Humanity’s love affair with wine extends way back - over 8000 years ago - when people most likely stored their wine underground, in large, round clay vessels called kvevri or qvevri, a method that still persists today in wine's motherland, Georgia. But how about sipping wine out of clay or terracotta cups?
The modern-day wine glass as we know it probably emerged around 1400 in the city of Venice, before which clay or terracotta jugs and mugs would have been widely used. The tradition is still practiced in parts of France, Italy and Eastern Europe, and it's a novelty which seems to be gaining traction in more contemporary bars and restaurants Down Under.
In Australia's New South Wales, Kelly and Paolo Picarazzi are serving wine out of hand-made ceramic cups at their restaurant Carcoa, thanks to the revival of a tradition in Italy's Ciociaria region where Paolo originally hails from. "[The practice is] very old, many people believe the wine tastes better because the terracotta comes from the ground and they believe this makes the wine taste better," Paolo told ABC News in a recent interview. After an initial shock, customers have been remarkably receptive to the new terracotta cups, Kelly reports: "At first, they were like: 'Where are the wine glasses?' But once we explain it and tell the story behind it ... they love it."
Ceramic cups in bars and restaurants
In Australia, reports suggest that more bars and restaurants are partnering with ceramicists to craft handmade ceramic cups to offer customers a different, sustainable and altogether more tactile wine and cocktail experience.
Drinking wine out of clay cups adds an additional tactile and sensorial quality to wine drinking that can't be emulated by glasses, argue fans. "The sensual pleasure of this drinking experience isn’t attributable to the wine. Rather, it’s coming from the vessel: the heaviness of the cup in your hand; the soothing, rounded smoothness of the glazed surface on your lips; the feeling of your fingers wrapped around something solid and elemental," reports a once ceramic-sceptic in Punch.
Australia-based ceramist Rebecca Dowling, who makes wine cups for retail at a liquor and wine merchants, told Australia's Good Food; "People are naturally gravitating towards ceramics and wanting to use something handmade... There's a huge movement towards it. Clay touches the deepest part of the soul. It's such an intimate object because it's made by someone's hand and you're taking it to your mouth to drink. You don't do that with plates or bowls. A cup or beaker makes its way into your intimate space. It gives me goosebumps."
Matt Whiley, a bar owner in Sydney who now serves cocktails out of ceramics, plays on the unique sensorial aspects of clay cups, like colour and temperature, to surprise his guests: "You can change a person's perception of what something tastes like based on the colour of the ceramics," he told Good Food. "You can also change the depth of the drinking experience and the temperature as well. If you put ice in a ceramic in a freezer it stays cold for a long time."
Truth in terracotta
So whether it's the revival of an old tradition, a fashion-driven trend, a sustainable option, or the comfort that comes from holding a tactile cup, is terracotta bad for your drink, or simply different?
When it comes to drinking wine, Xtra Wine Blog says: "We believe the answer is no. You’re unlikely to experience any major taste differences caused by the material itself. However, you may have to look a little harder to find suitable terracotta glass shapes, depending on the wine that you want to drink."
"Rustic wines work particularly well in a ceramic cup. If you're drinking wines from Georgia or Eastern Europe, that's what you'd be drinking them out of," says Ravensworth winemaker Bryan Martin in Good Food: "You definitely wouldn't be drinking them out of a Zalto [crystal] Bordeaux glass." Martin has even commissioned a range of clay cups made with clay from his Murrumbateman vineyard, giving 'terroir' a whole new meaning. "The result means you can actually drink the wine out of the soil it was grown in," he says.
And while some wine purists will swear by their carefully polished crystal glasses on a fine stem, there's no denying the gravitas that a terracotta cup of wine holds. "For thousands of years, it has been a ceremonial beverage, and it brings an element of ceremony into our everyday lives. Somehow that fact is easier to ascertain when sipping wine from a hand-thrown clay cup, as if stealing a second from a Roman feast," says Katherine Cole in her article, Drinking Wine Like the Romans Do.
Mercell Kustos, Restaurant Botanic's beverage director in Adelaide, echoes this sentiment in Good Food: "If done right, alternative glassware can help to evoke emotion and convey the unique story of the wine." And surely, any cup that can do that is worth holding on to.