to be made of mud, where it has been shown that wine was first produced, date back to the Neolithic; That moment where humans started to domesticate animals and plants and to settle in a more or less stable way in villages, towns and villages. Chance — or not — has made them found in Georgia, not far from Mount Ararat, where according to the Bible, Noah, after the flood planted the first vineyard.

On the sites of Shulaveris Gora and Gadachrili Gora, located south of the Caucasus, in present-day Georgia, a team from the University of Pennsylvania has found traces of which until today are the oldest vinifications in the world, in clay jars of 8000 years ago . These pliers, one metre high and with a capacity of about 300 litres, would have been used in the process of fermentation of the cultivated grapes around the settlements. Wine, used as medicine, as a substance to alter the mind or simply as a food, will expand throughout the Near East to religious cults, Pharmacopoeias, cooking and commerce.

The technological knowledge of transforming clay into ceramics was developed at different times and parts of the world: in Japan 12,000 years ago, in Africa about 10,000 years ago and in the Near East about 8,500 years ago. The knowledge of the ceramic techniques would have allowed these containers, relatively strong, waterproof, easy to move, to empty and store, have been, since the beginning of viniculture, one of the most used to ferment the must.

The mud and the grapes have been united in an indisputable way since the time of the night. The liquid state requires a continent for its fermentation, stabilisation, ageing, storage and transport. And yet because of their consumption, a whole series of containers for their service will be needed: jars, glasses and cups – that the Ancients baptized with such evocator names as Oinochoe, Skyphos or Killyx –. Through history, Potters will contribute their hands to the inevitable clay-wine binomial.

The pliers in the Neolithic sites of Georgia were developed according to the productive needs of each moment. And throughout the millennia we will find these kinds of large juggles for fermentation: From the πίθοι (Pithoi) Greek to the doli of the Romans, passing through a wide range of large containers with all kinds of external decorations. Pitchers that obviously may also contain oil, salted or water and that the potters will manufacture in large quantities.

Reconstruction of the Museum of Archaeology of Girona of the cella Vinaria of the Roman villa of the Pla de L'horta, Sarrià de Ter. (Photo: History Glops)

In Byzantium, throughout the Middle Ages and until in recent times will be used for fermentation and ageing. In Georgia itself it is currently still making wine in a famous jures called Qvevri of millenarian tradition. And without going far we find pliers for wine in Valdepeñas and Extremadura, where the so-called wine of Pitarra is produced, or in neighbouring Portugal with the famous vinho of Talha in Alentejo.

A very common habit in antiquity, widely documented in Roman towns and villages that are still practiced in some wineries in the Valencian Country, is to bury them in order to cool the must in a boil or avoid the sudden changes in temperature During the ageing process. Ancient tradition when the air conditioners or the cooling shirts in stainless steel isothermal deposits were not in existence.

The ancient peasants used a knowledge based on observation to elaborate their wines. The ovoid shape of the VATS facilitates a temperature control of the fermentation in a natural way (between 10 º C and 12 º C) as well as a microxygenation of the wine during ageing. The egg shape produces the vortex effect, which allows the movement of the fine lees in suspension, providing volume and smoothness to the wines. Today, this same form has been used for cement containers-the cement egg-which you can see in the most modern wineries from all over, often next to pottery jars where the ageing of the wines is made.

Cement egg in the modern winery Terra Remota de Sant Climent Sescebes, Alt Empordà. (Photo: History Glops)

The large Roman jars, the dolies, were also used in the construction of tanker ships. Destined to the transport of large quantities of wine in their journeys back and forth by the Mediterranean between centuries and a. C and II D. C, are the container of antiquity. But perhaps the most famous container for the transport of wine has been, since ancient times, the amphora.

Homer in the Odyssey describes very well the function of each of the containers, when Telemachus, everything in the palace of his father Odysseus where "there were the pliers of sweet old aged wine to drink, supported orderly against the wall", he sends to the Rebstera Euriclea : "Fill twelve amphoras and close them with his lid", in order to undertake the journey in search of his father (Odyssey II, 336-337).

While the jars were used for the fermentation and ageing of the wine, the amphoras were the transport vessel for excellence. Since its appearance on the coasts of the Mediterranean coast during the Bronze age its use was intense in the trade of wine and other products between Anatolia, Siria-Palestine, Egypt and the Aegean Sea.

Its elongated and finished shape will make it optimum for distribution in the cellars of the ships and to nail them on the sand of the beach at the time of landing. At a time when ports were scarce and trade was done both by sea and upstream, the morphological characteristics of amphoras were the key to their commercial success. With a capacity of about 25 litres and two large handles to catch them and tie them together, it will be the most widespread and used containers until the fall of the Roman Empire, when the commercial network started by Phoenicians, Etruscans and Greeks will collapse and be in Slowly abandone[1]d.

Already in Roman times the Catalan coast was full of bovids (Figlinae) that made hundreds and hundreds of amphoras destined to the transport of the wine. From Llafranc, through the Maresme and to Calafell, the production of amphoras will be indispensable to transport the wine Hispania Citerior that flood the Roman wine market in the B.C. Pliny the Elder already mentions the quality of the Tarraconensis wines and the abundance of the wine from the Laietània in its Natural history. These amphorae full of wine travel along the Mediterranean coastline and arrive to Cádiz, Algiers or Sicily, in Gaul by the Garonne and Germania by the Rhone and up to places as far away as the Britannia.

Reconstruction of a shipment of amphoras on a Roman ship of the exhibition a Sea of vineyards all Museum of Archaeology of Empúries. (Photo: History Glops)

Such will be the importance of its production in our country, that centuries and archaeological research have allowed us to know some of the great producers of amphorae of the Catalan coast, and probably also the wines they contain. It was a fairly widespread habit to engrave its names in the neck or amphorae handles, when the clay was still cool, before cooking, the titled Picti. The names of L · FVL · LIC or L · FV THE, Q · MEVI (or MEVI) and L · VOLTEIL will be documented between the years 40-30 B.C. In the coastal area of Hispania Citerior, and they refer us to possible Juli Caesar's veterans installed in Narbonne or Empúries. These, probably from italic families related to the production of wine, would have acquired low-cost land along the Catalan coast thanks to the war and post-conflict situation of the civil warfare between Cesar and Pompeu. You see, the figure of the investor who takes advantage of the embankment of war to do business with the wine and comes from afar.

Clay, a continent of eminently Mediterranean tradition, will be the companion of the Wines of Mare Nostrum: Touched by the Sun, high concentrations of sugar and high graduations. They are macerated with their skins, sometimes oxideted. Wines that do not camp smells of tropical fruits, but herbs of the Garrigar: rosemary, thyme, lavender. Herbs that today in some wines are difficult to find under vanilla and toast as a result of the excessive use of ageing in new barrels of French, American or Hungarian oak[2]. Come from wherever they come, the more women, if the result is an excessive makeup after which we are losing identity.

Today many wines ferment and breed in large clay jars. They say amphora wines, and even if they were to name them it would not be correct, it is a sign of Mediterranean claim. Wines of amphora that send us to this ancestral origin where in most of our sea vineyards were cultivated by the marinade; The must was fermented in large semi-buried dolies and the wine was travelled and aged in amphoras.

Many producers have made this peak of Bruja Avería: "Hay que desaprender cómo se deshacen las cosas". And every unlearning has opted to use the clay again, giving us memorable wines that are worth tasting them. Rediscovering these wines evokes a sense of Mediterranean tradition, identity and typicity. A fantastic epithet for Catalan wine.

Long and prospers life in Amphora Wines: a 8000 year old fashion.

[1]It will not be until the TWELFTH century BC, when Genoese, Venetians and Aragonese get intensively to recover these commercial routes where wine, now being transported mainly in barrels and skins, will once again be a commercial product that fills the tables of Monks and traders.

[2]The Romans, despite discovering the wood as a tool for the elaboration of the wine (trampled, racking, etc…) will not be introduced in a massive way until they come into contact with the Welsh people after Caesar's conquests. According to Strabo, these already used massive wood toners in the preparation and consumption of beer. It is from the 2ND century CE, and to a great extent only for the transport of wine, its use will begin to spread throughout the empire until it finally moved almost completely into the amphora from the 6TH century onwards.


Cover Photograph: Reconstruction of an Iberian storage space at the Font de la Canya site at the Museu DO Vinífera, Avinyonet del Penedès.


Article published on 24 July 2019 in Conca 5.1


Cofundadora i Directora a Glops d'Història | | + posts

La Romina és llicenciada en història i titulada en sommelier per la Universitat de Girona i té el Grau en Arqueologia per la Universitat la Sapienza de Roma. Després d'anys dedicada a l'arqueologia en diferents jaciments de Catalunya, Itàlia i nord Àfrica, decideix penjar les botes i ajuntar dues de les seves passions: la història i el món del vi.
Des del 2017 dirigeix el projecte Glops d'història dedicada a la recerca i la divulgació de la història del vi Català.
Col·labora amb la Guia de Vins de Catalunya, ha publicat diversos articles sobre la història del vi català. Dona classes d'història del vi i participa com a conferenciant en tastos arreu del territori català.