Clay is a fashionable vessel for wine, but, with very few exceptions, the artisans who make clay pots -or tinajeros, as we call them in Spain- are fast disappearing. Since the retirement of Juan Padilla, Spain's most internationally renowned artisan, practices such as firing clay in a wood-burning kiln are being lost.
The traces of a career spanning more than 40 years are still visible in his workshop in Villarrobledo (Albacete, Castilla-La Mancha), but melancholy is beginning to creep into some of the empty spaces. The signs by the roadside seem destined to fall into disrepair, with the name Tinajas Padilla fading away on a simple metal panel and a chubby tinaja lying on the grass.
The signs point to a sprawling site alongside the N-310 road that connects Villarrobledo with Tomelloso (Ciudad Real). Here, next to the family home, there are several workshops. The small collection of tinajas and other earthenware pieces visible among them bear witness to a life devoted to pottery making. Padilla’s creations can be seen in wineries all over the world.
For years, Juan made earthenware clay tinajas for Foradori, Azienda Agricola COS or Frank Cornelissen in Italy as well as for Spanish producers like Rafa Bernabé who wanted to revive past traditions, and many others who appreciated his skills.
According to Padilla, there are no secrets other than "having good quality clay, properly preparing it and firing it thoroughly in the kiln.” A frequently used argument to point out the quality of Villarrobledo's clay is the fact that its pots do not need coating, when elsewhere it is usual to apply a layer of pez (typically a mixture of beeswax and pine resin) to minimise loss of wine.
In the Tinaja Pottery Visitor Centre, which opened in 2008, visitors can learn about the types of clay that made the area famous: the yellowish golden clay was rich in silica, resulting in a final product with glass-like properties whereas the reddish clay, with more iron, provided the strength to withstand fermentation. The history of this trade, born of the Arab influence, is also on display here -from the second half of the 19th century until the 1950s, Villarrobledo was Spain's leading tinaja-producing hub.
Quality was an earlier concern, as described in María Dolores García Gómez's book Cuatro siglos de alfarería tinajera en Villarrobledo (Four centuries of pottery making in Villarrobledo). This was thanks to the advent of veedores (supervisors) in 1738 and the creation of a powerful guild close to the clay extraction areas, resulting in a tinajero quarter with streets named after the trade such as Tinajeros (Potters), Alfarerías Altas (High Pottery), Alfarerías Bajas (Low Pottery), Arenas (Sand) etc.
As the old clay quarries were engulfed by the growth of the city, evidence of the tinajero past is still visible in the large pieces of pottery decorating squares and roundabouts. In this bittersweet story, Juan Padilla is one of the last artisans of an activity that is dying out. After more than 40 years modelling clay, he incarnates the fifth and final generation of his saga.
Ever since he returned from military service, this modest, unassuming man always helped his father, Agustín Padilla, to gradually get more involved in the business: "Our customers were family wineries. At that time there were no other alternatives in terms of vessels. Then came polyester, which made terrible wines, and then stainless steel. For about 10-15 years we stopped selling to the wine industry," he recalls.
The main problem in the tinaja business -and its main appeal- is that it is still highly artisanal. The process involves drying the clay outdoors, grinding it, adding water to make it pliable and shape the pieces, and finally firing them in a large kiln. Since the days of Juan's father, the only stages that are now mechanised are the kneading and grinding, which in the old days were done with a grooved stone roller pulled by a mule as shown below.
How many jars can one man make on his own? In a year, Juan used to mould about 30 400-litre vessels, 20 320-litre vessels and between 30 and 40 200-litre vessels, as well as around 100 decorative pieces.
He never built larger than 600-litre tinajas, but in recent years he stopped at 400 litres because he could no longer raise his arm high enough and he disliked working on scaffolding. His father had a lot of pain in his legs and arms. "The job of a tinajero is very physical”, adds Padilla, who is slight of build, agile and sinewy. “You should stop at the age of 50." He, however, carried on working into his 60s.
Modelling a clay tinaja is a time-consuming task that requires both concentration and expertise. Using a base, the walls are built up little by little. To do this, the tinajero moulds the clay into a long roll, which he slings over his shoulder while he circles around the piece, placing it swiftly and precisely into a layer (a 'vuelta', in their jargon). As the piece takes shape, he taps the walls to flatten them, achieve the required thickness and remove the pores. He uses two specific tools of the trade: the mallet to work on the inside and the trowel on the outside. According to Juan, thanks to this technique, thin walls are nothing to worry about.
The process takes its time, especially in winter, because you have to wait for the clay to dry. This is why Juan had his own long-term planning: "I started moulding over a dozen 400-litre jars in September. After three layers, I started another dozen and so on, so that by January or February the shed was almost full [...] Drying takes months.”
It also demands ongoing attention. "Once you start, you can't relax, you have to be alert," he says. Perhaps that's why he never took more than three consecutive days, and all his apprentices "only endured the job for a few days".
During the firing process, he gambled his work on a single card. Until his retirement, Juan always used a wood-fired kiln, something that was highly appreciated by his clients because it makes the pots stronger without imparting any flavour. These large, high ovens are able to accommodate practically a whole year's production.
"It’s absolutely essential to place all the pieces properly and carefully, as the clay is raw, and to heat it up gradually to eventually maintain the temperature constant," Juan explains. Firing temperature can reach 900ºC and over 50,000 kg of pine wood may be needed. Afterwards, all the pieces are left to cool for 10 days, then taken outdoors and sprinkled with water. It's no mean feat if you consider that a 500-litre tinaja weighs about 300 kg. In addition, there was the issue of safety: "When I used the kiln, I had to call the fire brigade and the police," he says.
Juan Padilla and his tinajas are known thanks to the fame of some of his clients. Many of them were producers who favour traditional, low-intervention styles and gained recognition in their respective areas and beyond.
At first, it was a matter of word-of-mouth. "The first one to visit me and buy some tinajas was Frank Cornelissen. Thanks to Cornelissen came Giusto Occhipinti, and with Giusto, some time later, Elisabetta Foradori.”
"Juan and I have changed each other's lives," says Giusto Occhipinti, founder in 1980 of Azienda Agricola COS (Sicily) together with Giambattista Cilia and Cirino Strano (COS is the acronym of their surnames). He visited Juan for the first time in 2000. The previous year he had travelled to Georgia and was enthusiastic about the area’s tradition of amphora wines. After that, he looked for amphorae in Tunisia and much of Italy until he discovered the Spanish tinajas, deeply-rooted in La Mancha. "Juan's passion, rigour and skill were decisive in choosing his clay jars instead of looking for other craftsmen," he explains.
It is important to understand the background to this encounter. As Giusto explains, at that time there was no experience of wines in amphorae except what they had tasted in Georgia. "Georgian amphorae were not as thick and were sealed with beeswax, but in 1999 nobody was making them any more. Today things are very different. The international success of amphora wines, to which COS has contributed significantly, has allowed new amphora makers to emerge."
Occhipinti particularly praises the neutrality of Padilla’s amphorae. They enable me to make wines with greater sense of place; the robustness and perfect transpiration. There is balance and proportion of forms, like a mother's womb that lovingly welcomes the life that forms inside".
Azienda Agricola Cos owns some 200 tinajas made by Padilla. It comes second only to Azienda Agricola Foradori. The celebrated producer from the Dolomites even displays a photo gallery of Padilla and his workshop on its website. At the end of the article, we include a short interview with Elisabetta Foradori, who has very clear ideas about the role of these clay jars in her wines and the special quality of those made by Padilla.
In Spain, it was Rafa Bernabé from Alicante (below) who first championed Padilla’s tinajas. Much like Occhipinti, he had visited the La Mancha artisan before traveling to Georgia and came back fully convinced of the great possibilities of tinajas in winemaking, both for their shape and the clay. He describes it as "that magic that happens when the yeasts, lees and proteins rise, which is what gives wine the intensity on the palate".
Bernabé concedes that making wine in tinajas is not easy ("I’ve had many wines going bad") and not everything works. "The first year tinajas absorb a great deal, but after that they work really well. Fermenting is straightforward if there are no skins involved, but when it comes to ageing, you must be extremely careful, because you can lose a wine in a flash. But you can also get wines with a veil of yeasts and flor, three or four different types. And the one that stays there is the yeast that is going to live; you just mark the tinaja and the following year the wine will have a different intensity.”
Spanish producers working with Padilla’s tinajas include Pepe Mendoza in Alicante, Airén-focused winemaker Bernardo Ortega (pictured below with Juan) in Castilla-La Mancha or Javier Arizcuren in Rioja, a region where clay is less present.
Rafa Bernabé stresses the artisan nature of the pieces, making each one different. The key elements to look out for in Padilla’s jars are, according to him, the purity of the clay ("he knows exactly how to select and mix it"), the reduced porosity of the jars and the fact that he fires them all in one go in a wood-fired kiln. "This is the most delicate part, but he has the skill that comes with years of experience. For me, he's number one," Bernabé says.
It's a pity that this is now a thing of the past. With the artisan’s retirement, his brand and expertise disappear. The fine thread connecting the present with the once powerful industry of yesteryear is now broken. In the 21st century, Villarrobledo is the stainless steel tank production mecca. There really is no greater irony.
ELISABETTA FORADORI: “The clay from Villarobledo has a special energy”
How did you meet Juan?
My friend Giusto Occhipinti from COS winery in Sicily met Juan in the early 2000 and shared this experience with me. At the time I was starting to make Nosiola with long skin-contact and clay was the perfect material to preserve the vitality and life of the biodynamic grapes.
Can you recall your first visit to his workshop in Spain? Did anything surprise you particularly?
I met Juan in 2009 in a hot summer day. It was like going back in time to ancient Greece, the energy of the place and the calm he transmitted while he worked with clay. It was like travelling back 1,000 years.
What did you particularly like about his tinajas compared to other amphorae?
There is no comparison with Italian clay (from Impruneta in Tuscany). The clay from Villarobledo is meant for winemaking, it has a special energy and quality. Not only the clay, even the use of fire and the pace of making tinajas are different. All the elements are in these tinajas: heart, air, sun, fire, water.
How many Padilla tinajas did you buy? What’s their lifespan according to your experience?
We still have the 280 tinajas we have purchased from him over the last 15 years. They last forever, as long as they are not broken.
Now that Juan is retired, where do you source your amphorae from? Is it easy to find artisans who work entirely by hand?
So far, and after a lot of searching, I haven’t found anything of the same quality. I hope Juan will pass on his knowledge to some young tinajeros.
How would you describe Juan as a person?
Calm, knowledgeable, wise and with a sense of humour – no email, no iPhone!