Why It Matters
Long before oak barrels became the bee's knees in wine, winemakers used clay jars. The practice has been documented as far back as 6,000 years in the nation of Georgia, where liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry-dated wine residue (say that five times fast!) from quevri vessels likely reveals the birthplace of our beloved drink.
Molding earth into a storage vessel for wine has taken on many different forms since then: the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Roman Empire are just a few cultures whose wine-origin stories are etched in clay. Given this history, it would only seem natural that wine would rediscover the benefits of clay-vessel fermentation. In fact, today, we are in the midst of a major clay-vessel renaissance.
So what are the benefits of raising your wine in a clay container? Think of the vessel as an artist's medium. On the one hand is stainless steel, the graphic design equivalent for winemaking, where an oxygen-free environment yields polished results with no brush strokes. On the other end of the spectrum is oak, where permeable wood allows for oxygen exchange and the infusion of wood-grain tannins. Brushstrokes and canvas texture galore!
In the middle, is clay. It is moderately permeable, so the effect oxygen has on the wine can be sensed on a textural level. These wines can maintain the sleekness of a stainless-steel aged wine, but achieve a textural depth and roundness that is unique. However, clay does not impart flavor like oak or acacia or chestnut. Its neutrality makes it very appealing to winemakers seeking to tell the unique story of marriage in their vineyard: grape + terroir.