“The world knows Beaujolais Nouveau,” says Rui Raposo, the president of the municipality of Vidigueira, Portugal. He’s referring to the cult-favorite French wine—the first of every vintage, fermented for just a few weeks before it’s released with a big national party in November—for a reason. His corner of the Alentejo has an equally historic and eccentric wine tradition, but one that is hardly known outside the region.
Raposo wants to change that. “What we have is similar,” he says. “It’s great quality. People have to wait for the next year. With this, we have some sustainability, and we have something the world can know.”
Vidigueira’s talha wine tradition—Portuguese winemakers don’t want to translate it, but if one did, would be something like “clay pot wine’—dates from Roman times. Historically, wineries were built with large arched windows, through which grapes were dumped onto a sloping floor. There, they would be crushed and tread on their way into holes in the center that dropped them into the clay vessels.
The talhas you see around the Alentejo don’t go back to the 1st century, of course. But they’ve still seen generations of winemaking and have a beguiling patina. Because of this, it’s tempting to look at them and say, Okay, so this is amphora wine—wine that’s aged in clay pots. It’s a style that’s existed since winemaking originated in Georgia some 8,000 years ago and has recently become trendy all over the world, with production from Australia to the United States.
That’s not wrong, but it’s insufficient. While amphora wines are aged in clay (often after traditional fermentation in stainless steel), talha wines are mad experiments in which the grapes undergo their whole evolution in the clay vessels. Winemakers can climb ladders to reach inside with long paddles to move the grapes around and punch down the solids that rise into a cap during fermentation. But they can’t taste it, and they can’t intervene. At the end of the process, they unscrew a stopper, insert a spigot and fill small tasting glasses.
This is why the first tasting—in early November as with Beaujolais Nouveau, and specifically on the festival day of Saint Martin, another reason for a party—is a big deal. It’s always a surprise. Or as talha winemaker Ruben Honrado puts it, “Nobody knows what they’re doing.”
He’s exaggerating, obviously, but he’s right that “no one really knows the secret to vinho da talha. People put grapes in the talha and wait for the magic to happen.” Some go for better hygiene while others embrace all the nature that goes into winemaking. They can use more stems or fewer or none. The clay pots themselves have different ages, amounts of use and even shapes and sizes, depending on who made them. The ones closer to the windows can be completely different from those in the corner of the room. The results are never consistent.
“There’s a huge curiosity to taste them on November 11,” continues Honrado. “There’s always one that’s the favorite, and that’s the one you share with your friends and family and neighbors.”
Now they’re sharing it with international visitors, thanks in part to the efforts of Raposo and his colleagues at the Rota do Vinho da Talha (route of talha wine) initiative. The point is to raise awareness—and bring a bit of that Beaujolais cachet—about the wines and the region.
First, the winemaking commission of the Alentejo created the equivalent of a DOC for local talha wines. Now they have a snazzy new interpretive center, full of archival photographs, vintage tools, interactive exhibitions, a bit of VR and audio tours in a variety of languages (including a rather exuberant British-accented English). The marketers also put together the route of talha wine, which highlights local attractions like the well-preserved and restored 1st century Roman ruins at São Cucufate, and a number of wineries and restaurants.
It’s part of the region’s application for recognition as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, something that is hoped to bring tourism to the region. And also bring local respect to the tradition—it’s worth noting that the videos in the interpretive center are heavy on gentlemen of a certain age, and the hope is that new generations will want to continue the work. It’s something that seems to be working with one of the region’s other Intangible Cultural Heritages, Canta Alentejano, a type of polyphonic singing.
Maybe that all sounds too serious. Mostly, the route is a good deal of fun. The wines, which have the oxidized color and slightly funky characteristics of orange wines, have improved to the point where they can be bottled and enjoyed throughout the year. A few spots along the way are contemporary, like that interpretive center and the light-filled tasting room at the Adega Cooperativa Vidigueira, the region’s cooperative winery.
But stepping into Gerações da Talha, in Vila de Frades, reminds you of the namesake generations (it’s currently run by the fourth, Teresa Caeiro), with its reception room where the walls are lined with old talhas and the ceiling arches are hung with grapes, and where the outdoor dinners take place at long picnic tables with Canta Alentejano singers having a great time with their art and the local wine. They’ve also gotten into wine tourism recently, with tastings, picnics among the 100-year-old vineyards, and wine boat tours on nearby Lake Alqueva.
Run for a long time by another family, the nearby Honrado features a cellar-museum in a hundred-year-old winery and tavern, where they set some gorgeous tables and load them with Alentejo sausages, fresh cheeses, pork cheeks, hearty bean stews and other regional dishes. (They can also do a simple wine tasting with just a snack or two.)
And then there’s Adega Zé Galante, which seems not to have changed since its namesake proprietor was born in that same house many decades ago. He’s still making wine in talhas—just as his grandfather did in the 19th century—along the sides of the cozy dining room, and now he also puts together light meals and tastings for groups who arrange it in advance.
Unlike many people along the route, Galante doesn’t speak much English. But it doesn’t matter. He’s hosted international groups and it all works out. Good food, unusual wine, Portuguese hospitality and celebratory traditions are a universal language.