The Ancestral Tradition of Talha Wines in the Alentejo

Despite being an ancient process, finding clay pots intended for fermenting the must and storing the wine is still a standard procedure in some Alentejo wineries. This traditional system dates back to the Roman period, as evidenced by traces dating back to that time.

The history of Alentejo wine

The culture of grape cultivation and wine production in this region is ancient. Even if we cannot attest to who introduced the culture of these practices, history tells us that when the Romans arrived in the lands of the Center South of Portugal, territories that are located today n the Alentejo region, wine culture was already part of the habits and traditions of the local population. History says that the Tartessians introduced the culture of wine. Soon after, the Phoenicians maintained the cultivation of grapes and began to trade wines and use them as a bargaining chip.

A few years later, the Greeks arrived in this region and implemented new winemaking techniques, including using amphoras in wine production.

Found in an archaeological site in Alcácer do Sal, an amphora that the Greeks used to dilute their wines before consumption.

Even with all the technology and new equipment of the modern world, some wineries in the Alentejo region still maintain the tradition of ancient and traditional techniques using amphorae in producing their wines.

Alentejo region and its terroir

With landscapes marked by small reliefs, a hot and dry climate, and different soil types such as shale, clay, marble, granite, and limestone, the Alentejo is a surprising wine region located in the center south of Portugal.

Alentejo's Wine Routes: A Journey Through Vineyard Bliss.

Alentejo’s Wine Routes: A Journey Through Vineyard Bliss.

About a third of the country’s area, Alentejo is divided into eight sub-regions, Borba, Évora which UNESCO recognizes as a World Heritage Site; Granja-Amareleja, Moura, Portalegre, Redondo, Reguengos and Vidigueira, which produce different types of grapes.

The Alicante Bouschet, Aragonez, Castelão, Trincadeira, Alfrocheiro, Antão Vaz, Arinto, Fernão Pires, and Roupeiro grapes are some of the highlights of this region, which also grows international varieties such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

In addition to the Controlled Denomination of Origin (DOC) certification, which has specific delimited areas, authorized grapes, and some rules involving the entire winemaking process, the region has the Vinho Regional Alentejano. This term, found on several labels, includes wines produced with grapes from vineyards located outside the limits of the Denominations, providing more autonomy in the choice of varieties and expressing the personality and style of wines from the region.

The region also has a Regional Alentejo Wine Commission (CVRA), created in 1989 to protect, control and certify the wines that make up the DOC Alentejo and Vinho Regional Alentejano. The work of this organization can be verified utilizing an official seal or mark on the back label of the wines.

What is talha wine?

The talha wine is nothing more than a wine made in clay amphora. It’s believed that the name “talha” is a derivation of the Latin “tinalia,” which means “vase of great dimensions.”

Traditionally, to produce talha wine, the grapes are crushed using the standard treading system before being placed in the container. An ancestral tradition, there is a tendency not to intervene in wine; therefore, fermentation begins naturally through indigenous yeasts.

As soon as fermentation begins, the grape’s skin and other solid remains. Its bunch rise due to carbon dioxide in the butcher’s mouth. This layer is usually dipped at least twice a day towards the end of fermentation when it even descends to the bottom of the container.

The process is finished then, and a cloth or a wooden board is placed to cover the hoist. In the old days, the wine was “isolated” with a layer of olive oil of about 3 cm, something tight that is done nowadays.

This solid part assists in filtering the wine that traditionally goes from the hoist directly to the glass through a faucet attached to the end of the hoist.

What wines can be made in an amphora?

Wines that can be white or red elaborated radically differently from the standards of modern enology, maintaining the styles of the past without the fruit and clarity of aromas that most current whites enjoy today. But also without the degree of artificiality and lack of character that characterizes many of today’s wines. White wines that do not go through the obligatory fermentation at low temperatures are subject to an oxidative environment instead of the reducing environment favored at present, subjected to prolonged macerations with the skins, free of alterations and other constraints to which modern white wines are subjects.

They are often described as oxidized wines, although the statement is rarely accurate. They are always presented in solid tones in the case of white wines and plenty of colors in the case of red wines. Shades that, for many consumers, cause automatic rejection. They are niche wines, but their following continues to grow exponentially. They are, in many cases, sold at high prices, with some having been promoted to the status of international cult wines.

Amphoras and their different sizes

The amphoras can have all sizes and shapes, even holding more than 2,000 liters of must in the most significant pots, so large that they weigh more than 1 ton and are more than 2 meters high.

Amphora was built by hand by expert craftsmen, using ancestral techniques and secrets, which pass from generation to generation.

As the clay is porous, then, naturally, the amphoras have to be waterproofed so as not to leak the liquid. Most naturally and organically possible, the amphoras are still waterproofed today with pitch. This formula mixes pine resin, beeswax, honey, and other secret ingredients, according to conventional processes and procedures by successive generations.

The secrets are transmitted from generation to generation. Because each family has different tastes, each clay pot has its particularities. For this reason, each house resorted to other services for the elaboration of the amphora for their winery, varying the waterproofing treatments and the taste transmitted by each amphora, diversifying them in the same way that a contemporary wine cellar chooses barrels of different types of oak or the cooperages that work so that wines can gain subtlety and complexity.

The tradition of opening the amphoras

On the 11th of November, Saint Martin’s Day, the opening of the amphoras takes place, the most remarkable moment in the millenary relationship between the Alentejo and this tradition.

Alentejo's Amphoras, Crafting Wine the Ancient Way

Alentejo’s Amphoras, Crafting Wine the Ancient Way

The residents of this Portuguese region, with a rural soul and strong winemaking tradition, open the jars to taste the wines that have matured there for a year. This is an age-old tradition inherited from the Romans, which has been strongly reborn since 2010 when wines made using this method became DOC products.

José de Souza, Winery with greater prominence in producing talha wines

Few wineries have stood out in producing this wine style since most talha wines continue to be made for home consumption. Among the few Alentejo wineries that can be proud of a rich past, we can mention José de Sousa, a winery with more than a century of activity, one of the most brilliant examples of the strong Alentejo winemaking tradition, producing wines since 1878. José de Sousa is a classic wine cellar in talhas, with more than 114 amphorae on its property.

The winery was created by José de Sousa Rosado Fernandes, and acquired by José Maria da Fonseca, in 1986, due to family problems. It has the most extensive cellar of clay pots, many with more than two centuries of existence and use, creating one of the most beautiful scenarios in the world.

A small part of the old vineyard remains in the same place as always, 10 hectares planted in 1958, an ancient vineyard of hybrid grapes that survived some years of abandonment and neglect, implanted in a granite island surrounded by shale, in which are planted like younger vines. A vineyard populated mainly by the grapes Trincadeira, Aragonês, and Grand Noir varieties, an exotic variety that gives the most characteristic tone to José de Sousa wines.

Other exciting options are Casa Relvas, Cortes de Cima, and even the giant Esporão. But the center of the movement is really around the tiny Vila de Frades, which won the title of Capital of Wine of Talha, and with its neighbors Vila Alva, Cuba, and Vidigueira. In this region, over 180 small producers are dedicated to the wine of talha. However, the production of the majority is minimal.

Other producers are gradually adding talha wines to their repertoire but have needed help getting their talhas. It’s just that, as the interest in the product was reduced for a long time, the small carving manufacturers were closing over the years. Today, only some still dominate the old technique, which is totally handmade. While a new generation is not forming to regulate production, an active market for second-hand carvings has already emerged, sometimes forgotten in old farms or used as decoration in restaurants and bars and which are now being hunted by winegrowers eager to launch themselves in this promising market.

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: April 7, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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