Protecting Portugal’s Wine Culture, Virgilio Loureiro

Ξ November 9th, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, PORTUGAL, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

I came to Portugal knowing very little apart from what was commonly available in standard English language wine texts. Before touching down in Lisbon in advance of the European Wine Bloggers Conference, I could recite from memory, as any studious schoolboy could, all of the country’s major wine growing regions, perhaps a dozen of her most important grapes, the names of some of the larger producers, and a few truisms about the Portuguese wine culture as a whole. While it is good to know such things (it can render you an instant ‘expert’ among a crowd of English speakers, for example), such information does not get at the heart of the matter of the meaning of wine in Portugal. To acquire that knowledge a kind of cultural submersion or surrender is required. To speak to the right people is particularly important.
 
During my time in Portugal I can only claim to have inched closer to an understanding. It was certainly not the understanding that I was expecting. I spoke to many people, perhaps no one so well informed as Prof. Virgilio Loureiro of the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon. The former winemaker at the Dao’s Quinta dos Roques and Quinta das Maias, Professor Loureiro has been working very diligently for many years to document and to preserve elements of Portugal’s threatened wine traditions, history and culture. As may be read, much has been lost, yet much may still be saved.
It is my curious fate to have listened closely to the man and to have thereby had impressed upon me the ethical obligation to join in Prof. Loureiro’s effort. Passing along his words is a start.
 
Admin Thank you very much for agreeing to speak with me. I’ve recently been to Carcavelos and Colares. Quite fascinating histories may be found in those DOCs.
 
Virgilio Loureiro Colares is amazing. The vineyard landscape is really unique. Have you tasted the old whites?
 
Not the old whites yet, no.
 
VL They are absolutely amazing! The reds are very interesting. But the whites are really amazing. It is possible to find 40 to 50 year-old whites, like the best Montrachet’s in Burgundy. But here in Portugal, unfortunately people don’t understand this style of wine. It is really a pity. They have no idea how to speak to the world of wine about what treasure we have. This is a pity.
 
I am here for a wine bloggers conference. I come from America but most assembled are from Europe. What happens when the world fully wakes up to the quality and uniqueness of Portuguese wines? Is there a risk to Portugal’s wine culture?
 
VL It is not only a risk. The risk is already fact. The loss that we have actually realized is a tragedy. Most of the best wine regions we have in Portugal are producing wines in the Californian and Australian style. They put in a lot of American oak; they put in 6 to 10 grams of sugar to round the style; they are extremely aromatic and with very low acidity, all so that wines may be drinkable very early. This is now a normal approach for most wineries and of most enologists.
 
Mr. Nossiter, when he was here for the first time, he was very sad because he didn’t know the situation in Portugal. But he knew very well the situation in Spain. And the problem of Portugal is that it is in the last position of European development, but is moving in exactly the same direction as Spanish wines. It is a pity.
 
I don’t know if you know of the famous Spanish figure of Don Quijote de la Mancha, well, I am the Don Quijote of Portugal trying to fight against this globalization of Portuguese wines. And I have some friends, one of them is a very important person, it is Mr. Nossiter. So I’m trying. (laughs)
 
Now I have a very exciting project to put on the map the important historical regions for Portuguese wines. I have here some pictures I can show you to make clear the potential we have. Because we still have time to preserve a lot of treasures of wine production mostly in the Mediterranean area in general, treasures that have been almost completely destroyed in Spain (in Italy there remains a little).
 
We have real Roman wine being made exactly as it was 2000 years ago, in clay jars, in the south of Portugal, in Alentejo. Here the wines in clay jars are protected with pine resin, like in old Greece, and the wines are made exactly as in a Roman villa 2000 years ago in the territory of what is now called Alentejo. The people from the small villages in the Alentejo make this type of wine for family consumption.
 
This winery has 19 jars. They produce whites and reds. They produce around 20,000 liters per year. But the owner does not completely respect the old technology because he puts his wine in glass bottles. Still it is a good approach. Some of the jars are as old as 400 years. And what happens in them is amazing in enological terms. I really don’t understand the process scientifically, but when we have a lot of oxidized wine, if we pass that wine across the solid parts of the bottom of the jar, the oxidation is practically eliminated. The wine becomes o.k.
 
I am now writing a book titled ‘Portuguese Wines From the Bronze Age To the 21st Century’. I collected a lot of history in this region. When the wine was sold out they imported wine from the center of Portugal. But when they passed that wine from the center of Portugal across the solid parts of the jars the style of wine was changed to that of this region!
 

Today, first they drink this wine and then they drink the modern technological wine. Why? Because it is a very, very special wine. The technological process used is the opposite of the technology described in modern treatises of enology. Both white and red are made with native yeasts, of course, but also with the solid parts of the grapes in the jars. And after fermentation the cap falls and acts like a filter. The effect on the wine when it passes through this filter changes it completely, it changes the aroma; and in the whites, they become lemon-yellow in color, fruity, with a very, very special style which is completely typical of the wine.
 
Today in Portugal we no longer have the artisans to make the jars. We are trying to recover the art.
 
We also have Cistercian wine from the center of Portugal which is made exactly like that of the monks in 12th century Burgundy. It is special because it is the only survivor of this type of wine in Portugal. And the reason is very easy to understand. It is a micro-climate they have in that region which gets wines with 14 degrees of alcohol and with it the possibility of developing into vinegar.
 
Ten years ago when I discovered this wine there were around 5000 wine growers. Today there are perhaps less than 500. But now I think it is protected by law, a law we promote, so it is probably safe. But that is not enough. We need to push it so that it can become known in the world of wine. And this is the challenge we now have.
 
Another wine is from the Azores Islands. The vineyard landscape of Pico Island, as you can see, is absolutely amazing. It is flat, with walls made of volcanic rocks, more rocks than the Great Wall of China. Only with this idea is it possible to conceive of the work done in the islands. And the wine is very, very special. It has strong acidity, and with good technology it is possible to make wines with extreme longevity. They become very nice at ten to fifteen years old.
 
In that picture you can see that there is no soil, only rocks. And each square has two or three vines, no more. This is unbelievable work. Forty kilometers! And most of the wine freaks from all over the world didn’t know this wine or its vineyards. And this is the typical winery used by them, with wooden screw presses, a Cato press, like those from Roman times.
 
In this picture you can see that the rocks are broken. They put the vine in the cracks. This has been the way since the 15th century. The technology didn’t change! (laughs)
Today I have another project, financed by the regional government, to improve the aging process of their fortified wines. They are very similar to the wines of Madeira. When the wines are well done they are of the same level of quality as the best wines of the Madeira.
 
I will soon have published an article on these matters in an American journal Chronica Horticulturae. I think it will be out in December. Next year we are organizing here in Lisboa the 2010 International Horticultural Congress. We’ll have workshops on winemaking and climate change. They invited me to write a small article on the history of wines.
 
I am also trying to recover the old grape varieties from the Douro. I’m making wine in the Douro Superior, near Foz Côa, near the Spanish border. It is a more preserved area of Douro. And I identified three small vineyards with pre-phylloxera vines. Most of the vines are of unknown varieties. Now I am trying to make a ‘new old’ vineyard by grafting buds from these very old vines of unknown varieties. I already have some wines! This year I made two different wines. Last year I made another one. And one of the red grape varieties has color in the juice [and flesh], like Alicante Bouschet and like Grand Noir. There are a very small number of these varieties [teinturier grape varieties, I believe he means. Admin]. And this is one such variety. The wine, again, is very special, really special.
 
Do you have allies in the Portuguese wine industry? Do you enjoy support from people who think like yourself?
 
VL Yes. But unfortunately they are not V.I.P.s. There are some people with sensitivity, with high culture and background, but unfortunately not V.I.P.s from the wine sector. This is the reason I call myself Don Quijote! You see? This is the reason why I so quickly established a friendship with Mr. Nossiter. He understands me.
 
What is the Portuguese government doing to protect these endangered wine regions?
 
VL Unfortunately, the Portuguese government is doing almost nothing to protect our historical wines, because they are neither considered an economical activity nor a historical patrimony. Furthermore, it is encouraging the vinegrowers to “modernize” their vineyards and wineries without criterion. In fact, the “wave of progress”, supported by public aids, is provoking a fast destruction of the remaining traditions (as happened in Spain and Italy recently). In some cases it would be better if the vineyards were under control of Ministry of Culture instead of the Ministry of Agriculture!
 
The vineyard landscape of Pico island is under protection of UNESCO. The only recognized (not really protected) Portuguese historical wine by law is the Cistercian wine of Ourém. At this moment, we are trying to protect the clay jar wine of Alentejo by a proposal submitted to the CVR of Alentejo (Regulatory Commitee).
 
How should Portuguese wines be marketed?
 
VL Today, the marketing strategy of Portuguese wine companies is based only on low price. It is impossible to promote these types of wines with centuries, millennia of historical age behind them. I think the best strategy for a small country like Portugal is to invest in the tradition and the culture; to say to the world that we have a lot of specialities, like France, like Spain. But Spain has practically destroyed this type of heritage.
 
The Portuguese wine heritage is different in all the world. I’m trying to convince the growers in Portugal that it is possible to protect it. How? Paying a fair price. For what? For the next generation, so that it has the stimulus to continue. Because, as you know, the younger generation today are very egoistic. They want to go to the big cities and abandon the traditions of the small village. The stimulus is to be found through the strengthening of the culture and by being paid the fair price to continue.
 
You, and Mr. Nossiter, people from the New World and also people from European culture can repeat this. There is one more thing I would like to say. These types of wines are completely out of fashion. As Mr. Peynaud of Bordeaux has said, ‘It is impossible to taste a wine from another age with a palate of this century”. We need to understand wines, of course. But I think ten minutes of talking is enough to understand wine! And with two or three tasting experiences it is enough to love wine. It is like tonic water. The first experience is not good, but the second is o.k.
 
Excellent. A quick observation about the Douro Boys.
 
VL The Douro Boys is another concept of wine. I respect them. I am a friend of most of them. But I think that they have some responsibilities that they don’t assume. They are known all over the world. They have the obligation to promote what we have here in Portugal.
 
Please give my regards to Mr. Nossiter. Next time you come we can arrange a visit to the past.
 
Sir, thank you.
 
VL Ken, it was a pleasure for me. I thank you because you can help me in my fight.
 
Admin

 

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  1. on November 21st, 2009 at 8:55 am

    I am intrigued and puzzled, what does it mean to “pass the wine across the Solid part” of the jar ? Isn’t the entire jar solid??

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