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Talha about it part 2: DOC Alentejo Vinho de Talha

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Domingos Soares Franco in the beuatifully restored cellars at Casa Agricola José de Sousa Rosado Fernandes

Portugal has a knack for hiding its light under a bushel.  Only last week I discovered that the Alentejo region introduced a DOC for Talha wine in 2012.  It was news to George Sandeman (a keen visitor to the region), Sogrape winemaker Antonio Braga too, both of whom I caught up with in London this week at a launch celebrating Sandeman Port’s 225th anniversary.  Echoing the common perception of the genre, Sandeman was surprised when I told him that the traditional talha wines I’d tasted weren’t oxidised.  

Of course, given time, they might be, though I suspect the delicious wines which I reviewed in Monday’s post will be enjoyed in their youth by the barflies at Joaquim Bacão’s Adega Velha or Professor Arlindo, his family and friends. As for a new DOC breed of talha wines intended for wider circulation (and made by ‘professional,’ full-time wineries), they are being bottled after fermenting and aging in talha to preserve freshness.

The aim of the DOC Vinho de Talha rules is to preserve core traditions.  They provide that:

  • the grapes must be de-stemmed;
  • the fermentation must be undertaken in impermeable pots or talha; and
  • the wine and the skins must remain in the pots/talha until November 11th (St. Martin’s day).

Currently, the DOC Talha can only be used by producers working with fruit sourced from Alentejo’s existing DOC regions – Borba, Évora, Granja-Amareleja, Moura, Portalegre, Redondo, Reguengos and Vidigueira.  And only, I understand, with the grapes approved by those DOC regions.

José de Sousa

 

The original hipster beard belongs to José de Sousa

The original hipster beard belongs to José de Sousa

Domingos Soares Franco will use the DOC for the first time this year, though he has been bottling talha wine since 1986 when José Maria da Fonseca acquired Casa Agricola José de Sousa Rosado Fernandes. The modernising graduate from California’s Davis University could not resist the temptation to revive José de Sousa’s talha tradition and restore the old winery, which is open to visits.

Soares Franco effectively reverse engineered the winemaking process from a case of José de Sousa’s legendary 1940 vintage, which his brother had bought at Christies.  It’s why the focus is on three traditional varieties, Grand Noir (typically 50-60% of the blend) Trincadeira (305) and Aragonês (10%).  Varieties which have been replanted to augment fruit from an original 1952 vineyard.

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Terracotta army

His other big challenge was to re-equip the winery with talhas.  When I visited last week he told me that today’s terracotta army of over 100 pots had been amassed from other wineries/estates, antiques shops and gardening centres.  All had to pass the tap and not crack(ed) test to ensure they were still robust enough to use.  Plus the smell test, to check that they’d not been used for olive oil. Having sourced so widely, Soares Franco has noticed that talhas tend to be made of one of three local clays – from Monsaraz (where José de Sousa is located), Campo Maior and Vidigeuira, each of which is different.  He prefers Monsaraz clay.

This vintage he has filled 14 talha pots with reds.  They will be drained this week (after St Martin’s day).  Half will then be returned to talha and topped with a thin layer of olive oil and a paper jam pot like lid (a barrier to oxygen). The other half will be aged in four 600l chesnut casks.  Then Soares Franco will blend the two (so it would seem that, as long as you age wines in talha until St Martin’s day, wines which have additionally been aged in wood can use the Vinho de Talha DOC).

Here are my notes on Soares Franco’s trial, sample and finished wines; all ferments are inoculated:

José de Sousa Trincadeira 2013

The first of three single varietal (Trincadeira) trial wines Soares Franco showed me to demonstrate the influence of different winemaking processes.  This wine was fermented and aged in stainless steel.  As you might expect, the fruit expression (sweet plum) is the most overt.  The acidity is more strident too. Nice membrillo spices.

José de Sousa Trincadeira 2013

This example was foot trodden and fermented in lagares (30% whole bunch).  It’s more opaque in colour and in terms of fruit expression.  Less fruit, fruit, fruit, with subtle savoury riffs – salt, very gently earthy stems.  Both tannins and acidity are very balanced and well integrated.

José de Sousa Trincadeira 2013

Fermented and aged in talha, stylistically, this wine sits mid-way between the other two, with a more elevated fruit expression than the wine from lagares, though the fruit is softer, not so defined/vibrant.  It’s woollier, waxy even, as though seen through a veil, similarly its dried herbs and spices. The tannins seem soft – very fine – and immersive too, though they gently build on the finish.  Soares Franco describes them as dusty, smelling of clay and I know what he means.  For me, it’s as though the liquid and clay have fused so that the clay expands on the finish.  A really interesting wine!

José de Sousa J 2011 (VR Alentejano)

sandeman & almeida rehearsal 088This finished wine – a blend of Grand Noir (60%), Touriga Francesa (28%) and Touriga Nacional (12%) – was part fermented in 3 ton open top lagares, the balance in 1500l talhas for about 12 days, followed by two weeks with skin contact.  The blended wine was then aged in new French oak casks for 14 months. It was bottled without any filtration or cold stabilisation.  The Tourigas lend perfume – florals – to this otherwise quite firm, spicy wine with its undertones of damp clay.  A mid-palate of sweet plum, dried fig, cassia and clove is well tempered by those immersive, but sweeping tannins which expand into the finish.  Cries out for food.  14%

José de Sousa DOC Talha White 2015 (sample)

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This sample, drawn directly from a talha, had a surface sheen of olive oil which you can see in this photo.  It’s a co-fermented blend of Antão Vaz, Perrum, Dialgaves (a table grape) and Roupeiro.  Fresh and grapey on the nose, it’s surprisingly dry and firm – quite austere – in the mouth with a spicy, (lemony) pithy backbone and broader, perfumed quince on a waxy softer finish.  I like the tannin structure of the wine.  The skins gives this wine a different architecture to modern whites from the region.  One which makes for a seemingly fresher palate – this is a wine which would refresh you – mop your brow – on hot and sunny day in Alentejo.

José de Sousa DOC Talha Red 2015 (sample)

Again, drawn directly from a talha.  This is one of the 14 talhas from 2015, half of which will go into chesnut barrels prior to blending.   Bright red with a pink rim, this has joyous young – very primary – black and red cherry fruit, delivered with a smile. The fruit is a touch creamy – soft-  with a gentle rub of those wet clay dust tannins and a touch of salt and (ripe) stalk – more spicy than earthy.  Liked it.

José de Sousa Ripanco 2015 (sample)

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This wine was made from the vestiges of fruit remaining on de-stemmed bunches, which is pushed through the slats in the table, pictured (apologies for the fuzziness – dark cellar and my combo of near and long-sightedness can make taking pics tricky!)  As you can imagine, it’s quite tannic.  Soares Franco reckons he’ll use it for blending. It’s like pomegranate and cranberry on steroids – pink but pithy not pretty!  Well, pretty when you get a glimmer of fruit.

Herdade do Esporão

A new dawn at Esporao

A new dawn at Herdade do Esporão

Herdade do Esporão is one of the handful of estates established in the 1990s which dragged Alentejo’s winemaking firmly into the 20th century.  And now, in the 21st century, dawns a new back to the future winery equipped with old talhas!  Red winemaker Luis Patrão has had a crash course in talha winemaking from none other than Adega Velha’s Joaquim Bacão.

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When I me him and Bacão (l) at Adega Velha, Patrão tells me that the experience has been eye-opening.  For starters, it has affected winemaking practices at Esporão where he is now sulphuring the conventionally-made wines less and mostly naturally fermenting.  Additionally, where the company is such a major player in Alentejo, he believes that it has also been important “to be connected to our culture and heritage…lots of people know Esporão, but not that it’s in Alentejo….”  The new talha wines should change that!

Esporão Vinho de Talha 2014

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This wine is made from field blend fruit from the Portalegre region where the company rent vineyards.  It was the last fruit to be harvested and was pressed at the end of November into stainless steel vats to prevent it from oxidising (no sulphur dioxide was added).  It has a deep hue with spice and floral lift  and darker liquorice to the finish.  Its “volume” comes from the skins, which add extra dimension to its slippery black plum slivovitz fruit – very pure, close to the stone fruit. Just a flicker of oxidation brings to mind plum almond tart.  Dry, firm and fresh, yet with a heady intensity owing to its perfume.  12.5%

Piteira

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The Piteira label from Granja-Amareleja is named after its maker, José Piteira and is the flagship wine of Amareleza Vinhos; he also makes the wines at the Cooperativa Agrícola da Granja.  Piteira’s grandfather made talha wines but the family name was only leveraged as a brand in 2000 and got a modern makeover in 2012.

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In with the old, out with the new – but here’s it’s packaging only – the commitment to talha is strong

Piteira very kindly brought old and new wines to show me plus varietal white samples from this vintage so I could get a perspective on how the different grapes respond to the talha treatment.  Both are bottled direct from talha.  Here are my notes on the wines:

Piteira Talha Dialgaves white 2015 (sample)

Apparently around 80% of Granja-Amareleja’s white wines are made from this table grape.  Though the process (with skins) means this unfinished sample is a touch stemmy and firm, the variety brings quite soft, sweet fruit to the table.

Piteira Talha Dialgaves & Arinto white 2015 (sample)

Markedly yellower.  The Arinto brings power – a thrust of citrussy acidity – to Dialgaves’ sweet fruit.  Again, attractive stoney phenolics behind the fruit. Minerality of expression too.

Piteira Talha Dialgaves & Antão Vaz white 2015 (sample)

Deeper yellow again and more oxidative, this is very spicy, firmer and drier.  Apparently, the Antão Vaz is much riper and accounts for the body and structure.

Piteira Talha Dialgaves & Roupeiro white 2014

This finished, naturally fermented wine has a medicinal hint to the nose and the dessicated pineapple, honey and pina colada notes I associate with Roupeiro.  These follow through on the palate together with pink grapefruit, flesh and pith, and knocked back, stony-faced stone fruits.  The grapes would have seen a little sulphur prior to the ferment and the wine would have seen a little sulphur on bottling. A powerful white, with good fruit and interest. 13.5%

Piteira Talha Dialgaves & Roupeiro white 2000

Very soft yet persistent in the mouth with a whisper of smoke and attractive orange peel exotics to its dried fruit.  An undertow of bonemeal – white noise – detracts from the balance and purity of the whole which is a shame.  Still, I reckon this wine would stand tall alongside any other conventionally made 15 year old white from the region.  It’s still very much alive and they’d almost certainly be dead.  12.7%

Piteira Talha Moreto red 2015 (sample)

Made from 100% Moreto Granja-Amareleja’s signature red grape.  This wine is sourced solely from ungrafted vines (30-50 years old) on sandy, rocky, alluvial soils with some schist near the river Guadiana.  This deeply coloured red has the grape’s heady perfume, with intense violets and generous, sweet, ripe fruit.  The talha tannins build in the glass and bring balance and length.  Looking good!

Piteira Talha Moreto red 2014

Again, I’m struck by the heady ripeness of both fruit (raspberry and plum) and florals in this wine – almost super-charged.  But the palate is juicy and balanced too, with a lick of chocolate.  This wine was made from both grafted and ungrafted Moreto vineyards from soils with more limestone.

Piteira Talha Moreto red 2013

Also sourced from both grafted and ungrafted vineyards.  The 2013 was much more evolved than I expected, really quite nutty.  Surprising after the heady fruit elixirs which preceded it.

Piteira Talha Moreto red 2004

Garnet with a very bricky rim; showing its age.  Dried fruits – panforte de Siena, with bitter chocolate and firm, quite drying tannins.  I’m not sure the tannins will ever come into balance in this wine.

Piteira Talha Moreto red 2002

A much deeper hue with still good weight of spicy dried fruits and nice orange peel lift.  Dusty, clay tannins are better integrated.  Rustic, but impressive given its age and the method.

Herdade dos Outeiros Altos

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Herdade dos Outeiros Altos may be a new kid on the block but already a full third of production is made in talha. Jorge Cardoso and Fernanda Rodrigues planted their first vines in Estremoz, Borba in 2002.  The couple, both agricultural engineers, started out as land appraisers, which perhaps explains why it took the discerning pair three years to find their spot at 320-350m above sea level on the slopes of the Serra d’Ossa.  

Cardoso tells me they were looking for schist and a property which would produce wines of character from old fashioned varieties, so talha was a good fit.  They now own 22 hectares, all certified organic and also grow olives and herbs.  Rodrigues works full time on the estate while Cardoso still works on land appraisal projects.

Like Soares Franco, the couple had to scour around for their pots – “like hunting for antiques,” said Cardoso.  They made their first talha wine, in fact all their first wines, in 2012.  But, Cardoso observes, there’s no hurry – it’s all about “slow food, slow wine, everything is slow in Alentejo, it’s perfect.”

Looking ahead, they hope to make white wines too.

Herdade dos Outeiros Altos Talha Red 2012

A blend of one third each of Alfrocheiro Preto, Trincadeira e Aragonez.  After destemming and gentle crushing, the grapes were fermented varietally (each in a 1200l clay pots). The “cap” of grape skins was “punched down” several times a day. The wine remained on skins in the pots until November 11th.  Only the free run was bottled (no pressings).   This wine is still quite tightly coiled.  It reveals fresh plum, liquorice and a hint of iodine,  the whole framed by spicy, bony tannins.  The sensation of clay expanding in the mouth rings true for this wine.  Lots going on here – would really benefit from being decanted.  I was not surprised to learn that Jorge Rosa Santos e Filhos Vinhos are located nearby – though they are much bigger wines, Explicit  Red has a similarly impressive structure and boniness of tannins. 14%

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Pedro Ribeiro

I had already encountered the latest 2014 amphora releases from Herdade do Rocim in Vidigeira, which I reviewed here.  But it was good to meet with winemaker Pedro Ribeiro, whom I last met at Herdade do Grous in Beja.  He is now married to his boss, Catarina Vieira.  It was good to catch up and taste a few earlier vintages and find out a bit more about the project.

I’d not realised that Herdade do Rocim had such a long history in the region.  There is still a very old winery on the estate where the talha tradition was plied. In common with other Alentejo wineries, Rocim’s current cellamaster has always made talha wines on the side, home brew style.  Rocim have 15 talhas ranging in size from 600-1000 litres.

Herdade do Rocim Amphora Branco 2015 (sample)

Still on skins in talha, Ribeiro expects that this will be bottled in February or March.  It’s understandably a little aldehydic/nutty but there’s attractive jammy and waxy apricot fruit beneath, good acidity and a fine web of spicy tannins to bed down the flavours.

Herdade do Rocim Amphora Branco 2014

This is the wine I tasted earlier.  Today it’s looking very spicy yet delicately spicy – I guess I mean the spices dance the length of the palate – line dancers!  It’s gently lemony, with lemon verbena hints, bay leaf and lovely minerality. Still impressed.  Seems more limpid, translucent than when I last tasted it/the bottle I tasted before.  12%

Herdade do Rocim Amphora Branco 2013

You feel the tannins more in this older wine, a fine gritty quality which brings some astringency to the palate.  At its core is apricot fruit close to the kernel, so a touch bitter.  Good acidity and the phenolics bring a sense of freshness to the wine.  Not enough charm for me to want to drink on its own; could come into its own with food? 11.5%

Herdade do Rocim Amphora wines

Herdade do Rocim Amphora Tinto 2015 (sample)

A blend of Moreto, Trincadeira, Tinta Grossa and Aragones, again still on skins.  Again, quite aldehydic but you can sense good depth and power to the fruit beneath.

Herdade do Rocim Amphora Tinto 2014

As I remember it very pretty, with red fruits and plum, a hint of almond, nice length and texture.  Beguiling.

Herdade do Rocim Amphora Tinto 2013

Gently sluiced but lingering raspberry and strawberry scented fruit with lovely spice and minerality.  Simple and yet not.  I liked this very much.  Especially the pronounced minerality of both white and red.   Ribeiro reckons the reds though not concentrated have the backbone (tannin, acid) to last perhaps 9 years.  Let’s see!

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