I love discovering specialist food and drink products during my travels, so my visit to Herdade de São Miguel in Alentejo, Portugal was an eye opener. It was at the winery’s modernist head quarters on its Pimenta estate that I first learned about the renaissance of vinho de talha.
I have already shared the story of the winery itself in my Taste of Alentejo post, but today I want to tell you about this unusual style of wine.
Vinho de talha (clay pot wines) are made using a technique developed and spread by the Romans and used to make wines in this region for at least 2000 years. Today, a number of local wineries are once again making natural wines in vintage clay pots, resurrecting a previously dying traditional product.
Crushed grapes (and some of the stems) are placed into huge clay pots to ferment, relying on natural wild yeasts rather than an addition of commercial yeasts. Some producers also add a little sulfur dioxide to eliminate bacteria and any of the weaker yeasts, leaving only the strongest natural strains to perform the fermentation process.
Because of the mass of grape skins and stems inside the talha – which naturally rise to the top of the pots during fermentation – the wines must be stirred at least once a day to break up the natural cap that these floating solids form. This allows the carbon dioxide to escape, rather than build up in pressure and cause the pots to crack or explode!
In addition, the pots are hosed down with cold water every day, to help keep the temperature inside from rising too high and killing off the yeasts that are transforming juice into wine. (Some vinho de talha producers, for example in Georgia, bury the talha in the earth, maintaining the temperature that way).
By the end of fermentation, the solids fall to the bottom, naturally filtering the new wine.
At one time, all wine made in the Alentejo region was vinho de talha, with most small holders owning at least one clay pot to make wine for their own tables. But talha gradually fell out of use as modern wine-making techniques became the norm.
Two decades ago, it was easy for the first Alentejo wineries reviving the talha method to pick them up for a song but now that many wine producers have followed suit, there is more competition to buy these beautiful old clay pots; a bit of a bottle neck – if you’ll excuse the pun – since they are no longer produced new.
I wonder how long it will be before an artisan potter revives the craft of making new talha to support this wine renaissance?
To be classified as vinho de talha, the wines must remain in their clay pots at least until St Martin’s Day; the 11th November. This is a much longer fermentation time than modern wine production, and results in a very different flavour profile.
The finished wines are often very individual, with a lot of variation coming from the wild yeasts and the inconsistent temperatures that the contents of the talha are subjected to. These wines also have a real punch of acidity from the grape skins and stems.
St Martin’s Day is celebrated with the drinking of jeropiga – alcohol (usually brandy) is added to the wine to stop fermentation – and roasted chestnuts. This sounds like something I need to experience for myself and hope to explore further on future visits to the region.
Kavey Eats visited Alentejo as a guest of the Alentejo Tourist Board. Find out more at the Visit Alentejo and Visit Portugal websites.
With thanks to Nuno Franco, Herdade de São Miguel‘s general manager, for teaching me all about vinho de talha.