Drinking amphora wine in Amareleja

Amareleja Composite

Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology at the famed Instituto Superior de Agronomia, invited us to go to Amareleja to try some wines made in amphoras. The drive from Lisbon to this small town in Alentejo takes about three hours, time fruitfully used by Manuel to lecture us about what we are about to experience.

He tells us that that we’re taking a journey back in time, to the way wines were made 8000 years ago in the Caucasus. These techniques, brought to Portugal by the Romans 2000 years ago, worked particularly well in the dry, warm climate of Alentejo where they say “while there’s amphora wine, we drink nothing else.”

Right after the harvest, the grapes are crushed, destemmed and placed in huge amphoras that hold 1,000 liters. One or two days later, the fermentation starts. The wine is stirred everyday for two weeks to make sure it doesn’t spoil. Then, the amphoras are sealed with cloth and the wine is left alone. By November, the seeds and skins have dropped to the base, forming a natural filtration system. The wine is extracted through straws inserted into an opening at the bottom of the amphoras. It comes out very slowly, first muddy and then crystal clear.

Amphora wines are now so trendy that some producers ferment the wine in stainless steel tanks and then age them in amphoras, so they can call them amphora wines. At Amareleja, amphora wines are the real deal. The locals continued to make amphora wines even when no one outside of Alentejo cared for them, so knowledge of the myriad production details has been preserved.

The arrival at Amareleja marks the end of our theory lesson. It is time to put our knowledge into practice. “We’ll try several wines, so the secret is to take small sips,” advises Manuel.

Our host, Zé Piteira, is waiting for us at his eponymous restaurant, Adega Piteira. He is tall, affable, and full of confidence. Zé introduces us to his wife Paula who heads the kitchen. The restaurant occupies a narrow building with a straw roof and a tower in the middle. It was constructed in 1938 to house Amareleja’s open-air cinema. Greta Garbo and Humphrey Bogart have been here on the silver screen.

On our table there are sausages, cheese, olives, and the best “torresmos” (pork rind) we ever tried. “Wine is all about context,” explains Manuel. “We’re going to try a white amphora wine from 2015 that is still too young but pairs well with the strong flavors of these appetizers.” The symbiosis of wine and food is indeed perfect. Our glasses have the aroma of a recently struck match that is the hallmark of great Chardonnays. The wine is made with a varietal called Roupeiro combined with a table grape called Diagalves, sometimes known as “pendura,” the Portuguese word for hanging, because it used to be hung up to dry to serve during Christmas.

Soup plates with scrambled eggs, potatoes, spinach, and goat cheese arrive. Paula brings a large pot brimming with codfish broth to spoon on our plates. This rustic, flavorful soup is a great match for the bold personality of the wine.

Zé pours from a jar of 2018 white wine taken directly from an amphora.  The contrast between the 2015 and the 2018 wines is fascinating. The 2018 is more astringent and the yeast aromas that come from the fermentation process are still present.

The varietal used to make red amphora wines in Alentejo is called Moreto. “Land good for grain is bad for wine,” says an old proverb. That is why Moreto flourishes in the poor soils of the left margin of the Guadiana river. The 2018 Piteira Moreto is very interesting and full of freshness. It is a great pairing for our next course: pork ribs seasoned with “massa de pimentão,” a magical paste made with red pepper.

For comparison, we try the 2016 Moreto. It is more refined and has a complex aroma. “Primary aromas—fruit, flowers, herbs–are pleasant during fermentation but worsen with time. That is why we say if the wine smells good, it tastes bad,” explains Manuel. “Secondary aromas—yeast, nuts and spices–come from the fermentation process. This wine has tertiary aromas—hazelnut, dried tobacco—that are acquired through aging.”

Zé comes back from the cellar with a bottle of Nativo, an amphora white wine bottled in 1999! It was made by the man who used to own the open-air movie theater, Zé’s godfather. This white wine has aged amazingly well, it is crisp and dry and has a beautiful amber color.

Dessert is a Moreto festival: Moreto ice cream accompanied by a pear cooked in Moreto wine and “encharcada” a medieval convent sweet made with eggs, cinnamon, lemon and sugar. Zé fills our glasses with a dessert wine. “In Roman times, the dry wines spoiled quickly, so aristocrats preferred this style of dessert wine. These were also the wines that  Roman gods were thought to like,” says Manuel. The wine fills our palate with the taste of spices and caramel. The Roman gods had impeccable taste!

We spent the afternoon hiking on the new wine estate that Zé Piteira has purchased, a place with panoramic views of the plains of Alentejo. Later, on the way back to Lisbon, Manuel quizzed us about everything we saw and tasted. We hope to have passed the exam, so we can take another course with him!

Adega Piteira is located at Rua da Fabrica 2, Amareleja, Moura, tel. 965 787 024.

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