I first read about talhas (Portuguese clay fermentation vessels) in a World of Fine Wine article written by Paul White back in 2015. On reading it again a few years ago, I decided I’d like to visit the Alentejo myself, and drink Talha wine in situ, but I could find very little information about how I might organise such a trip. What I needed was this book – a few years before it had actually been written. Paul White’s book, Talha Tales, is available from Amazon in Hardcover (£28.13), Paperback (£20.00) and Kindle edition (£9.99). I was sent the Kindle copy to review and, while very grateful for the opportunity, my first comment would be that if you want to buy this book I suggest you spend a bit extra and get the paperback. As with many books of this type, you quite often want to flick backwards and forwards between pages, and it’s not so easy in Kindle.
And the content? For an overview, I couldn’t put it better than Paul himself:
There are three main sections. The first is full of background information and esoteric geeky wine and cultural stuff I love as a former historian. The second part explores individual producers and their wine in relative detail, to guide readers to the wines they may want to taste or wineries they may want to visit. The third part is more oriented towards the wine tourist. What to eat, where to stay and what to do beyond drinking.
Even as someone who was not a former historian, I think it was the background with “esoteric geeky wine and cultural stuff” I enjoyed most. I loved to hear the story of how the tradition of making wine in talha was saved from the brink of extinction, and is now starting to thrive again – I feel happier and more at home in a world where there is a place for maintaining historical traditions and diversity.
Also, as someone a lot more familiar with Georgian qvevri wine, I found the comparisons of talha and qvevri winemaking fascinating. Despite the historical and geographical points of difference, they have a lot in common. In terms of more recent developments, with both talha and qvevri there is increasing experimentation with the addition of wood ageing, and also of course bottling to allow broader distribution in cities and abroad, when historically the wine was more likely to go straight from clay vessel to the table.
Those were some of the geeky highlights for me (oh, also the bits on how the inside of talha are coated), but there is plenty more to get your teeth into. Paul’s enthusiasm and informal style carried me along through the story, and there is much I’d like to return to when I have more time.
The rest of the book, I must admit I read less avidly. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it difficult to concentrate on reading about producers and lists of wines I know little about. Were I to revive my plans to visit the Alentejo though, perhaps inspired by the 3rd section of the book (actually written by another author, Jenny Mortimer) they would suddenly become a lot more relevant.
The long and short of it is that if you are like me: fascinated by, or even just curious about, ancient winemaking methods and how they persist into modern times, or if you have a specific interest in talha wines, you really need this book. You should also be keeping in touch with Paul on his website Wine Disclosures (and check the archives of my blog). If on the other hand you are not so fascinated…. well, maybe you should be 🙂
Today we have naming of pots. Compared to the beauty of wine, the names of the various types of clay container used in winemaking can seem rather prosaic, but they are of more than just geeky interest. Marketers will want names with the right sort of resonance, while other more practical minds might want precision to enable them to distinguish particular styles and usages. And layered on top of all that are cultural sensitivities: who owns the name, and who has the right to determine how it is used?
For whatever reason, the world of wine seems to have settled on using the word amphora as the generic name for a clay jar used in winemaking, and I think I can understand why. It is a vaguely familiar word that sounds good to western ears. It also nods towards the civilisations of Greece and Rome, which cannot be a bad thing when trying to create a positive image. But there are issues with using amphora, the first of which is accuracy. Most amphorae were actually relativity small containers of around 40 litres. And they usually had two handles to enable them to be moved about easily, as implied by the etymology of the name. Also, they were not used for winemaking, but rather for transportation and storage. Consequently, to call large handleless static vessels used for winemaking amphorae has little justification. Another issue is that the term amphora winemaking seems to imply that it originated around the Mediterranean, despite some styles being clearly modelled on the way qvevri have been used in Georgia for millennia. This failure to recognise Georgian tradition has understandably upset some Georgians.
So, we have the possibility of describing a clay winemaking vessel as an amphora as discussed above or, in at least some cases, a qvevri. I have done to death the subject of qvevri recently on this blog, so for more details I invite you to use the link above for more information, or even better my blog’s search box. But what other names could be appropriate? Let’s start by looking at other old names for clay containers that were kicking about at roughly the same time as amphorae.
There is the pithos for example. According to its Wikipedia article, the word pithos can be used for pretty much any old clay container, which is encouraging. Even better, they typically were often considerably larger than amphorae, and some of them could have been buried, as qvevri are. I am not sure that pithos was ever used to describe a fermentation vessel in ancient times, but it does seem a possibility. And the Sicilian wine producer COS, has named its clay-vessel wines Pithos, so there is some sort of precedent for its use. But sadly I fear the word pithos is little known today, so it is not great from a marketing perspective even if the word is more accurate than amphora. And the Georgians would still be upset.
Other ancient words for Mediterranean clay pots are dolium and krater. The word dolium looks like it could be an interesting contender for a generic name for a winemaking jar if it were better known. It is a large static clay container used for storage. And, as with the pithos, there seems to be a possibility that it was used also for fermenting wine. Krater on the other hand is really a non-starter. It does have associations with wine, but at the drinking end of its life cycle; kraters were used for mixing wine with water before serving.
But moving away from obsolete words, let’s take a look at the Alentejo in Portugal. In that region, as in Georgia, there has been a continuous clay winemaking traditional that goes back millennia. The name for the clay winemaking vessel there is talha, and its use can be traced back at least 2,000 years. Like qvevri, talhas are large vessels of around 2m high and can be 1,000li or more capacity but, unlike qvevri, talhas stand above ground. That has at least one advantage and a few disadvantages. The advantage is that is it possible to get most of the wine out of the talha through a hole near its bottom, while you need to scoop or pump wine to get it out of a kvevri. Disadvantage number one is that talhas occasionally explode, and if you do not regularly punch-down to break the cap on the fermenting wine, the chances of explosion are increased. I have not heard of this problem with qvevri, so presumably the pressure from the earth around the buried qvevri helps keep it intact. Also, to punch-down, which requires considerable force, you might need to balance on a step-ladder, or even do it with your feet on the rim of the talha, while in Georgia you can keep you feet firmly on the ground – terra firma rather than terracotta. Finally, to keep the temperature of the fermenting wine low enough, the outside of the talha must be regularly dampened with water. In Georgia the earth around the qvevri acts to moderate the temperature.
Beyond the talha in Alentejo, in Spain I see that sometimes winemaking involves a tinaja, which seems to be the Spanish version of the word talha, but I cannot find out much about the history of the tinaja in Spanish winemaking, and it is also sometimes used for concrete jar-shaped vessels, as well as pottery. Similarly, at least in terms of my inability to find details, Armenia uses a qvevri-like vessel called a karas. There are also by the way a number of alternative Georgian regional words for qvevri.
All things considered, my personal view is that for a generic term, rather than the word amphora, we should simply say clay jar, and the phrase in clay could be used in the same way that we might use in oak. Unfortunately though, I fear the amphora horse has bolted, and we are stuck with the term.
But where appropriate, why not be as specific and local as we can be? Let’s use qvevri to describe the Georgian vessel, and of course talha in the Alentejo. As I see it, the only issue is in figuring out which specific names to use where there is no long local tradition. In those cases I would suggest using the traditional vessel name that best describes it, even if it comes from another culture. For example, those buried vessels at COS look pretty much like qvevri to me, so let’s use that name. If you feel your audience will not understand qvevri, a simple explanatory sentence will communicate so much more than persisting with amphora.
So much for the naming of pots. You might like now to move back to considering the beauty of wine, or even of the pots themselves.
Update 01/04/21: In a discussion on Jancis Robinson’s online forum, another couple of clay winemaking vessels were mentioned. Simon Woolf wrote about another Portuguese one called a tareco which, at up to 500 li, is smaller than a talha. Also Peter Harvey described the Peruvian botija, which is now the subject of another blog post.