Originally, when I first decided to take this trip, I had sent out a letter to several wineries on the Roto do Vinhos do Alentejo website in hopes of securing some winery visits. Fortunately, Paulo Amaral, their assistant winemaker, contacted me because this particular Quinta was an absolute treasure to find. As you drive past the town center, you’re greeted on the right side by a towering wall of glowing blue color with a rich intensity, a traditional color found at the base of most homes in this region. Just past the wall and around a corner, an opening barely wide enough for the compact rental car to squeeze its way into the inner courtyard of the José Sousa winery appears.
In Portugal, Jose Sousa is a legendary name with an incredible history. Dating back to approximately 1878, shortly after phyloxera had destroyed much of Portugal’s wine industry, this Quinta not only successfully survived where others crumbled, but also through a series of dictators, wars and natural disasters. Owned by the Soares Franco family who purchased the José de Sousa in 1986 with the intention of revitalizing the winery; it is one of the oldest landmarks in Alentejo wine production.
Walking around the property, like most wineries on the Iberian Peninsula, there is a blend of both old and new structures. In the main building, you encounter tall fermentation tanks, stainless steel de-stemmers and bladder presses – all hallmarks of modern winemaking;
but as you emerge from this open air structure, you see old stone lagars used for crushing grapes by foot lined with stainless steel inserts so that cool water running along the outside of the lagar can help to maintain cool fermentation temperatures. This technology is relatively standard around the world, but the combination of modern and historical is still a wonderful piece of ingenuity to encounter. I was also drawn to the fact that Paulo had recently left the prestigious Bordeaux Estate of Sociando-Mallet in order to craft wine here at José Sousa. Paulo, a soft spoken man, was given the opportunity to use some of his enological knowledge gained in other regions to make wine from where he was born. Portugal drew him home and he seemed happy to be here where he was currently amid the process of producing his second vintage.
As we continued to chat about the history of the vineyard and his life, we entered a room situated off the main parking lot. Directly past the front door and just a short distance from where all the hard work is done outside stood a museum dedicated to the artifacts that they regularly encounter while working in their vineyards, including a ten foot tall stone that rises from the ground in the middle of the room. One of several stones found in the field, it contains weather worn spirals and lines carved into one side of the stone appearing like a Paleolithic roadside billboard. Having studied some archeology in college, it was not only fun to experience this up close imagining what life was like several thousand years ago, but also as a wine lover – wondering if these carvings had anything to do with ancient wine making, maybe an early version of the “Farmer’s Alamanac”?
Farther past the museum stood a long room bordered on both sides by huge clay vessels. Housed on a small six inch platform, they stood approximately six to eight feet tall and about two feet wide with a white number painted on the side.
Along the opposite wall were a series of windows that looked down upon a large vacuous room storing what seemed to be hundreds of other vessels, as if were a Chinese tomb where clay soldiers stood guard protecting the Emperor in the afterlife. It was then that Paulo explained that seven are still used each year to make wine for the José Sousa Mayor’s blend.
Here’s where my wine trivia question from earlier comes into play. Evidently, the process of making wine from this massive clay giants is not an easy task. Each vessel has a small spigot at the bottom where the wine can be drained out; also due to the shape of the vessel, it is typically the clearest wine in the entire blend. Why? Well, as the wine settles to the bottom, the spigot – positioned approximately one foot above the base – draws off the clear juice, leaving perfectly filtered wine. Unfortunately, it takes fifteen men and seven days to complete the entire process from placing the grapes into the vessels to climbing inside the vessel and scraping the leftover skins and must. The one thousand dollar wine geek question remains: how do you keep these tanks from overheating during fermentation? A man with a hose runs cool water down the outside of the vessel, and to avoid asphyxiation from CO2 that accumulates below he does this while standing on top of the tanks.
Needless to say, my jaw became a little sore as it dangled in disbelief at the time and labor it took to produce wine from these mammoth vessels. I asked Paulo if it was worth the time and effort, to which he replied that the quality of the wine produced from these vessels added enough complexity and unique characteristics that it was worth every man; although he hoped he never would have to use more then seven of them at any one given time.
Afterwards, we headed to the wine tasting section of the tour, and as always, those notes are at the end of the article. The fantastic news is that the tour I received was not unique to a wine writer. Anyone can visit by appointment, and even if you just swing by on a whim, you most likely will received a personal walk-through by Paulo himself. José Sousa Quinta believes that the more people they have experience the wine making process from start to finish will not only increase their wine sales, but also increase the sales of the region as a whole. Ignorance may be bliss, but education sells wine!
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