Reflections on talha wine, Alentejo: Herdade do Rocim Amphora Day
Ten years ago, I spent a week in Alentejo. In my subsequent report (here), I remarked how this visit reinforced what a young region this vast, southern Portuguese area was from a winemaking perspective. Looking back, I was right and I was wrong. Nowhere better illustrated this than last week’s visit to Herdade do Rocim.
In 2009, I tipped the then newly minted Vidigueira producer as “a name to watch” and Grande Rocim Alicante Bouschet 2007 made the cut for my 50 Great Portuguese Wines 2010. Rocim, who were listed by Hallgarten Wines this year, still make Grande Rocim Alicante Bouschet, but both bottle and wine are less ‘heavyweight’ – a good thing, very much in tune with our times. But so is another development at Rocim – talha wines which, quips Pedro Ribeiro, “is a trend with 2,000 years in Portugal!” The winemaker can take a bow for founding a great initiative – Herdade do Rocim Amphora Day, now in its second year. He assured me it will be an annual affair.
Today’s consumers’ tastes are more eclectic than ever and, with globalisation, standing out from the crowd brings competitive advantage. But when Portugal was finding its way on the export market, assimiliation (through making international styles) and being value-driven to get a foothold on the market, seemed the right way forward. It’s probably why my past visits to Rocim didn’t include the original (talha) winery and the talhas in Rocim’s state of the art modern winery were there for decoration only.
Together with the renaissance of the Portalegre sub-region’s elevated old field blend vineyards, the revival of talha wines (which were granted Vinho de Talha DOC status in 2010), has been one of the most exciting developments in Alentejo. As Ribeiro points out, “amphora wines are a niche and they will always be as it’s very difficult to scale it due to the fragility of the material.” But that is no bad thing. Indeed, small batch premium winemaking (obviously when done well) is a good thing from an interest and economic sustainability perspective.
There’s another benefit too. Attended by over 1,100 members of the public with a smattering of international press, talha wines may be fragile, but they are punching above their weight when it comes to raising Alentejo’s profile as a dynamic, exciting region with a strong culture and tradition of winemaking and grape growing. It is exciting to see traditional methods and old school varieties being revived, such as Perrum, Dialgaves, Rabo de Ovelha and Manteudo in addition to Antão Vaz and, for reds, Tinta Grossa and Moreto. Grapes which, one speculates, are perhaps better adapted to the challenges presented by the climate crisis.
It is also exciting to see winemakers like Ribeiro play fast and loose with the tradition with Rocim’s Clay-Aged wine, which you can read all about here, in my review of the first release. Well-travelled, the winemaker has attracted an international group of producers to Rocim’s Amphora Day – 42 producers, up from 24 last year, attended from countrywide and Georgia to Australia. Doubtless, such opportunities for cultural and technical exchange are invaluable. It was a fun day, so mark your diaries – in November, most likely the first weekend after 11 November, Vidigueira in Alentejo is the place to be.
And if you are wondering why then, 11 November – St Martin’s Day – is traditionally when that year’s wines are first decanted from talha (the date is now enshrined in the DOC Vinho de Talha rules as a ‘not before’ date). The tradition very much prevails in local ‘adega’ restaurants like Pais das Uvas in Vidigueira, from where I tasted a fresh decanted red, the glass dipped into the basin (pictured). And most excitingly, a Vidigueira speciality from 2018, still in talha – a glass of Antão Vaz – scooped from under a film of olive oil It was as ambrosial as the example I wrote about back in 2015 from Professor Arlindo’s home wine cellar. You can read my first detailed 2015 reports about Alentejo’s talha wines here and here.
It was deeply pleasurable to see how the genre has since been taken to heart, resulting in the revival of the lost art of talha production, as well as many new producers making talha wines.
Chapeau (of the traditional kind, pictured) to Herdade do Rocim and the Alentejo CVR, who have dedicated an area of their website here to talha wines. It includes a lovely video of Professor Arlindo speaking about the tradition.