Finding Turimenha was one of those great surprises we seem to be coming across regularly in this little corner of Portugal… We arrived at a guesthouse and asked if we could use a hose to wash our car, as we had a wine tour booked for the next day. Trying to explain in my bad Portuguese to the lady who had welcomed us exactly why we needed to wash the car so late in the day, her face lit up at the mention of ‘vinho’ and she gestured for us to follow her. She opened up some metal doors underneath the main house and – surprise – a working adega with rows of ‘talhas’, the traditional clay pots brought to the Alentejo by the Romans and still used for wine today. These pots are regularly seen in this area, but mostly for decoration, even when found in wineries. It’s apt that we’ve found them in use for winemaking at Turimenha, which is in the village of Sao Salvador de Aramenha, just a couple of minutes walk from the ruins of the Roman city of Ammaia.
Making wine in clay amphorae is increasingly fashionable in the world of wine, with naturally-minded producers as far apart as Georgia in eastern Europe and Chile in South America producing wines in clay amphorae that sell for a fortune in trendy natural wine bars in London and Paris and Tokyo. Most of the time this is billed as a rediscovery of ancient techniques, but amphorae for wine production have been produced here almost continuously since Roman times – most of those we’ve found in this area were made a little further south in Campo Maior, often with the name of the potter and the date of production inscribed onto the pot – most currently in use dating from the 1920s.
Producing wine in this way is often with the aim of producing ‘authentic’ wines, as an alternative to the vast amounts of homogenous, forgettable wine produced these days (one winemaker talked to us of the ubiquity of what he called ‘vinhos de puto’(!) – wines that are enjoyed in the evening and forgotten the next day… !). A part of this is the romantic idea that by storing the wines in clay, the liquid is somehow cradled by the earth from which it came, but there are also practical reasons – clay allows the wine to breathe and acquire depth and complexity in a way that more neutral containers, such as stainless steel and fibreglass do not.
The majority of wine now is made in stainless steel, which gives the huge benefit of temperature control and produces wines of precision, but there is an argument that the lack of exposure to oxygen means the wine doesn’t develop depth of flavour. Storing wine in oak or other types of wood allows the wine to breathe ever so slightly and develop softness and depth, but this often brings with it spicy flavours from the wood – which can be desirable but can also affect the purity of the fruit flavour. Clay offers an alternative that is permeable, so the wine can breathe, but which doesn’t affect the fruit flavours, offering both depth and purity. What’s more, temperature control is possible – the ‘pie crust’ around the top of many talhas here means that cold water poured around the rim spreads evenly as it pours over the clay, cooling it down. Time-consuming, I’m sure, but effective!
Turimenha is owned by a local couple who have a smallholding in the village where the guesthouse also is; we were shown around the sheep pen and vegetable patches as well as the adega. The vineyards are in the foothills below the beautiful ancient border castle of Marvão, and are planted with Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Aragonez (Tempranillo), Alicante Bouchet and Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds; Arinto, Antão Vaz, Fernão Pires for the white. The grapes are manually selected in the vineyard at harvest, then are transported carefully to the nearby adega, avoiding exposure to the sun or crushing. Both whites and reds are destemmed and pressed using a manual press, with the whites fermenting in stainless steel and the red, complete with skins, goes into the clay pots for fermentation. They are aged here for six months until settled, then the stopper is pierced with a hot piece of steel and the wine allowed to leave the pot with minimum agitation to finish it’s ageing in stainless steel. What’s left in the amphorae is then distilled into aguadente.
After buying some of both the white and red to drink ourselves, we turned up to get some more for a tasting we were hosting at Pomarinho, only to find that they’d run out – there was plenty of wine in the tanks but nothing in bottle. So we returned a couple of weeks later to find ourselves amidst a bottling party! Friends had turned up to help, delicious petiscos (snacks) were being passed around and wine was being poured from jugs drawn straight from the tanks. We left with smiles, full bellies, and even some bottles of wine!
The white wine has the freshness of a good Douro white – though I’ve been told that the Alentejo is capable of fantastic whites, the only ones I’ve found that have excited me have been aged in oak, the fresher for me hasn’t quite hit the button. This is good though, and classic Portuguese in that the freshness is tempered not so much by fruit but by a herby minerality and subtle liquorice/violet notes that must be the Arinto, as I’m finding similar flavours in whites from all over the country and often the thing they all have in common is Arinto, with it’s high acidity cooling down some of the heat here.
The red, fermented and aged in talhas for six months, has deep fruit notes of plum and mulberry, mushroom and pine. It is rustic, but with poise and balance, and a savoury moreish quality. Very drinkable, but better with food. We matched it with the Shitake Chutney from Terrius at a recent tasting, and it worked vey well. This is a nice alternative to the modern style of Alentejo red much more common at this price point. These notes are on the 2014 ‘Vinho do Pote’, we also tasted the 2015 from tank, which was an excellent vintage here as in many parts of Europe, and it had a real bright elegance to it. There was also a DOC 2015 produced, their first here, which tasted fantastic but still had a way to go before bottling.