Having had our first taste of life in Alentejo at Herdade do Esporão, we climbed back into our van and drove north. We were headed into the town of Reguengos de Monsaraz, a village of perhaps 10,000 people, just a few kilometers from the Spanish border.
The drive was short (only about 15 minutes), but peering through the tempered glass it was easy to tell we were in Europe—narrow streets that dip then veer for no apparent reason, with quick sharp turns onto roads that appeared to lead nowhere.
Alentejo was different, though, with nearly every building white washed with bright colored trim. In most of Alentejo, gold is the most common trim, which represents grain and therefore wealth. In Reguengos de Monsaraz, though, being further south and east, the buildings were trimmed uniformly in blue due to the influence of the Moors. The significance? Apparently, the Moors were less interested in wealth and concentrated on more earthly concerns: the blue was believed to repel insects.
Our destination was José de Sousa, a winery that was founded in the latter half of the 19th Century, and was purchased by José Maria da Fonseca, the oldest producer of table wines in Portugal and best known for their Periquita and Lancers brand.
Having just visited one of the largest producers in Alentejo, I guess I expected a similar experience at this Alentejano outpost of another big Portuguese producer.
José de Sousa was different, though, as from the moment we pulled in, it was clear that there was a concerted effort to produce wines that not only focussed on the indigenous grape varieties, but also embraced the centuries-old tradition of producing wines in amphorae, or talhas as they are known in Alentejo.
Several blog posts could be written about the José Maria da Fonseca family, and in most of them, Domingos Soares Franco, our host at José de Sousa, would figure prominently. Currently Vice President and Senior Winemaker at the company, he is also the first Portuguese winemaker to graduate from UC Davis’ renowned Fermentation Sciences program.
Shortly after he started working in the family business, the company purchased José de Sousa in 1986. At the time, the new acquisition owned 20 amphorae. Almost immediately, the search began to find and purchase more of the enormous (1,800 liter) antique clay pots. At the time, many called Domingos crazy, saying that he was going back in time when he should be using more modern methods.
But he persisted.
The winery now boasts 114 talhas.
Today, largely due to the success of José de Sousa’s wines, many producers in Alentejo are scrambling to locate talhas for their own production. There are a few “modern” producers of amphorae—a smattering in Italy and in the Republic of Georgia—but the new vessels are much smaller (300-400 liters), take about a month to make, and are extremely expensive.
The vinification process using talhas is also quite expensive as José de Sousa follows many of the traditional methods to produce the wine: the fruit is foot-trodden and then de-stemmed by hand. The must is then transferred to the talhas for fermentation. The wine remains in the tahlas for another five months, topped with olive oil to prevent massive oxidation.
The talhas are drained from the bottom and the wine is transferred to larger tanks for blending and eventually to oak casks for further aging, using much of the same “technology” that was used by the Romans 2,000 years earlier.
Why use the talhas? Why make all that extra effort and cost (the process is ten times more expensive than modern methods due largely to the labor cost involved)? In addition to the obvious nod to tradition, the process, according to Domingos, lends spiciness, enhanced aromas, and clay texture to the end product.
As with all wines, talking about them is great and interesting, but how do they taste? I can attest that they are fantastic….
2015 José de Sousa Vinho Régional Alentejo: Retail $20. 100% Grand Noir, a cross between Petit Bouschet and Aramon Noir. 5% clay pot. Apparently increases the finish. 50 American. 50 French. 30 New. 2014 was #5 in Wine Enthusiast. Lavender and floral with plenty of weight midway through. Quite tannic on the back-end. Needs steak. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2014 José de Sousa, Alentejo: Retail 20€. 52% Grand Noir, 33% Trincadeira, 15% Arrogonez. 50% Foot trodden. 50% Talha fermented 50% fermented in barrel. All basket pressed after fermentation. Aged in barrel. Deep red fruit with a bit of mocha. Rich, unctuous, deep. Finish initially intense and spicy. Then shortens up. Still really Fantastic. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2015 José de Sousa Puro Talha Tinto: 40% Grand Noir, 30% Trincadiera, 20% Arrogenez, 10% Moreto. 60% Talha, 40% Chesnut barrel fermented wine. Co-fermentation of four varieties. Debut vintage not yet released. Slightly oxidized with a bit of Dr. Pepper-type aromas. Interesting. Earthy, elegant. Not what I expected. Tannins are pretty well integrated and fantastic all the way through. Pomegranate on the mid palate. Lengthy finish. Whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.
2015 José de Sousa Puro Talha Branco: White. Antão Vaz, Tamarez, Diagalves. 100% Talha. Only 0.5 hectares of Old Vine white planted. The color and aromas of an old Chenin Blanc. Fermented with skins and stems. Exotic fruit. Really an interesting wine. Fantastic. Unique. Whoa. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.