In Portugal, the Alentejo region has long been the guardian of talha wines. Here, the techniques developed by the Romans for making wine in the clay amphorae called talhas have been safeguarded. The talha winemaking process has been handed down from generation to generation throughout history, almost without change. Nevertheless, there is more than one way to make wine in talhas, with certain variations from region to region, according to local tradition.
The growing interest in talha winemaking in the Alentejo has prompted some modern wineries to experiment with using these clay vessels. As a result, new techniques and equipment have been introduced to facilitate the process without tainting the essence of talha winemaking.
The wine made in talhas is unmatched. Whether it results from more classic procedures or modernised ones, talha wine is the epitome of the millenary wine culture of the Alentejo.
There is more than one way to make wine in talhas. The classic technique, as described by the illustrious agronomist António Augusto de Aguiar in 1876, does not include either pressing or lagares (traditional treading tanks). It uses, most of the times, the very floor of the wineries for treading and crushing the grapes. The wineries are often built with many tall arches, and have large windows where the grapes are dumped directly onto the floor.
This floor is specially constructed with slabs and it is tilted toward the middle to allow the must to run off into a cistern or a buried talha. This cistern is usually called a ladrão in Portuguese or “thief”, although in Vidigueira, and other places, it is called an adorna. This buried talha also has a protective function: if any of the pots were to explode from the build up of pressure inside created by the fermenting must, the spilt wine would not be lost. As treading tanks and manual crushers have been brought into the process, the ladrão has taken on only this safety function, as it is not all that rare for talhas to explode!
The grapes arrive at the winery and are crushed and then dumped, either with or without stems, into the talhas. Traditionally, if a ladrão is being used, the must collecting in it is poured back into the talhas using mugs or basins. Many wineries still have traditional slated tables or mesas de ripanço. These are trays or tables with parallel wooden rods where the grape bunches are destemmed by hand. Mostly though, electric destemmers are used to separate the grapes from the stems.
Each producer in each region has their own tradition regarding the stems. In Reguengos, some winemakers throw in some of the stems in order to aerate the grape mass and to aid filtering, while in Cuba all of the stems are mixed in for the same reason. Some producers prefer to ferment the wine without any stems at all. These days, a small amount of sulphur dioxide is often added to the must to eliminate bacteria and any weaker and less desirable yeasts so that only the stronger and better strains might survive and take control of the fermentation process.
Traditionally the must might still have contained some berries that had remained intact during treading. Either way, throughout fermentation the must is manually stirred with a wooden paddle (with the same function as the long wooden plungers called macacos used in lagares in the Douro and Bairrada). This punching takes place at least twice a day, and even at night, in order 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 several cases, the wineries are placed a few metres underground to keep the temperature as cool as possible and with less oxygen (which requires even greater care by workers, especially during fermentation since carbon dioxide is produced and released). Then, in order to lower the temperature of the talha itself, the pot is usually moistened several times a day while the decorative rim around the pot helps to evenly spread the water over it. It also may be wrapped with dampened burlap and/or rags. This helps keep the temperature of fermentation around 17-18ºC.
As a rule, fermentation finishes 8-15 days after the grapes have been put into the talha, and it takes a few more weeks for the cap to settle to the bottom. These solids will play a key role in filtering the wine when it is racked off or when the talha is opened and the wine served directly.
The talhas have a hole about 30 cm from the bottom that is stopped up with a cork called a batoque. After fermentation is complete and the wine is left in contact with the grape mass for a few weeks, the batoque is punctured and replaced with a spout, which is often secured with raffia fibres or straw. Once this spout is in place, there are two options: either the wine is served directly from the talha, as is the custom in taverns, or it is emptied over a period of 1-2 days. In the second case, the wine is racked to another clay talha where it will spend the winter until it is consumed or bottled at the beginning of the next year (rarely later than March). The grape mass remaining in the talha is removed manually, which normally requires a man of small stature to actually climb down inside the pot.
The process is the same for either red or white wine. It is also still common to mix the two types of grapes, yielding a pink-coloured wine named petroleiro, or “oil tanker”, exactly because of its colour.
In some places, Reguengos for example, the talhas are at this point covered with wooden or clay tops, or even with brown paper, to protect the wine from the air. These tampas sólidas, or “solid caps”, cannot totally prevent slight amounts of oxidation, however. In Vidigueira and other places, some producers leave the talha open with a thin layer of olive oil on top to prevent the air from coming into contact with the wine (this is called a “liquid cap”).
In most modern wineries, the talha can also be used merely as a container for fermentation and nothing else. In this case, after fermentation, the wine is pumped into a stainless steel vat or a wooden barrel using a mechanical pump. On the one hand, this process affords much less aeration inside of the talha and greatly reduces the period of contact between the grape mass and the wine. On the other hand, it does still provide the benefits of natural fermentation inside a small, semi-porous container and the punching down process. These are some of the trade offs of modernization.
The procedures for making talha wine have changed little in the last two thousand years. Basically, the grapes are crushed and then are put inside the clay amphorae, or talhas, where fermentation spontaneously takes place.
During this period, the grape pulp and skins rise to the surface and form a solid mass. This is punched with a wooden plunger and is pushed back down into the must to transmit more colour, aroma and flavour to the wine. When fermentation is complete, the mass settles to the bottom of the talha where it serves as a filter.
A spout is inserted on the side of the pot, near the base, and the filtered wine comes out clear. It is a simple and natural process, as natural as the wine it produces.
The clay amphora is one of the oldest vessels for preserving and transporting liquids. Its biggest version, the talha, has been used for making wine for more than 2,000 years. It’s a tradition that has never been lost in the Alentejo.
Historical data suggest that talhas existed as far back as Roman times, in other words, for over two thousand years. The proof includes engravings showing how the Romans made and stored their wine in vessels similar or almost identical to those that we find today in Portugal. In 1876, João Ignacio Ferreira Lapa in his treatise Relatório sobre os processos de vinificação dos principaes centros vinhateiros do sul do reino (Report on the winemaking in the main winemaking centres in Southern Portugal) called the Alentejo talha winemaking process the “Roman system” and distinguished it from the “feitoria system” that took place in lagares (treading tanks) and that was the common in other regions of the country.
According to etymologists, the term "talha" comes from the Latin “Tinalia” and that refers to large pot or vessel. A talha, therefore, is a pot that varies in its porosity depending on its intended use and the type of clay it is made from. It is used for fermenting grape juice and storing several liquids, especially wine and olive oil. The talha comes in a range of sizes and shapes, according to the potter’s working style and the local traditions where it is made. It is rarely stands taller than two metres in height and rarely exceeds a ton in weight; it can hold up to 2,000 litres of must. Since it is made of clay, it is porous and the inside has to be coated with an impermeable surface. The ancestral technique still in use today is to varnish the inside with pine resin, called pez louro, to which other natural ingredients may be mixed by the pesgador. This profession of talha coaters has now almost completely died out.
Nowadays, the Alentejo no longer has working wineries with hundreds of talhas like those described by Ferreira Lapa in the 19th century (including that of Dr. Visconde da Esperança in Cuba, whom he mentioned by name). Yet, in today’s Alentejo, talhas are a constant presence and they are still used for making wine. They are commonly found in private homes but especially in taverns and commercial wineries, where talhas dating back as far as the 18th to the mid 19th century are still in use.
With the advent of the cooperative wineries in the Alentejo in the 1950s, the commercial production of talha wine gradually fell by the wayside, the most notable exception being the producer José de Sousa in Reguengos de Monsaraz. In recent years, however, many Alentejo producers have become aware of the value of talha wine as a point of difference (especially in international markets particularly avid for original products). So they have begun to use talhas to produce limited quantities of some special wines. Today we are witnessing a renaissance in talha wines. They are matchless, overflowing with all the character and identity of the Alentejo.
The limiting factor in the renaissance of talha wine is the scarcity of talhas themselves. These original amphorae have not been manufactured for more than 100 years and the techniques have been lost in history. It is well known that in former times the Alentejo had, and still has today, several towns that are important centres of pottery production. Ferreira Lapa mentioned, among others, Vila Alva, Cuba, Serpa, Vidigueira and Campo Maior, and these locations were instrumental in the spread of the talha and its use. As mentioned above, the pots are made of clay, a material that turns solid when fired. It is no longer known, however, exactly what the process for firing the talhas was.
There is some indication, though, that some were fired all in one piece, while others went to the kiln in two halves. These two parts were first fired individually and, at a second moment, assembled and refired. Another technique may have been making a series of rings that were placed one on top of the other during firing. It is imagined that each of these techniques would have varied according to the size and the weight of the talhas as well as the preference of the potter. Near the bottom of each talha there is a hole that is closed with a cork stopper called a batoque that keeps the wine from dripping out. Tradition has it that the stopper is best fitted when the cork has just been boiled, so that it moulds to the hole as it hardens.
Talhas are basically similar in shape. No two, of course, are the same. The biggest difference is found in the preferred curvature made by the potter, and this varies from region to region. Each town, as well, tends to have a distinctive style of talha that is evocative of an object or a vegetable. The talhas from Cuba, for example, are known for their turnip shape, and are larger and with more bulges than those elsewhere.
The amphorae in Vila Alva are famous for looking like a child’s top and they are noticeably smaller than those from Cuba. The talhas in Serpa are thinner. They are said to look like carrots and have a volume similar to those of Vila Alva. The pots from Vidigueira are arguably the most elegant due to their large curvature, while those from São Pedro do Corval, according to Ferreira Lapa, are famous for being made with the best quality clay – more compact and less porous – due to their lower limestone content. talhas may sport different decorative elements as well and the craftsmen would, of course, mark their handiwork with either a symbol or a brand. There are also smaller pots, called tarefas, or “tasks” that are used for fermenting small quantities of juice, or for racking wine and/or for storage.
There are many talha wineries still in existence in the Alentejo, belonging either to individuals, taverns or commercial houses. Their talhas are said to date back to the 18th and 19th centuries (and some even as far back as the 17th century). These talhas come from all over the Alentejo, especially São Pedro do Corval, near Reguengos de Monsaraz (still a well-known centre of pottery with currently about 35 different potteries), and Beringel, a town 11 km from Beja.
The talha is porous and so it must be sealed to make it less permeable. Traditionally the pots undergo pesga or pesgagem, a process where the inside is coated with a type of pine resin called pez louro.
In taverns and small wineries a type of waterproof paint (epoxy paint for ceramic tiles) may also be used to seal the talha. These paints, however, create a totally insulated barrier between the clay and the must that prevents the talha from fulfilling its full function. Consequently, this is not the ideal option as it does not maintain the characteristics of this classic and natural winemaking process.
In order to coat the talhas, the inside of the pots must be heated to a high temperature. The pots are placed upside down (with the mouth of the amphora pointing down) on top of four stones and a fire is lit in the middle. Any residue from previous resin coatings will melt and drip to the ground at the same time that the inside of the talha is being prepared for the new coating. Meanwhile, the pesgador will mix up their unique recipe for the new coating. This will include mostly pez louro with, possibly, beeswax or olive oil. Recently, some experiments have been undertaken using just beeswax without pine resin.
This follows upon the example of the practices in the Caucasus region, particularly in Georgia, where beeswax alone is used to coat the Kvevri pots. As soon as the coating has heated up, the talha is turned on its side and one person rolls the amphora by pushing it while another paints the inside with a wooden stick with either a cork or rag tip soaked in pez. Once all the coating has been applied, the talha is once again set upside down so that any excess coating can drip out. Then the inner surface is smoothed out, or polished. The consistency of the pez is important. If it is too hard, it may form a glaze and fall off after a few seasons. If it is too soft, it will impart too many flavours and aromas to the must.
The pez itself conveys aromas and flavours to the wine and, as the coating will last for several years (at least a decade), it is common practice not to coat all of a winery’s talhas in any one year so that the pez does not overly flavour the wine. It is preferable to manage the pesga of the talhas, coating just a few of the pots per year, so that the final blend includes wines from more and less recently coated amphorae. In fact, this is not so different from the barrel management performed by wineries whereby wine from brand-new barrels is blended with that aged in barrels in their second or third usage, in order to avoid an excess of oakiness in the wine.
Talha wine is intrinsically linked to the history, culture and social life in the Alentejo. It’s not some remote tradition, but a part of the day-to-day habits of the local residents, especially so in the countryside. Saint Martin’s Day, the “talha opening day”, is the high point in each year’s celebration of this millenary relationship between the Alentejo and talha wine.
The talha wine tradition, brought by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago, has never been lost and is still alive and present in many places in the Alentejo. Still today, in those areas with a great winemaking tradition, there are countless private homes that still have half a dozen talhas where they make wine for their own consumption.
Oftentimes, the grapes used for these home productions are those left on the vine after the major wine producers have harvested their choice of grapes, most of the time with the tacit consent of the owners. This ancestral tradition is called the “rabisco das uvas” and allows those people without their own land or vineyards to keep on making and enjoying their own wine.
Most of the Alentejo taverns (including some of which that have turned into famous restaurants) still produce their own talha wine. This is not so much the case of people making wine for their personal consumption, but as a commercial activity that is steeped in tradition. The wines are made at the tavern or restaurant and sold either at the counter or at the table to accompany the famous local cuisine. Almost all of these establishments also sell this wine in bottles or in jugs. So, sometime after Saint Martin’s Day, many of the Alentejanos who have moved to the suburbs around Lisbon usually go back home to buy the wine that their parents and grandparents grew up drinking.
This relationship between the people of the Alentejo and talha wine is long and it is brought to life at three specific moments. The first, more sporadic, is during the coating of the talhas with pez louro. Depending on the number of amphorae to be sealed, the pesga is a complex operation that requires the work of many people and takes up most of a day. Nowadays, since the pesga is so rare, it is seen as a call for celebration and a pig roast is usually put on as part of the festivities.
The second moment, naturally, is the sequence of the harvest, the fermentation of the grapes and the winemaking in the talha, a process that the entire family and many friends participate in.
But the epitome of the talha festivities is the “opening of the talha”, which traditionally takes place on Saint Martin’s Day, November 11th. The grape mass is usually left inside the talhas until this day, when the amphorae are opened. At Saint Martin’s Day festivities in the Alentejo, talha wine is king and it is consumed so quickly that many taverns and wineries easily run out.
Talha wine, be it white, red or petroleiro (made from a mix of white and red grapes) is served to accompany seasonal foods like quinces, walnuts and chestnuts as well as the wide range of local delicacies (based, mostly, on pork and game meat) that the Alentejo is famous for. Its popularity means that talha wine rarely lasts from one year to the next. It normally runs out between November and December. Otherwise, it is racked into smaller talhas, or, nowadays, to stainless steel vats with a floating top called sempre-cheio (“always full”) for storage. Alternatively, it can be bottled, after adding a small amount of sulphur dioxide to ensure the best conditions for the development of the wine in bottle, almost totally without any oxygen contact. In some places in the Alentejo a few raisins or grains of rice used to be thrown into each bottle to provoke a second fermentation that lent a slight effervescence to the wine when it was enjoyed the following spring or summer.