WWC23 – Teresa Caeiro, by Alastair Leithead

Teresa Caeiro holds a bottles of her NaTalha and a Ferrapo and a palhete or petroleiro wine (a blend of red and white grapes) she makes with her grandfather at the Gerações de Talha (Generations of Talha) winery in Vila de Frades, Alentejo, Portugal

In this submission to our 2023 wine writing competition, former journalist and budding wine writer Alastair Leithead writes about Portuguese winemaker Teresa Caeiro. See our competition guide for more.

Alastair Leithead writes Alastair Leithead is a former BBC foreign correspondent who gave up covering conflicts around the world to make home an off-grid lodge on the southwestern coast of Portugal’s Alentejo with his Portuguese/Swedish wife Ana. He describes himself as a “Portugal trainee,” is trying to swap war journalism for wine writing and blogging about off-grid living, and will soon be launching a podcast series called Ana and Al’s Big Portuguese Wine Adventure: “a documentary-style travelogue through Alentejo’s many wineries and winemakers exploring Portugal’s long history...for wine amateurs and experts alike.” Teresa Caeiro is one of the most extraordinary people he met along the way.

Two great loves took Teresa Caeiro back home to Portugal’s Alentejo from the diamond mines of Angola to ask her grandfather to show her how to make wine.

As a trained mining engineer, she had joined an exodus of Portugal’s young, leaving her small rural town to find a new life in a new place on a new continent.

But searching for diamonds in Africa wasn’t for her. 

“I fell in love with a boy from Vidigueira,” Teresa told her grandfather, who had no idea she would strike gold after meeting a local lad.

But it was the love of a sound that she heard as a child – a sound she had grown up with – which was to take her life in a very different direction.

Teresa’s eyes light up and a huge grin spreads across her face as she tries to put into words the sound of young wine trickling out of the huge clay talhas [pronounced tah-l-yah-sh], or amphorae, every November.

“I remember it from when I was a baby. It’s like...ahhhhhhh,” she sighed, revealing a wonderfully cosy sentimentality from a childhood spent living above the family’s small adega, or winery, in Vila de Frades.

“I think that you really need to hear the sound – it’s really fantastic,” she said, and I agreed to return on November 11th – St Martins’ Day – when the talhas are tapped and that year’s wine first begins to flow.

The Phoenicians probably brought Portugal its first fermented grapes, but the Romans mastered the art of winemaking.

And it was monks who built their nearby São Cucufate monastery on the ruins of a Roman villa who gave Vila de Frades – Friars’ Town – its name.

They continued a tradition which had survived the Moors, and for centuries os frades kept faithful Christians supplied with communion wine.

This small, typical Alentejo town with narrow streets of white houses framed by colourful blue and yellow borders, or barras, has become the self-styled capital of Portugal’s talha wine production.

A brand new museum builds upon the town’s claim to fame: that wine has been made here the Roman way non-stop for two thousand years.

Talha can be earthy or elegant, gastronomic or light, but the original natural wine is generating a surge of interest that’s now bursting beyond the Alentejo and onto the palates of a new natural-wine focussed generation of drinkers looking for something unique.

And at the centre of it all is a 28 year old former diamond miner whose great-grandfather bought an adega and who is now leading a new wave of Portuguese winemakers beating a path back home, embracing old traditions and transforming them for a new generation.

One small step from the street into Teresa’s Gerações de Talha (Generations of Talha) winery is a leap at least 250 years back in time, which is at least how long the adega has been here.

Fifty tall and fat clay pots nearly two metres high are squeezed into the cool, street-level cellar with its brick vaulted-ceiling and stone floor which gently slopes from the walls to a drain in the centre.

Below sits another talha in reserve – to prevent tragedy if one of these ancient clay beasts were to break.

All are at least a hundred years old. In the past every town in the area had its own talha pottery style, but the knowledge of how to make such huge clay pots has been lost.

Inspired by the history, encouraged by the natural wine trend and intrigued by the taste, many big producers are now fermenting or ageing their wines in clay.

But the only option for those wanting to join the talha-rush is knocking on local doors asking to buy any ancient oversized plant pots that might be languishing in backyards.

“The big difference from the more usual wines is we use everything: the skins, the seeds and some of the stems. We crush and put them all into the talha and the fermentation starts naturally,” Teresa explained.

The family’s grapes are grown the traditional Portuguese way, in a field blend of old vines: “Roupeiro, Antão Vaz, Alfocheiro, Trincadeira, Aragonez, Touriga Nacional,” Teresa rattles off a list of some of her Portuguese varietals which all grow together and are harvested together.

Once inside the talhas, fermentation forces the grape solids up to the narrow throat of the pot creating a cap which must be broken and mixed down three times a day to prevent a build-up of CO2 which could force the pot to explode.

“Fermentation takes more or less three weeks, then the solid parts sink down and form what we call ‘the mother,’” Teresa explained, “and so ‘the son’ is the wine. Then we wait for two months.” 

The mother becomes a natural filter for the son, which runs clear on the day the talhas are opened.

Professor Arlindo Maria Ruivo was disappointed when his granddaughter came home.

“We are six grandchildren, I am the only girl, and I was the only one studying. When he saw I wanted to work with wine he said ‘oh my God! What are you doing with your life?’. But he loves what I am doing and just doesn’t say so,” Teresa said.

She went back to college to study oenology, learned the traditional techniques from her grandfather and now the whole family is involved in the making, the bottling, the labelling and the selling.

Sitting in the winery yard Prof Arlindo laughed when he described what it’s like to work with his granddaughter: “Muito dificil,” very difficult, he said, as her scientific and academic approach sometimes clashes with what he learned during fifty years of experience.

And so they make two different kinds of wine: his Farrapo is bold, strong and traditional talha wine which takes its name from the simple shawl the monks wore. Prof Arlindo Red is the best of their best every year and takes his name.

Teresa’s wine is called NaTalha and is sold in the natural wine bars of Lisbon. It’s a woman’s name, but it’s also Portuguese for “in the talha.” 

She picks the grapes earlier than her grandfather for higher acidity, alcohol and more freshness.

Creating NaTalha was the first time she told her grandfather “thank you, but now I want to do something different.” 

She recruited the rest of the family to help create a wine her generation will want to drink and a label to catch their eye.

It’s a striking and colourful illustration of a talha packed with flowers, hearts, birds and the words life, love and dreams written in Portuguese.

“I was pregnant and I was becoming a mother and that was everything I had inside me,” she said.

“And then I thought about all the years the talhas have become a mother and held everything inside them: the dreams, life, food and the love and colour they have brought to so many.”

At three o’clock sharp on November 11th, João started hammering a tap into the bottom of the first huge clay amphora.

The boy from Vidigueira is now Teresa’s husband, the father of her children, the one who takes the wooden pole three times a day for three weeks every year and plunges it into fifty talhas of fermenting grapes to prevent tragedy.

As João struggled with a rubber mallet, Teresa was holding up her phone and live streaming the Opening of the Talhas to all her Instagram followers.

São Martinho – St Martin’s Day – is a special day across Portugal, when the first chestnuts are roasted, bonfires are built, the harvest is celebrated and this year’s wines are tasted for the first time.

It also marks one of the most important dates for classifying wine as Vinho de Talha DOC – the highest rank of Portuguese wine. 

To qualify it must stay in the clay until at least St Martin’s Day.

And for the first time in Vila de Frades they were selling tickets and tasting glasses, and opening up adegas across town for visitors to experience what locals have being doing on the day of São Martinho for generations.

Teresa and another winemaker of her age and with her energy had pulled together a festival in just a few weeks, sharing out the proceeds between all the participating wineries. 

Hidden seemingly on every street were little adegas or tabernas – traditional little bars – and from one small, half-closed door drifted the sound of singing.

Inside, the men stood around a table of black pork cuts, meats and local cheeses, chatting and sipping wine poured straight from the talhas. One began a new song about the town.

“Vila de Frades no longer has abbots, but its wineries are cathedrals,” began the first singer, leading the biphonal chorus in the unique style of traditional Cante Alentejano singing.

“Our wines sparkle – they are to be drunk, and then to weep for more!”

The singing style has been given Intangible Cultural Heritage status by UNESCO, and the Mayor of Vidigueira is now campaigning hard to have talha winemaking recognised in a similar way.

They drank, they wept for more, they drank and they sang: this wasn’t for the visitors, this was a small window into a very traditional world. 

“São Martinho is something passed on from generation to generation – from parents to children – and since I was a little kid I have felt the happiness of everything packed into this day,” said Professor Arlindo Maria Ruivo.

“I’m glad the young generation don’t want to lose the traditional roots of the winemaking and want to take it further, and so we older generation are giving them a kick in the backside.”

Teresa might see it another way, but with a final hammer blow from João, and a cheer from the crowd, the tap was in and the wine slowly began to flow – a wonderful trickling sound into the wide bowl below and the son left its mother.

“Ahhhhhhhh,” laughed Teresa.

Winemakers the world over use their own unique mixture of art and science to create something special.

In Vila de Frades they add history, culture and millennia of tradition to create a unique blend into which Teresa Caeiro adds a little extra: dreams, love and life.

And it’s not just to her wine, but to the town she nearly left behind, to the new generation of winemakers, to an emerging Alentejo and to an ever-changing Portugal.

The photograph, captioned 'Teresa Caeiro holds a bottles of her NaTalha and a Ferrapo and a palhete or petroleiro wine (a blend of red and white grapes) she makes with her grandfather at the Gerações de Talha (Generations of Talha) winery in Vila de Frades, Alentejo, Portugal' is the author's own.