Behind Portugal’s Traditional Amphorae Wines | Wine Enthusiast
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Behind Portugal’s Traditional Amphorae Wines

Through high-placed windows, dusty rays of sunlight fall on row upon row of enormous clay pots crafted more than a century ago, some up to 135 years old. The place looks like an archaeological museum. And yet, all 114 pots still hold wine.

In this partly subterranean room in the town of Reguengos de Monsaraz in Portugal’s Alentejo region, a winery tradition is being revived. It is called vinho de talha, and it’s a process that goes back more than 2,000 years.

Named for the talha, or clay vessels, in which the wine ferments and ages, these wines were once widespread in Alentejo. The 1950s co-op of the industry killed the practice among producers, who turned to bulk wine.

Image of the front of a white building with arched windows, vines in front
The José de Sousa Winery / Photo by Jerónimo Heitor Coelho

Yet, vinho de talha never went away. Families and restaurateurs continued to make talha wines, that are tapped traditionally on St. Martin’s Day, November 11. Thirty or so years ago, the Soares Franco family purchased what had been the last of the old vinho de talha wineries fulfilling a dream of Domingoes Soares Franco, a sixth-generation co-owner of the José Maria da Fonseca wine company. Called the José de Sousa Rosado Fernandes Cellar, Soares Franco brought the winery back to life.

“I’ve been making wine in clay pots since 1986,” says Soares Franco. “It’s low-tech, and I’m still learning because you have to be careful not to make vinegar out of it. Two professors visited from University of California, Davis, where I studied, and asked, ‘How are you going to learn how to make this wine?’ There are no written documents, nothing. I told them, ‘Experience. It’s just experience.’ ”

Beneath the brick arches of the winery, Soares Franco poured his 2015 Puro Talha Tinto, a red packed with fruit notes. A touch funky, yet balanced and low in alcohol, it had been vinified, as many talha wines are, from a blend of old-vine, traditional grapes: Trincadeira, Aragonez, Grand Noir and Moreto.

“I’m using those varieties because they were the ones in the vineyards back in the 1950s,” says Soares Franco. “I want to keep the tradition. I will never make Syrah in clay pots. Forget it.”

Grape bunches are first destemmed as they’re rubbed on slotted, wooden frames. Almost a third of those stems go into the talha along with the grapes and skins. The wine ferments for approximately eight days, during which the talha are sprayed with water to keep them cool, and the cap of grape skins are punched down with a wooden plunger several times a day.

The wine is then left to macerate for five to six weeks, where it gains color, flavors and aromas until the skins sink. Finally, it’s tapped through a hole near the talha’s bottom, where the stems and skins act as a filter.

“The first 40 liters are cloudy, and after that, it’s crystal clear,” says Soares Franco.

A worker climbs into the pot to clean out the must. Half of the wine is placed in neutral chestnut casks, and the other half goes back into the talha, where it is topped with olive oil to protect it from oxygen. The wine then ages a little over a year before it’s blended and bottled. Part of the wine’s charm, says Soares Franco, is that each handmade pot is slightly different. They impart particular personalities to the wines that contribute to the final blend.

The process, minus barreling, is similar for his Puro Talha Blanco. It’s a golden blend with bright, fruity and nutty aromas, “and something…strange that I don’t know how to describe, so I just call it ‘the fourth dimension,’ ” says Soares Franco. Each vintage is unique, he says, but the process, “is just how the Romans did it 2,000 years ago.”

Huge clay wine containers in Alentejo region, Portugal.

The Phoenician Connection

The method might even be older than that. In antiquity, Alentejo was part of a Roman province called Lusitania. Portuguese experts base their understanding of talha wine’s origins on an 1876 text by agronomist João Ignacio Ferreira Lapa that calls the method the “Roman system.”

But Dr. Patrick McGovern, science director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, recognizes earlier traits.

“Using large pottery jars to make wine was the standard ancient Near Eastern technology,” says McGovern. The same goes for above-ground fermentation, the wooden supports to hold the talha, the hole drilled near its base, and an in-ground pot for catching excess liquid, called a ladrao or “thief,” in Portugal.

McGovern’s conclusion? Vinho de talha might have reached Alentejo via the Phoenicians, which would make it nearly 1,000 years older than Soares Franco and others believed.

“It’s a niche, and it’s always going to be, but this trend reflects what the consumer is looking for in a wine: authenticity, sense of place, terroir.”—Pedro Ribeiro, general manager, Herdade do Rocim

No matter its age, the talha method has caught on with a new wave of Portuguese winemakers. Each produces the style with slight differences. Unlike Soares Franco, who adds yeast, Pedro Ribeiro of Herdade do Rocim allows his vinho de talha to ferment naturally with wild yeasts. He likes the texture and structure that result from the continuous movement of the lees in the rounded talhas. Ribeiro also covets the minerality that the clay imparts, and the freshness engendered by micro-oxygenation through the clay’s pores.

Ribeiro doesn’t line the interiors of his talhas, lending his Herdade do Rocim Amphora Tinto an earthy texture that the clay imparts. But others, like winemaker Alexandre Relvas Jr. of Casa Agrícola Alexandre Relvas, paint the insides with pez louro, a traditional mix of pine resin, beeswax and herbs. The substance helps prevent seepage and imparts complexity to the wine’s aroma.

Man on top of a clay vessel holding a large plastic hose in the top opening
Part of the talha process / Photo courtesy of Esporão

The rules of the Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) for vinho de talha require wines must stay in the talhas on their skins until St. Martin’s Day. But Antonio Maçanita of FitaPreta Vinhos eschews maceration altogether. He presses the grapes and adds only the juice to his talhas because the typical aromas of skin contact “overpower the sense of place” that he says he seeks.

Maçanita says that the filtered and fined FitaPreta Branco de Talha “transmits the grapes, the soils, the weather and the talha that are intrinsic to Alentejo.” He says it ages better than other whites he produces. A bottle from the 2010 vintage had mineral and humidor charisma with a richness that was almost like Sherry.

Given the method’s potential to yield interesting wines, even large wineries on the Iberian peninsula have taken to it. At Esporão, winemaker Sandra Alves uses natural means to ferment and age her single-varietal Vinho de Talha Moreto.

Made from pre-phylloxera vines, the wine and her white-based Vinho de Talha Roupeiro are “vehicles for the recovery and dynamization of our wine traditions,” she says. “They promote respect for the knowledge of our ancestors.”

Woman in a white turtleneck with a blue scarf smiling at the camera
Winemaker Sandra Alves / Photo courtesy of Esporão

Production of talha wines has grown from roughly 850 gallons in 2011, when the DOC was established, to more than 20,000 gallons in 2017. Still, that’s less than .002% of Alentejan wine.

“It’s a niche, and it’s always going to be, but this trend reflects what the consumer is looking for in a wine: authenticity, sense of place, terroir,” says Ribeiro. Talha bottles can be found at U.S. retailers and in Portuguese restaurants like San Jose’s Michelin-starred restaurant Adega. And travelers can seek them out in Alentejo, where November 11 brings festivals to disgorge macerated pots.

The biggest barriers to increasing production are the talhas themselves. As McGovern writes in his book Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton University Press, 2003), huge clay vessels are typically made and used locally, rather than shipped like smaller amphorae.

There’s good reason for this: The largest talhas measure about seven feet tall and can hold more than 525 gallons. They’re also fragile. Of the 120 pots Soares Franco once had, six exploded from pressure during fermentation.

“We should have punched down before going home at night. The caps were like corks, and the talhas just went boom,” says Franco. “Now we punch down four or five times a day.”

Man, hands on hips, standing in front of a clay vessel
Antonio Rocha of Talheiro Artesanal / Photo by Tiago Caravana

Today, though large pots for fermenting wine are made in Italy, the Republic of Georgia, and even Oregon, the art has been lost in Portugal. “You go sleuthing [for talhas] down in the local villages, literally knocking on people’s doors, because they are a vestige of the past,” says Evan Goldstein, a Master Sommelier and president of Full Circle Wine Solutions, which represents Alentejo in the U.S.

The scarcity of talhas is part of the adventure of making the wine. New vessels might soon be available, however. A craftsman, Antonio Rocha, has started a company, Talheiro Artesanal, to address demand. In process marked by painstaking detail, Rocha spins clay dug from fields on a custom-made wheel to add just 2 inches to the pot’s wall each day.

He’s made just 20 thus far, all sold for decor. But as Rocha perfects his technique, they may be found in winemakers’ cellars one day.

“I fell in love with talhas, and I think I’ll never stop making them,” says Rocha.

That’s a common theme among winemakers who have embraced the talha process.

“I love to make and to drink them,” says Relvas. “They are imperfect and unpredictable in a world where, more and more, we humans want to control everything.”