Clay Pot, Stick and Instinct
In the Alentejo this is sometimes the Holy Trinity of winemaking. Adam Pawlowski tells the story of the archaic Talha wines.
Talhas in the Alentejo @ Jeronimo Heitor Coelho
Who would have thought that in the era of high-tech winemaking someone could really use just a clay pot and a stick to make good wines. That sounds way too simple to be true, and in fact it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. There’s something more to it, and the “more” is instinct.
So, you need a clay pot, a stick and instinct. In the Alentejo you often don’t need anything more than that to make wine. The wines made this way are called Vinho de Talha and the clay pot, stick and instinct winemakers have been following the same recipe for more than 2,000 years. Astonishingly, they have a good economic perspective, because the demand and production of Vinhos de Talha have been steadily increasing for the last decade. The reasons for this trend are the global renaissance of tradition and simplicity, and the popularity of so-called “natural” wines. Together, they have created a completely new group of consumers for these archaic wines.
Talha is the Portuguese name for a clay amphora traditionally used to ferment and store wine, olive oil and other liquids. The size and the capacity of Talha vary, but the most common type is roughly 2 meters high and holds around two tons of grape must! Until the 20th century all Alentejo wines were made in these vessels, but gradually this method was replaced by modern winemaking that demands much more equipment. During the first years of the 21st century demand for Vinhos de Talha has been steadily growing, and in 2012 the Alentejo region therefore introduced a separate DOC for them. Now most reputable wine producers in Alentejo make some Vinhos de Talha.
The problem with this exciting development is that nobody is making the clay pots any more and most of the amphora being used were made in the 19th or even 18th century! The leading producer of Vinhos de Talha is Domingo Soares Franco, the winemaker and co-owner of José Maria da Fonseca. He says that ten to twenty years ago you could buy amphora cheaply and there were plenty available, but now it is almost impossible to obtain them.
How is Vinho de Talha actually made?
After the grapes are harvested and transported to the winery, they are crushed and put directly into amphora where the fermentation begins spontaneously, a so-called “wild ferment” without dried yeast being added from a packet (normal for modern winemaking). During the fermentation the grape skins are pushed to the surface of the pot where they form a “cap” that prevents the carbon dioxide produced by fermentation (the other primary fermentation product is alcohol) from being released. That could cause the amphora to crack or even explode! To avoid those problems the winemaker uses a wooden stick to break up the cap by pushing the skins downwards into the wine and allowing the carbon dioxide to escape. This process is repeated two to three times per day, and also helps the fermenting wine to extract more colour, aromas and tannins from the grape skins. Usually after eight to fifteen days fermentation is completed, then the skins fall to the bottom of the pot naturally filtering the young wine. Finally it is drawn off through a hole in the bottom of the pot.
The law says that Vinhos de Talha must stay in amphora until at least Saint Martin’s Day, the 11th November. Almost every local taberna makes its own wine this way, which is served from Saint Martin’s Day. Around mid-November those producers making commercial volumes transfer the young wines into clean amphora and usually pour a thick layer of olive oil on the surface of the wine to avoid oxidation, as the Ancient Greeks and Romans used to do. The wine stays there over the winter and is then either drunk or bottled. Today some producers put Vinhos de Talha into oak barrels for a few months before they bottle, but this is not a traditional practice.
What do Vinhos de Talha taste like?
Whites: - Due to the long maceration with the skins and reactions between the young wine and the grape pips (lying at the bottom of the amphora) the colour is deep gold with an orange or pinkish hue. The aromas are dominated by citrus fruits such as lemon, grapefruit, and orange along with notes of golden apple, red apple and pear. These dry whites are quite tannic and very textural, sometimes with a slight refreshing hint of bitterness in the aftertaste. Because of their high natural acidity content and their tannic texture they are great gastronomic wines that perfectly match Alentejo goats cheese, pork meat and offal such as sweetbreads.
Rosés: - These are usually made by mixing white grapes with red grapes, a style called Petroleiro. The wine has a deep, pink colour with purple highlights. The aromas are mostly of ripe red fruits. The wine is rather full-bodied and has both some tannic texture and fresh acidity. It is a perfect alliance with chourico, other local sausages and cold meats.
Reds: - Intense, purple colour with violet rim they usually have an expressive nose of ripe, red and black forest berries with some earthy and herbal notes. They are full of personality and have plenty of weight, grip and fresh acidity. I can’t think of a better match with all sorts of delicacies made from the Alentejo black pig.
Vinhos de Talha are always very individual and full of character. They’re not only interesting and unusual, but also delicious. Enormous credit goes to the Alentejo winemakers who brought this ancient wine back to life and proved that you don’t need high-tech equipment to make a good wine in the 21st century!