Made the ancient Roman way, amphora wine has become the new trend in the Alentejo’s winemaking community and beyond
Centuries ago, the Romans modernised vine culture in the Alentejo and produced wine in terracotta vessels to ship back to Rome. Today their simple and natural winemaking technique is being revived by a new generation of curious young winemakers.
As natural and organic wines become increasingly popular, rustic amphora wines made with minimal human intervention seem to be just the ticket. Made in clay amphorae, talha wine, as it is known in the Alentejo, is deeply rooted in the regional culture and can be found ageing in almost every home’s cellar.
These wines are usually field blends made with old vines of native varieties, such as Perrum, Manteúdo, Rabo de Ovelha and Moreto. The whites, having matured in large clay pots in contact with the skins and stems, characteristically have a deeper colour and sweeter aroma than regular wines.
Pedro Ribeiro, winemaker and general manager at Herdade do Rocim, set a new wave in motion in the Baixo Alentejo, where this ancient tradition has been fermenting for centuries. He realised the potential of this incredible heritage and decided not only to enhance it by being the first to bottle and commercialise talha wine but also to help it thrive by giving other local producers, old and new, visibility by creating an Amphora Wine Tour.
Part of Herdade do Rocim’s touristic offer, this tailored tour can take visitors around the region’s three most emblematic talha wine locations: the town of Vidigueira and the villages of Vila de Frades and Cuba (no, not the island in the Caribbean. The original Cuba, where some believe Christopher Columbus was born). The tour includes visits to small producers and iconic landmarks, such as the País das Uvas restaurant in Vila de Frades. This low-lit restaurant lined with large amphorae embodies the soul of talha winemaking. It is an obligatory pitstop for locals and tourists alike, who come to taste the house wine made in the large pots, paired with traditional dishes, such as bean soup with thistle, scrambled eggs with asparagus, carne de alguidar, and black pork spare ribs with migas, to mention just a few.
Sharing wine and food is part of the way of life in the Alentejo, and so are the talhas. “Taverns existed in people’s homes. The talhas were kept in the basement, where family and friends gathered to drink the wine”, explains Bruno Gomes, Wine Tourism manager at Herdade do Rocim. An experienced and well-informed tour guide, Bruno explains how the restaurant also has a cellar in the adjoining warehouse, where a 500-year-old winery was uncovered. “The old vaulted stone arches were restored, as well as the tiled floor and its ladrão”, thief in Portuguese. This curious feature at the centre of the cellar is a buried amphora, which, thanks to the tilted floor tiles, collects any run-off wine, should one of the pots explode. Something that happens more often than not when the pressure created by fermenting must builds-up inside the pots.
In the Alentejo, these beautifully rounded amphorae are handmade with local clay. “Sadly, nowadays, there are few artisans and raw materials, which limits production”, says Bruno. He explains that since the pots are porous, they are lined on the inside with a type of resin, to which honey or olive oil is often added and then charred. This ultimately gives the wine a particular flavour, “sometimes of petrol”, he points out. “But at Herdade do Rocim, the wine is in direct contact with the clay. The objective is for the wine to be marked by the amphora, to be more natural.”
The contemporary Rocim winery is set just a couple of kilometres north of the village of Cuba. Here, the vines lie on what is known as the Falha da Vidigueira, a natural fault in the scenery where the land rises and Atlantic winds are caught, creating great thermal amplitudes, which result in distinct freshness in the wines.
The main building is mostly built underground, a clever and eco-friendly solution to keep the cellar cool. But there is a more rustic side to the winery. At the back of the modern winery sits an old keeper’s house where ancient amphorae, some over 200 years old, are used to make talha wine. This is where the magic happens.
Rocim’s repertoire of amphora wines is growing, now totalling some 30 000 bottles per year. On top of their Amphora Red and White, they produce the premium Clay Aged Red and White, fermented in smaller amphorae.
Unique collaborations with winemakers and sommeliers have resulted in limited editions, such as the Fresh from Amphora wines made by the irreverent Dirk Niepoort. They even made a beer in an amphora and tried to make Rhum. But the most noteworthy, and not just for its value, is Júpiter, an amphora wine made with Wine Advisor Cláudio Martins as part of his “Wines from another World” collection, which sells for €1000.
To further boost this renewed interest in the ancient winemaking technique, Herdade do Rocim organises the Amphora Wine Day, where they invite other talha wine producers to share their wines and knowledge. “This year, we’ll have 50 local and international producers, even some from Georgia and Ukraine, “ reveals Bruno.
The event takes place in November (this year on the 12th) around the feast of São Martinho (Saint Martin), which is the traditional time of year to open the amphorae. Visitors are invited to taste wines and local delicacies and listen to the Amphora Wine Talks, a series of conversations during which guest producers debate the future of the wines. The day then ends with the opening of the talhas ceremony and some traditional Cante Alentejano singing. A unique and comprehensive way to discover an ancient yet fashionable style of wine.
How Talha Wine is Made
The talha winemaking techniques have not changed much in the last two thousand years. The grapes are crushed and put inside the clay amphorae, or talhas, either with or without stems, where fermentation spontaneously takes place. During this period, the grape pulp and skins rise to the surface and form a solid mass. This is punctured with a wooden plunger and pushed down into the must to give the wine more colour, aroma and flavour. This punching takes place at least twice a day to prevent the cap (the grape solids that rise during fermentation) from blocking off the mouth of the talha, leading to a potential explosion.
As a rule, fermentation finishes eight to fifteen days after the grapes have been put into the talha, and it takes a few more weeks for the cap to settle at the bottom of the pot. These solids play an essential role in filtering the wine when the talha is opened in November, as the blanket they form is pierced to allow the wine to filter through naturally.