Honrado – Amphorae Magic: The Traditional Wine Practices of Alentejo and The Uncertain Destiny of Petroleiro

Wine Producers

Honrado – Amphorae Magic: The Traditional Wine Practices of Alentejo and The Uncertain Destiny of Petroleiro


Since Roman times, there has been an unbroken tradition of making wine in amphorae, Talhas, in the Alentejo region. One of the 25 producers is Honrado Vineyards. “Talha is a wine made for family consumption but has now become trendy”, says Ruben Honrado.

Reviving Ancient Traditions: Alentejo’s Talha Wine, a 2000-Year-Old Tradition Still Thriving

In the past, wine in amphorae was how things were done worldwide. But with development and technology, most people switched to ageing in oak barrels, concrete, and steel tanks. But as in Georgia and Armenia, the Alentejo has never stopped fermenting and storing wine in amphorae, here called Talha.

The 2000-year-old tradition is carried on by a growing number of producers, who since 2010, can sell their wine as DOC Alentejo – Vinho de Talha. To qualify for the appellation, the wine must be made in one of the eight sub-regions of DOC Alentejo and can be bottled no earlier than St Martin’s Day, 11 November. All variations are allowed: red, white, rosé, sweet, and fortified.

Honrado Winery in the village of Vila de Frades just outside the city of Vidigueira.
Honrado Winery in the village of Vila de Frades just outside the city of Vidigueira. (Photo: Honrado)

Honrado Vineyards: Crafting Exquisite Talha Wine in Vidigueira

Honrado Vineyards is located in Vidigueira, the unofficial capital of Talha wine. Here, the Honrado family makes wine in the classic way. Both for themselves and for their restaurant Pais das Uvas.

“Wine is part of the culture here. In the past, many taverns made their own wine and only sold it on-site. Likewise, families made wine for themselves. But bottling Talha wine is relatively new”, says Ruben Honrado, who became involved in the family’s wine production in 2016.

Vineyard work on some of the six hectares of vineyard owned by Honrado.
Vineyard work on some of the six hectares of vineyard owned by Honrado. (Photo: Honrado)

How Ruben Honrado Transformed a Family Restaurant into a Wine Brand

“My father ran the restaurant traditionally, buying grapes to make wine to serve there. He had learnt the craft from his father, my grandfather. But then we thought about developing the business and building a brand around the product”, says Ruben Honrado, who has a background in design and marketing. They bought their own vineyards – they own six hectares (15 acres) today – and only make wine in amphorae.

“Nobody makes amphora wine anymore, so we knocked on our neighbours’ doors to see if they had any we could buy. In the past, almost every family here had two or three amphorae.” The door-knocking paid off. Honrados collected 26 amphorae of varying sizes and clay types. Most are lined with a combination of pine resin and beeswax.

“The amphorae were made in several regions, giving them different porosities and sizes. This means that each amphora has its own history and affects the wine in its own way.”

The Rise of Talha Wine: From 713 Litres to 79,000 Litres in 10 Years

Tiago Caravana, marketing manager at the regional wine authority CVRA, says that the amphora can be seen as a drum: “Each amphora makes its own sound.” He also confirms that the interest in Talha wine is growing:

“DOC Alentejo – Vinho de Talha’s production has risen from only 713 litres (188 US gal or 157 UK gal) in 2010 to over 79,000 litres (20,900 US gal or 17,400 UK gal) 10 years later. At the same time, it is a small production overall. Only 0.1 per cent of all wine made in Alentejo is made in amphora.”

A bottle of Honrado's Talha Wine.
A bottle of Honrado’s Talha Wine. (Photo: Honrado)

Exploring the Unique Art of Talha Winemaking: Tradition, Risks, and the Pursuit of Perfection

Unlike in Georgia, where they bury their Qvevri, Talha is above ground. Yet they can be as large as a thousand litres. Ruben Honrado recognises that there are risks associated with large volumes:

“The amphorae may explode from the pressure during fermentation. That’s why pressing the skin cap down several times daily is essential.”

Another critical element is hygiene. It can be difficult to scrub the vats clean, and any remaining bacteria can turn the wine into vinegar or other bad flavours. “The man who cleans our amphorae is 70 years old and has been doing this job since he was twelve. He crawls down and rubs with water. There is a saying that the amphora is not clean until the washing water is drinkable”, says Ruben Honrado.

A 70-year-old man crawls down the amphora to clean it in Honrado's Winery.
A 70-year-old man crawls down the amphora to clean it in Honrado’s Winery. (Photo: Honrado)

Locking the Flavour: The Art and Timing of Bottling Wine in Amphorae

When the wine is ready to be bottled, the cork is simply pulled out a few decimetres (several inches) from the bottom of the amphora. According to the rules, this can be done no earlier than 11 November – a date that almost coincides with Beaujolais Nouveau, the fresh wine from Beaujolais in France released on the third Thursday of November.

The cork is removed, and the tap is inserted - a few decimetres (several inches) from the bottom of the amphora - to bottle the wine.
The cork is removed, and the tap is inserted – a few decimetres (several inches) from the bottom of the amphora – to bottle the wine. (Photo: Honrado)

Alentejo’s Colourful Mix: The Enigmatic Petroleiro Wine and its Uncertain Future

Another tradition in Alentejo is to mix black and white grapes. The wine is called Petroleiro because of its colour. “It looks like oil, dark pinkish and brilliant. In the past, grapes grew everywhere, and nobody cared about the colour. There was no selection either; the grapes that were ripe were harvested.”

Honrado makes a Petroleiro but is not allowed to sell it as such. However, they can serve it straight from the amphora in the restaurant. Ruben hopes that there will be certification to preserve the culture.

However, Tiago Caravana does not have a positive answer: “Producing, certifying and selling wines with a mixture of black and white grapes is possible. Yet, if labelled as’ Petroleiro’, it is denied because the designation is not legally recognised. There are discussions about admitting it, but I do not expect it to be in the short term.”

Preserving Alentejo’s Unique Winemaking Legacy: Ensuring the Future of Intricate Traditions

The art of winemaking in Alentejo holds a unique charm intrinsically tied to the age-old traditions and the amphora culture. The timing of bottling the wine, the method of mixing black and white grapes, and the creation of the enigmatic Petroleiro speak volumes about the region’s rich heritage.

However, the future of these intricate practices is uncertain. As the designation of ‘Petroleiro’ grapples for legal recognition, enthusiasts like Ruben Honrado strive to maintain the culture by serving it locally. These local wine practices offer a distinct taste and a glimpse into Alentejo’s colourful history and the potential of its future in the wine industry. The hope lies in preserving these traditions, recognising them legally, and thus, ensuring the continuation of Alentejo’s unique winemaking legacy.