Dão region – Portuguese wine
Vineyards in the Dão region of Portugal
Features 18 February 2021

Portuguese wine: in search of hidden treasures

Portugal has undergone an astonishing winemaking odyssey over recent times, with acclaimed wines made from previously neglected sites. In this exclusive excerpt from his forthcoming book, Simon J Woolf and Ryan Opaz recount one extraordinary tale among many, in the Dão region

Words by Simon J Woolf

Photography by Ryan Opaz

Previous Story
Next Story

If you came across António Madeira at a wine fair in 2014 – as I did – you’d have been forgiven for thinking he was a touch moody. Madeira would stand by his tasting table, unsmiling and dour, accompanied by two bottles of his first and only Portuguese wine – an extraordinary, refined 2011 Dão red. Madeira admits that he was close to a nervous breakdown at the time.

Born and raised in Paris, Madeira’s name gives away the family’s Portuguese heritage. His parents were originally from Serra da Estrela, at the very heart of the Dão. Dão is a quintessential Portuguese wine region. Spread around the country’s highest mountain, it’s a depopulated and largely rural spot with many vineyards at considerable altitude.

Blends have always been king here (as in most of Portugal) and until recently it was rare to find a vineyard planted to a single variety, or, indeed, a wine that mentioned a grape on the label. Century-old vineyards are 10-a-penny, but many are abandoned or tended by custodians as old and gnarled as their vines. The region can almost certainly lay claim to Portugal’s most popular red grape, Touriga Nacional, and has a reputation going back centuries for its classic, ageworthy red wines. Yet this rich heritage has fallen off the radar in recent decades.

António Madeira – Portuguese wine
António Madeira has made it his mission to find abandoned vineyards in Dão and bring them back to life

I started to taste wonderful things and I fell in love

Madeira would visit his homeland every summer with his parents, and he loved the rural contrast with Paris. In 2004, he met his wife-to-be in his grandparents’ village of São Martinho. Wine wasn’t part of Madeira’s life at that point. He remembers that his father always had a glass of wine with dinner, but it was generally a cheap, nasty Côtes-du-Rhône from the supermarket. Madeira’s light-bulb wine moment came later, after he’d graduated with an engineering degree and started working in the logistics sector.

“My colleagues had plenty of money,” recalls Madeira, “and some of them started a wine club. I started to taste wonderful things and I fell in love”. This being Paris, the first wines he discovered were natural wines from the Jura and top Pinot Noir from Burgundy. Madeira was 25 at the time.

Simon J Woolf – Portugese wine
Woolf's book 'Foot Trodden – Portugal And The Wines That Time Forgot' is being launched via a crowdfunding campaign

Eventually, the penny dropped for Madeira that wine was also a big part of Portuguese culture. He began reading books and discovered a Portuguese online wine forum where he could chat to many of the country’s winemakers. “I started to understand that this region that I love had been very important for wine, but that history was in the process of disappearing. I started to think maybe I could make a difference and help the region.”

During Madeira’s lifetime, Dão’s wine industry had reached a low ebb. Under the Salazar dictatorship, the region was reorganised around large cooperatives. Unlike other parts of Portugal, where there was some flexibility, Dão producers were required to deliver all of their grapes to the cooperatives where it would be transformed into wine of (at best) mediocre quality. This remained the case until Portugal’s accession to the EU in 1986.

Madeira became more and more obsessed with the decline of Dão’s reputation, and the feeling that it was dying. Finally, in 2010, he decided to act. “I didn’t have a cellar, I didn’t have anything. I just had ideas,” he says. And he’d never made wine in his life.

Portuguese wine
Three of António Madeira's best-loved wines

He befriended Luís Lopes, the consultant winemaker at Quinta da Pellada, the estate belonging to legendary winemaker Alvaro Castro. Quinta da Pellada was close to São Martinho, and Madeira started to hang around the cellar to learn.

Madeira’s first vintage (2011) was produced from an old vineyard belonging to family friends. Castro allowed him to bring the grapes to Quinta da Pellada for fermentation, where he had Lopes on hand to teach him how to make wine. He might not have had the experience, but he had a blueprint in his mind – for pure, natural wines made with as little technology or intervention as possible.

 

Hunting ground

Meanwhile, he’d commandeered the garage underneath his grandparent’s old house. It became an ad-hoc cellar, stuffed full of stainless-steel tanks and a few old oak barrels. And he began searching for vineyards to rent or work with. Madeira would drive around the mountain villages looking for abandoned or semi-abandoned vines.

Then he’d go knocking on doors and try to figure out who owned the plot, and whether they would agree to let him rent it and work it. Sometimes he’d hear sob stories from wives whose husbands had died, or been rendered infirm.

Some old-timers still tend these precious old vineyards, but often the viticulture is brutally chemical. The grapes are then delivered to the local cooperative for a pittance. As vines get older, their yields tend to drop. Since cooperatives typically pay based on quantity not on quality, working the old vineyards isn’t a tempting prospect as the work gets harder and the already meagre financial returns diminish.

Madeira has encountered plenty of resistance from locals who don’t believe that a “Frenchman” (even if he is bilingual and entirely Portuguese by heritage) will look after their prized vines properly. The Dão is not a wealthy region, nor a huge tourist draw, and in some cases, the unthinkable happens and vineyards are pulled out in return for EU grants, bulldozed to make way for housing or, in many cases, just left to rot.

Nonetheless, some of the plots that Madeira found are extraordinary. Nestled into rolling hills, perched atop granitic outcrops, many are invisible unless you know which tiny path to take. The vineyard that Madeira calls Vinha da Serra is his pride and joy. It’s a compact plot of maybe half a hectare, with a few rows of wizened vines around 125 years old.

 

Vineyard museum

The vines are twisted and sometimes formed into bizarre angles, as a result of negligent pruning. Their trunks are as thick as the concrete posts at the end of the rows. Madeira couldn’t identify all the different grape varieties, and neither could a specialist who came to visit. There are at least 30 different sub-species, all growing on very poor granite soil and all on their own roots (rather than grafted onto American rootstocks, as is now common).

“It’s a museum,” laughs Madeira. Except that this vineyard is now very much alive. Madeira has nourished it lovingly back into health, renting a local horse to help gently plough the rows and planting fava beans to try to restore the nitrogen balance. The harvest from this special place is bottled as a wine called Centenaria. “It’s like a grand cru,” he explains.

“In the beginning, I was trying to find vineyards and people. Then people started coming to me,” he smiles. Now he’s known as the crazy guy who will take on your vineyards if you’re 90 years old or just can’t be bothered any more.

Dão vineyard
The Dão is a plentiful source of vineyards with incredibly mature vines, some more than 100 years old

It started out as a holiday pursuit, but by 2014 he’d amassed a total of 26 small sites spread around six different villages. And he was spending every single weekend in Dão, before returning to France for his day job. The stress started to show. Madeira had his wife and young family back in Paris, not to mention his engineering job – and the burgeoning collection of ancient vineyards in Dão that demanded his attention. “I was very, very tired and didn’t have any time to rest,” he says.

Finally in 2017, he convinced his wife that the whole family should move to São Martinho. Wine had become his life and he wanted to live from it. His grandparents’ old house became a temporary home, and, best of all, Madeira now had his wife on hand to help with the vineyard work. Except that she promptly became pregnant with their third child.

Life may not have become any easier for Madeira, but in the decade since he first fermented two barrels of wine at Quinta da Pellada, he’s managed to build a new winery and develop quite a name. Now, when Madeira goes to one of the wine fairs in Porto, his table is quickly surrounded by young sommeliers and wine importers desperate to get their hands on his scarce production. And he looks a little happier.

 

This is an excerpt from a chapter profiling several Dão winemakers in a forthcoming book on Portuguese wine by Simon J Woolf and Ryan Opaz, due for release in October. The pair are self-publishing Foot Trodden – Portugal And The Wines That Time Forgot through a crowdfunding campaign which you can support – and receive the book a month before general release. The campaign runs until 17 March. Read on to discover some of the best producers in the Dão – and where to buy their wines in the UK.

Dão trailblazers – the winemakers to know

Several Dão winemakers are restoring the region to its former reputation. Although they’re spread about the region, these winemakers work closely together, united in the belief that the Dão has something very special to offer. It’s no longer a dying landscape where the cooperatives are the only game in town. I urge you to try the wines and see for yourself.

António Madeira’s wines are imported by Indigo and are available at Highbury Vintners and The Sourcing Table. As Madeira himself says, however: “Nothing would have happened without Alvaro.” Alvaro Castro’s expertly made, increasingly terroir-driven wines, produced under various labels including Quinta da Pellada, Quinta da Saes and Primus, are available in the UK at Drinks & Co.

Alvaro Castro
Alvaro Castro was a trailblazer in the Dão, with terroir-driven wines his signature style

Further west towards the Atlantic, winemaker António Ribeiro and his dancer-turned-winemaker wife Sara Dionísio work in a similar fashion to Madeira, farming old plots and making elegant wines with a minimal intervention focus. Their estate is Casa de Mouraz, whose wines are available in the UK via Vintage Roots.

A little further north from Madeira’s winery, João Tavares de Piña has his estate Quinta da Boavista (nothing to do with the Douro estate of the same name). Tavares de Piña created the lovable Rufia brand in 2012, initially as an experiment to see if overtly natural wines would sell. Now, his Rufia tinto (red), branco (white) and curtimenta (orange) are the mainstay of his production, and Tavares de Piña is increasingly incorporating permaculture practices into his farming. Its wines are available at Iberian Drinks.

It's even better in print

Get the current issue free when you subscribe for four issues – just enter the code CLUB5 on checkout