The Pottery and Winemaking of Alentejo
Romans brought the tradition of making wine in clay vessels to what is now known as Portugal. Though winegrowing was established through the Iberian Peninsula prior to the influx of the Roman empire, their influence shifted styles of winemaking in the region.
In the Southcentral portion of Portugal, the area of Alentejo has served as a historical center of pottery in the Iberian Peninsula. Through the region, master potters produced large talhas de barro, or Portuguese clay fermentation vessels for wine. What is unique about the talhas, when compared to the widely discussed tradition of amphora in general, is the range of use the talhas provide. Wine made in talhas traditionally was fermented, stored, and served all within the same vessel.
Talhas were made of clay from Alentejo, then wax lined. The vessel was then filled with clean whole clusters for ambient yeast fermentation. During fermentation, vessels were left uncovered, with occasional punch downs to break up the berries, while minimizing extraction. Once fermentation was complete, the grape cap would rise to the wide part near the top of the vessel, and the wine sink underneath to the length of the vessel body. The talhas was then topped off with olive oil to prevent oxidation or contamination of the wine. (Because of the difference in weight, olive oil remains on top, not mixing with the wine itself.) Once drinking of the wine was desired, it would simply be drained a carafe at a time from the hole near the bottom (the dark spot on the talhas to the right in the photo above). The wine, then, was essentially racked off a cup at a time, rather than all at once, minimizing storage or preservation challenges. In this way, the talhas held the same wine continuously from fermentation through storage to drinking.
Few potters make these traditional vessels today, as winemaking through the area has shifted to more modern methods in wood. Today, winemaking in talhas has become a sort of tavern phenomenon. Bar owners with a talhas in the back are able to get just enough fruit to make their own wine to serve for customers. A few wineries, however, are beginning to experiment with making wine in talhas again, seeking to recapture old methods.
Talhas at Esporao
At Esporao, red winemaker Luis Patrão has begun working on fermentation trials winemaking in telhas. He intends to convert a portion of winery space entirely to traditional Alentejo winemaking, removing all stainless tanks from the area in order to instead use only lagares, and talhas de barro. If the trials are successful the results will likely be bottled as a private reserve.
In working towards the project he researched traditional use of talhas through historical letters of the region, and oral histories shared by area elders. Talhas over 200-yrs old were purchased from regional wineries no longer using them.
To read more about the history of Portuguese winemaking: http://www.vinhosdoalentejo.pt/detalhe_conteudo.php?id=16&lang=en
Thank you to Luis Patrão, Pedro Vieira, and Brendan Drewniany.
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