My oldest dearest friend has been living in Lisbon the past two years, and I just came back from visiting her. Whilst there, we visited two very different winemakers.
Herdade do Mouchão
In the Alentejo, east of Lisbon, we visited the Herdade do Mouchão – many thanks to Simon Field of Berry Bros for the introduction. The proprietor, Iain Richardson, treated us to a very detailed explanation and walk through of their wine making facilities. Their methods are very traditional – all picking by hand and yes, the grapes are treaded rather than pressed – and the red wines feature the Alicante Bouschet grape, which is fairly unusual in that the pulp is tinted red, not just the skins, so the wines are quite dark and opaque. And wonderfully gutsy – we had a tasting, and if ever I faced a cold winter’s night without heat, this is a wine I would reach for to warm and sustain me. Interestingly, they also make fortified wines – one fortified before the fermentation is complete and the other after fermentation. We tasted the “we can’t call it port” and it was wonderfully rich, raisinny and very satisfying; Iain said it is made by a sort of solera system, so impossible to date it. They also make a wine from the second pressing of their grapes and don’t bottle it for commercial sale – but people can bring their own demijohns and buy it at the domaine, as someone was doing while we were there.
The vineyard has an interesting history, in that it has been in the same family for over a hundred years, barring a roughly ten year hiccup after the 1974 revolution, when it was nationalised. The family regained the property in the mid eighties and set about restoration. Most of the wine that had been stored or was in process at the time of expropriation was drunk or sold off, and the vineyards were pretty well ruined by neglect during that time. The one saving grace was the wine maker – Iain told us they have had members of the same family making the wine for three generations now – and he managed to control some of the depradations on the cellars during the “cooperative” years. As we walked around we saw some of the old bottles that had survived that period lined up for re-corking. But the vineyards had to be completely re-planted, and some of them are now managed in an interesting two-tier arrangement – alternate vines are trained high or low on the wires.
The other visit was to Casal Branco in the Ribetejo, north of Lisbon. The very charming sales and marketing manager, David Ferreira, spent the morning with us and we visited not only the wine making facilities, but also walked around the family home and stables across the road and then out to the vinyards.
The wine making processes are a blend of traditional and modern, grapes picked both by hand and machine, depending on the vineyard and wine, but all the grapes are treaded in immense lagares – not quite hip deep wading pools – the wine then piped across to cement vats to complete fermentation and remontage, and thereafter some wines are aged in either french or american oak casks. I was stunned at the scale of their wine making – this was the first winery I’d visited outside of the Cotes de Nuits, and I couldn’t help thinking just one of their vats would hold the entire production of some Burgundians, and there must have been thirty or forty such. We went up a staircase to the walkway across the tops of the vats and it was high enough I felt a little dizzy looking down. David told us some of the production numbers, but they made me pretty dizzy too, so I cannot remember clearly to quote them accurately here. Wines were being bottled during our visit (they have their own plant on site), and the warehouse was busy too, with cases palletted and ready to ship all over the world – Brasil, Finland and the USA were just some of the destinations I saw tagged.
We then walked out to some of the other buildings – one has an immense still where they used to make the aguardente, also the steam engine that was used until fairly recently to power operations in the cave. Another small building housed the sparkling wine, made by champagne methods, which was resting peacefully in process of remuage.
En route to the champagne cave, we were introduced to the winemaker, Dina Luis. I admit I was surprised to find a woman in charge of so large an operation in what I assumed to be a very traditional trade and country. But her wines are absolutely marvellous (more on those below), so no wonder.
David then drove us out to the vineyards. Understand that the wine making and the vineyards are just a small part of the family’s estate there (vines account for about 140 hectares out of well over 600). We drove past fields of potatoes, strawberries were being grown under partial cover, they also raise cereals and have forests, make olive oils, and breed Lusitano horses. David took us out to Bicos – which is a pre-phylloxera vineyard. I wish I had had a camera – shame on me for forgetting – the vineyard was wonderful – set alongside an immense field of potatoes was what looked like a long straggling spinney. In fact, there were vines planted in amongst olive trees, and feathery high grass throughout, on a fairly sandy soil. The vine trunks were knee high, great gnarled things – as you would be too after 150 years – and the vines were just sprouting madly in a wild mop from the stump. After the flowering and fruit set the vines would of course be pruned and green harvested and meticulously managed, all by hand. But no tidy posts and wires and neatly striped rows. I loved it.
We returned to the winery and went through to a little café, where my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed a tasting with David. All of the wines, at all price points, were wonderful – good, clean, fresh, lively flavours. Thinking back now, what strikes me is how the Casal Branco wines made me change my mind – or opened my mind – about some grapes and styles I have not previously cared for. The first was a white, their Terra de Lobos Branco, regional Ribetejo. I recognised the sauvignon nose, but was curious to smell – and taste – something much richer and far more interesting: the Fernão Pires grape. I am not a sauvignon blanc person – show me a bottle and I’ll show you the kitchen sink – but this blend was very satisfying.
The next revelation was the Quinta do Casal Branco Rosé – again I don’t often enjoy rosés, they are too often rather flavourless and a bit “neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring” – but this was vividly and cleanly flavoured, again a real pleasure.
David told us the Quinta do Casal Branco Tinto 2004 (the companion red wine) won 3rd place in the Wine Enthusiast Top 100 Buys of 2008. But look carefully at the ratings – they were awarded 91 points, versus only 90 for the top 2 wines, which pipped on price alone – USD $9 or $8 versus the Casal Branco at USD $10.
We tasted the Falcoaria Reserva DOC Ribatejo, 2005, which has sold out in bottles, only magnums left, and I brought one home with me. This wine has also been in the press, the Portuguese magazine Revista de Vinhos rated this the best wine from the Ribatejo Region. This is the wine made from the pre-phylloxera vinyard, the Bicos. Definitely young to drink now, this one will run, it has the power and balance. I am very bad at tasting notes and parsing out all the fruits and flowers by name that are in a nose or on a palate, so I will only say, it was satisfyingly complex, fascinating on the palate. My passion is for tannic, full bodied, complex and tending-toward-spicy-and-earthy red wines, and this is a beauty, a wonderful alternative to my favourites: Côtes de Nuits Burgundy, Barolo, and Amarone.
Finally, we tried the Monge Espumonte Bruto – their brut sparkling wine, made by the champagne method. My usual objection to champagne is that it tastes too strongly of yeast, which is not my favourite taste sensation. The one and only champagne I have ever thought I would actually pay my own money for was Billecart Salmon Clos St. Hilaire 1995 (and this despite having drunk several of the top names in the 1990 vintage as well as plenty of the usual non vintage suspects). Again, the Casal Branco wine was a very pleasing surprise – flirtatious red fruit on the palate and a steady stream of subtle, tickling bubbles.
I was really sad to tear myself away – from the wines, the domaine and our host – and hope to return. Their harvest begins in August, so if it is as quiet in the vinyards of Burgundy as in the rest of France during the August holidays, perhaps I could scrape up train fare or a bicycle or something and get myself down there.
Visit the Casal Branco website for more, in both Portuguese and English.
Back to Burgundy
As for Burgundy plans… since returning from Vosne Romanee a month ago, I have put my house up for sale – if anyone desires a charming Edwardian cottage in Kent, do get in touch – and I am in process of dispersing the vast majority of my (now former) possessions to friends, charities and an auction house. This week I will pack up the few things I want to keep, so they are ready to move when and if ever I either settle down again somewhere or sell the house. After the bank holiday weekend I shall sling on my backpack, go back to the Cotes de Nuits, try to find work in the vinyards, and pray to be accepted to the CFPPA for the autumn.