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February 17, 2022updated 02 Jun 2023 2:27pm

No hollow vessels

By Tim James

Tim James explores the pleasing profusion of materials and shapes in modern winemaking receptacles and vessels, from wooden barrels and glass bottles to aluminum cans and clay amphorae.

In wine’s beginning was the pot. Along with grapes, of course, and probably some happy accident, but without a container the other contributions would have been of little use. A lot could be said, I’d imagine, about the role of containers in the emergence of humanity and they have certainly been crucial—in various sizes and materials, with and without closures—to making and marketing wine over the millennia. Fittingly, it was through residual compounds in 8,000 year-old pottery fragments that archaeologists in Georgia in 2017 found the earliest evidence of wine made from grapes. It seems that some of the jars were decorated with images of bunches of grapes (the “before” bit of vinification) and of a man dancing (the “after” bit).

Pot, grapes, and luck

One legend about the discovery of wine does include pot, grapes, and luck, with a king and a concubine thrown into the equation. In Persian mythology, the world-ruling Shāh Jamshid banished a woman from his harem, whereupon she desperately sought resolution of her despair in the contents of a jar marked “poison,” containing spoiled grapes. Why spoiled grapes had been carefully stored and labeled should probably remain unquestioned by the irreverent. I wonder if perhaps the store-keeper was already in on the secret: marvelously for the history of our favorite beverage, they were not spoiled but improved, their juice transformed into wine by the miracle of fermentation. The woman brightened up on drinking the supposed poison, told the king of her pleasant discovery of alcohol, and the story ended cheerfully for both of them. And for all of us.

Exquisitely human

It’s the vessel that I most think of in that and other origin stories, especially since I have taken up pottery and discovered what feels to me like a primal pleasure in shaping clay—some sort of bowl or pot is what one’s fingers seem to immediately demand, using muscles and a creative urge that are as old as being human.

Traditional Georgian qvevri. Illustration by iStock / Getty Images Plus

The great Primo Levi once proposed this “probability”: that “man is a builder of receptacles; a species that does not build any is not human by definition.” Levi’s characterization comes not in any of his writings about the Holocaust, but in one of the (unfailingly delightful, frequently unassumingly profound) essays that he wrote over the years for a Turin newspaper, later collected in a volume called Other People’s Trades. The essay is largely about receptacles, fabricating which, he says, “is a clue to two qualities which, for good or evil, are exquisitely human.” The first quality is being generally able to consider the future. More specific, the second “is the capacity to foresee the behavior of matter: … we know how to foresee what container and content ‘will do,’ and how they will react to each other, at the instant of their contact and in time.”

Foreseeing the behavior of matter in a receptacle—as, for example, of wine in glass bottle. The most surprising and interesting lesson from the modern screwcap-versus-cork closure debate was, arguably, just how little was previously known about how exactly wine ages in uncertainly anaerobic or conditions. Glass, blissfully inert itself, started to become the near-universal choice for wine’s final journey to our gullets in the 17th century, with only the closure increasingly under scrutiny. The age of plastic had its inevitable effect, and now, as the 21st century takes us toward … whatever, the array of wine-containers proliferates in material as well as shape, to include, among others, cylindrical aluminium cans, square PET bottles, and—recent news to me—the Frugal bottle, unnervingly made of 94 percent recycled paperboard with a food-grade plastic liner.

Vessels: A wonderful transformation

There’s been less unequivocal advance in the material of fermentation and maturation vessels over the centuries. Perhaps even the perverse reverse now. Earthenware became widely replaced by wood, and later by temperature-controlable stainless steel, with concrete playing an honorable role from the 19th century—here in the Cape, many traditional estates, with Kanonkop as a fine example, still use old lagar-like concrete kuipe (or modern replacements) to ferment.

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Wooden barrels long came in many shapes and sizes and forms and with lovely and now mostly rare or defunct names in English. Among those mentioned in the 17th-century diary of Samuel Pepys are runlet, tierce (he owned two containing claret), hogshead, and butt, along with generic “smaller vessels” and “quarter casks.” While the barrique of Bordeaux is probably the best-known barrel today, many other classic regions of Europe continue to use traditional sizes and shapes—sometimes still covered with mysterious and traditional mold.

Recent years, though, have seen a wonderful transformation in modern cellars as they move away from the blandishments of new, small oak, introducing bigger wooden foudres and concrete tanks varying from smallish “eggs,” to the large and beautiful red-painted curvilinear ones that I saw at the new Taaibosch cellar in Stellenbosch. But more—few cellars in the Cape now seem not to have at least a few terra-cotta pots of varied shape and size adding grace to the fermentation and barrel rooms (not to mention the occasional buried qvevri). Visiting wineries has become a more aesthetically satisfying and interesting experience than it was when stainless-steel tanks and standard oak barrels dominated inevitably.

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