The Roman Wine Revival by Alastair Leithead

The Romans were making wine in clay amphora pots across their Empire two thousand years ago, and in one small town in rural Portugal they’ve been making it the same way ever since.

Vila de Frades, or friars’ town, takes its name from the monks who spent centuries continuing the tradition by producing communion wine at the nearby São Cucufate monastery, built on the ruins of a Roman villa.

Thanks to the rising popularity of natural wines and with the help of a great story, Vila de Frades in Alentejo now finds itself at the centre of a Roman-style wine revival which is bringing a young generation of winemakers back home to the countryside.

Talha wines, as they are called in Portugal, have their own official wine classification and the strict rule is the wine must stay in the clay pot until St Martin’s Day…on November 11th.

And take it from me, when the taps are hammered into the huge clay pots to let the wines flow, the whole town comes alive and the traditional taberna taverns overflow with tastings and the traditional singing that inevitably follows.

Vinho de talha is young and fresh and earthy – it has a different taste to conventional wines but is well suited to the traditional foods of Alentejo like rich cheeses, black pork cheeks and bread-based side dishes. And some of the biggest vineyards in the region are now discovering the value of clay talhas in their winemaking.

Nearby Herdade do Rocim is leading the charge, but even Esporão now has its own talha wine. “The wine is really different from a conventional wine,” said Pedro Ribeira, the winemaker and general manager of Rocim who has made a high-end talha wine called Jupiter which sold for €1,000 a bottle. “It’s an authentic product and a unique wine with a lot of stories to tell.”

And there are plenty of stories in town where there’s a new talha interpretive centre with interactive exhibits, and young entrepreneurs are reviving old wineries and bringing in visitors.

Teresa Caeiro, 27, gave up a promising career in diamond mining after falling in love and decided to come back home to make wine with her grandfather Arlindo Ruivo, 82, who has fifty years of experience. Fifty talha pots are propped up under a beautiful vaulted ceiling in their small Gerações de Talha (Generations of Talha) winery which has stood on the main street of Vila de Frades for at least 250 years.

Teresa was brought up in the family home above the winery and remembers the sound of wine trickling out of the pots every November. “I’m glad the young generation don’t want to lose the traditional roots of the winemaking and want to take it further, and so the older generation are giving them a kick in the backside,” Arlindo Ruivo said, to raised eyebrows from Teresa.

Traditionally the grapes used for making talha wines are a “field blend” – a mixture of indigenous Portuguese grapes all grown and harvested together – historically as hedge against the weather. Everything – grape juice, skins, pips and even some of the stems – are thrown into the amphora together and natural yeasts start the fermentation.

The solid material forms a cap which is called “the mother” and has to be punched through three times a day for three weeks to prevent carbon dioxide causing the talha to explode.

At the end of fermentation, the mother drops to the bottom and creates a natural filter which the wine emerges through two months later fresh, clear and ready to drink.

A dozen wineries opened their doors to visitors this year for the town’s first official festival organised by Teresa and another new-generation winemaker, Ruben Honrado, who has seen a dramatic increase in the number of visitors to his beautiful old Honrado winery.

Many American visitors were among those walking the streets with a small glass around their neck – a free pass to taste from the talhas. “I love the idea of natural, old wine, so we’re here to drink as much as we possibly can,” laughed Tina Dameron, an American now living in Portugal with her husband Bob who came after reading about the hastily arranged festival.

Small groups of men gathered in the traditional adega wineries and tabernas to sing Cante Alentejano is the traditional polyphonic style of Alentejo, which is always a wine-fuelled favourite and St Martin’s Day tradition.

The singing style has been given Intangible Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO and now the mayor of Vidiguera municipality wants talha winemaking recognised in a similar way.

So look out for Portuguese vinho de talha, or amphora wine, and remember the story.

You can sign up for Alastair Leithead’s weekly blog Off-Grid and Ignorant in Portugal and if wine’s your thing, can follow his Big Portuguese Wine Adventure updates.

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