HISTORY OF TALHA WINE
Developed by the Romans and brought to Portugal two millennia ago, talha wine is today an important symbol of the Alentejo, the region that has best preserved this traditional wine-making process. The know-how has been passed down from generation to generation, through the ups and downs of history, establishing a very special cultural heritage that it is important to preserve and document as the cultural legacy of the Vidigueira region as the centre of talha wine.
This way of making wine in large clay containers – amphoras or talhas – has survived the passage of the centuries and, because of its natural simplicity, has long been integrated into the daily life of the Alentejo population. Any farmer with vines, however few, will always have his own clay “talhinha” in which to make wine to drink at home or to give friends to taste.
This means of production is rooted in the cultural customs of the Vidigueira region and the habits of the people of the Alentejo. After a day’s labour, there is a sacred custom of going to the local taberna to meet up for a cante (choral singing) and chat, and to down a glass of talha wine.
Talha wine was at one point close to disappearing, but in recent decades it has won more favour with consumers, and ever more producers are opting to carry out the fermentation solely in clay talha – all following their own methods, according to local tradition and personal taste.
At the Adega Cooperativa de Vidigueira, Cuba e Alvito we have remained faithful to the most traditional process, making our talha wine in the most artisanal way, as much as possible by hand. In the Casa das Talhas we celebrate these ancestral methods and offer the chance to sample a unique product that is essentially natural yet with a complex personality.
THE ART OF MAKING TALHA WINE
Talha wine is as simple and natural as the production process from which it emerges. With 2,000 years of Alentejo history behind it, talha wine needs no wine press, as the agronomist António Augusto de Aguiar noted back in 1876. At the Adega Cooperativa de Vidigueira, Cuba e Alvito we makes use of this centuries-old natural know-how.
Once the bunches of grapes of the most traditional varieties, from the century-old vines of our cooperative members, have reached the Winery, they are separated from the stalks and crushed.
This grape pulp is immediately placed inside the clay talhas, where some 24 to 48 hours later a process of spontaneous fermentation will start. During the wine-making process, which lasts for a period of 10 to 15 days, it will be necessary at least once a day to break up the manta (covering) that forms on the surface or boca (mouth) of the talha. So, morning and evening, the wine-maker climbs a burra (small wooden ladder) and, using a T-shaped wooden rodo, “stirs” the pulp, ensuring that the grape skins and seeds are plunged in the must and so guaranteeing the extraction of the elements that are essential to the release of the aromas and flavours typical of a good talha wine.
The porous nature of the clay is used to maintain the environment as cool as possible and to control the fermentation temperature, which should be about 17º or 18º, by directly wetting it several times a day. Wet burlap or cloth are also placed around the talhas to the same end.
Once the fermentation/wine-making process is concluded, it is necessary to wait a few more weeks until the grape solids (and a few stalks) are deposited at the bottom of the talha. This mass will be vital, because it makes possible the natural filtration of the wine when the talhas are opened – something that in the Alentejo traditionally happens on the feast of São Martinho (St Martin), on November 11.
On that occasion, when fermentation is already over and the wine has rested for several weeks in contact with the solid deposits, the batoque (cork stopper) is removed from a small hole located some 30cm from the the bottom of the talha and a tap inserted into this same orifice.
While, in local taverns, talha wine is ready to be consumed – the tap can now just be opened and wine served by the glass – in our Winery the wine in the talha is emptied into earthenware bowls. It is then stored in a clean talha to be bottled early the following year.
During this period resting, the wine takes on complex aromas and flavours, while never losing its natural simplicity – to the delight of wine lovers who, a few months later, will be able to enjoy it poured from bottles and so attest to its improved high quality.
Nevertheless, at our Winery the process does not end there. Over the year, work never stops to guarantee the quality of the next harvest. Starting with the cleaning of the talhas themselves: after they are emptied of wine, the solids deposited at the bottom must be removed by hand with the help of an escudela (wooden bowl). This inevitably means someone climbing into the talhas to undertake this task, just as the Romans did.
In fact, in this artisanal wine-making process, the preparation of the talhas is an essential task. High summer is the time to carry out the sealing of the talhas, which includes five different phases. 1) The talha is placed upside down on four stones, between which a small bonfire is started; 2) meanwhile, pez loiro or “blond pitch” – pine resin, sometimes mixed with virgin beeswax – is melted in a pot in sufficient quantity to cover the vessel; 3) after a few hours over the bonfire the talha is hot enough, and is laid on its side and this melted “pitch” smeared inside; 4) the talha is then rolled carefully by several men so as to distribute the resin evenly inside it, with the help of an improvised utensil, a piece of cork stuck on the point of a stick; 5) before the resin solidifies, it is smoothed over the interior of the talha until the vessel is lined with a kind of layer of polish.
This process brings to the wine further very particular aromas and flavours.
As an ancestral ritual, the production of talha wine is deeply rooted in the culture of local people in our Alentejo region. At the Casa das Talhas we want you to be a part of this ancient tradition and discover the roots of the Alentejo and its wine.
Traditionally made out of siliceous clay, the talha receives the must that, thanks to its fermentation, is turned into wine. It contains, on average, between 800 and 1,200 litres.
A wooden receptacle used to fill flagons or other large vessels with wine, it is also used during the transfer of the wine to fill the caneco (mug) with the solids that have been removed from the talha.
A tap is placed in the hole near the bottom of the talha, permitting the passage of the filtered wine into the clay alguidar (bowl).
Wooden ladder used to gain access to the top of the talha in the mixing and transfer processes.
A T-shaped wooden tool used to stir the must inside the talha.
Receives the wine from the bottom of the talha.