In 2002 Sir Cliff Richard plans to release the first wine produced from his own vineyards in Portugal. ADAM LECHMERE was invited out there to try it.
Sitting next to Cliff Richard on the cool patio of his Algarve villa, I was tempted more than once to drop my napkin on the floor in order to get a good look at the underside of his chin. It is very difficult to believe that the man is 60 years old. Small and faun-like, in his shorts and sandals, he doesn’t seem to have a mark on his well-tanned skin.
It is impossible to find a British person above the age of 20 who hasn’t heard of ‘British pop’s most celebrated survivor’, as the Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes him. He’s hardly been out of the charts since 1958 when he had his first hit with ‘Move It!’, and gradually, through four decades, he has turned into the housewives’ choice, a mellow-voiced, middle-of-the-road entertainer who can still pack the Albert Hall with the stolid matrons of middle England.
And despite it all – the acclaim, the 1995 knighthood – Cliff is often treated as a bit of a joke. The popular press is unstinting in its efforts to find a stain on his clean image. But Cliff gives off no hint of impropriety. To catch him with his tennis shorts down (he’s a keen player) would be unthinkable. My friends were amazed he was producing wine – ‘does he drink?’ they asked, disbelieving.But drink he does, with relish, especially when it’s his own wine, which he’s invited Decanter and a couple of other respected journals to taste.’Isn’t it wonderful,’ he says. ‘Here I am drinking the wine up here, and the vines it came from are just down there. Amazing.’ He says he’s had ‘a love affair’ with the Algarve since radio was called ‘the wireless’, buying properties here and there and eventually, eight years ago, settling in a 200-year-old farmhouse, Quinta da Moinha, near the tourist steampot of Albufeira. He’s sculpted the gardens tastefully, built a pool and a professional tennis court, and planted 8ha (hectares) of vines.’I really wanted it to be a working farm,’ he told us. There were already some raggedy old vines but Cliff didn’t pay them much attention, planting figs and other things. Then he got the idea of making wine and, looking around for a winemaker, hit upon David Baverstock.
From a land down under
Australian Baverstock is one of the most respected oenologists in Portugal. A graduate of the prestigious Roseworthy Agricultural College in Adelaide, he now runs winemaking at Esporão in the Alentejo. He took Cliff’s project seriously, enlisting consultant Richard Smart to determine the suitability of the land. ‘Richard [Smart] came down, ran soil and climate tests, and said there would be no problems,’ Baverstock says. ‘He found red, sandy loam that was free draining, he checked there were no nematodes, told us to plant with rootstock, said the climate was fine with no big temperature variations, and there was a good supply of water for
irrigation. It’s all been very straightforward.’The Algarve used to be one of Portugal’s biggest wine-producing regions. There is no reason why wine shouldn’t be made here – beyond the fact that it’s easier to build hotels and sell pizzas to tourists than work a vineyard. Cliff now has 8ha of very healthy, three-year-old vines. Baverstock has planted Aragonez and a parcel of Shiraz ‘to make sure we’ve got a wine of reasonably serious quality.’
On the balcony overlooking the vineyard, after a brief hiatus while a suitable vessel is found for a spittoon, it’s time to put it to the test. And it’s delicious. The nose is laden with alcohol and sweet berry fruits, the palate soft and fruity, with chocolate Shiraz characters, the Aragonez lending spice and aroma. The tannins wait in the wings, come on for a turn mid-palate, and then decently retreat, leaving a lengthy, lightly tannic finish. Everyone is impressed, even the man from The Telegraph, who announced early on that gout normally allowed him only to drink whisky.We move on to lunch on the patio, beside the azure pool, serenaded by Vivaldi and Mariah Carey (the only singer Cliff cares for nowadays) from speakers disguised as rocks. The wine is poured into enormous glasses and we discuss what it should be called. Vida Nova is one idea, Cliffhanger is quickly rejected, Quinta do Cliff likewise. One of the mocked-up labels has the singer cruciform (minus a crucifix) in front of his vines. I wonder aloud if the Christ analogy didn’t strike him as too obvious.
‘That’s just it,’ he says enthusiastically, not entirely grasping my meaning. ‘You can’t drink a glass of wine without thinking of Christ – he turned water into wine. And Vida Nova means new life – new life for me, new life for the Algarve. It’s all there.’
Another name is inspired by vineyard manager Amandio Caldinha, a quiet local farmer whose family used to own vines but who now keeps cows. He is evidently delighted by his job – and takes it very seriously indeed. What does he think of the project? ‘Es como vitorio,’ he says. It’s a victory. ‘That’s a name!’ says Cliff, raising his glass, but it’s not that well received by the guests. In the end, Vida Nova will probably be the choice when the wine is first released, at the London Wine and Spirits Trade Fair, in spring 2002.You can’t dislike Cliff Richard. He’s charming and sweet, but venture an opposing view to his own – about thefreedom of the press, for example – and his voice raises. He gives you to understand he doesn’t do disagreement. But there’s no doubting his sincerity, and his delight at the verdict handed down by the august correspondents from Decanter and Harpers. Back in London, I’m called by various newspapers, who all want to gently mock Sir Cliff. Is he serious? they ask. Absolutely, I say. He’s got one of the best winemakers in Portugal, an immaculate vineyard, perfect climate, well-drained soil, and he’s making very respectable wine. It is no exaggeration to say he’s begun a regeneration of winemaking in the Algarve. Baverstock has mentioned several big producers, Joao Portugal Ramos among them, who are planning to set up down here. The next day we head up to Esporão, to see what David Baverstock gets up to in his day job. The two-hour drive takes us through the cork-forests of mid-Portugal. It must be 30˚C. Open trucks rattle past, laden with cows and sheep baking in the midday sun.
Esporão, owned by Lisbon financier Jose Roquette, is the biggest estate in Portugal. Baverstock joined in 1992 and has been responsible for a series of innovations, from grubbing up unsuitable varieties like Periquita and Carignan to barrel-fermenting white wines – a hitherto unknown practice in Portugal.The vineyard produces some 400,000 cases a year, and sells 80% of them in Portugal, the remainder going to a handful of other countries including Brazil, the UK, the US and the former Portuguese colony of Angola. The range is comprehensive, from the red and white varietals – Aragonez, Bastardo, Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Trincadeira, Roupeiro, Arinto – to the reserve and vino de mesa blends. The Esporão (Cabernet) is regarded as one of the Alentejo’s best reds. We taste the 1998 at its peak. It is well balanced, with sweet fruit and early tannins which soften beautifully in the finish. All the wines are perfectly tuned to their market – the rosé is gluggable, the young whites fresh and crisp, the reds approachable and fruity or elegant and sophisticated.
The most frustrating thing for a winemaker in Portugal is that the sponge-like domestic market leaves little will to search out new outlets. ‘Portugal doesn’t have the marketing push or the clout,’ Baverstock says. If the government pushes through a tax agenda that will see tax (VAT) on wine shoot up from 5% to 17%, the domestic market could well turn out to be less of a pushover. ‘Maybe that would be a good thing,’ Baverstock admits, agreeing that it would force producers to exploit new markets abroad.And what better ambassador for Portuguese wine than a diminutive and still extraordinarily marketable pop star? The fact that someone like Baverstock should throw in his lot with Cliff Richard shows there’s certainly mileage in Vida Nova, Vitorio, Cliffhanger, or whatever they decide to call that nice wine being produced in the Algarve. Why did he decide to take on the job?’When they got in touch,’ Baverstock says, ‘I was in two minds. If it had been anyone other than Cliff I wouldn’t have done it, because there was nothing exciting happening in the Algarve. But I’ve changed my mind.’
Adam Lechmere is the editor of decanter.com
Written by ADAM LECHMERE