Naming of Pots – amphora, qvevri, talha?

Today we have naming of pots. Compared to the beauty of wine, the names of the various types of clay container used in winemaking can seem rather prosaic, but they are of more than just geeky interest. Marketers will want names with the right sort of resonance, while other more practical minds might want precision to enable them to distinguish particular styles and usages. And layered on top of all that are cultural sensitivities: who owns the name, and who has the right to determine how it is used?

Amphorae as they would be stacked for transport in a ship’s hull

For whatever reason, the world of wine seems to have settled on using the word amphora as the generic name for a clay jar used in winemaking, and I can understand why. It is a vaguely familiar word that sounds good to western ears. It also nods towards the civilisations of Greece and Rome, which cannot be a bad thing when trying to create a positive image. But there are issues with using amphora, the first of which is accuracy. Most amphorae were actually relativity small containers of around 40 litres. And they usually had two handles to enable them to be moved about easily, as implied by the etymology of the name. Also, they were not used for winemaking, but rather for transportation and storage. Consequently, to call large handleless static vessels used for winemaking amphorae has little justification. Another issue is that the term amphora winemaking seems to imply that it originated around the Mediterranean, despite some styles being clearly modelled on the way qvevri have been used in Georgia for millennia. This failure to recognise Georgian tradition has understandably upset some Georgians.

So, we have the possibility of describing a clay winemaking vessel as an amphora as discussed above or, in at least some cases, a qvevri. I have done to death the subject of qvevri recently on this blog, so for more details I invite you to use the link above for more information, or even better my blog’s search box. But what other names could be appropriate? Let’s start by looking at other old names for clay containers that were kicking about at roughly the same time as amphorae.

Qvevri-like clay vessels used to make COS Pithos Rosso

There is the pithos for example. According to its Wikipedia article, the word pithos can be used for pretty much any old clay container, which is encouraging. Even better, they typically were often considerably larger than amphorae, and some of them could have been buried, as qvevri are. I am not sure that pithos was ever used to describe a fermentation vessel in ancient times, but it does seem a possibility. And the Sicilian wine producer COS, has named its clay-vessel wines Pithos, so there is some sort of precedent for its use. But sadly I fear the word pithos is little known today, so it is not great from a marketing perspective even if the word is more accurate than amphora. And the Georgians would still be upset.

Other ancient words for Mediterranean clay pots are dolium and krater. The word dolium looks like it could be an interesting contender for a generic name for a winemaking jar if it were better known. It is a large static clay container used for storage. And, as with the pithos, there seems to be a possibility that it was used also for fermenting wine. Krater on the other hand is really a non-starter. It does have associations with wine, but at the drinking end of its life cycle; kraters were used for mixing wine with water before serving.

Talhas in Alentejo. Note bung sticking out of hole bottom-right.

But moving away from obsolete words, let’s take a look at the Alentejo in Portugal. In that region, as in Georgia, there has been a continuous clay winemaking traditional that goes back millennia. The name for the clay winemaking vessel there is talha, and its use can be traced back at least 2,000 years. Like qvevri, talhas are large vessels of around 2m high and can be 1,000li or more capacity but, unlike qvevri, talhas stand above ground. That has at least one advantage and a few disadvantages. The advantage is that is it possible to get most of the wine out of the talha through a hole near its bottom, while you need to scoop or pump wine to get it out of a kvevri. Disadvantage number one is that talhas occasionally explode, and if you do not regularly punch-down to break the cap on the fermenting wine, the chances of explosion are increased. I have not heard of this problem with qvevri, so presumably the pressure from the earth around the buried qvevri helps keep it intact. Also, to punch-down, which requires considerable force, you might need to balance on a step-ladder, or even do it with your feet on the rim of the talha, while in Georgia you can keep you feet firmly on the ground – terra firma rather than terracotta. Finally, to keep the temperature of the fermenting wine low enough, the outside of the talha must be regularly dampened with water. In Georgia the earth around the qvevri acts to moderate the temperature.

Beyond the talha in Alentejo, in Spain I see that sometimes winemaking involves a tinaja, which seems to be the Spanish version of the word talha, but I cannot find out much about the history of the tinaja in Spanish winemaking, and it is also sometimes used for concrete jar-shaped vessels, as well as pottery. Similarly, at least in terms of my inability to find details, Armenia uses a qvevri-like vessel called a karas. There are also by the way a number of alternative Georgian regional words for qvevri.

All things considered, my personal view is that for a generic term, rather than the word amphora, we should simply say clay jar, and the phrase in clay could be used in the same way that we might use in oak. Unfortunately though, I fear the amphora horse has bolted, and we are stuck with the term.

But where appropriate, why not be as specific and local as we can be? Let’s use qvevri to describe the Georgian vessel, and of course talha in the Alentejo. As I see it, the only issue is in figuring out which specific names to use where there is no long local tradition. In those cases I would suggest using the traditional vessel name that best describes it, even if it comes from another culture. For example, those buried vessels at COS look pretty much like qvevri to me, so let’s use that name. If you feel your audience will not understand qvevri, a simple explanatory sentence will communicate so much more than persisting with amphora.

So much for the naming of pots. You might like now to move back to considering the beauty of wine, or even of the pots themselves.

About Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast
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