September 30, 2008 / 11:00 AM / 10 years ago

Portugal's wine barrel tradition fizzling out

LISBON (Reuters Life!) - The centuries-old tradition of making and repairing oak wine barrels in southern Portugal is ending, pushed out by steel barrels, “bag in box” packaging and a younger generation’s disinterest in the craft.

Wine wood barrels are lined up to be transported at Palmela's cellars on the outskirts of Lisbon September 26, 2008. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro

“There were ‘tanoarias’ (barrel-making workshops) everywhere, this always existed as a tradition,” says Dona Irene, an octogenarian tavern-keeper who has been serving wine from oak barrels for 57 years.

The picturesque tavern her mother opened in Cova da Piedade, south of the Tagus river, complete with stone counter, tiled walls and hanging bay leaves, is one of the few in the area still selling wine from oak barrels.

The others have closed down or have become cafés, she adds.

Equally famous for its fried cuttlefish, the tavern sells up to two barrels of wine per week, but Dona Irene says that it used to have larger barrels, “but those were different days.”

As she serves a customer a glass of red wine for 40 euro cents (57 U.S. cents) from one of the three 30-liter (6.6 Imp gallons) barrels, Dona Irene stresses that her life has been spent with the barrels.

“When they end the barrels, I’ll be retired by nature.”

Near Palmela, at the Adega Venancio da Costa Lima, the wine company which supplies Dona Irene’s tavern, manager Venancio Vida is also pessimistic about the future of the ‘tanoarias’.

“This is the end of the ‘tanoarias’ in the region, and the ‘tanoeiro’, who makes and repairs the barrels, is a species nearing extinction,” he says.

The Adega, established in 1914, produces around 600,000 liters of red, white and the sweet Moscatel wine per harvest, but in total sells over 3 million litres annually, mostly to Portugal, but also to Germany, Sweden and Brazil.

Vida says there are still some ‘tanoarias’ in northern Portugal, but they mainly build large barrels for aging, they don’t make or repair the smaller barrels used by the taverns.

“In the past few years I’ve seen many of the ‘tanoarias’ we used to buy barrels from in the south start producing garden furniture instead, while many have closed altogether,” he says.

The rise of “bag in box” packaging — clean, easy to transport and allowing the wine to last up to two weeks once opened — is part of the problem, but the main problem for the ‘tanoarias’ is the lack of skilled and experienced craftsmen.

Vida illustrates this problem by recalling the time he tried to hire a barrel-maker for the Adega, one after the other left, because of lack of skills or disinterest.

He smiles, however, as he explains that the Adega was lucky to find a skilled barrel-maker in Ioan Jofi, an immigrant from Romania, six years ago.

“I sometimes say he was sent by Nossa Senhora do Carmo, the region’s patron saint.”

In the Adega’s workshop, surrounded by dozens of half-broken barrels, Jofi saws, strips, sands, hammers and heats pieces of oak to make a 30-liter barrel in under an hour.

The burly Romanian says he repairs around 30 barrels per month, and sometimes has to make new ones if needed.

Jofi, who learnt the skill by watching a neighbor in his hometown of Mediesu Aurit and attending a technical school for barrel-making, acknowledges his fortune in having the chance to do what he loves, and for that he thanks Portugal and his boss.

Slideshow (4 Images)

“For 23 years I’ve worked only with barrels. Not that many foreigners get an opportunity to do what they like. I couldn’t believe my luck,” he says.

The barrel-maker says he is saddened by the fact that a younger generation does not share his enthusiasm for the craft.

“If Jofi gets tired of working for us, or gets bored with the craft, I think it will be the end. He may well be our last ‘tanoeiro’,” says Vida.

Reporting by Shrikesh Laxmidas, editing by Paul Casciato

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