Simply Wine in Portugal

The Simply Wine festival in Porto is a celebration of wines made with minimal intervention and a focus on terroir. For publication in week of 26 February 2018.

The sixth annual edition of Simplesmente Vinho, which translates as “simply wine”, took place in Porto in northern Portugal from February 23-24. Organiser Joao Roseira, winemaker at Quinta do Infantado in the Douro region, said the focus was on wines that respected terroir, the people and their traditions.

“It is wine without make-up that simply wants to be wine, to be drunk and shared. Different wines with a healthy dose of madness and poetry.”

A total of 101 estates presented their wares at Porto’s museum of wine, in a former port storage cellar known as a “lodge” on the banks of the Douro River. All were from Portugal and Spain, apart from one producer from France.

Many of the wines came from organic or biodynamic vineyards. Others described themselves as making natural and “orange” wines. These terms have been defined in previous columns and relate to wines that receive minimal intervention in the winery and typically use indigenous grapes.

Portugal’s economy has rebounded in recent years. Portugal’s economy minister Manuel Caldeira Cabral, a guest at the event, emphasised the need for sustainable tourism after the rapid increase in recent years. Cabral told me wine exports, currently about 11 per cent higher compared with last year, were boosting the economy.

I tasted many outstanding wines at the festival. This column does not have enough space to mention all of them. But some of the most interesting wines came from Humus, Vitor Claro, Cabecas do Reguengo, Antonio Madeira, Monte da Casteleja and Morgado do Quintao.

Humus wines are made at Quinta do Paço, a family property in the Obidos sub-region. The estate has nine hectares of vines and produces about 20,000 bottles a year. Grapes are cultivated through organic farming with what winemaker Rodrigo Filipe describes as “enormous passion and respect for the earth”. Filipe was a civil engineer before he found his passion in winemaking in 1999.

Filipe’s wines are made without artifice yet they have profound aromas and flavours. The reds ferment in small stainless-steel vats and then rest in old barrels. Bunches of grapes for the whites and rosé are pressed whole and then fermented in barrels where they remain until bottled. “Nothing is added to the wine besides a small amount of sulphur,” Filipe said. In recent years he has stopped using sulphur in some wines. Sulphur is mostly used to stop picked grapes from oxidising and to disinfect barrels.

Vitor Claro is a chef, and cooking and its flavours influence his winemaking. He has received no formal oenological training but has been helped by one of Portugal’s leading winemakers, Dirk Niepoort. Claro makes about 20,000 bottles a year and these are in high demand. He does not yet own a winery, using friends’ facilities until he builds his own winery in coming years.

His wife Rita Ferreira used to be an architect before the couple devoted themselves to winemaking, and the clarity of her style shows in the wines and their labels. “To know more wines, styles and philosophies came to be a natural complement to his work in the kitchen,” she said.

The couple make their “Domino” wine in the idyllic natural park of Serra de São Mamede, in the north Alentejo region. Many of the vines are more than a century old and these vines make outstanding wine. His other wines have names like Celestino and Colmeal and they are all delicious.

Joao Alfonso, winemaker at Cabecas do Reguengo in the Alentejo region, was an acclaimed dancer before becoming a winemaker, and his wines have the precision and beauty we associate with ballet. Alfonso said he became interested in wine as a way to soothe muscle pain from ballet. Like many natural wine makers Alfonso is also a small producer, making about 10,000 bottles a year. But they are lovely wines.

Grapes are grown at a range of sites from 500 to 730 metres and the altitude means the fruit does not suffer from the intense Alentejo summer heat. Vines are old and were planted with a variety of grapes on the one site. This means many of Alfonso’s wines are “field blends” — a combination of up to 20 grapes in one bottle.

António Madeira makes wines under his own label in the Serra da Estrela sub-region of the Dão. It was one of the country’s major wine regions decades ago and despite its potential the region remains relatively unknown.

Madeira cultivates a range of old vines that produce wonderful wines. He uses nothing in the winemaking process except sulphur. Fermentations start naturally via indigenous yeasts, and he controls temperature with ice and the cold of the nights in the hilly area.

The Algarve only makes about 1 per cent of the Portugal’s wines but we are seeing a renaissance in the region. Guillaume Leroux at Monte da Casteleja is an accomplished winemaker. His 2017 white of one of the most exciting I’ve tasted in years. It sings and haunts at the same time.

Filipe Vasconcellos’s mission in the Algarve is to rescue two old grape varieties, Crato Branco and Negra Mole, from obscurity. These are grown at his Morgado do Quintão, which he inherited from his mother. The Count of Silves founded Morgado do Quintão (the city of Silves was the capital of the invading Moors). Crato Branco and Negra Mole were planted at the end of the 19th century and Vasconcellos’s mother insisted these be kept despite suggestions to remove them to plant international varieties.

Winemaker Joana Maçanita creates a zingy Palhete rosé style wine by combining the white Crato Branco with the red Negra Mole (the latter translates as “tender black”). In Portugal it is legal to make rosé with a third white juice and two thirds red. The Clarete (note the spelling) is made from Negra Mole and has a striking label that consists of nothing but a huge square of sky blue. It is highly distinctive on a shelf of bottles, as well as in the mouth.

Tiago Barbosa runs Lagar.Fr, a wine shop in Paris that specialises in Portuguese wines. He said the Clarete was highly popular in Paris. “The French love natural wine.”

Vasconcellos also develops smartphone apps, though these are not related to wine. An exciting discovery at Simplesmente Vinho was the Raisin app for locating natural wines around the world developed by Jean-Hugues Bretin. Raisin is the French word for a grape.

Bretin said that as of February 23 Raisin had been downloaded 50,000 times, with about 100 a day being added to the total. About three in five of those downloads happen in France, an indication of the interest in natural wine in that country.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of ViniPortugal, who supplied travel and accommodation at Simplesmente Vinho.

Words: 1,097

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