This is part II of this two part feature. See also part I.
J. Portugal Ramos
It was a pleasure to be shown around by the new generation, João Maria Ramos (right), even though a walk through the vineyards coincided with the temperature touching 40⩝C. Here they are growing Aragonez, Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah “and a lot more,” says João. The 40-hectare vineyard we visited was certified organic this year, while for now most of their 200 hectares are farmed sustainably, but not yet organically. “This vineyard has only 30cm of soil above solid stone,” João tells me, “but some have only 15 centimetres.”
White wine grapes are planted in clay, “The stronger soil,” says João, “but also good for small berried varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon.” The farm also has a lot of schist and slate, and areas of chalk and limestone, so plants are carefully matched to soils.
They are currently changing the training to raise grapes a little higher off the ground, a painstaking process, but João says it allows the top of the canopy to flop over and shade the grapes in the height of summer, which with the temperatures on my visit seemed like a wise move. “There are optimistic and pessimistic vines,” says João. “When water stressed, some like Syrah react badly and start to brown quickly, while Merlot for example is abundant and still very green.”
The J. Portugal Ramos company began only in 1988, with purchased grapes and a borrowed winery. In 1997 they began to buy land, and then build a winery. Today, with one major partner in the business, they have become one of Alentejo’s biggest names and a role model in designing and launching effective brands within their portfolio.
By coincidence I’d had dinner in Lisbon with Esporão’s head winemaker David Baverstock just a few weeks before my visit to the estate, so this was a second chance to taste through the wines. I was greeted by young winemaker Ana Alves, one of four winemakers on the team of this substantial operation. She is an agronomist, who studied oenology in Oporto. Since my previous visit to Esporão a few years ago a lot has changed, there’s a striking new cellar centred around to new lagares, and surrounded by all sorts of interesting fermentation tanks including various shapes of cement vat and amphorae. There’s also a new 10-hectare experimental vineyard, boasting 189 different varieties to determine which cope best with heat of Alentejo and retain acidity. This year Vinhão, Sercial and Tinto Francisca will be bottled from the vineyard, though sold only from the cellar door. Today the 450 hectares of the 2,000-hectare estate is under vine, olives make up another 80 hectares and the rest is indigenous forest. Eighty hectares are certified organic, plus 120 hectares more are in conversion. Everything else is farmed under an ecological system of integrated management. Indeed, environmental sustainability is cited as a key concern – the company recently won a major award for their efforts in that direction. There are 37 varieties in regular production here, but every 20th row is not vines, but pomegranates, rosemary, honeysuckle, blackberry and a whole panoply of plants intended to encourage biodiversity. A huge vegetal garden supplies the excellent on-site restaurant, and animals have been reintroduced to echo the previous use of this land for mixed farming, including black pigs, sheep and beef cattle. It is a minutely detailed operation with three separate wineries for white, red and premium wines. The latter is pictured below, the new cellar with its fashionable cement tanks, refurbished old amphorae and marble lagares. Only native yeasts are used in this cellar for fermentation, and barrels are used for four years maximum, both 225 and 500 litre French and American oak.
I met up with owner/winemaker António Maçanita and winemaker (and ex-bullfighter) André Herrera de Almeida in the excellent Restaurant D. Joaquim in Evora to hear a little of this classy operation’s history and taste the wines.
António’s mother came from Lisbon, and his father from the Azores, with no family connection to wine. In Lisbon, he chose to study biology, though his real passion growing up was spear-fishing. During his degree course, perhaps with some notion of how he could carve out a career that would allow time for his hobby, he switched courses to agronomy, focused on the industrial side of farming. Upon graduation he travelled to Napa, and then on to Australia where he worked for d’Arenberg, then finally on to Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux to gain experience. Wine, by this time, was clearly in his sights.
At this point he planned to enrol on a winemaking course at UC Davis, but met a consultant called David Booth who invited him to follow him for six months ‘on the job’ training, at the end of which he returned to Portugal with some experience in agronomy, winemaking and wine marketing and business to launch two brands: Preta and Sexy. David Booth came on board in the project too, but sadly he passed away in 2012.
Today Fita Preta farms 52 hectares, with award winning wines under their belt, and distribution in the UK via Coe Vintners. Farming is sustainable and winemaking has an experimental edge: in 2010 they made their first amphora wine, (trading sparkling wine for locally made amphorae) and though he says “The initial result was not pleasing,” after time in bottle Antonio began to like the wine which is made “cool and clean,” without skin contact. It is only partly fermented with wild yeast, because Tony believes “Wild yeast can dominate a wine and overpower the terroir just as much as an inoculated yeast.”
JM Fonseca/José de Sousa
This was a fascinating visit to the winery of José de Sousa in the Reguengos area. This is the Alentejo outpost of the JM Fonseca group, headquartered in Setúbal, and headed up by winemaker and owner Domingos Soares Franco. JM Fonseca bought the José de Sousa operation in the late 1980s, and have since been restoring vineyards and modernising the cellars, under the direction of winemaker Paulo Amaral (left). I said fascinating, and that began with a visit to the enormously atmospheric ‘clay pot winery’. The restored terracotta pots from the local area are used for some special cuvées, filled to mid-shoulder and left open for fermentation, the cap pushed down with a stick. With a slightly threatening glint in his eye Paulo told me how the top part of the floating pumice is scooped out after fermentation is complete, but towards the bottom someone has to climb inside and start shovelling. I had a very interesting experiment with Paulo, where he served the same 2014 Aragonez crop, that had been split into three groups and fermented in stainless steel, lagares and clay pots respectively. The stainless steel sample was very reduced and still showed a ferment character and bright almost spritzy cherry fruit. The sample from lagares was not nearly so reductive, with bold cherry and a firmer feel. The clay pot version was meaty and savoury, again no reduction, but savoury and smoky with a seemingly drier, more grippy character. Soils here are mostly granite, with a small part of sandy soil near the river that crosses the property. They also buy in some grapes, including a little Syrah, mainly for the entry level Montado brand. Some of their own vineyards are very old, a 7.5 hectare plot dating from 1952, another from 1981, and the youngest vineyard is from 1990. The heat on my early summer visit was touching a truly sweltering 39ºC, in what Paulo pointed out was an El Niño year when they can expect only 60% of the rainfall of a normal year. There are naturally low yields without the need to green harvest, and only native natural yeast is used to ferment the premium wines which spend 12 months in French oak and another 12 in bottle.
Carmim is a large cooperative winery, created in 1971 by a group of sixty wine growers. Today it has around 1,000 members and takes grapes from 3,600 hectares of vineyard all within a 25k radius of the town of Reguengos. I met up with head winemaker Rui Veladas, who explained that more than 50% of vineyards are not irrigated. That’s ironic, because close by is the enormous lake formed by the Alqueva Dam, the largest dam and one of the biggest lakes in Europe. Rui tells me that for environmental reasons they are not allowed to tap the lake or its river for water, but is happy with the low vigour of his dry-farmed vineyards and the ensuing quality of fruit. Today he says they are planting a lot more white varieties, mainly Anton Vaz and Gouveio, though plantings of Touriga Nacional are increasing too. We walked around his pride and joy – a small experimental winery within a winery, filled with miniature 250-litre tanks – and also a charming reproduction of a traditional winery with lagares, which are used for some wines, and rows of large amphorae which are not – though Rui says many of his member use amphorae to make their own family wines. Rui uses French oak for his top red wine cuvées, but two thirds of the oak used for white wines is Hungarian, because he believes it has significantly less impact on aroma and flavour.
Cooperativa da Granja/Encostas de Alqueva
My apologies to my hosts on my final visit of this Alentejo tour. It was a highlight for me, the members of this tiny co-op staging a rustic dinner of local specialities in ancient village cellars, with Professor Virgilio Loureiro as a fellow guest, an expert on the history of winemaking in this region. The truth is that a long day in 40ºC heat and high humidity, at the end of a packed week, meant my stamina was giving out and note-taking was more terse than usual. This was a celebration of the local speciality of this relatively remote corner of the Alentejo: wines made as if in Roman times, from ancient ungrafted vines and vinified in amphora, or more correctly, talha (as Professor Loureiro pointed out, amphora were the vessels used for the transport of wine, talha for vinification). Winemaking is essentially the same as in Rome of 2,000 years ago. This is how wine has always been made here – “continuously,” insists the Professor. Winemaker José Piteira chips in: “It is now trendy all over the world to make wine in clay pots, but nobody knows about us – because we have been lousy at communicating our story.” Inside the pots, wine is filtered through vegetable stems, and all of the techniques really are ancient. The Professor explains that their vessels are quite different from similar winemaking jars found in Georgia: “Our jars have a hole in the bottom for drainage and are not buried in the ground as in Georgia,” he tells me. “The jars themselves are much stronger than the Georgian jars, so they do not need to be buried – the main reason for that is to help the jars withstand the pressure once full and fermenting.” The vineyards have no irrigation, are ungrafted and are not trained on wires. A river used to cover the region, so the sub soil is pure sand where Phyloxerra does not survive. There is also a speciality grape of the region, Moreto, that thrives in this climate: it is the hottest place in Portugal. “If it was 40ºC today in Evora it was probably 45ºC here,” says José. The tradition in this area is for white wine, because that is what the noble Romans drank, but there’s a fascinating range of styles from truly one of the most interesting little pockets in all of Portugal.
Encostas de Estremoz
The no nonsense Joana Castro Duarte greeted me at Encostas de Estremoz for a slightly perfunctory tasting on the terrace of their substantial winery, a lovely spot with swallows circling overhead and views across the Alentejo countryside.
This is a family affair, run by Joana with her father and brother. Their irrigated vineyards grow local varieties, with all red grape harvesting carried out during the night, by machine, “to harvest quickly so that we can retain aromas and quality.” White wine grapes are picked early morning and pressed as whole bunches, the stems giving some extra acidity in this hot climate.
The family farms 100 hectares split across two farms. From a very quick walk through it seemed like a fairly industrial winery, where I saw no sign of sorting tables, though they do work mainly with French oak, coopered in France, and only use barrels for a maximum of three years, with their Reserva always matured in new French oak barrels.
Go to part I.