Fresh approach to amphora wines

A winemaking tradition from 2,000 years ago has been revived in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. For publication in week starting 16 October 2017.

Wines made in amphorae are making a comeback in the Alentejo, the major wine region in southern Portugal. There the clay pots are known as talhas. The Romans were making talhas wines in the region more than 2,000 years ago.

The Alentejo occupies about a third of Portugal’s landmass but only about 6 per cent of the country’s population live there. It benefits from more than 3,000 hours of sunlight a year, some of the highest in the world. Grapes ripen quickly and produce high levels of alcohol. Reds can be 16 or even 17 per cent.

Some winemakers have tended to use too much oak, which produces wines high in tannin. Consumers are not happy chewing on reds that taste like balsa wood and are seeking something less dominating. They also want whites with acidity. Whites from hot climates tend to have less acidity and taste flabby unless they are picked early. Talhas wines have no oak and taste fresh, with lively acids.

The Comissão Vitivinícola Regional Alentejana (CVRA) represents winemakers in Alentejo. They see themselves as the “great guardian” of amphora wines in the region, and are determined to preserve this winemaking process.

In 2011 the CVRA recognised talhas as a legitimate production method and included the wine in its Denomination of Origin Alentejo wines. That year, according to CVRA data, about 3,200 litres of amphora wine were made. Within four years the CVRA had certified almost 44,000 litres a year.

Amphorae range in size and shape. The largest are almost two metres high, contain about 1,000 litres of wine, and weigh more than a tonne. The smallest contain about 100 litres. Georgia is the other country making amphorae wine and it featured in this column of August 7. The key difference is the fact that “kvevri” in Georgia are buried to cope with earth tremors while talhas remain above ground.

Talhas winemaking methods differ compared with traditional methods using tanks and barrels. Fermentation and maturation take place in the clay container. Whole bunches are often placed in the pot and the mixture stirred with long wooden paddles. The residue eventually settles in the narrow bottom of the container, and the wine is bottled via gravity from a small hole just above the residue.

Under local rules wine must stay in the pots until November 11, St Martin’s day. Representatives of the CVRA visit each estate to check that wine does indeed come from a clay container.

Beja and Evora are the major towns in the Alentejo. The Herdade do Sao Miguel (St Michael Winery) near the UNESCO-heritage town of Beja started its amphora project two years ago and made two wines from the 2016 vintage. One has already sold out and the other, the 2016 Pimenta, is almost fully sold. This family-owned company produces 5 million bottles a year but amphorae wines represent perhaps 5 per cent of production.

Winemaker Paulo Pecas sourced his winery’s 21 amphorae from around the region, buying from families who no longer used them. Most of the clay containers are at least two centuries old. The largest vessels cost between 500 and 1,000 Euro, which is good value given that amphorae can last for centuries, though they become more fragile as they age and sometimes wine leaks from cracks. A new oak barrel costs at least 1,000 Euro and can only be used for three or four years.

“We are using the amphorae the way the ancient Romans used them [to make wine]. We refurbish the amphorae and line them with beeswax and this lasts for ten years before we need to do it again.”

Paulo Pecas said he de-stemmed some bunches to reduce tannins and make his wines easier to drink. “The wines have floral, minty and fruity characters.”

The nearby Vidigueira wine co-operative launched a special amphora project in September this year, only using grapes from vines that were at least a century old. The age of the vines was the group’s unique selling point, explained president Jose Miguel Almeida. The company followed the traditional method of putting a range of grape varieties into four clay containers. Each holds 750 litres. Jose Miguel Almeida has been advocating for talhas wines for two decades and believes passionately in the idea.

This year the co-operative included 10 grape varieties in the mix. A century ago when the vines were planted a range of varieties went into the vineyard. This is known as a field blend. All 10 varieties were picked at the end of August, meaning some of the varieties were ripe, others under ripe and some others perhaps over ripe.

The co-operative expects to produce about 4,000 bottles from its four amphorae when they bottle near the end of this year. This is tiny compared with the 8 million bottles the co-operative makes each year from the 1,500 hectares its 300 members own.

Lisbon-based journalist Pedro Luiz de Castro said that it was traditional for local people to make talhas wine at home for family consumption. When co-operatives appeared after World War 2 these locals sold their grapes to co-operatives and their amphorae languished in garages and other buildings.

Pedro Luiz de Castro said the Vidigueira co-operative was leading the revival of a technique the Romans established more than 2,000 years ago. The co-operative organises an amphorae wine competition in the second week of December each year. This year is the 20th occasion the contest has been held. It usually involves about 300 wines from the region. The jury goes to each house or vineyard to collect bottles for the competition to ensure the wine came from an amphora.

Pedro Luiz de Castro said this year was the first time wine had been made from vines 100 years or older and he was keen to see the results. Wines made in amphorae typically sell for between 5-12 Euro in local villages. “These wines are expensive because everything is done by hand.”

In 2015 Alexandre Frade, whose father owned a tavern in Beja, established a company focusing on selling wine in 1.5 litre amphorae instead of bottles. He believes the significant growth in wine tourism in the region in the past three years has provided an opportunity for small wineries to establish a point of difference from large companies. “It [telhas wine] cannot be a mass product and will not compete on price, but on quality.”

Footnote: A film about making telhas wine is available at the CVRA web site at http://www.vinhosdoalentejo.pt/en/media/videos/.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Vinhos do Alentejo. Special thanks to the organisation’s Pedro Verdial for being an excellent guide.

Words: 1,071

AMPHORAE WINES IN ALENTEJO

Categories: amphora, Not home, Portugal, wine

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