Amphora Wine Culture
In order to truly understand and enjoy "vinho de talha" (amphora wine), it is necessary to understand it from the vines and ancient grape varieties with which it is made, to its very original winemaking process in clay pots and the ritual of its consumption in the region. This is the only way to recognize, down to the smallest detail, the Mediterranean matrix that sustains it. When that happens, you enjoy it even more and you wish to go to inland Alentejo to appreciate and exprience it. There are two places chosen by the locals to drink amphora wine, the wine tavern, which is becoming increasingly out of character and in danger of extinction, and the small private winery, where friends mingle together.
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The Wine Tavern in Alentejo
The wine tavern is a special place in Alentejo. Unlike other taverns, those in the Alentejo are also wineries where wine is made, with the clay pots lined up behind the counter ready to receive the grapes in September. In that month the bustle is great. The host takes pains to prepare the amphoras or pots, to choose the batch of grapes, in the “ripanço” of the grapes in order to remove the stems and squeeze the berries, to stir the pot when the must starts to "boil”, many times with the help of customers. It is a time of joy and exaltation in which everyone strives to make the best wine in the area, as customers, with a trained sense of smell and palate, know how to recognize quality and choose, with the authority that is recognized, the best wine of each harvest. Needless to say, the lucky recipient has pride stamped on his face, as producing the best amphora wine gives the right to great social recognition and streamlines the business. It is important to recognise, however, that it is a healthy, stress-free competition in which everyone happily participates.
The identity profile of Moreto's amphora wines in the Granja-Amareleja sub-region, supported by tradition, is based on a minimalist winemaking technic, which has always been used by the small Amareleja winemaker, and on the use of grapes that are not overripe, as customary until the end of the 20th century.
Taking into account the aforementioned assumptions and assuming a good harvest year without the occurrence of rotten grapes, the profile of amphora wines from the Moreto variety will have the following characteristics:
Slightly intense ruby color, noticeable aroma, pleasant and distinctive, good balance between alcohol and acidity, little astringency, suitable for drinking shortly after vinification and with some rusticity, typical of vinification in clay pots. If bottling is intended, the wine should never age in new or used oak barrels, so as not to alter the profile induced by the clay pots.
the white variety that goes hand in hand with Moreto
The official name of the variety is Diagalves, but on the left bank of the river Guadiana everyone calls it Pendura (hanging), as it produces excellent table grapes that are kept for months hanging in the wineries. It is also known as Formosa (handsome), given the size and beauty of the bunches, and Carnal, for being fleshy and juicy. It is a very old variety resulting from the crossing of one of the founding varieties of the Iberian ampelography - Heben (in Spain) or Mourisco Branco (in Portugal) - with the well-known table grape variety Dedo de Dama, whose shape of the berries makes it unmistakable.
The variety has a curious history in the Amareleja region, as it existed little more than anonymously for centuries in traditional vineyards and was the object of an ambitious table grape production project in the 1960s/1970s, where it played a major role. Unfortunately, the project was a commercial failure and the producers had to use their grapes to make wine (amphora wine). They became so fond of the variety, for its adaptation to the inclement heat of the region and its generous production, that it became a true ampelographic star.
Like Moreto, it is a very late variety and quite rustic, being quite resistant to powdery mildew and mildew. It does not, therefore, produce grapes with a lot of alcohol, although they have an acceptable acidity, which allows the wine to be ready to drink on the opening day of the pots, on the 11th of November. Half a century ago it produced, together with Roupeiro, Manteúdo and Rabo de Ovelha grape varieties, almost all the Amareleja wine, as white wines were most popular, since Roman times.
Since the reds began to deserve the attention of the men of the plains, it was joined by Moreto, which, however, gained an unusual protagonism. Pendura and Moreto are today a legacy of traditional viticulture on the left bank of the river Guadiana.
As is tradition throughout the Alentejo and, naturally, on the left bank of the river Guadiana, the season for the amphora wines begins on São Martinho's day (religious day), as the winemaking process allows the wine to be ready to drink much earlier than the “other”, made by the classic process. Everyone in Alentejo yearns for the opening of the amphoras, to taste the novelties, on November 11th. In all the wineries, first thing in the morning, they begin to fine-tune the wine for consumption. And there is a lot to know about it.
After placing a bowl, preferably made of glazed clay, under the hole of the amphora, a device is placed through the hole. The most common device used is a metallic awl to pierce the cork that covers the hole in the amphora. As soon as this happens and the wine starts to drip, a wooden tap is introduced, which will control the volume of wine output. However, on the left bank of the river Guadiana it is still a tradition to use a much more exotic and original process, but no less efficient. After the cork is pierced, instead of the wooden tap, a piece of cane filled with dry sedge stalks is introduced through which the wine will pass, to clarify. The sedge, an aquatic plant that abounds on the banks of the Guadiana river, is not chosen at random, as it is the only one that is effective for the intended purpose, as it has a spongy stem with a triangular section. When the wine starts to come into contact with the dehydrated sedge, the stems swell and, thanks to their triangular section, they fit so well to each other that wine does not pass between them, but only through their interior, which would no longer happen if its section were circular. Sometimes, the stems swell so much that the wine stops flowing through them, making it necessary to relieve the pressure by removing one or more stems so that the wine runs back to the bowl. When using the faucet, adjust its opening so that the wine also flows into the bowl. At first, the wine comes out cloudy, but little by little it starts to clarify.
With the faucet it clarifies more slowly than with cane with sedge, as the filtering system is only its own “mother”, that is, the dregs that are deposited at the bottom of the amphora and through which the wine passes. After a few hours the wine starts to become clean and the aroma and flavor, thanks to the intense aeration, improve in a surprising way. As it is easy to imagine, on São Martinho's day you can hear the wine dripping into the bowl in all the wineries, in a symphony that indicates that the season for the amphora wines has just begun. This sharpens the appetite of those present and makes them salivate, because they know that the party will soon begin. Meanwhile, all the cloudy wine that falls into the bowl goes back to the pot, because when the system is already in tune, it will be easily clarified.
Back to the Wine Tavern
After the São Martinho's day tasting, which is always an event, the season goes on until the wine runs out, which usually happens in February or March. During these months, the wine tavern is the meeting place, for gathering and entertainment, as the consumption of the amphora wine, in the good Mediterranean way, requires snacks, music or singing, small talk and popular games.
In Amareleja, Granja or Póvoa de São Miguel there are still some wine taverns where it is possible to witness the anthropological richness of wine consumption and the conviviality among diners. For this reason, it is a remarkable experience for any tourist to taste the wines of the land, watching them come straight from the clay pot. Saturday, a day of rest from working in the countryside, is the ideal day to live the experience, as the tavern fills up with regular customers before lunch. When you cross the threshold of the door, you can feel the eyes of all the guests, while sipping their white wine, leaning against the counter, on top of us, making us feel that we are outsiders. But when we say what we are going to, they immediately put us at ease. The wine tavern is still, as a rule, a place for men, as in ancient Greece, but if a tourist enters, she will be as welcomed as if she were a man.
When we ask for a small glass of white amphora wine, with its unmistakable golden color, or a red Moreto with an open color, they put a small thick glass cup in front of us and fill it with a glass pitcher, which was filled directly from the clay pot. When we ask if there are any snacks to eat, the guy next door usually says: here, we bring them from home! If you want, you can help yourself to a slice of turkey or quince, which goes very well with the wine. And it really does, because the Greeks had already discovered it twenty-five centuries before! However, the host places a saucer on top of the counter with bits of cured cheese, sheep or goat, or strips of pork blanket from the salting machine, thin slices of sausage, crushed olives and the inevitable crispy bread baked in a wood oven.
If we are lucky enough to live this experience at Zé Piteira's “winery”, in Amareleja, where the opening of a amphora is a true theatrical show, the gastronomic experience risks being unforgettable, as one may be lucky enough to have a cod broth with poached eggs and goat cheese, thistle soup with chickpea, garlic "açorda" (bread and water mash), migas with pork, fried birds or, simply, a gazpacho with fried herring. And all this, in the excellence of simplicity and the art of Paulinha, wife of the winemaker Zé Piteira, a cook with a handful. In this winery/restaurant, you have the privilege of being able to accompany the delicacies with ungrafted Moreto wines, with a beautiful ruby color and delicate aroma, made with grapes from the old vines of Courelas dos Aleixos. Between São Martinho's day and Carnival, it can be straight out of the bottle, the rest of the year it is served bottled, with the highest quality. When the night goes on and the animation is high, the storytellers appear, who delight all the participants. Sometimes there are also singers, who, on the stray, show the beauty of popular culture at its best.