Alentejo’s Amphora Wines: an Ancient Tradition in Renewal

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 06-14-2018

talha rocimWith rolled eyes, several Alentejo winemakers joked with me about the reputation they think many Americans have about their wines: They’re red, they’re high in alcohol, and they’re doused with too much oak. While I did get my palate pleasantly pounded by a brutal 16.5% red aged in all new oak, for the most part, this reputation (if it was once somewhat accurate), is undeserved.

Case in point: the talha wines from this region of southern Portugal. Talha is the Portuguese term for clay fermentation pots, also known by their Greco-Roman name amphora. And in Altentejo the talha tradition runs deep — 2,000 years, to the days of the Roman Empire. Except for Georgia (where using open-topped clay pots is a much older custom), Alentejo is the only region in the world with such a long history of producing wines this way.

On a recent trip, sponsored by Wines of Alentejo, I dug deep into the Alentejo wine culture and found an exciting mix of ancient practices and modern innovation. A new generation of winemakers is keeping this history alive, while adding their own signature. Over the course of a week, I tasted tons of wines, and, far and away, I was most thrilled with the talha wines, or vinhas da talha.

In the glass, generally speaking, I get bright and floral aromas, which can be shocking complex, inviting, and pleasantly different. The flavor profile of the grapes (usually blends) shines through wonderfully, unhindered by any toast or oak influences. The alcohol levels are frequently around 12-13%. But the texture is what really gets me excited: smooth, fresh, sometimes slightly dusty, always unique and hard to describe (although I’ve tried in my tasting notes).

Authenticity and identity

When asked why continuing to produce wines this way is so important in the region, Joao Barroso, Wines of Alentejo’s sustainability manager, said, “It’s about the authenticity of the culture.” The more time I spent there, the more I felt, and fell in love with, this authentic wine culture.

When I asked Herdade do Rocim’s winemaker Vania Guibarra the same question, she said, “It’s about our identity.” She produces a white and red wine fermented in amphorae, after being crushed by foot in marble vats (called lagares), which are common in a region with active marble quarries. Generally speaking, her amphorae hold between 900 and 1,000 liters of wine, although each individual clay pot is unique in size and shape. She also ages portions of the wine for longer in smaller pots (about 140 liters), a method I found utilized by several other wineries in Alentejo.

When I tasted Vania’s white, a field blend of co-fermented indigenous Portuguese varieties, I was floored and began ranting to her about the wine’s uniqueness, freshness, and downright deliciousness. It was the first stop on my trip, and I didn’t have much luggage space, but I had to buy a bottle to bring home. Her red also impressed me, and words like “breezy,” “airy,” and “vibrant!” litter my notebook — not terms I’m used to using with red wines.

jose de sousa cellar

Amphorae sleeping in Adega Jose de Sousa’s cellar.

Paulo Amaral, winemaker at Adega José de Sousa and total talha guru, has one of the most extensive programs in Alentejo. His cellar has a collection of 114 talhas, which were made in the 1870s, along with several broken ones which he hasn’t moved. On a visit to his winery, Paulo set up a ladder, climbed up, and opened the top of one of his clay pots. On top of the wine floated a half-inch layer of olive oil, which he uses to protect the wine underneath from too much oxygen. He invited me to stick my hand in and taste (which, of course, I did without hesitation). The oil was doing its job, as it was highly oxidized, and licking this oil and wine mixture off my fingers was an interesting aesthetic experience for sure.

Making the wines

Talha wines have many of the qualities of so-called natural wines, loved by so-called hipsters — minimalist intervention winemaking, wild yeast fermentation, no oak, lower alcohol, and they’re commonly made from indigenous grape varieties.

Regular people all over Alentejo ferment their own house wine in amphorae, and taverns sell it straight from the talha. Yes, this method results in some flawed wines — I tasted two tavern wines that were seriously troubled. I’m sure many people make wonderful house wine in amphorae, but I can only speak of the professional vintners whose wines I tasted, winemakers who take this process, and its regional history, seriously, while producing pristine, fascinating and unique wines.

The Talha DOC (created in 2012) is a quirky appellation, regulating different aspects of this clay pot fermentation process. For example, each vintage cannot be removed from the pots before November 11 (St. Martin’s Day, a traditional wine-fueled celebration), although many winemakers hold their wines for much longer.

esporao cellars

David Baverstock shows off amphora punch-down technique

Amphora fermentation is a labor-intensive endeavor. Twice a day, winemakers use a wooden tool to punch down the grape cap that floats to the top of the pot, or else the carbon dioxide from fermentation will cause the clay to burst. A winemaker at one facility I visited told me, from her own experience, missing a punch-down can cause a dangerous and messy explosion.  Over time, the grape solids settle to the bottom, and when the talha is drained from a hole near the bottom, the wine gets something like a natural filtration.

The inside of the pots are usually lined with wax, which is applied by warming the interior of an upside-down talha, pouring in melted wax, and rolling the large pot around on its side until the wax hardens. This process is usually done once every 15 years or so, and can be repeated for the life of the pot. How long do they last? Several winemakers are still using 150- to 200-year-old pots, while Alentejo is home to some pots that are 500 years old.

Convention and experimentation

Cortes de Cima, a winery known for first planting Syrah against the appellation rules, is one of several well-known wineries that embraces the Alentejo tradition of amphora fermentation. The winery was founded by Hans Jorgensen (a Dane) and his wife Carrie (a Californian) in the late 80s. Anna, the couple’s young daughter and a vintner in her own right, takes pride in using the same method that local villagers have used for thousands of years. “These are our garagistes,” she said. Remarking on the increased attention amphora wines have received in recent years, she added, “It’s not hipster here. It’s how it’s always been done.”

For a winery known for surreptitiously producing Syrah, it’s perhaps not surprising that Cortes de Cima also does amphora wine a bit differently. The Jorgensens don’t line their vessels. Anna told me unlined vessels allow their wines to better engage with small amounts of oxygen through the porous clay. She said this helps lift the wine’s aromas and softens any rough edges.

In the cellar, she pointed to a small amphorae (about 150 liters), whose exterior is crusted and discolored with dried wine. A small puddle of wine had collected underneath the container. “This,” she said, “is the essence of what we do with these vessels.”

At first, I was skeptical, but the essence she spoke of is evident in the glass. Their 2015 Amphora was one of the most airy and elegant wines I tasted in Alentejo, with floral and red fruited aromas that pop. I wrote “textural freshness!” in my notebook and underlined it several times.

Paulo (of Adega José de Sousa) also riffs on the ancient method in his own way. In addition to bottling a white blend and a red blend, he uses portions of talha-fermented wines to blend in with other wine that have been fermented in concrete vats and aged in oak and old chestnut barrels. While not the clearest example of amphora-fermented wine, they’re both fascinating wines, and the amphora wine adds brighter notes to the more concentrated, barrel-aged wines.

Even the region’s powerhouse producer, Esporão, who produces 15 million bottles of wine a year, uses talhas. Winemaker David Baverstock said he produces about 3,000 liters of amphora wine annually, but hopes to increase production to 10,000 liters. It’s a drop in the bucket in terms of total output, but it sends a signal: talha production is important, and worth sustaining. “It’s a nice mix of old and new technology here,” David said.

talhas in production 2

Antonio Rocha’s brand new talhas

Keeping tradition alive

For almost 2,000 years winemakers sourced their amphorae from local craftspeople. Talk about sustainable — the region is rich in clay soils and the finished product can be used by local winemakers for hundreds of years, potentially. But, some 50 years ago, the last talha producer died off, and so did the local knowledge. And I was told there’s only one craftsman in the region who still professionally lines talhas with wax.

But Alentejo producers have kept the tradition going, trading talhas amongst themselves, purchasing them from other regions. I spoke with several winemakers who bought their talhas from Italy, and one (in a shock to me) said he bought his from a potter in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Antonio Rocha is looking to change this dynamic. The 56-year-old built a career in construction, until the industry tanked, and he was forced to reinvent himself. In 2017, he formed Telheiro Artesenal, and he became the first person in Altentejo in a half-century to build new 1,000-liter talhas.

talhas in production

Talhas in production at Antonio Rocha’s Telheiro Artesenal

There was no one to teach him, so he learned by doing, using his hands and a small putty knife. It’s a one-man show, and Antonio produces ten talhas at a time, layer by layer. Each layer has to dry before the next is built on top, so the process takes four months. Then, he fires the clay in an underground kiln, which he built, of course, by hand. Antonio sold his first batch of talhas to a museum, but he said demand from wineries far surpasses supply. He said he hopes to get some cultural preservation funding from the European Union to help him keep this project going, and perhaps expand.

Many of the talha wines I tasted and enjoyed on my trip can be found in the United States, although most are made in small amounts. The price ranges are attractive considering the quality, and many of the wines I tasted cost about $20, while some range to $40 or so. They’re exciting, dynamic wines that I personally would love to see on more restaurant lists or by-the-glass lists at wine bars. Georgian amphora wines have seen exponentially large attention from U.S. consumers over the last decade. While Alentejo wines are a smaller category, the quality is there, and the wines scream of tradition, excitement, deliciousness, value. I think the next decade could be a very bright one for Alentejo amphora wines.

Below are some of the best talha wines I tasted on my trip, all of which were tasted sighted with the producers. I’ve included price estimates from U.S. importers when available.

2016 Herdade do Rocim Amphora Branco
Pretty deep yellow color. Wow, so breezy on the nose yet deep, with oranges, salted lime, almond, green olive. Brisk on the palate but rich texture, lovely smoothness, and flavors of oranges and apricot. Complex elements of almond, sea salt, olive, honeycomb. This is a field blend of white varieties from 50- to 60-year-old vines, and it is something to behold. A blend of Antão Vaz, Perrum, Rabo de Ovelha and Manteúd. (91 points)

2016 Herdade do Rocim Amphora Tinto
Airy and bright on the nose, inviting, fresh, lively, with red fruits, roses and pepper. Brisk and fresh on the palate with medium tannins, combining for a tangy but smooth feel to this wine. Lovely red cherries, spiced tea and pepper. A co-fermented field lend of Aragonez, Trincadeira, Moreto and Tinta Grossa. (91 points)

2015 Herdade do Rocim Clay Aged
Deep color. Nose of blackberries, plums, blueberry, pepper, the fruit is dark but the wine smells so bright. Velvety on the palate, freshness reigns supreme, but tannins provide serious guts to the wine. Plums, blackberry, berry compote, a velvety and gorgeous mouthfeel supports the fruit. Smoke, pepper, earth, clove and tobacco. Beautiful stuff that will age for a long time. Crushed in marble lagares, aged in 140-liter amphorae. (92 points)

2015 Cortes de Cima Amphora
Aromas of warm cherries, raspberries, plums, with lifted floral tones and spiced tea. So silky on the palate despite the tannic structure, this is also a fresh and bright wine. Plums, raspberries and black cherries, the fruit is laced with warm spices, earth. Texturally intriguing and so fresh and inviting. Aragonez, Syrah, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira aged 14 months in amphora. (91 points)

2017 Susana Esteban Procura Amphora Branco
Clay sample. This unfinished wine is awesome. Brisk and floral aromas on the nose with apricot and lemon pith. The palate is bright and tangy but shows an earthy, waxy depth with flavors of almond and spiced white tea. Intriguing and delicious. (91 points)

2017 Adega Cooperativa de Borba Vinho de Talha Tinto
So floral and bright on the nose with red berries, roses and rhubarb. Fresh, silky, gorgeous on the palate, this is 13.5% alcohol with dusty tannins and refreshing acidity. Strawberries and raspberries, topped with dried roses, dusty earth and fresh rhubarb. Crisp, mineral-driven finish. (91 points)

2015 Adega José de Sousa Puro Talha Branco
A medium orange color. Smells of candle wax, candied orange and lemon pith. 11.5% alcohol on the palate, but the texture is deep and plush, hints of tannin (whole cluster fermentation here), with bright acidity that keeps the wine moving. Lemon pith, orange peel, apricot pit, the fruit is topped in seriously complex notes of mushroom broth, green tea leaves, honeyed tea, candle wax, and dusty minerals. Complex, nerdy but so, so delicious. Wow. (93 points)

2015 Adega José de Sousa Puro Talha Tinto
So floral on the nose, with complex roses, violets, black tea and incense sticks on top of raspberries and red apple peel. Crisp and lip-smacking on the palate, tannins provide structure but have rounded edges, and I get crunchy raspberries and red apple peel. Notes of leather, incense, earth and clay, warm spice, complex elements of mushroom and savory broth. Gorgeous, such precision and balance, I’d love to age this for five to ten years. Fascinating, special, delicious. (94 points)

Comments (1)

  1. Awesome, Isaac! Can’t wait to get over to Alentejo and try some amphora wines.