Traditional winemaking in Talha Amphorae
Author: Vasily Prytkov
In southeastern Portugal, Alentejo is the center of the ancient tradition of making wine in clay amphorae known as Talha. This winemaking method is considered traditional in Portugal and dates back to the Roman Empire. First recorded over 2000 years ago, wine traditions have stayed steady on their course in many corners of Alentejo.
Throughout its history, the talha winemaking technology has been passed down through the generations in essentially the same form. However, there are certain regional nuances specific and unique to Portugal.
A growing interest in talha winemaking has motivated certain modern companies from Alentejo to experiment with clay vessels. This has inevitably given rise to new methods and instruments to facilitate the process without drastically changing the essence of the original method.
Talha wine is unique. Whether or not the procedures are classic or modernized, this wine embodies the centuries-old wine culture of Alentejo.
The amphorae tradition
Clay amphora are among the oldest vessels used to store and transport liquids. Its most common variant in Portugal, talha, has been used to make wine for over 2000 years. This tradition has continued ceaselessly in Alentejo since the start, as proven
by engravings showing how Romans made and kept their wines in vessels resembling or almost identical to what we see in Portugal today. In 1876, in the Report on Winemaking in South Portugal (Relatório sobre os processos de vinificação dos principaes centros vinhateiros do sul do reino), João Ignacio Ferreira Lapa called the Alnetejo talha winemaking process «a Roman system» and separated it from the «feitoria» method, which used lagares for pressing and fermentation. This method is also widely spread in other regions of the country.
The term «talha» comes from the Latin «tinalia,» meaning a large pot or vessel. Therefore, talha is a pot with varying porosity depending on its purpose and type of clay it’s made from. Talhas are used for fermenting grape juice and storing various liquids, especially wine and olive oil.
They vary in size and shape depending on the style of potters and local craftsmanship traditions. Talhas are rarely more than 2 meters tall and their weight is usually less than one ton; such vessels can contain up to 2,000 liters of must.
Today, Alentejo no longer has wineries with hundreds of talhas as described by Ferreira Lapa in the 19th century, but these clay amphorae are nonetheless still used to make wine in Alentejo even today. They are sometimes owned by private households, but can most often be found in taverns and commercial wineries with talhas made in the mid-19th or 18th centuries. Some talhas made in the 17th century still exist today.
With the emergence of cooperative wineries in Alentejo in the 1950’s, commercial amphora winemaking was gradually sidelined, but in recent years, many Alentejo producers have come to recognize the importance of the talha brand as a unique wine category (especially in export markets focused on authentic products).
Talha wines found support among such reputable specialists as Domingos Soares Franco, head enologist at José Maria da Fonseca, and the following well-known companies currently produce amphora wine: Bacalhôa, Casa Relvas and Herdade do Rocim, along with boutique talhas winemakers, for example, José de Sousa from the town of Reguengos de Monsaraz in the Alentejo Central subregion. These winemakers use talhas to craft special limited wine lines, and in the process contribute to the revival of traditional talha winemaking technology. One thing can be said for sure: with a rise of interest in Portugal, the volume of speciality wines in the market will continue to grow.
Pressing (ladrão amphorae). There are several methods of making talha wines. The classic method was described by agriculturist António Augusto de Aguiar in 1876. Grapes are crushed without the use of lagares. Instead, they are stomped on floors equipped with a special construction with stone blocks tilted to the middle, allowing the must to flow down to the reservoir or talha buried in the ground. Similar to the Georgian qvevri, these vessels are typically called ladrão in Portuguese («thief»), while southeast of Alentejo, in Vidigueira, they go by the name adorna. By being buried in the ground, talhas serve a protective function as well: should any of the pots explode because of the high inner pressure caused by fermentation, the spilled wine won’t be lost.
Fermentation can be carried out with or without stems. Unlike Georgian qvevris, wine is not fermented directly in the ladranes. The collected must is poured into the talhas on the surface using mugs or bowls.
De-stemming (ripanço tables). After the must is extracted, the skins, seeds and stems are separated from the larger solid parts. Many wineries today still use ripanço, or traditional slatted tables (from ripa, meaning «slate» or «rod»). Ripanço tables are made of wooden slates with their angles turned upwards. The pulp is rolled by hand, and smaller fractions fall through, while the stems are caught and removed. However, electrical grinders are more often used for de-stemming.
Every producer in every region has their own maceration tradition with stems. In Reguengos de Monsaraz (central Alentejo and its surroundings), some winemakers add a certain amount of stems to improve aeration and subsequent filtering, while in the city of Cuba in southwest Alentejo, all stems are added to the mass for the same reason. Some winemakers prefer to ferment their wines without any stems at all. Today, a small amount of sulfur dioxide is often added to the must to eliminate bacteria and any weaker and less desirable yeasts, so only the stronger and superior strains survive and take control of the fermentation process.
Mixing and submerging the cap. The must might still contain some berries that remained intact when stomped. But in any event, during fermentation the must is stirred manually with a wooden paddle (with the same function as the long wooden plungers known as «macacos» used in lagares in Douro and Bairrada). This submersion process takes place at least twice daily, and sometimes even at night to prevent the cap (the grape solids that rise during fermentation) from blocking off the mouth of the talha, leading to a potential explosion.
In some cases, the winemaking area is located a few meters underground to keep the temperature as cool as possible and minimize oxygen (which requires even greater care by workers, especially during fermentation, as carbon dioxide is produced and released). To lower the temperature of talhas, water is typically poured on the amphora several times a day. The talha can also be wrapped in wet pieces of fabric. These methods help maintain fermentation temperature at 17–18 °C.
Fermentation and filtering. Fermentation typically finishes 8–15 days after the grapes have been put into the talha, and it takes a few additional weeks for the cap to settle to the bottom. These solid particles play a key role in the wine filtering process during racking or when the talha are opened to tap the wine. This process is natural when the wine passes through the submerged cap.
Wine is drained out of the talha through a hole nearly 30 centimeters above the bottom, which is normally closed with a cork called a «batoque» (meaning «plug» or «inset» in Portuguese), preventing leakage. Traditionally, to make the cork fit perfectly in the hole, it is submerged in boiling water for some time before putting it in because as the cork dries, it expands and seals the hole completely.
After fermentation is complete and several weeks have passed of keeping the wine in contact with the pulp for better maceration, this batoque is pierced and replaced with a nozzle.
Enjoy right away or wait until spring? As soon as the nozzle is in place, there are two options: fill glasses with wine directly from the talha, as they do in the traditional taverns of Alentejo, or pour the wine into another clay talha, where it can mature before being consumed. In this case, the wine is bottled at the beginning of next year (usually not later than March). This matured wine acquires a special taste and darker color typical of wines aged in clay vessels.
The technology is identical for both white and red wines. There is also a tradition of mixing two types of grape together to make a rosé called petroleiro (Portuguese for «oil ship» because of its color).
In some places, talhas are covered with wooden or clay lids or even parchment paper to protect the wine from the air during the maturation process. But these «solid caps» (tampas sólidas) still cannot fully prevent slight oxidation. Some winemakers in southwest Alentejo keep their talhas open with a thin layer of olive oil on the surface to keep the wine from touching the oxygen (known as a «liquid lid»).
Modern aging technology. In the majority of modern wineries, talhas are used exclusively as vessels for fermentation without any additional functions; after fermentation is over, the wine is pumped into a stainless steel tank or a wooden barrel using a mechanical pump. The remaining pulp is removed from the talha by hand, usually with the help of a short person who climbs inside the amphora and cleans the pulp from the bottom.
To scratch up some grapes
Even today, Alentejo is home to numerous private households with up to half a dozen old talhas each to make wine for personal use. The grapes used for such homemade wine are often remnants of the yield from the vineyards belonging to big wineries after the best grapes are harvested for commercial production. These remnants are distributed among the locals with the producers’ tacit agreement.
This tradition reveals a unique aspect of the social relations in this conservative region. It is called «rabisco das uvas,» which translates literally to «scratch up some grapes.» Thus people who do not own any vineyards can still continue to make and enjoy their own wine.
Christopher Columbus named Cuba, the Island of Liberty, after a Portuguese town that still impresses visitors today with its tiny size. Cuba (Portugal) is the domestic center of pottery and still practices centuries-old traditions of making talhas.
Talha amphorae production
Amphorae shortage. A shortage of amphorae is the most restrictive factor in the revival of talha winemaking. The production of original amphorae stopped over 100 years ago, and their production methods have been mostly lost to time. However, it is well-known that Alentejo had and still has towns considered crucial centers of pottery: Cuba, Vila Alva, Cerva and Vidigueira in the southeast, and Campo Maior in the north. These areas have all made unique contributions to the distribution and usage of talhas. Another big pottery center can also be found in São Pedro do Corval, near Reguengos de Monsaraz in Alentejo Central.
As previously mentioned, talhas are made from clay and baked to become solid, but there are no exact historical accounts of how the baking process works. However, there are records of the fact that some amphorae were baked whole, while others were placed in the oven in two halves. These two halves were baked individually, then assembled and baked again.
Another method probably utilized a series of rings stacked on one another during baking. We can assume these methods varied depending on the size and weight of a talha, as well as a potter’s individual preferences.
Talhas typically have similar shapes, but it is impossible to have two identical talhas. The biggest difference is in the form of the vessel’s curve the potter prefers, which varies from one region to another. There is a general tendency for each city to have a distinctive style of talha resembling a certain object or vegetable.
For example, talhas from Cuba are turnip-shaped, large, and more bowed out than talhas made in other places. Amphorae from the Vila Alva district are known for looking like a humming top and are considerably smaller. Talhas in Serpa are thinner with a shape the locals compare to a carrot, yet with the same capacity as amphorae from Vila Alva. Amphorae can be decorated with various ornaments, and skillful craftsmen are also known to mark their work with a special symbol or brand. Small pots called «tarefas» are used for fermenting small volumes of juice or storing wine.
Waterproofing amphorae. Talhas are made of clay and have a porous structure, so they require a waterproof lining. The ancient method still used today requires polishing the inner surface of the talha with pez louro pine resin, which can also be mixed with other components, such as beeswax (like they do in Georgia) or olive oil. The work is done by a specially trained professional known domestically as a «pesgador.» Representatives of this old profession are rare nowadays, so top specialists are in high demand.
Taverns and small wineries also use special waterproof paint (epoxy resin-based paint for tiles) to waterproof their talha, even though this method creates a fully isolated barrier between the clay and must, which prevents the talha from fully performing its function. Thus, this is not the perfect choice, as it sacrifices the benefits of this classic and natural winemaking process.
To line talhas with waterproof resin, their inner surface is heated by turning the amphora upside down and placing it on a four-rock stand with an open fire in the middle. When the inner surface is prepped for a new lining, any remnants of previous resin covers melt away and drip on the ground.
After the heating is done, the talha is placed on its side and one person slowly rolls is while another spreads the mix over the inner surface with a cork or cloth attached to a wooden stick. After the excess is removed, the inner surface is smoothed down or polished. The thickness of the coverage is crucial. If it is too thick, it may form a glaze with a gradual reduction throughout several seasons, and if it is too thin, it will infuse the must and imbue it with an excessive aroma and taste.
The waterproofing resin infuses the wine with a slight aroma and taste, and coverage lasts for years (not less than a decade). Producers prefer to treat just a few pots a year so the final blend includes wines from different amphorae with older or newer coverage. In fact, this does not differ much from managing the blend during the barrel-aging process, when wines from completely new barrels are mixed with wine from barrels used for the second or third time to avoid excessive oak notes in the wine’s aroma and taste.
Saint Martin’s Day, or Talha Opening Day
The tradition of making wine in amphorae dates back to Antiquity and is inseparably connected with the present-day culture and social life of Alentejo. Far from being some distant tradition, it is part of local everyday life, especially in rural areas. Saint Martin’s Day, or Talha Opening Day, is a major event for the region.
Almost all Alentejo taverns (even the ones that are now internationally known restaurants) still make their own talha wine. This is closer related to commercial acumen now considered tradition rather than people making wine for their own consumption. Wines are made in taverns or restaurants and served in a glass at the bar or at tables to accompany the famous local cuisine. Almost all of these places also sell their wine in bottles or jars. After Saint Martin’s Day, many Alentejanos who now live in the suburbs around Lisbon often come back to the city to buy the wine their parents and grandparents grew up drinking.
But the epitome of the talha festivities is the “opening of the talha,” which traditionally takes place on November 11th, or Saint Martin’s Day (Saint Martin is the bishop of Tours, worshipped as Martin the Merciful in the Orthodox tradition).
At the Saint Martin’s Day festivities in Alentejo, talha wine is king and is consumed so quickly that many taverns and wineries easily run out. White, red or petroleiro (made from a mix of white and red grapes), talha is served to accompany seasonal foods like quinces, walnuts and chestnuts, as well as a wide range of local delicacies (mostly pork and game-based, which is what Alentejo is famous for).
Its popularity means that talha wine rarely lasts from one year to the next. The young wine normally runs out between November and December, or is otherwise racked into smaller talhas, or nowadays, stainless steel tanks for storage.
Alternatively, it can be bottled after adding a small amount of sulfur dioxide to ensure ideal conditions for the further development of the wine. In some places in Alentejo, winemakers used to put a few raisins or grains of rice in each bottle to start a second fermentation that added a slight effervescence to the wine when enjoyed the following spring or summer.
Talha. Clay vessels of various sizes used in Alentejo to make wine since ancient times. In talha winemaking, the grapes and stems drop to the bottom at the end of fermentation, where they serve as a natural filter. The wine passes through this cluster of solids and turns transparent as it empties through the hole at the base of the clay vessel.
Lagare. A lagare is a tank with low walls. It is used not for fermenting wine, but for stomping grapes. The grapes and juice are then poured into talhas to ferment.
Opening the talha. This is when the wine is drained from the clay pot so it can be served. Traditionally, this takes place on November 11th, Saint Martin’s Day.
Batoque. The cork stopper that seals the hole at the bottom of a talha. When the pot is opened, the batoque is replaced with a wooden spout.
Ladrão. A cistern or talha buried in the ground of a traditional winery. It originally served to collect the juice when grapes were stomped on the floor. Today, it is used to catch wine if a talha bursts during fermentation.
Pez. A liquid mixture of pine resin and, sometimes, beeswax. Used to treat the inside of a talha to make it impermeable.