Amphorae from your own vineyard? No need to go to Georgia. Just visit Valtice
Kvevri amphorae: ceramic vessels that were already used to mature wine eight thousand years ago. Many winemakers have started rediscovering them today. They're best when they're made directly from clay obtained from local soil. But not every type of clay is suitable and not everyone knows how to make them. "When we heard cracking from the furnace, we really wanted to give up on the whole thing," says the co-owner of the Valtické amfory brand, Zdeňka Benešová. But they persevered and today their amphorae are used by several wineries. A return to ancient technologies, respect for the wisdom and methods of our ancestors, building on tradition and returning to nature, all these are strong trends in today's winemaking. And winemakers are also paying attention to the methods used in the cradle of wine itself - Georgia. The method, originating in the Kakheti region in the foothills of the Caucasus, has launched a fashionable return to red wines from blue grapes and orange wines from white grapes, fermented on pomace and maturing in closed ceramic amphorae known as kvevri. The boom of orange wines logically increased the demand for vessels suitable for this wine production and storage method.
"I originally studied the restoration of ceramics in Český Krumlov, where, of course, I also learned about large ceramic vessels for wine. The next piece of the puzzle was my encounter with the Valtice sommelier Jiří Sup, who ignited my passion for the kvevri. I fell in love with its shape, size and function, and embarked on an adventurous journey to learn more about it," says academic painter Zdeňka Benešová, who's been working in ceramics for more than twenty years. One of her favourite artists, incidentally, is the Georgian naïve painter Niko Pirosmani, who died a hundred years ago. He came from a wine-growing family and his paintings often capture wine-making scenes which include the kvevri. He, too, was a source of inspiration.
Together with her partner Ondřej Žďárský, Zdeňka decided three years ago to learn more about the technology of amphorae used in winemaking and to launch a new business for their ceramic workshop.
"Of course, my first idea was that it would be nice to paint on the amphorae, but then the whole project grew bigger. We went to Georgia to learn as much as we could about their manufacturing. About the construction of the kvevri and the methods used, as well as the properties of the clay; we needed to learn the details about its water absorption capacities and the parameters of the furnace and firing temperature," she recalls.
Clay is both freedom and a challenge
They brought home from Kakheti samples of soil used in the production of amphorae and analysed its composition. It turned out, for example, that the claim that kvevri soil must always contain silver was only a myth. And they also learned that the soil in the Valtice region was very suitable for this purpose.
No wonder - under the Liechtensteins, there were many brickyards in the region. And because the order came from a freshly founded winery that could supply all the necessary material directly from the vineyards, everything clicked into place.
"We don't live in Georgia, but in Moravia; we also realised that we didn't really want to make kvevri, but amphorae from the place where the wine grows. In Georgia, we learned a technique that is about 8,000 years old, but we assume that wine was made using this or similar methods in more parts of Europe. One proof of that is Portugal. This means that winemakers always used local clay and materials for their amphorae. And that's what we want to do," says Zdeňka Benešová.
The Obelisk winery, founded by František Fabičovic on the outskirts of Valtice by the Hintertály vineyard track, ordered five amphorae. Because the families are long-term friends, they embarked together on a project that took several months.
The blazing inferno
The clay was dug from a depth of eight metres and analysed; experts from Mendel University confirmed that it was suitable for making the vessels. Now it was time to build the furnace. "Ondra started looking into the various options; he designed it to make sure it could hold amphorae with a capacity of up to 500 litres," says Zdeňka.
The construction took the entire summer and needed more than three cubic metres of sand and six cubic metres of clay. The furnace is built from earthen bricks; the clay was mixed with straw using feet.
"It's really a small clay house. But it opened up a brand new world of working with clay for us," says Ondřej Žďárský, who considers construction not just his job, but also a hobby.
On the first day, the project was a big event. Many friends came to lend a hand, but their numbers started dwindling over time; the final two months were entirely up to him and Zdeňka. Of course they tested the furnace at various temperatures in the meantime before it was time for the first real firing. "We monitored the temperature and adjusted it; we arranged for someone to take turns with us. But those who were supposed to replace us never came. It was very physically demanding. It's hard to access the furnace and the temperature inside was over a thousand degrees. We were tired and exhausted because it took more than 24 hours. We wanted to speed it up a little and increased the temperature a bit, and immediately heard noise from the furnace. It was clear the amphorae had cracked. But I honestly felt relieved that we could finally go home," is how Zdeňka Benešová remembers their first failure and crisis.
All's well that ends well
But they never lost their excitement and the joy they found in the work. The next attempt was successful and today the vessels stand in the very place that the clay came from. Zdeňka, together with her children and the owners' children, also painted the amphora room to make the whole opening a nice family event. Today, their ceramic vessels are used not only by Obelisk, but also, for example, by the Vican family winery.