Living the dream (Sept 2010)

Richard Mayson

Wine writer, lecturer and former Wine Society employee, Richard Mayson tells Societynews about the trials and tribulations of becoming a winemaker in Portugal.

On 12th May 2004 an e-mail pings into my inbox with details of my dream property: a 20- hectare quinta high in the Serra de São Mamede, Portugal. This is an area I have had my eye on for years. The combination of altitude (close to the highest point in southern Portugal), soils of granite and schist as well as breathtaking natural beauty give this corner of the Alentejo a special feel.

They are asking too much for the four ramshackle houses, the long-abandoned adega (winery), olive trees, cork oaks, brambles, a lot of rock, a small dam and 12ha of vines. But the site is perfect, spanning a shallow valley, just over halfway up the serra (mountain) at an altitude of 600m. I consult friend and winemaker Dirk Niepoort. ‘If it’s in your heart, just do it’ he says, rather like the Nike advert. So after seven months of wheeling and dealing I sign and celebrate the purchase of Quinta do Centro with my winemaker and new business partner Rui Reguinga. This is the fulfilment of an ambition that began soon after I left The Wine Society in 1989. With four books on Portuguese wines to my name, I have come to know the highways and byways of Portugal quite well. Parts of the Douro, Dão and the country near Lisbon – the transition between Atlantic and Continental climate – have an excellent and proven terroir but I settle on this almost unknown part of Iberia. It is my chance to put some of my words into practice.

Inspecting the vines

Nothing happens in Portugal without a great deal of bureaucracy. Setting up a new company is no simple matter, except that the government have recently cut through the red tape with a scheme called empresa na hora – ‘company in an hour’. We arrive at the office with a list of a dozen evocative, earthy-sounding names but find ourselves limited to one of the 500 that have already been approved. Having rejected ‘Blind Date’, ‘Nobody Knows’, ‘Speed Woman’ and (though it’s tempting) ‘Don’t Worry’ we settle upon Sonho Lusitano (‘Lusitanian Dream’) which seems to encapsulate the spirit of our project. An hour turns into a day but I leave empresa na hora feeling deliriously happy.

Rui Reguinga and I share the same goal: the pursuit of finesse. The relatively cool climate in this part of the Alentejo lends itself to this but we have to get to know the vineyard before our first harvest. The oldest vines go back about 25 years and include traditional varieties like trincadeira, aragonez and alicante bouschet that have already proved themselves in the Alentejo. But there is also periquita, a variety without any pedigree here, as well as some cabernet sauvignon and a plot of abandoned vines. I start by replanting nearly six hectares and decide on some more aragonez (the local name for tempranillo), as well as Portugal’s leading grape touriga nacional. I take a considered gamble with syrah and viognier (‘the salt in the cooking’ according to Marcel Guigal) which stand to do well on the granite. But the growing season in 2005 is far from cool and turns out to be the driest in living memory. The dam springs a leak and I am left without water. Fortunately I delay planting my new vines until the following spring but the rest of the vineyard suffers, yields collapse and our first red wine doesn’t quite have the restraint and finesse that we envisaged at the outset.

Before construction of the winery

Even now, I like to spend some time each vintage picking grapes. It serves to remind me of just how menial and backbreaking the task is but it is also much the best way to get to know your own vineyard, in detail. When you have your head in your own vines you feel the culmination of the growing season with satisfaction. I also enjoy the banter, which has changed since our first vintage in 2005. With the economic crisis the itinerant Romanians and Bulgarians have mostly returned home and our pickers are from the locality once more.

It takes the best part of a year to register a brand in Portugal. I decide early on that there are too many wines called ‘Quinta de something-or-other’ and spend hours brainstorming names armed with dictionaries of Portuguese, Latin and local calão (slang) only to have all the names rejected. We want to link the wine with the local terroir but it must be easy to pronounce outside Portugal. It turns out that we are literally sitting on the right name: the locality is appropriately called Pedra Basta (‘Enough Stone’) and we adopt it just before our first red is ready to be bottled.

When you bring a wine on to the market for the first time you do so with both hubris and trepidation, fully prepared for buyers not to like it. Seeking distribution for a new red in a crowded world is hard going and the internet, facebook and twitter are no substitute for personal contact and word of mouth. The deep pride that wells up inside me every time I find a bottle of Pedra Basta on a wine list is the same as I felt when I first saw my own book on the shelf. Although it is very much a team effort, producing wine is still intensely personal.

The adega nearing completion

Setting up a project like this also entails a fairly deep and flexible pocket. The existing adega was completely inadequate and a new winery and cellar had to be built from scratch. I employed local architects to create a practical industrial building that now blends seamlessly into the landscape, a national park. My new vineyard is only just entering into production (four years after it was planted) and labour costs are rising every year as we move towards more sustainable cultivation methods. Then with the 2008 harvest just in the bag, the international banking crisis broke, sterling fell, pushing up the UK price of Pedra Basta by nearly 30%. There is no one better than Teresa, my accountant in nearby Portalegre, for delivering bad news with a smile!

Despite these set backs, five years on we are roughly where we envisaged ourselves to be and Pedra Basta can now be found on sale in six markets: Portugal, the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland and Spain. Recent vintages, especially 2007 and 2008, have been cooler and I believe we have succeeded in capturing the stony mountain fruit character that we sought from the outset. Pedra Basta will be one of three red wines along with a reserve called Pedra e Alma (‘stone and soul’) and a special cuvée to be released two or three times a decade when conditions are exactly right. Since moving from poacher to gamekeeper, referee to player, I have been on an exponential learning curve. Buying a vineyard in Portugal means that you become a farmer, environmentalist, politician, winemaker and salesman but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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