The History of Amphorae in Winemaking

An amphora is an ancient vessel made of clay, with a specially designed shape suitable for storing and transporting liquid and grains. The shapes differ depending on the region, but the most popular was the Greek or Roman style. This unique shape featured a tapered bottom and two handles, allowing them to be stacked closely and then tied together with a rope. The vessel also featured a long neck, making it easier to pour liquids.

Did you know? Even today, some wine regions in Portugal use amphorae as winemaking techniques. These wines are known as Talha wine.

Stoppers were made of mainly degradable materials with a limited life meant just for transportation and storage. There were two main types of amphoras. The first is called the neck amphorae, where the body and neck meet at a sharp angle. The second is called the one-piece amphora, where the body and neck form a continuous curve. Traditionally, the size varies from more minor to larger. The vessel was primarily made of clay, but amphoras have been discovered that were made of metal or wood.  

Storing and Transporting Liquids

The vessels have a long history of storing and transporting liquids and grains across land and sea. Examples from as far back as 6800 BCE have been discovered. In Mesopotamia, scientists recovered two jars with wine residue dating back to 5400 BCE. Other excavated amphoras have been found in Armenia and were dated to 4100 BCE. During the iron and bronze ages, people used this vessel to transport many goods, such as grapes and wine. Proving that during these times, wines were produced and consumed on an industrial scale.

Inspired by the Chinese-ceramic culture, countries in Asia started making clay amphoras for domestic and wine-related usage. Archaeological sites in ancient Egypt show hieroglyphics depicting grape wines and texts alluding to winemaking in clay amphorae. They would plant their vines in the Nile delta. After harvest, ancient Egyptians would store the grapes and ferment them in large clay vessels. Many of the amphora found in Egypt contained red wine residue[1]. Wine in labeled clay jars was also discovered in ancient vaults from 3000 BCE.

Amphora shards have been found in the modern day countries of Georgia, France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy.

The Comeback of Amphorae

In ancient times wines were produced in amphoras, giving them a distinct taste and mouthfeel. In more modern times oak barrels and later, steel tanks replaced them. However, in recent years, amphorae have come back to wineries worldwide. Winemakers like the fact that wine in an amphora is exposed to a small amount of air. Oak barrels are similar in this regard, but oak gives more aromas and tastes to the wine compared to clay.

There are more and more producers making amphoras in various sizes and shapes to meet the growing demand for wineries. We can expect to see even more wineries using this clay vessel in the future.

The art of winemaking is a blend of tradition and innovation, and nowhere is this more evident than in the recent resurgence of producing wines in amphorae. 

The amphora’s unique properties make it an ideal vessel for winemaking. Its porous nature allows for a small amount of oxygenation, similar to what occurs in oak barrels, which can enhance the complexity and depth of the wine. However, unlike oak, amphorae do not impart any additional flavors to the wine, allowing the true character of the grapes to shine through. This can result in wines that are pure, expressive, and deeply connected to their terroir.

Winemakers who choose to use amphorae often do so out of a desire to connect with the ancient traditions of winemaking and to explore different methods of vinification. The process of making wine in amphorae is often more labor-intensive and requires a high level of skill and attention. The grapes are typically fermented with their skins, and the wine is often left in the amphorae for an extended period of maturation.

The result of this ancient method can be wines that are distinctive and highly sought after. Wines produced in amphorae often have a unique texture and a rich, complex flavor profile. They can offer a different expression of familiar grape varieties and provide a new experience for wine lovers.

In recent years, winemakers in regions as diverse as Georgia, Italy, and California have embraced the use of amphorae, and wines produced using this method are gaining recognition and acclaim. This trend speaks to the dynamic and evolving nature of the wine industry, where ancient practices can be revived and reimagined in the pursuit of quality and diversity. As we look to the future, the use of amphorae in winemaking is likely to continue, offering both winemakers and wine lovers new opportunities for exploration and enjoyment.

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On this day

9000 BCE – People use clay vessels in everyday life to store water and food.

6000 BCE – Winemaking started in Georgia. They would store grapes in clay pots and then bury them in the ground[2]. After some time, they would drink the wine.

1800 BCE – Clay pots were being used in China to store water and grains.

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[1] “All about amphora wine – Aveine – Blog.” 2021. AVEINE.

[2] Seidanova, Laura. 2021. “Amphora wines around the world |”

Categories: Ancient Wine History, This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , By Published On: May 29, 2022Last Updated: June 17, 2023

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