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An Alentejo Adventure

Decanter's Richard Mayson gave up regular wine writing to pursue his new venture as a winemaker in his beloved Portugal. Over the coming year Richard will be updating his diary here every fortnight. Watch this space!

Friday 5 September 2008

Our parish is in festa. It is encouraging to see the main street in Reguengo (increasingly suburbanized due to its proximity to Portalegre) decked out for the traditional festival of Nossa Sra de Remedios and the village patron saint of São Gregório. There is a token religious element: (a solemn mass at 17.00 on Sunday. The main focus of activity is a bar sponsored by Cerveja Sagres by the west door of the church. The main street has been fenced off for the largada de toiros or bull running which is held at 2.30 in the morning (the bulls provided each night by Sr. Luís Vaz Covas). This is the best time of night for daring-do but also for accidents. A small health and safely notice reads ‘esta organização não se resposibiliza qualquer accidente…’ Unfortunately we do not escape the rain, which dampens the festivities.

Thursday 4 September 2008

I wake up to depressingly grey skies and driving drizzle. It looks as though the first of the deep Atlantic depressions is moving in early this year (although in England it appears they never left). A storm is forecast for tonight, which is expected to bring high winds and heavy rain to the north of the country, just as they are beginning to pick in the Douro Superior. I am hoping that we might escape the worst of it.

Dinner at Monte de Cal, Fronteira; a huge new winemaking enterprise owned by Dão Sul. Although it is only 40km from Quinta do Centro it is another world and the landscape at sunset resembles the African savannah. We are served tordo (song thrush) which is delicious but criminal! I show Pedra Basta to a party of Brazilian restaurateurs and it held up well against another wine retailing for 30 euros.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

At this time two years ago we had unseasonal heat with temperatures in the low 40s. This year it is relatively cool (low to mid-20s) and dry. There is no disease in the vineyard apart from in one corner where oidium seems to have spread across the road from my neighbour’s untreated vines (no doubt a member of the local co-op who has given up). I meander round the property tasting the grapes. The new Trincadeira vineyard (planted in 2000) has yielded fairly well with compact bunches of small, fairly dark sweet berries. If we can’t produce a really good wine from these grapes this year then I will start re-grafting this part of the vineyard next year. The Alicante Bouschet, now registering around 12 baumé, still tastes rather astringent and clearly needs at least another couple of weeks to ripen. The Cabernet Sauvignon looks disappointing. The yields are tiny and the grapes are small and herbaceous. Fortunately it makes up a very small part of the vineyard. It looks as though the Aragonez will perform very well again this year with good yields and even ripening. I find that I am warming to Aragonez and, despite its local reputation, I like Trindcadeira less and less.

Friday 29 August 2008

A quiet, uneventful month with everyone taking longer for holidays or so it seems. With August already now to a close, autumn and vintage are nearly upon us. The prospects are good. There has been no real heat this month: plenty of warm clear days around 30oC but the thermometer has yet to exceed 40oC. The ripening is even and there are no raisinised berries this year. Yields are down due to the poor weather in May / early June and the harvest will be quite late (15th or 20th September). For the first time in many years I won’t be in Portugal for vintage. Our third child is due to be born on 25th September so I am looking forward to a very different sort of vintage this year.

Monday 4 August 2008

The new roundabout at Carvoeiro – near the entrance to the Quinta – has suddenly sprouted 25, mostly unnecessary, road signs (see diary entry for 10th September 2007). In the meantime the road-widening scheme at the bottom end of the estate is still incomplete, the câmara having taken the land from me without any legal agreement in March 2007. The quid pro quo that I negotiated at the time is that that they would rebuild my boundary wall in granite (not the ugly concrete that they have used for my less demanding neighbours). But nearly eighteen months later the wall is still unbuilt. The câmara (which is controlled by the centre-right PSD) have behaved like communists!

Friday 25 July 2008

Funchal, Madeira. We are hosting a dinner together with our local distributors, Paixão de Vinho, to promote Pedra Basta. The restaurant ‘O Molhe’ is situated on top of a rock that forms part of the molhe (breakwater) of the port of Funchal. It must count as one of the most spectacular locations in Europe. The food is good too (the restaurant is now run by the same group who own the Michelin starred Quinta das Lagrimas in Coimbra) and the dinner is a sell out. A number people enquire about this diary which is gratifying – it means it is being read.

Friday 18 July 2008

Relentless heat. The thunderstorms forecast for the middle of the week failed to materialize and the thermometer has climbed steadily into the high 30s (40C down on the plains). With so much water in the ground the vines are well placed to withstand this heat.

Tuesday 14 July 2008

The first real heat of the year with daytime temperatures rising above 30C for the first time and remaining above 20C at night. Thunderstorms are forecast so the heat wave may not last long. I have a team working in the vineyard all week carrying out a monda, cutting off all the bunches on the newly planted Touriga Nacional, Syrah and Aragonez. This gives the vines a chance to establish themselves before we take the first proper harvest in year three or four. Fruit set has been variable this year with both Trincadeira and Aragonez showing desavinho (millerandage). A small section of Trincadeira is also suffering from oidium despite our best efforts. Due to the heat, our vineyard workers start at sunrise (6.00am) and work until 1pm when it is time for a sesta (siesta). Once again we have a potentially huge crop of Alicante Bouschet and half of it is being cut to the ground.

Friday 20 June 2008

The 2006 Pedra Basta is supposed to have arrived in the UK by now but it has been held up by fuel protests in Portugal and strikes in Spain. I was hoping to have it both in the Wine Society and with Richard’s Walford by now but international events have delayed the launch. The 2006 is looking very good, with a little more structure and freshness than the 2005. I hope it is at least as well received in the UK.

Thursday 12 June 2008

My cork trees have been stripped. They look naked and slightly embarrassed. An ‘8’ will be painted on each tree, signifying the 2008 colheita (harvest). The next one will be in nine years time; the spring of 2017. With the advance of the screw cap, it is hard to predict how the market for cork will look then.

Monday 9 June 2008

I feel increasingly like a farmer, forever complaining about the weather. But at last it has improved, just I time for the flowering. The days are warm (mid-20s) but the nights are cool which means oidium is still a threat and we have to be vigilant. This is proving to be a very costly year in the vineyard.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

I can now put in writing that we have appointed Richards Walford as our sole distributors in the UK. I have long held this company in high regard, both for the calibre of the producers they represent and for their professionalism and enthusiam in the UK market. One of the partners, Roy Richards, owns a vineyard near Perpignan in Roussillon where, in partnership with Domaine Gauby, he produces excellent red and white wines named Le Soula. We have been comparing notes on our respective projects for some time but I have held off seeking UK representation for our wines until we had sufficient to sell. Richard’s Walford specialize in French wines, especially Burgundy, but have a good list that includes South Africa, Italy and spain . They only represent one other Portuguese producer (Quinta do Passadouro in the Douro) and I feel that putting our wine with a woldwide importer rather than a Portuguese specialist can only help our distribution. We sealed a gentleman’s agreement over lunch; roast lamb accompanied by two venerable Portuguese reds from Roy’s cellar. A 1954 Collares (archaic spelling) from the now defunct Visconde de Salreu is distinctly rustic, leathery with gritty tannins but the vestige of fruit remaining hints that this was something special. A 1955 Garrafeira from Carvalho, Ribeiro & Ferreira (but without geographical provenance) is altogether different: mature, leathery yet quite sweet and focused with soft, gentle fruit, slowly drying with age. These are wines from another era yet they prove that that Portugal has long been capable of making good, even great wine.

Monday 2 June 2008

An offer arrives from the Wine Society, entitled Buyer’s Favourites. It reads ‘every year The Society’s buyers swirl, sniff, sloosh and spit thousands of wines. This is about the ones they swallow’ I am very gratified to see that Pedra Basta 2005 has been included: ‘new finds, especially from brand new ventures, are always fun, and this is a classy one, packed with warmth and savoury flavours of Portugal’s Alentejo. The Society’s old friend Richard Mayson has kindly offered us exclusivity for this, his first vintage’.

Saturday 30 May 2008

Unstable weather forecast for next week. The Alicante Bouschet is just starting to flower (about ten days later than last year) and the other varieties should follow quite quickly. The poor outlook does not bode well. With all the water in the ground (and in some places on the ground) the vines are sprouting in all directions and putting their energy into foliage rather than fruit. This is looking like a repeat of 1998 when a similarly poor spring reduced yields by half!

Thursday 29 May 2008

It has rained on and off all week but fortunately it is still quite cold with a drying breeze blowing down from the serra so there are no signs of oidium. One benefit of the rain is the profusion of wild flowers growing in the vineyard. When the sun shines between showers the colours are spectacular.

Wednesday 28 May 2008

The 2006 Pedra Basta has been in bottle for nearly a month so I pull a cork to see how it is faring. The oak is still quite evident on the nose, more so I feel than the ’05 at the same stage, but it only needs time to integrate. (I have an aversion to wines made by a carpenter!) The fruit is ripe and vibrant, backed by slightly more structure than the 2005. All told, the wine looks good and evolves well on ullage in bottle during the week; always a good sign in a young red.

Monday 26 May 2008

I spend the day in back-to-back meetings, first with the accountants then at Quinta do Centro with a charming, petite chemical engineer called Cristina discussing the construction of our ETAR (Estacão de Tratamento das Aguas Residuais) or sewerage plant. The weather is cold and wet, the serra shrouded in cloud, and the meeting lasts all afternoon. By 4.30pm, with the discussion centering on the treatment of solidos (solid waste), I am cold and downcast. I am cheered by the suggestion that we put piranha fish in septic tank to deal with the solids! Then onto another meeting about potential European Union funding. The good news is that funds are soon to be available for equipping adegas, with up to 40% paid by the EU. The bad news is that the bureaucracy in Portugal is such that we will have to employ a consultant to claim the funds, at a cost of €10,000! We spend the rest of the day weighing up whether is it is even worthwhile submitting an application.

Friday 23 May 2008

It has rained here all week, more than making up for lack of rain over the winter. The barragem, which was half empty at the end of the winter, is now full to the brim. Fortunately it is also cold and so oidium and mildew are a threat rather than a problem. Nevertheless we have had to spray three times since March as a precaution.

Monday 19 May 2008

London: the grand, verging on pompous setting of the Great Hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers for tasting organized by The Wine Society. Over 350 Wine Society members are here to taste wines from 26 producers including Tollot-Beaut (Burgundy), Rolly Gassmann (Alsace), Alfred Gratien (Champagne) Wirra Wirra (Australia), Chateau Musar (Lebanon), Catena (Argentina) and Sonho Lusitano (i.e. me) representing Portugal with Pedra Basta 2005. The wine shows well and I receive plenty of good feedback from members who have enjoyed it and return for a second tasting. Like all the other producers in the room, I hope that the tasting converts into sales.

Friday 2 May 2008

Pedra Basta 2006 is finally in bottle, labeled and ready to be shipped. We have orders waiting to be fulfilled both the UK and Portugal. The Wine Society in the UK have helpfully followed up their consignment of the 2005 with a substantial order for the 2006.

Monday 28 April 2008

You really have to love this country to work here. I have just learned that my request for the refund of a not insubstantial sum of IVA (VAT) that I am due from August last year (see diary entry for 3rd September 2007) has just been turned down, this time because the bank didn’t manage to file its guarantee in time. Quite why the bank needs to provide a guarantee when it is the Ministério das Finanças that owes me money is beyond my comprehension but it has taken two months for the bank to issue its guarantee! The next window to reclaim the money is in August, exactly a year after I was first notified that I was due the reembolso (refund)!

Thursday 17 – Saturday 19 April 2008

By train to Oporto and then on to one of Portugal’s best wine shops, Garrafeira Tio Pepe, to promote Pedra Basta. Torrential rain (which usually brings the city to a standstill) hasn’t prevented good turnout, with an encouraging number of Symingtons dropping by to taste our wine. The next day I take the train to the Douro for dinner at DOC, a restaurant built on stilts over the river at Folgosa. The chef Rui Paula has laid on an ambitious evening with food to match the wine. Pedra Basta 2005 is paired with partridge with molho de vilão (‘villain’s sauce’*), a combination that works well. A delicate Austrian Beerenauslese made by Rui Reguinga is completely overpowered by apple tart accompanied by goat’s chesse and foie gras. The rain has barely stopped for three days and by Saturday morning there are waterfalls in places that I have never seen before. The River Corgo, the emblematic tributary of the Douro that separates Baixo from Cima Corgo, is like a white water rapid. Still, there is a saying in Portuguese: chuvas em Abril, águas mil. Rain in April is worth thousands!

(*) Villain’s Sauce – Molho de Vilão

2 onions, chopped fine

2 garlic gloves, minced

2 tablespoons minced parsley

1/2 cup oil

1/4 cup white vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Combine all ingredients. Mix well.

Monday 14 April 2008

I arrive early at the winery to taste the 2007s. A fabulous smell of orange blossom pervades the spring morning air. The wines have settled down well in cask and vat over the winter. The Trincadeira both from the old and new vines lacks substance and still tastes quite herbal which is worrying. We are going to have to do something radical with this variety if it does not perform. The lote made up of wine from the young Alicante vineyard together with a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon is looking better than I dared expect: dense, naturally sweet and succulent with fresh acidity. The old vine Alicante Bouschet and Grand Noir is inky black in colour (as you would expect from these varieties), naturally sweet with lovely firm, fine-grained tannins and much more to give. Likewise the old vine Aragonez: ripe, sweet, a bit loose- knit initially but it comes together on the fine, broad finish. These are our best wines so far and the tasting leaves me optimistic that we have something really very good in 2007.

Saturday 11 April

I have bought a mountain bike to get myself speedily from one end of the vineyard to the other. It will be particularly useful during vintage. I recall the difficulties that I had trying to buy a bicycle in Portugal when I was a teenager in the late 1970s. This was post-revolutionary era of strict import controls when the only bicycles that were available were second hand and had to carry local registration plates. The lack of availability together with the bureaucracy forced me to give up my quest and I continued to walk or take the sporadic bus service instead. Now a bicycle can be bought off the peg (literally) from the local supermarket for as little as €49; symbolic of how much Portugal (and the world) has changed over the past three decades. My problem today was that my new bicycle wouldn’t fit in the back of the car so I rode the 6km or so back uphill to the Quinta along the network of old walled azinhagas (lanes). Half abandoned and used only by nomadic shepherds and clanging herds of sheep and goats, these lanes belong to another era that is almost at a close. There is little interest in walking as a pastime in Portugal and as people have left the land the azinhagas named after saints and animals are rapidly becoming overgrown and are now, in places, impassable. The local fregusesia (parish council) has helpfully sign-posted some but I doubt this will be enough to save them. Perhaps my new bicycle might set a trend.

Thursday 10 April

The fine weather couldn’t last and a deep depression has passed over Portugal bringing much needed rain. A tornado has destroyed houses and a factory near Santarém and, more worryingly, 500 azinheiras (holm oaks) have been felled by the wind at Castelo de Vide, only 15km from Quinta do Centro.

I hurry up to the quinta to find that all is well and that the adega has resisted the storm. The only evidence of the downpour is the erosion in parts of the vineyard which must be checked. The ribeira is flowing again but the trickle of water is insufficient to fill the barragem which is still half empty. We are going to have to pump water from the two nearby wells on the to fill it before the summer.

Wednesday 9 April

To London for the annual Portuguese tasting, held this year in a big marquee- like structure overlooking Lords Cricket Ground. This year I am on the ‘other side of the fence’ for the first time, or more correctly the table that separates me from the potential buyers and journalists all of whom, I am convinced, must taste Pedra Basta. It is a very different experience from previous years when, as a journalist, I have been the one doing the grazing. So I walk briskly round the room trying to haul in the people who I think should taste the wine. The turnout is not that good. There are two other major trade tastings on in London today and quite a few of the most prominent buyers and wine writers seem to have given Portugal a miss. I try to put it into perspective. Portugal has just under 1% of the UK market and I am shocked to read a statistic that of this, 78.5% is rosé. There are well over 100 producers represented here at Lords today all struggling to sell their wines in a market that is already crowded out with wines from every wine producing country in the world. How does Portugal get a look-in? I spend the day talking to a number of buyers and journalists, repeating the same story about Sonho Lusitano, Quinta do Centro and Pedra Basta, showing them the 2005 and cask samples of the 2006. It is a useful but exhausting day and at the end I feel for all those wine producers who for years have travelled the world to spend all day on a stand showing wine to people like me. There must be better was of marketing wine than this and I console myself with the fact that, like picking grapes, I am only going to do this once a year.

Sunday 6 April

Summer weather this weekend with the thermometer rising to 28oC (it is snowing again in England). I have a team out in the vineyard picking up stone.

The vines are bursting forth but this is a dangerous time when hail or a spring frost can inflict withering damage on the tender shoots. More worryingly we still haven’t had any substantial rain this year. I feel myself turning into a seasoned farmer with my complaints about the weather.

Thursday 3 April

Pedra Basta is given a good billing in the Wine Society’s April – July list: ‘we are delighted to introduce a rather special new wine to this List. Richard Mayson is a wine writer who will be known to many members, an award winning authority on Port and Portuguese wines, and, incidenatally a former Wine Society employee. Pedra Basta is the first release from his own Alentejo estate, and his first vintage is, appropriately, exclusive to us’. The list goes on to describe the wine as ‘ripe and satisfying, full of the natural, rich savoury flavours of Portugal’s indigenous grapes.’ I couldn’t wish for a better start in the UK market and seeing the listing for the first time makes me well up with pride. £9.95 a bottle / £119.00 dozen at thewinesociety.com

Sunday 23 March

Easter in Madeira. It is snowing in England and on the Portuguese mainland but here it is 25C. Twenty cases of Pedra Basta have been shipped by our distributors in Funchal, Vinho de Paixão, a new company run by the wine maker at the Madeira Wine Company, Francisco Albuquerque. He has been assiduous in getting Pedra Basta listed by the right restaurants: the Villa Cippriani at Reids, Armazém do Sal, O Tosco, Abrigo de Pastor, Villa Café. He tells me that he will only sell wine to restaurants that he knows will pay and there are many on Madeira with severe financial difficulties at the moment. I can identify with this as we have one restaurant that owes us over €2,000 euros and is not paying up. Sales have gone so well on the island that Francisco orders another 30 cases but we just don’t have the wine so we supply 15.

Wednesday12 March

The same day as Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, presents his budget raising the duty on wine marks budburst in the vineyard. It takes the tax on a bottle of wine to over £2. Who knows how much tax we will have to pay on a bottle of the 2008 when it makes its way to the UK?

Monday 10 March

We tend to think (especially those of us in the wine business) that vineyards are a good thing. Those neat parallel rows of vines marching away into the distance bring order to the countryside. A vineyard is, after all, so much more photogenic than a field of potatoes or oilseed rape and the end product far more captivating than mash or margarine. But rows of vines can impact on the countryside in the same way as rows of suburban houses. This thought occurred to me following a conversation with one of my elderly tenants who recalled her memories of Quinta do Centro thirty years ago, before the first vineyard was planted. In those days vines were mixed together chaotically with olive and fruit trees. Alongside the narrow ribeira, which now drains the dam, were little hortas (vegetable gardens) tended by the tenants themselves who relied on them for their subsistence. And in the midst of this was an old fountain which she described to me as being like a ‘chapel’ with a statue of the local saint, São Gregório, blessing the gushing waters. All this was swept away with the same sort of dismissive flourish that destroyed so many of Britain’s town centres in the 1960s. Efficient monoculture replaced archaic polyculture. There is no going back but I resolve to make partial amends for past misdemeanors by rebuilding the fountain to her description above the tanque hidden in the middle of the Alicante Bouschet vineyard. I add it on my mental ‘to do list’.

Monday 3 March

We are in that frustrating period of limbo. All the 2005 is sold and the 2006 won’t be bottled until early April. Consequently there is nothing to promote or sell. There are 1200 bottles on their way to The Wine Society who will be listing the wine from April. This gives me a great deal of confidence. The Wine Society is one of the largest and most respected independent wine merchants in the UK and the buyers have high standards. Pedra Basta 2005 will be available at £9.95 from next month.

Sunday 17 February

At last some heavy rain but not enough to make up for the autumn and winter shortfall. We are going to need plenty more rain to fill the barragem for summer irrigation of the younger vines.

Friday 15 February

To Santarém for the Revista de Vinhos Melhores do Ano dinner. I take the train from Portalegre. The single track railway crosses the northern Alentejo plain then snakes alongside the Tagus. I have to change trains at Entroncamento (Portugal’s answer to England’s Crewe). The journey takes me takes nearly three hours but costs only €9! Revista de Vinhos is Portugal’s leading wine magazine and the Melhores do Ano is like the Decanter World Wine Awards but bigger! Over 800 people assemble in Santarém for a speech given by the Minister of Agriculture (which no one seems to listen to) followed by numerous prizes and awards over dinner. There is much chatter and speculation about who will win the wine maker of the year award. Could it be that we will win ‘revelation of the year’? In the end Rui and I are both disappointed but there is good news for Portalegre. Tomba Lobos wines the award for best Portuguese restaurant.

Wednesday 13 February

We spend the morning tasting the 2006 with the intention of making up the final lote for bottling in the spring. The wines have plenty of fresh, crunchy fruit but some vats are slightly lacking in structure compared to 2005. However by excluding some of the Trincadeira from the blend we come up with something very similar in style to the 05: opulent (reflecting the warmth of the vintage) with plenty of vibrant, spicy fruit, tempered slightly by well integrated oak. I think we have something we can be proud of.

Tuesday 12 February

Early spring in the Serra. The mimosa looks spectacular against the vivid blue sky. A cold wind blows off from the mountains taking the temperature down to 4oC. But the sun has some warmth in it and we manage to lunch outside at Tomba Lobos restaurant.

Thursday 7 February

Pedra Basta has been chosen for a tasting of 50 Great Portuguese Wines being held today at the Portuguese Embassy in London. The wine more than holds its own against some of Portugal’s leading reds including the sumptuous Quinta do Noval 2004 Douro red to which I awarded 19 out of 20 in a blind tasting last month. Many of the UK’s leading wine writers are at the tasting and I receive positive feedback from all of them. Eliciting these comments serves to remind me just how the tables have turned. It was only a year ago that wine producers in Portugal were asking me for my opinions. If a wine was truly dire I wouldn’t have the heart to say as much so I would describe the wine as ‘interesting’ but ‘not in tune with the UK market‘. So maybe everyone is just being very polite.

Thursday 31 January

There has been virtually no rain this month and rainfall since October has been roughly half the average. The last decent deluge took place in September, just before vintage. The barragem is only half full and unless we get some substantial rainfall soon we are going to be facing drought conditions similar to 2005.

Thursday 17 January

The local co-operative is in deep financial trouble and they are still unable to sell the neighbouring vineyard and winery (see diary entry for 18th April 2007). At €3 million for 20 hecatares, there has been no serious interest. Members of the co-operative (mostly small farmers) haven’t been paid in full for their grapes from the 2005 vintage. Following the challenging weather conditions last year it is no wonder that there are so many seemingly abandoned vineyards in the Serra de São Mamede.

Monday 7 January 2008

The New Year starts with pruning the vines, an act which symbolizes the start of the new growing season. We are left with piles of dead vine cuttings around the quinta and we have to request permission to burn them. One section of the vineyard is left unpruned: the 1200 Trincadeira vines that have under performed for the past two years. I intend to regraft them to Aragonez (Tempranillo) before the spring.

Monday 11 February

The newspapers report that it has been the driest January recorded in Portugal since 1917.

Friday 13 December 2007

A week of positive news. First we learn that the name of our prestige wine has been approved by the authorities in Lisbon. We decided on the name ‘Pedra e Alma’ a year ago but it was contested by another organisation with the name ‘Alma Latina’. Fortunately their objections were overruled and now we have the name for ourselves. It means ‘Stone and Soul’ which I think encapsulates something of what we are trying to do on this rocky patch of the Serra de São Mamede. Having tasted the wines from the 2007 vintage last week I feel we might have sufficient quantity of top quality wine to release maybe 2000 bottles of Pedra e Alma in 2009. The second piece of good news is that The Wine Society in the UK has confirmed their order for 1200 bottles of Pedra Basta 2005. With 2005 being such a small harvest, we don’t have much to go round so The Wine Society will have exclusivity in the UK until the 2006 is bottled and shipped in the spring of 2008. Then Vinicom, our Portuguese distributor, places a second order for 2005 Pedra Basta which means that our first wine will be completely sold out by the end of January.

The winery is finished and the builders move off the site at the end of the week. Strange to think that this time last year it was just a hole in the ground.

Saturday 8 December 2007

This weekend the Parque das Nacões in Lisbon is hosting the European-African Summit at the same time as the Festa do Noddy. A place best avoided!

Monday 3 December 2007

Most of Portugal is under a thick blanket of fog but we are enjoying glorious winter weather here in the serra, with clear blue skies contrasting with the autumnal colours of the vines. This is fortunate as we have a professional photographer here to capture images of the quinta for our soon-to-be-constructed website. Rui and I spend the rest of the day in the winery tasting and re-tasting wines from the last vintage. Now in vat and cask, the wines have emerged from the malolactic with great expression and purity of flavour. The Trincadeira is still looking rather simple and dilute (further confirmation that this grape variety is not all it is cracked up to be), but we have some dense, powerful yet beautifully balanced wines from Arragonez, Alicante Bouschet and Cabernet Sauvignon. We earmark which of the wines might just end up in our best cuvée with a view to making the final blends in February.

Sunday 2 December 2007

Benfica have lost 1-0 to Porto and the dragons on my neighbour’s gates are once again clothed in black!

Saturday 1 December 2007

I arrive at Quinta do Centro from Porto at 8pm and go straight to Tomba Lobos restaurant in the village of Pedra Basta. They serve me with pombo bravo (wild pigeon) and lebre (hare) accompanied by chestnut purée. When I look round the crowded restaurant, pride and pleasure well up inside me as I see that everyone is drinking our 2005 Pedra Basta. Except for me. I have opted for Quinta do Vallado’s 2004 Sousão: an inky, supple yet sappy varietal Douro red that cuts through the richness of game.

Saturday 10 November 2007

Jerez: a complete change of scene. At Hidalgo’s bodega in Sanlúcar de Barrameda I indulge in what must surely be the most thrilling tasting experience in the world: a glass of Manzanilla served from a venencia direct from the cask or butt. Manzanilla is currently in fashion and the market, both in Spain and abroad, demands that the wine should be as pale in colour as possible. But a Manzanilla with 5 years in wood (like Hidalgo’s delicious La Gitana) naturally emerges from the solera, straw-yellow or even golden in hue. The shippers are therefore obliged to fine the wine to remove colour, which also strips some of the flavour and character from the wine in the process. Drinking the wine directly from the butt, from under the veil of flor is as mother-nature intended: magnificently fresh, still with a vestige of appley fruit and the savoury complexity fresh dough with Chinese spices.

Thursday 1 November 2007

There is a very English surname that literally dominates in Portalegre. Two tall brick chimneys lord it over the town, both marked R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N. The Robinson’s came to Portalegre from Halifax, Yorkshire in 1847 when they bought a small cork factory from another English family, the Reynolds. Located in the ruined São Francisco Monastery on the edge of town, it was transformed by George Wheelhouse Robinson (1857-1932) into one of the largest cork producers in Portugal employing over 2000 people by 1900. Portalegre had much to thank Robinson for as he founded the first trade union in the history of the cork industry, a crèche for the children of workers at the factory, and two fire brigades. Between 1910 and 1915 he introduced the technology that led to the production of the first cork agglomerate, something of an equivocal benefit to the wine trade. Following the death of George Wheelhouse the factory was sold, but continued to trade under the name Robinson. Over the past decade the company has been run by ex-Socialist minister and former Governor of Macau, Carlos Melancia but earlier this year it was declared bankrupt. It now seems that at the end of this year, the 150th anniversary of the birth of George Wheelhouse, the distinctive twin chimneys will cease to belch smoke over Portalegre and Robinson will close with the loss of 150 jobs. There are plans to turn the factory into a museum of cork – a sad reflection of the times.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

We have appointed Vinicom as our distributors in Portugal. Vinicom represent Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta do Valle Meão and Quinta do Vallado among others, so they have a good pedigree and I feel that we are in safe hands. Back in the UK after vintage, I set about finding outlets for our wine. I can’t reveal names yet as nothing is signed, sealed or delivered but I feel that the 2005 Pedra Basta has been well received by the distributor and retailer that I have at the very top of my wish list.

Thursday 4 October 2007

A burly man steps out of a huge 4×4 and addresses me in horribly stilted Spanish. I quickly establish from the number plate on the car that he is Irish and we strike up a conversation in English. He tells me he has been working for the local câmara (council) and has some tarmac left over: do I want to buy it for the tracks on the quinta? I smell a big rat. When I tell him, truthfully, that I am content with the existing beaten earth tracks and anyway there is so much stone here that we are laying cobbles on the area around the winery he implores me in his Irish brogue that he just wants to give some work to his lads. I send him away and later find out that he has visited a number of quintas in the district telling the same story, presumably in excruciating Spanish. I can’t prove anything but I suspect this part of a nasty scam where EU funded contractors cut a couple of millimetres of tarmac off specification and then try and make some money for themselves. No wonder so many of the new roads in Portugal look as though they won’t make it through the winter.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

First the water is cut off, now the electricity. In the melee of our first vintage in the new winery I have overlooked the bills. There are no polite reminders here. If the bill is not paid by the due date, the service is cut. The câmara (local council) who control the water are short of money so they are very quick to act.

Wednesday 26 September 2007

The day of our adiafa. This is the meal that you give to your workforce at the end of vintage. All the grapes are safely in so we feast on roast chicken and hunks of the most delicious home made bread from a nearby bakery Ribeira de Nisa. We have been greatly helped this year by an enthusiastic young estagiário, (trainee winemaker) called Renato who worked last vintage at Geyser Peak in Sonoma. It makes all the difference having someone who is conscientious and responsible in the winery. He has worked hard but seems to be enjoying himself at the same time, which is the only way to cope with the stress and strain of vintage. Renato has been helped by Luís who lives on the quinta and drives the tractor as well as a burly Bulgarian. No one can remember (or pronounce) his name and he speaks little or no Portuguese so we all call him ‘O Búlgaro’ and hope for the best.

This year’s wines are looking very good indeed; much the best since I purchased the quinta in 2005. The Trincadeira is the only slight disappointment. Even the old vine Trincadeira, which has been well worked in the lagar, does not end up with structure that I would expect. The more I see of this grape variety in the Alentejo, the more I wonder if it really is panacea that it is so often made out to be. The Alicante Bouschet, from both old and young vines, is looking so much better. This year I feel that we have begun to know and understand the vineyard. In places the soil varies from one row of vines to the next and this determines when to pick and where the grapes will end up. When we come to look at the wines after the malo-lactic has finished, I hope that we will have sufficient quantity of good wine to make our top red. In the evening Rui and I round-off vintage with a bottle of 2002 Quimera from Achával Ferrer. This Argentinean blend of Cabernet Sauvignon / Malbec is the most old world – new world red I have tasted: subdued, restrained yet immensely powerful. Something I feel we can aspire to.

Tuesday 25 September 2007

Perfect vintage weather this week: clear skies during the day followed by cool nights. Sadly the rain has somewhat diluted our fruit but it is healthy and most of this year’s musts are showing really good colour and freshness. The north of Portugal was spared last week’s rain and the Port shippers are already sounding euphoric. It seems that Baumés are moderate (around13.5º) and the steady, ripening is producing some very fine, balanced musts. Although it is much too early to be certain, the shippers are already talking about vintage with a capital ‘V’. Heavy rain is forecast for Sunday but by that time all the best grapes should be in the vat.

Friday 21 September 2007

The equinox has brought heavy rain but the outlook for the next week is good. A pause in the vintage gives us all some time to recuperate.

Thursday 20 September 2007

The harvest is bigger than first thought and today we will run out of space in the adega. The 4,000 litre balseiro (wooden vat) that we bought from Seguin Moreau is leaking like a sieve and needs filling with water for a few days for the wood to expand. It won’t be in use until next Tuesday at the earliest. But with the skies blackening and a grumble of thunder as I write, it seems that our hunch to pick sooner rather than later was correct.

Wednesday 19 September 2007

Last night played Benfica Milan and lost 2-0. One of my neighbours has gateposts crowned by eagles (the symbol of Benfica). Yesterday the eagles were dressed in the club colours, red. This morning they are wearing black.

All the forecasts are giving a 60% probability of rain on Friday. This sends us all into a mild panic. We cannot afford to see the sugar levels in the remaining vinha velha diluted by another half degree or so. Showers won’t hurt us too much but another torrential down pour will. We go through the vineyard tasting the grapes. The Aragonez is still slightly astringent but it varies from berry to berry. The Alicante Bouschet, despite its lower baumé is sweet and ready to pick. We still have space in the winery so we decide to go for it and pick the remaining vinha velha tomorrow leaving the four rows of Aragonez at the bottom of the slope (and therefore the least ripe) until early next week.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

The stream of visitors to the winery at the start of vintage has been fairly exhausting. Since Friday Rui and I have welcomed friends, neighbours, two journalists, a photographer, an Australian wine maker as well as the President of the Regional Tourism Commission and Parliamentary deputation from the Communists, Socialists and Social Democrats. I have also made our first cellar door sale. Another trip to MaxMat, this time to buy brushes, more hose pipe, sieves, plastic measuring jugs, a kettle and kitchen paper. By the end of the day the place is beginning to smell like winery for the first time with the heady smell of fermenting grape must filling the air. I leave the winery at 9pm, tired but immensely proud.

Monday 17 September 2007

8am on cold, grey morning. A dozen pickers arrive at the Quinta to work their way through the young Trincadeira vineyard. The berries are beginning to split due to water uptake and Trincadeira is a variety very susceptible to botrytis (grey rot). In the briefing before the pickers begin we emphasise the utmost importance of selection. It is a laborious process, inspecting each bunch for signs of rot and casting aside away any that do not come up to scratch. This year’s vineyard chatter is in Portuguese (not the Bulgarian and Romanian that I heard last year). They are a conscientious team and the grapes that reach the winery are healthy and in good condition. By the end of day we have two vats of 4,000 litres both registering 12.5o baumé, down by about half-a-degree on last week due to the rain.

Friday 14 September 2007

I take great pride in welcoming the first visitors to the new adega. RTP (Portuguese television) have come to film for a programme named Hora do Baco (Hour of Bacchus). I am interviewed walking in front of the winery, in use today for the first time. We are crushing some white grapes to make sure that everything is functioning correctly. In the afternoon I make the first of many visits to MaxMat, the local bricolage (one of very few French words to enter the Portuguese lexicon), to buy some of the many things that are lacking in a new winery: a pressure hose, a shovel, Wellington boots and the all-important fridge for cold beers at the end of the day. The end of the day is marked by a terrific thunderstorm and a torrential downpour. There are three lightening strikes nearby and the cellar with its exposed rocks becomes a dramatic waterfall. But the real damage is being done in the vineyard. Fortunately we are spared the hail that falls on the centre of Portalegre 5km away but the rain is sufficiently heavy for the vines to take up water and dilute the sugar levels.

Wednesday 11 September 2007

With the weather remaining clear and sunny, a good harvest is in prospect. The Cabernet has already reached 14.5 Baumé but the Alicante Bouschet is still hovering around 12.5. We go through the vineyard tasting the grapes. The Trincadeira is ripe and sweet but the Aragonez (although it registers 14.5) still tastes slightly green and herbaceous. The builders are putting the finishing touches to the winery, which looks spectacular. We have four conical stainless steel vats, two lagares for foot treading and/or hand plunging and a wooden balseiro, which is yet to be lifted into position. The cooling system is being connected up today. All set for picking next Monday.

Monday 10 September 2007

Sure enough the bulldozers have arrived, unannounced, to knock down the lovely granite walls near the entrance to the Quinta for a roundabout. This is the second time this year that the local câmara have taken land from me without any prior legal agreement. (see diary entry for 13th March). I should get straight on the phone to the local councilor responsible for public works but I can already anticipate his response. A neighbour tells me he is known as ‘três bocas’ (three mouths). I will save my ire until I need to ask a favour from the câmara, which will possibly be quite soon.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

With the summer holidays over I am setting about selling our wine. This is a daunting task, with the grape grower, wine producer and writer in me having to turn into a hardnosed salesman. Fortunately we are not targeting the supermarkets, either in the UK or Portugal. Alan Cheesman, formerly buyer for Sainsbury who became Marketing Director for BRL Hardy, says in an interview with a trade magazine ‘I’d get frustrated with prima donna supermarket buyers…you’d plan trips and promotions for them and they wouldn’t answer their phones or respond to emails. You get this Bermuda Triangle of emails from which nothing comes out’. I am fully expecting to be stonewalled when selling Pedra Basta and I prepare myself for disappointments. So far the wine has been well received by everyone who has tasted it. But maybe they were just being polite. Two of the best local restaurants have taken some and are asking for more. Now a major independent merchant in the UK is showing interest. With the 2005 now in bottle for over a month, I pull the cork on one of the six bottles of Pedra Basta that have made their way in my suitcase to the UK. After the shock of the bottling process the wine has settled down well, opening up on the nose to reveal layers of ripe fruit and well-integrated oak. On the palate it is supple, round yet well-structured and although not a keeper (this was never our intention) it should develop well over the next five years.

Monday 3 September 2007

Some good news followed very quickly by bad news. I am due to receive quite a substantial IVA (VAT) rebate. But for a reason best known to themselves the Ministério das Finanças needs a bank guarantee from me, yes from me, in order to repay it. The letter from the Ministry arrived in mid-August when everyone was on holiday and consequently the 15 days that they have given me to reclaim the money have now elapsed. I spoke to the bank in tones of surprised exasperation and was told in reply that this just the normal bureaucracy at work. The next window to reclaim the money is in November when I have to be much quicker off the mark. But given the parlous state of the Government’s finances I feel I should be asking them for a bank guarantee.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

With temperatures having backed down to the mid-20s, it looks as though vintage is going to be quite late this year. The young Trincadeira that usually ripens first is still languishing at around 10.5o Baumé. Unless we have an unexpected heat wave (as happened in 2006) vintage will begin in mid to late September. I pencil 17th in my diary.

Thursday 16 August 2007

A very official and rather ominous sign has been placed beside the Estrada da Serra. The Ministro de Ambiente, de Ordenamento do Território e Desenvolvimento Regional (who must be a very busy minister indeed) announces that €1,242,321.49 are going to be spent on improving the road of which €745,392.89 are being provided by the EU. I am sure this means the building of the much vaunted roundabout near the entrance to the Quinta; a crossroads used by about a dozen cars an hour. Maybe they are anticipating hoards of visitors making their way to Quinta do Centro to taste Pedra Basta.

Tuesday 6 August 2007

Thankfully the heat was short-lived and by this evening the temperature here on the serra was back down to 12oC. The Cabernet Sauvignon, despite being next to the dam is looking quite stressed and one corner of the young Trindcaderia vineyard has been caught by oidium. There is a potentially substantial crop of Alicante Bouschet despite the fact that over half the bunches have now been removed. The architects arrive an hour late for a meeting. You have to really love this country to work here.

Saturday 4 August 2007

A heat wave is upon us with the thermometer up to 40oC this afternoon, falling to only 29oC by 11 o’clock at night. The heat feels overpowering but it is only the second real heat wave that we have had this year.

Wednesday 25 July 2007

Camacha, Madeira. I have my first taste of Pedra Basta, 2005, bottled and labeled, at one of my favorite restaurants in Portugal, O Caroto. A bottle has been sent over from the mainland and I decide to share the moment with family and friends over a resolutely traditional Portuguese dinner of Bacalhau com Natas (a sort of fish pie made with salt cod) and Arroz de Pato (which translates rather prosaically as ‘duck rice’ but is a Portuguese variant of risotto). The wine stands up rather well. Bottling is always quite traumatic for a wine and, for some days or weeks afterwards, you can sense the shock. Our wine has temporarily closed down on the nose but it thankfully retains its supple, ripe, fleshy fruit flavours. The bottle looks fantastic and it gives me great pride to see my signature on the capsule for the first time.

Monday 16 July 2007

There are over 200 cork trees on Quinta do Centro, known colloquially as sobreiros presumably because of the cover and shade that they give. Each trunk is marked with the number ‘8’ which signifies that their bark was last stripped in 1998. Now they are due to be stripped again. Cork trees enjoy near sacrosanct status in Portugal. They cannot be felled unless the project is classified as being of ‘public utility’ (the building of a new road or hospital for example). The so-called Portucale case is currently in the news. Back in 2005, shortly before they were ejected from office by a General Election, three government ministers authorized the felling of 2,500 cork oaks for the construction of a golf course at Benavente in the Ribatejo. One million euros apparently changed hands in the process and accusations have been flying back and forth ever since. One of my cork trees fell down when we were blasting the rock to build the foundations of the adega and I feel a bit guilty. But I hope that those three politicians who signed the papers back in March 2005 feel 2,500 times more guilty than I do.

Tuesday 10 July 2007

Spent the day paying bills, most of them from a company called Pesnil who supply all the fungicides and herbicides for the vineyard. Due to the wet weather we have had to spray much more than normal this year in order to combat oidium and mildew. So far we have managed to keep it under control but parts of Portugal are already devastated by the unseasonably wet weather. Many small growers in the north of the country have not even bothered to spray this year given the poor returns they are receiving for their grapes. This has made it much more difficult for more the conscientious to keep things under control. I gather that oidium and mildew are rampant in the Douro, especially the Baixo Corgo where most of the farmers are smallholders.

Friday 5 July 2007 2007

The hot summer weather has arrived at last. 35oC in the day and 20oC at night. After a cool, wet June, everything is a couple of weeks or so behind.

Tuesday 3 July 2007

I have been wondering where the name ‘Centro’ originated. The property is not at the centre of anything. In fact the overgrown footpath along the northern margin of the quinta marks the boundary between two parishes; Portalegre Sé (Cathedral) and Reguengo. So if anything we are living on the edge rather than in the centre. It was only following a conversation with one of the tenants that I finally worked it out. Quinta do Centro was one of a number of properties in the serra that used to belong to a man called António Trindade (hence the initials AT etched on the gate) and this one was at the centre of his estate. QED

Monday 2 July 2007

One of the tenants has died. Celestino who has lived in the corner property on the quinta for over fifty years was found dead in his house today. He had been ill for sometime. As far as I know he has no family. It is sad. He was a proud man who lived a simple life and it represents the end of an era (see entry for 12 February 2007).

Friday 22 June 2007

The Pedra Basta label has been approved at last. Time to celebrate. Viva!

Monday 18 June 2007

I spoke much too soon. The Pedra Basta label has now been chumbado (rejected) by the CVRA (Alentejo Regional Wine Commission) no less than three times (see diary entry for 30th April). On each occasion it has been turned down on a tiny technicality and it has to be re-submitted for approval. The problem is that the lady responsible for labeling only visits the CVRA offices once a week and so every time it is rejected it adds at least another week on to our already tight schedule. We have a customer who has placed a firm order for the wine who wants it as soon as it is bottled. But we can’t go ahead and print the labels until they have been approved. We are now preparing to submit the label for the fourth and, hopefully, last time.

Friday 15 June 2007

A deep low has settled over Western Europe and we have heavy rain combined with warm temperatures. Perfect conditions for mildew and oidium. We need to start spraying.

Thursday 7 June 2007

A national holiday (Corpus Christi). Work on the winery has stopped and the vineyard is strangely silent. I walk among the vines in the still heat of the day. A cricket springs out in front of me and makes me jump. I inspect the vines that we planted last year. Inevitably there have been a few falhas (failures), mostly the rather tetchy Touriga Nacional, but after the spring rain the young vines are looking very healthy. The Syrah has taken very well. The Cinsault which we regrafted to Grand Noir last year is looking particularly good and is loaded with nascent bunches of grapes.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

The adega now smells rather too much of wine. The water main has not yet been connected (another week or so to go) so we are reduced to taking water from the well in the vineyard and bringing it up to the adega in a bowser in order to clean up. It takes a great deal of water to make good wine but just now it is in short supply.

Tuesday 5 June 2007

This is the day I have been waiting for, when the wine from the past two vintages arrives at the new adega. The shiny new stainless steel storage vats are in place and look stunning against the freshly painted walls of the adega. Despite my fears (see entry for Friday 18 May) the internal colour, more crimson than brick red, works really well. Transporting wine in Portugal is an immensely bureaucratic process. Each consignment has to be accompanied by a lengthy Documento de Acompanhamento (or DA for short) together with 4 samples of each wine, one of which remains at the origin, another at the destination and two more for the CVR (Regional Commission). We are still unloading wine at 10pm but by the end of the day when all the wine from the 2005 vintage has arrived, the place smells like a winery for the first time. We celebrate with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot n/v (rather too ‘sweet and sour’ for me but the best we can find in the local supermarket) accompanied by a plate of wafer thin Carpaccio de Bacalhau.

Monday 4 June 2007

To Lisbon to meet up with a potential distributor for our wine in Portugal. We present a bottle of Pedra Basta 2005 for the sales directors to taste and, to my surprise, three of the five people in the room light up a cigarette at the same time. The scene in the concrete boardroom reminds me of ‘Life on Mars’ (the time-traveling UK TV cop show which is set in the early 1970s when smoking and sexist remarks were still de rigueur). It is less than a month before there is a ban on smoking in all enclosed public spaces in the UK. But this is Portugal I recall L.P. Hartley’s haunting first line of the Go Between: ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’.

I have been struck by the inflated price of wine in Portuguese restaurants and after a general discussion about wine distribution in Portugal I am beginning to understand why it has become so expensive. With one exception, all distributors work through a network of independent agents scattered all over the country who then sell the wine on garrafeiras (wine shops) and ultimately restaurants. So a bottle of Portuguese wine makes at least three and sometimes four journeys from producer to restaurant, via distributor, agent and the local garrafeira before it finds its way on to the wine list. By the time everyone has taken a cut, a wine that cost €6 at the adega can cost as much as €30 in the restaurant.

Friday 1 June 2007

Despite some cool wet weather at the end of May, the flowering and berry set seem to have gone well. There is a very heavy crop on the new (2004) Alicante Bouschet (I think that the clone is partly responsible here) but there is also a large crop on the vinha velha (old vines). I expect that we will have to thin this by as much as half towards the end of the month. The exception is the Trincadeira planted in 2000 which has plenty of vigour (due to the wet winter and spring) but very few berries. Some vines have nothing on them at all. The Cabernet Sauvignon is only just flowering but the crop looks sizeable. Planted in 2004, this will be our first commercial Cabernet crop and I am interested to see how it will fare.

Tuesday 22 May 2007

I spend the day at the London Wine Trade Fair at the massive Excel exhibition centre in Docklands. This event grows every year (reflecting the increasing amount of wine being made in the world) and seems to have come a very long way from the days when it was like a farmer’s market held on the upper floors of the old Derry & Toms building on Kensington High Street. It is daunting to see what we now have to compete with. Even Georgia has a smart generic stand. I meet Abigail Barlow (from Barlow Doherty design) on the Portuguese stand to discuss labels and point of sale material. We need to be thinking of our ‘corporate image’ though business cards, letterheads and a brochure. The problem is that the quinta is not in a very photogenic state with a crane still towering above the vineyard.

Friday 18 May 2007

The winery is nearing completion and our vats and equipment are scheduled for delivery at the beginning of June. I haven’t seen the final colour scheme yet (see diary entry 4 April) but it seems as though Rui, who has just seen it for the first time, is in a state that I read as varying between bemusement and shock. He refuses to e-mail me a photograph but says that he wants his camera directed to my face to capture my reaction when I see the newly painted interior of the winery for the first time.

Tuesday 8 May 2007

I think we have made our first proper sale: 2000 bottles of Pedra Basta 2005 (almost a third of our production) to an important Portuguese retailer. The wine will be bottled at Quinta do Centro just as soon as the new winery is ready to receive the vats and winemaking equipment. The only thing holding this up is the painting of the walls and coating the floors.

Monday 30 April 2007

We have to submit our labels to the Commissão Vitivinícola da Região do Alentejo (Alentejo Regional Wine Commission) for approval. With the help of Barlow Doherty, the design company in London, we have dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s so it should be no more than a rubber stamping exercise. However I am told to expect that we will have to make changes. A producer in the neighbouring Ribatejo with a red wine from a number of Rhône grapes was told he had to remove Viognier from the explanatory back label even though it formed part of the blend. They had no objection to the use of the grape as such, just that they refused to countenance a white grape on the back label of a red wine. He appealed, explaining that Viognier was often blended with Syrah in the northern Rhône and that it was a selling point for the wine. But the Regional Commission upheld their original decision nonetheless.

Wednesday 18 April 2007

It has been rumoured for some time that the local Adega Cooperativa de Portalegre (co-operative winery) is in financial difficulties. This is confirmed by a story in the local paper, Fonte Nova, in which a member of the co-operative (who happens to be conversant with accounts) declares that it is ‘technically insolvent’. There are co-ops facing bankruptcy all over Portugal but although Portalegre is one of the smaller co-operatives it is also one of the better managed. The President, Fernando Mata Cáceres, is after all Mr ‘said and done’ who also leads the local council. (see diary entry for Friday 23rd June 2006). Portalegre’s immediate problem is that has huge debts having paid a fortune for a 20 hectare vineyard and winery close to Quinta do Centro in December 2005. Growers haven’t been paid for their grapes since! Now I find that the property is for sale for €3m. Any takers?

Wednesday 4 April 2007

A series of urgent telephone conversations with the architect to choose the colours for the adega. It is quite difficult to describe colour over the phone so I resort to the paint shop in Funchal where they have the full colour range of Tintas Cin. Fortunately the names of Portuguese paints are much more descriptive than those in England (‘Delhi Bazaar’, ‘Summer Surprise’ ‘Dublin Bay’…) He has chosen a very dark grey called terra preta moída (‘black ground earth’) for the interior of the cellar so as not to detract from the dark blues, greys and ochre of the exposed granite. Internally we are going for tijolo (‘brick’) in the working area of the adega, baunilha (‘vanilla’) for the offices and the tasting room and a warm shade of ochre called creme dourado for the surfaces of the exterior walls that are not built from granite. I note that there is a colour on the chart called amarelo Évora (‘Évora yellow’). This is the bright shade of yellow that you find painted around the windows and doors of houses in the city of Évora and throughout the northern Alentejo. It looks decorative but there is a practical side as it is supposed to deter flies from entering. Further south and towards the coast yellow is supplanted by vibrant blue called, quite logically, azul Beja after the capital of the Baixo Alentejo. The flies behave differently down there.

Saturday 31 March 2007

Funchal, Madeira. Dinner with Rui Reguinga. After a glass of Cossart Gordon’s wonderfully appetizing 1988 Colheita Sercial (International Trophy winner in last year’s the Decanter World Wine Awards), two reds. One is Pedra Basta 2005 which is looking good, if a little too oaky for my tastes, and is ready to bottle once the adega is finished. We pencil in the end of April. A quantum leap to the second wine: a bottle of Le Pin 1988 from the cellar of my late father-in-law, Richard Blandy. I am very sad that he is not here to drink it. The wine is still opulent, plummy, almost Burgundian in style but now quite soft, fully mature and ready to drink. Keep for two or three years but no more. In my experience the ‘88s from the right bank have developed quite fast. We speculate about the evolution of Pedra Basta in nineteen years time!

Wednesday 21 March 2007

The more time I spend here the more I realize that the café is of pivotal importance in Portuguese society. If I call the bank, insurers or agricultural suppliers soon after 9am, the person that I need to speak to has usually gone to the café. Without any hint of an apology or the normal ‘in a meeting’ excuse, the receptionist says that he/she has just gone for a coffee, call again in half-an-hour. There seem to be cafés on every street corner in Portalegre. Old men manage to take hours over one small bica pingada (the name for a tiny black coffee in this part of the world) often accompanied by a shot of powerful bagaço (marc). Smartly dressed professional men and women shake hands over variations of a galão, chinesa, meia de leite, garoto or, my favorite, a bica. There is a whole new language to be learned when it comes to ordering Portuguese coffee. (For instance a bica in Lisbon is known as a Cimbali in Oporto after the make of coffee machine). I recently heard of a successful Portuguese business that installed a coffee machine in the office in an attempt to reduce the amount of time the employees spent at the café. They soon took the machine out again when the supply of vital information dried up. Lesson learned: nothing can be done until after the first coffee of the morning.

Tuesday 13 March 2007

Another warm spring day mostly spent in meetings with the architect, the accountant and the câmara municipal (local council). The councillor with responsibility for obras (public works) is demure rather than apologetic when I confront him as to why land has been expropriated without any legal agreement. He tells me that the contractors started work in the wrong place – a weak excuse. I suggest that as the land is still mine I charge a toll for the new stretch of road. This draws a hollow laugh. After a long discussion we establish a quid pro quo but I must make certain that all my conditions are satisfied before any agreement is signed.

When I return to Quinta do Centro in the late afternoon, it is beating to the rhythm of a jackhammer. Through the cacophony I just hear the first cuckoo of spring. Then, walking down to the barragem, I notice bud burst on the Alicante Bouschet vineyard. A new growing season has begun.

Sunday 11 March 2007

Five dogs of varying shapes and sizes follow me around the vineyard. I have yet to identify them all by name but I do know Pantufa (meaning a ‘slipper’ or a ‘lazy woman’ in local dialect). She spends all her time chained up by the farmhouse, barking when anyone comes near. For nearly a year her sole companion has been a white duck that successfully sought protection from the many foxes on the quinta. Unfortunately the duck eventually succumbed to the fox. We also have five cats (all called either Chico or Chica) and two black pigs. The pigs have no name and will probably be chouriço by the end of the year.

When I reach the bottom gate I am shocked to find that a digger has already cut away a large slice of land and uprooted some old olive tress without my say-so. No contract has been signed, no agreement reached and my land has already been expropriated by the câmara. This is the way the authorities behaved after the revolution when they were run by communists.

Friday 9 March 2007

I spend most of the day in the new adega (right). There is warm sunshine outside but inside it is cold and clammy. The winter seems to be stored here. We have a meeting to discuss the positioning of taps and electric sockets in relation to the vats which are ready to be installed. Myself, my business partners Rui and José Luís, two architects, a plumber, an electrician, the foremen the owner of the construction company and the man responsible for installing the winemaking equipment tour the winery take decisions by committee. It turns out that one of the doorways is too low for a fork-lift truck and needs to be raised. The contentious lift cannot now be reached by the fork-lift (the entrance is too narrow) but it is too late to be changed. The foreman is called Dionísio (Dionysus) which seems appropriate.

Some wine has disappeared from the casinha (small house in the vineyard). The pruners who were using it for shelter immediately get the blame. Phone calls fly back and forth and it is agreed that the wine should be replaced. The problem is that there were two bottles of some value: Alvaro Castro’s 2005 Pape (which I bought in Lisbon for €25) and Esporão’s Torre 2004. The latter was given to me but it retails at €100 a bottle. Without wishing to be ungrateful I can’t believe it is worth this amount but I would like to taste it nonetheless.

Wednesday 7 March 2007

I usually find that the onset of spring in England is rather a let down. The excitement that accompanies the first snowdrops is completely discounted by these delicate but rather pathetic little flowers being blown almost horizontal in driving sleet. In Portugal there is a saying which sums up the unpredictability of spring: em Março de manhã pinga a telha e à tarde sai a abelha. (In March the rain drips on the roof in the morning and in the afternoon out comes the bee). After two weeks of torrential rain, spring has finally arrived here in the Serra. The acacia is in full bloom and on the way up here I see storks building their giant nests in the most unlikely places. One has chosen to make its home in a streetlight. I walk through the vineyard and find it exploding with life. The vines are still dormant but I sense the sap rising and the buds about to burst. Then we run the risk of spring frosts burning their tender young shoots. Best not to think about it.

Monday 26 February 2007

To Manchester to the Specialist Importers Trade Tasting (known as SITT). Forty independent wine importers present over 600 wines to the trade and press. The tasting is truly daunting with almost every wine producing country in the world represented here. I am here at SITT for two reasons. Firstly because I am continuing to write (a book on the madeira wine nearly complete) and Ricardo Diogo of Barbeito has a thrilling 1914 Boal to taste. Powerful, pungent aromas of coffee, butterscotch and treacle; rich concentrated, yet quite dry in style due to bracing acidity. It is worth the journey for the taste of this alone. My second reason for being here is because I am searching for an importer for our wine. I go round tasting wines from different parts of the world retailing for around the £10 mark (roughly the price of Pedra Basta) and talking to people about our project. The competition is fierce, with Spain, Chile and Argentina making some increasingly good wines at this level. There is too much wine in the world, although the shortfall in this year’s Australian harvest will help in the short term to soak up some of the oversupply. I leave the tasting acutely aware that we are launching our wine into an ever more challenging market. We will need to find willing, proactive distributors for our key markets: Portugal, the UK and USA.

Friday 23 February 2007

I receive a letter from the local Câmara (town hall) acknowledging the donation of the land required to widen the road at the bottom end of the Quinta. I have not yet agreed to donate anything! Whilst it suits us all to co-operate, I still need to talk to my neighbours to find out if they are being compensated in some way. I am prepared to reach an agreement but dislike the way that they think that this is a done deal. In the meantime the bills are pouring in. Ricardo das Maquinas needs paying for the excavation work that he did for the foundations of the adega before Christmas. The pruning is complete and the vineyard workers need paying. Some financial compensation would certainly help.

Monday 12 February 2007

It is the time of year when I have to go rent collecting. I have three tenants living in houses on the Quinta, two of them (Celestino and Esminda) have lived at Centro for over fifty years. Neither of them can read or write and sign documents with a fingerprint. Esminda turns ninety in April and supports herself on two sticks whilst tending to the hens and the horta (vegetable patch). She has seen some massive changes in her life time, not least the view from her house which used to look out onto gnarled olive trees and now looks on to neat rows of vines. I calculate that she has lived through three dictatorships and at least a dozen revolutions but Lisbon power politics is probably of little concern to her. The house is in urgent need of major repairs. She has electricity but there is just one tap, no hot water and no heating to speak of. In winter she crouches over an open fire in an outbuilding. Unfortunately there is no way that she will move out for the necessary repairs to be carried out. I feel responsible. I have spoken to her son, a policeman in the GNR who lives nearby. He tells me that he has tried to persuade his mother move in with him but she is adamant. Esminda moved to this house when she married and she wants to stay there with her memories. She pays me €90 in rent a year. Celestino, a widower, lives nearby and his roof is leaking badly. The house needs to be re-roofed but he is ill and cannot leave and so I ask the builders at the adega to carry out a make-do-and-mend job. His rent is fixed at €66.84 a year under Portugal’s archaic rent laws. Every time I go to collect the rent he proudly shows me receipts from the four landlords of Quinta do Centro since the early 1950s. No one names children Celestino or Esminda anymore and subsequent generations would not accept such a simple rural lifestyle. Houses like these are being abandoned, many awaiting foreign buyers who will spruce them up for holiday lets. Every time I visit Celestino and Esminda I stop to talk, painfully aware that they represent the end of an era in Portugal.

Wednesday 31 January 2007

Despite a bitter wind blowing off the mountains the first signs of spring are evident in the vineyard. Pruning is underway. I walk through the vines surveying the damage from the winter rains. A number of deep erosion gullies have opened up in the middle of the vines and I recall the little that remains of my degree in geography (the term we spent on pedology I think) to plan some remedial measures once the winter is over. The silence of the serra is broken by the sound of drills and hammering from the construction site on the quinta. It feels a bit like a violation.

In the evening we set up a blind tasting of red wines from the Alentejo ranging in price from €7 to €15. Pedra Basta 2005 is somewhere in the line up but I don’t know where. I give one wine 17 points out of 20, another 16.5, a couple of 16s and a 15 then there’s a 13 and a pretty big gap down to some wines that really shouldn’t be on the market at all. When all is revealed, Pedra Basta has come top. We discuss our strategy and decide that before naming our price, the next tasting will be against wines from elsewhere in Portugal followed by another one with wines from the rest of the world. But expect Pedra Basta to be on sale in Portugal for €10 – €11 from May.

Tuesday 30 January 2007

I arrive at Quinta do Centro just as the first of the roof supports are being lifted into place on the new adega. It has taken a month-and-a-half from laying the foundations for the building to reach this stage. The foreman assures me that we will have a winery by the end of April. The quality of the workmanship is good and the underground cellar, hacked out of the granite bedrock (‘Pedra Basta’, ‘enough stone’ the oft-repeated and now rather thin joke) is looking very impressive indeed. But ‘God is in the details’ as architect Mies van der Rohe once said and I challenge our architect over some of the colours that he wants to use. He has already changed the elevator spec. from a basic goods platform to a fully fledged passenger lift (adding about €3,000 to the cost in the process). I reject the idea of a burgundy coloured floor in the cellar. I shall have to keep a very close eye on the final details and fittings both to keep within budget and to stamp my own personality on the project.

Sunday 28 January 2007

Snows falls in Lisbon for the second time in 50 years. The last time it snowed here was 29 January last year. Is something really happening to the climate?

Friday 26 January 2007

Pedra Basta goes on show for the first time at a dinner at the restaurant Comenda at the Centro Cultural de Belém in Lisbon along with a number of other wines made by Rui Reguinga. The dinner is a sell out. Seventy people (customers of Lisbon’s best wine merchant Coisas do Arco do Vinho) have paid €45 each to attend this event. It gives me great pleasure to see the label on the bottle for the first time (even if it is a mock up). The label is well received and the wine more than holds its own in a line up of wines from the Alentejo, Ribatejo and Dão. A little fine-tuning of the final blend will help but I leave the restaurant at midnight convinced that, despite the odds, we have a good wine.

Tuesday 22 January 2007

To London for a vertical tasting of Chateau d’Yquem before travelling on to Quinta do Centro. I wonder if I am going from the sublime to the ridiculous. The 2001 Yquem is utterly sublime but the 1997 is disappointing and the 1990 (not for the first time of tasting) is flat and oxidised. So even the greats have downers. It is bitterly cold in Portugal when I arrive with snow on the Serra de São Mamede but I find that the Pedra Basta is looking rather good. Big, with a little more alcohol than I would like (a consequence of the heat and drought), it nonetheless has plenty of flesh and fruit and the oak is integrating well.

Wednesday 3 January 2007

We have decided to test the market with a pre-launch our first wine in Lisbon at the end of January. This makes me feel rather uneasy, especially as the 2005 Pedra Basta is still in cask and I haven’t had the opportunity to taste it for a few weeks. Rui assures me that it is looking good and so an invitation goes out explaining that ‘Richard Mayson, escritor and ex-journalista da revista Inglesa Decanter’ will be present. I don’t agree with the ‘ex-‘ bit but the rest makes me feel rather proud if slightly nervous about how our wine will be received.

Quinta do Centro from afarTuesday 19 December 2006

The construction of the winery, Pedra Basta, is coming on, albeit delayed by the appalling wet weather. A crane now stands in the hole left by the bulldozer and the foundations are already set in the granite. We are planning the launch for March 2007.

The label is being finalized and all that remains is the back label. I dislike back labels with too much information but we need to present the facts clearly (location, terroir, grape varieties, vinification) and in a manner which all consumers can understand.

I also really dislike back labels that tell you how the wine will taste, usually with purple prose that does not nearly match up the wine once it in the glass. I am afraid that this is a fault shared by some of my fellow writers who seem to regurgitate the back label, sometimes without tasting the wine.

So I write five alternatives and conduct some very unscientific market research among my friends and colleagues. It may yet need to be tweaked but option D wins:

‘Pedra Basta is the result of a partnership between English wine writer Richard Mayson and Portuguese wine maker Rui Reguinga. The wine is made from a blend of Trincadeira, Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet and Cabernet Sauvignon planted at Quinta do Centro near Portalegre on the westerly slopes of the Serra de São Mamede, the highest mountain range in southern Portugal. Named after the amount of stone (granite) found in the vineyard, Pedra Basta is a full-flavoured red aged for 18 months in new and second year French oak’.

Friday 1 December 2006

A quiet time in the vineyard. I am taken aback by an e mail from the Câmara Municipal de Portalegre (local council) stating that they want to expropriate over 1,000 square metres (or 0.12ha which sounds less) of the quinta for road widening.

Expropriate means they take the land from you for public use without compensation. I had half-expected this.

Rural Portugal has road-widening schemes aplenty at the moment as funds continue to pour in from the EU coffers in Brussels. Many of these obras are totally unnecessary, like the roundabout (no doubt with large street lights and accompanying light pollution) that they want to build near the main entrance to the property – at the junction of four country lanes with little or no traffic.

I challenge the local councilor about this. His retort is, ‘You have them in England. We are only following your lead.’

I wonder if he has been on a fact-finding visit to Milton Keynes (the new town in England where every junction is punctuated by a roundabout).

I won’t lose many vines with the work but it does concern me that rural Portugal is steadily becoming more urbanized, and all thanks to EU subsidies. One of my neighbours has even called his wine Subsídio, in grateful recognition of a handout, I assume.

I want to keep the local council onside but I intend to impose a condition that all the all the walls alongside the property are re-built in local granite, not the breeze blocks that everyone seems to use these days.

Friday 17 November 2006

Heavy grey clouds interspersed by thin late autumn sunshine. I spend the morning walking round the Quinta, listening to my ‘Desert Island Disks’ playlist on my i pod. Long and Winding Road (The Beatles), Slim Shady (Eminem), What a Wonderful World (Louis Armstrong), O Gente da Minha Terra (Mariza), Fantasia on the Theme by Tomas Tallis and Libera Me from Fauré’s Requiem send me into a mood that shifts from elation (‘What a Wonderful World’) to circumspection (Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis). I pick the last of the netas (grapes from the second flowering which are known in Portugal as the ‘grandchildren’). They taste bitter-sweet. I examine the weeds, the erosion, broken wires in the vineyard and my mental list of ‘things-to-do’ lengthens in an instant. But this place still represents work in progress and I question whether perfection – along the lines of a top Bordeaux or Napa Valley vineyard – is possible in Portugal or even desirable. I want to move towards organic production but we are not ready to make the leap yet. One step at a time.

Thursday 16 November 2006

After the wettest October in 75 years, the Alentejo is transformed from its late season shade of burnt umber to deep emerald green. Channels and rivulets that have been dry for years are awash, flooding tracks and leaving pools of water in vineyards. Some vines have burst into leaf again, egged on by the autumn rain after the extreme stress caused by the unexpected late summer heat wave. When I arrive at Quinta do Centro, a cold wind is blowing off the serra. It feels like winter.The peace is shattered by the sound of explosives. Over 100 kg have been used so far to blast a hole in the hillside where our adega will be. It looks like a quarry with mountains of blue and ochre granite that, at the moment, have nowhere to go. Pedra Basta could not be a more appropriate name for our first wine. The adega is now at least a month behind schedule. The quarrying should be finished next week then building work will begin in earnest. After a long meeting with the architects and contractors we retire to Tomba Lobos for a delicious dinner of braised oxtail accompanied by pureed chestnut with two fabulous Portuguese wines. Casal Figueira Tradition 2004 is a fresh yet honeyed blend of Marsanne, Rousanne and Arinto from a small biodynamic vineyard near Bombarral in Estremadura. This must be the only biodynamic vineyard in Portugal. Qta Foz de Arouce, Vinha Sta Maria 2001 is pure Baga: a dense, sinewy, leather red from old vines on an estate in the hills behind Coimbra. Wines from this property have been inconsistent but this ranks as one of Portugal’s most impressive.

Tuesday 7 November 2006

An important letter arrives. ‘Exmos. Senhores, Temos o prazer de comminicar a V. Exas. que foi concedido o pedido de registo acima indicado’. This is a cause for celebration. Pedra Basta, the name which we began registering early in the year, is now ours. Feeling bullish we go to the Brand Registry in Lisbon to try and register another brand name. Half-a-dozen words that have been carefully thought through and researched are quickly ‘chumbado’ (rejected). It leaves me feeling rather depressed (not helped by the still-pouring rain) but I pinch myself and say we have got one name registered, it’s ours and we only need one more. More brainstorming to follow.

Friday 27 October 2006

More rain has fallen in one day that usually falls in the entire month. There have been severe floods in some places with towns like Pombal and Tomar under water. In Pombal four floors of an underground car park filled up with water with the cars inside. At Quinta do Centro the barragem (dam) is still leaking (albeit slowly). Just as we were about to get Ricardo das Máquinas to check the inside of the dam, it fills up completely! It looks as though we are going to have to wait until the dam empties again next summer to get to the bottom (literally) of the problem. In the meantime the work on the adega is still held up by the weather.

Monday 23 October 2006

Torrential rain for the last week. It has been too wet for Ricardo das Máquinas to work on the site, delaying us by a week or more. The likelihood that we will have a building by the end of the year as planned is looking ever more remote.

Thursday 19 October 2006

At the Union des Grands Crus tasting in London, I am surprised just how many people have already heard of our project in Portalegre. No one knows where it is though and I keep having to draw an air map of Portugal to pin point Quinta do Centro. I remain on-message. We are in the Alentejo but this is different from the Alentejo that you may know. Higher up, mountains, unique terroir. That sort of thing, and it is true. One comment makes me uneasy: ‘you know journalists never make a success of wine making’. I ask why? ‘Because no other journalist will write kindly about you’. There might be some truth in this but I shrug it off and talk to Roy Richards (of UK wine importers Richards Walford) who has his own vineyard in Roussillon where he produces a wonderful red from Grenache and Cabernet called La Soula in partnership with Domaine Gauby. He tells me how much he is pouring into his project but how satisfying it is and it makes me feel better. The 2004 Clarets lift my spirits too, with some fresh, well-structured wines with depth and focus. They are ‘classic’ is style, an overused word perhaps but much more satisfying in my view than many of the super-ripe but rather hollow wines from 2003.

Wednesday 27 September 2006

Work starts on the new adega. They have to excavate a huge hole in the hillside to accommodate phase I and II of our winery project. We have no idea what we will find under the scrub but the man charged with digging the hole, known to every one as Ricardo das Máquinas (‘Richard of the Machines’) says he is ready for anything. Two huge excavators (Portuguese word: buldózer) move topsoil and quickly strike granite. Explosives have to be used to blast away at the bedrock and I worry about the foundations of the nearby buildings. The granite is an integral part of the design and the architect is extremely happy to find solid rock that will form the wall of the underground cellar. ‘You will have the best winery in Portalegre’ he tells me. I am rather hoping for the best winery in Portugal.

Thursday 14 September 2006

With most of the grapes crushed and in tank, we have more than we thought and have to commandeer more space. At around 14.5 the potential alcohol, though high, is better than we could have expected. We might not be talking finesse this year but I am more optimistic than most that we can produce something good if not great. With picking now at an end, Rui Reguinga and I go for dinner at Tomba Lobos. We challenge each other with a blind tasting. I present one of my favourite Alentejano reds, Quinta do Mouro 2002, which he guesses immediately. His wine is more challenging: a big rustic number with high alcohol and gamey, farmyard aromas. A purist would say it was full of faults but it works and I love it for its complexity. I hover between the Alentejo and Priorato and eventually decide on the latter. I am right. It is a 1998 Priorat from Cims de Porreira which declares itself to have 14.9% alcohol by volume. There is hope for us yet.

Wednesday 13 September 2006

A cool foggy start as our gang of pickers descend on the Quinta. The vineyards, silent for most of the year, are filled with chatter and gossip. There is much tut-tuting from Teresa, the gang leader, as a few pickers haven’t turned up for work. So I muck in and pick grapes for the first time in ten years (the last time being at Giaconda vineyard in Australia). Despite all the romance of vintage it is a tedious back-breaking job but it gives me a good opportunity to look at the condition of the vineyard, vine-by-vine. The older vines have weathered the heat and we have a reasonable crop, larger than expected. The Aragonez, not usually my favourite grape, has fared the best and we have a good crop of ripe healthy grapes. The Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet and Grand Noir have suffered from some raisinisation but we manage to select the best and leave the shrivelled bunches on the ground. As the day wares on, the sky clouds over and it starts to rain, gently at first but by 4.00pm it is torrential. It won’t damage the grapes but it will dilute things, no bad thing with the sugar levels the way they are this year. A wonderful smell of wild mint hangs in the air over the quinta.

Tuesday 12 September 2006

I taste the fermenting Trincadeira. Not what we had hoped for – a rather unbalanced, jammy wine due to the extreme heat of the last two weeks. We will be harvesting grapes from the older vineyards tomorrow at 7.00am. An ominously watery sunset. Rain forecast.

Wednesday 6 September 2006

We start picking in extreme heat. Tempers are frayed, but there is nothing we can do but make the best of it. The Portuguese don’t know the English expression ‘it’s no use crying over spilt milk’ but I try to explain it. The young vines have really suffered, especially the Trincadeira that was looking so good just ten days ago. With 40ºC heat and humidity of less than 10%, the grapes didn’t stand much of a chance. Blame is cast on our vineyard manger for not turning on the irrigation system at the right time but in these conditions it wouldn’t have made much difference. I talk to other wine producers who are experiencing the same or worse conditions. I hear of shriveled grapes registering 20 Baumé! A few phone calls leave me feeling that an air of gloomy resignation has settled over the Alentejo.

Monday 28 August 2006

There is something strange about the weather. I have always been a global warming sceptic, but with eighteen months or so hands-on experience in the vineyard I am starting to think that something is going seriously awry. First California suffers an unexpected heat wave, now it seems to be our turn with temperatures well above 40ºC. Evora (capital of the Alentejo) is the hottest place in Europe and it is not much cooler up on the Serra. The young Trincadeira is not standing up well with heavy raisinisation occurring. We are going to have to bring the date of the harvest forward or there will be nothing left to pick.

Cabernet vinesFriday 18 August 2006

Thankfully there has been no shortage of rain in Portugal this spring and early summer, followed by a heat wave in early August. The forest fires that have ravaged Portugal in previous years have been kept largely under control. In fact the bombeiros (firemen) have been practising on the Serra with helicopters and scooping our precious water out of the still rather leaky barragem without permission of course. The vineyard is looking good. We carried out a poda em verde (green harvest) in late June, reducing the potential crop on the younger vines by one third. Baumés are already looking good. 10.6 for the old Trincadeira, 10.3 for the Alicante and 10.7 for the Cabernet. This is someway behind where we were this time last year and vintage looks likely to start in mid-September. I pencil the week of the 11th in my diary.

Wednesday 5 July 2006

It is nearly midnight when I download five different labels which may or may not be the image of Sonho Lusitano / Quinta do Centro. Label design agency Barlow Doherty has done a thorough job with our brief and there is plenty to choose from. I spend the next two weeks conducting unscientific market research with friends, family and anyone I meet before we start to hone in on the favoured design.

Tuesday 27 June 2006

I look at detailed plans for our new adega, a highly original building from a local architect combining granite (which we have aplenty) with a roof supported on an iron frame which forms the external (and therefore visible) skeleton for the building. The building will be built into the hillside and therefore have a natural underground cellar in the granite. An elevated veranda paved with old railway sleepers (the Portuguese word is ‘sleepers’) accessed from the tasting room will make the most of the stunning views towards the top of the Serra de São Mamede. It has the feeling of a jungle lodge.

Friday 23 June 2006

Lunch with the President of the Camara Municipal (local council) in the lavish new town hall in the centre of Portalegre (no doubt financed with EU money). He comes straight to the point – he wants to help us as much as possible, and offers the use of the adega co-operativa for this year’s vintage. Problem solved. His election slogan was dito e feito (‘said and done’). He is a fixer.

Mayson and friendThursday 22 June 2006

Arrive at Quinta do Centro after a long journey from Oporto via Lisbon. 37oC down on the plains but a refreshing breeze on the Serra when I arrive around 7.00pm. I share a bottle of Francois Villard’s 2003 Condrieu with Rui Reguinga over some petiscos (Portuguese tapas). The new plantings look good. Heavy rain the previous week has helped the vineyard to establish itself. The barragem is nearly full. Our wine tastes good too, fine, firm, a bit foursquare perhaps but a few more months in oak should help to round it out. But we have a problem with this year’s vintage – a large crop expected after the wet winter and spring but no adega to vinify the wine. No matter how quickly we work it will not be ready in time. We are going to have to resort to finding outside help (again).

Wednesday 19 April 2006

Spend the day setting out a detailed brief for our label designers. Brand names for our main wines still elusive but we decide on the name Pedra Basta for our second wine. Pedra Basta means ‘Enough Stone’, the name of a nearby hamlet which is an apt description of the vineyard with its outcrops of granite and schist.

5 April 2006

Our new vines arrive, all the way by lorry from France. Syrah, Viognier, and Touriga Nacional. Apalling wet weather but great for the vineyard – ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’. It is too wet get into the vineyard to plant vines (even the tractor had to be towed out of the mud) so we must wait another week. The house wine has sold so well that the restaurant wants some more. Apparently the Spanish who come over the border in droves at the weekend really love it!

20 February 2006

We have made our first sale – the press wine from the last vintage has been sold in bulk to a local restaurant where it is going to be there house wine. It gives me great pleasure to go there and drink it: plenty of colour, a bit astringent but plenty of ripe, sappy fruit and better than many a bottled wine. Quick sale, helps the cash flow.

12 December 2005

We start talking labels and I meet with design agency, Barlow Doherty, in London. There are some truly terrible labels in Portugal and I think it is important that we get an international image for our wine. In fact given the appalling marketing of brand ‘Portugal’ I think we must go further. Our wine must be a good wine – eventually a great wine – that just happens to be Portuguese. That must be our starting point.

Thursday 27 October 2005

Malolactic fermentation at an end, I taste our finished wine for the first time with a mixture of excitement, trepidation and great pride. We have two lotes, (Cuvées); Cuba 8 is a blend of the old Trincadeira with Alicante Bouschet and Grand Noir and Cuba 9 is from the newer Trincadeira with some Aragonez. I have to be dispassionate. The wines are naturally sweet, rich and aromatic but perhaps lack the structure, breadth and finesse that I am looking for. The growing season has been exceptionally challenging and I think we have done well in the circumstances. But we don’t have that much and this won’t be our anything like our top wine. Second label perhaps.

5 September 2005

The start of vintage. At 7.30 am precisely a gang of seventeen women descend on the quinta and make their way through the vineyard like locusts. Fortunately it is a grey morning with a cool north wind. The crop is small, even smaller than we expected and picking won’t take long. Still, it gives me great pride to see our first crop of grapes being loaded into the 400 15kg plastic crates that I have just bought. The grapes are healthy, super ripe and concentrated but unbalanced, I fear, with baumés in excess of 14 degrees. Not quite what we want. We sell the Castelão €500, the price of gapes having collapsed. On the plus side, the Alicante Bouschet planted in 2004 has withstood the drought remarkably well and we have lost very few vines.

13 June 2005

It still hasn’t rained and the barragem has sprung a leak. Extended correspondence with the Ministério das Cidades, Ordenamanto do Território e Ambiente, Commissão de Coordenação e Desenvolvimento Regional do Alentejo (that’s one organisation in case you were wondering) to make sure that the dam has been properly licensed. It hasn’t! Various modifications need to be undertaken so that it can be as well as lots more documentation. We have no water to irrigate in one of the driest years on record. Thank goodness we decided not to plant our new vineyard in the spring as we would have lost most of the vines. Word reaches me that there are already numerous falhas (‘failures’) in new vineyards planted in the Douro.

Cinsault vines on the estate10 March 2005

I want to replant part of the vineyard. Aragonez, Alicante and Grand Noir are well-proven here but we can do without Castelão and Cinsault. We decide to complement the local mix with Touriga Nacional, Syrah and a tiny bit of Viognier (Marcel Guigal told me it’s like adding salt when cooking). But it’s been one of the driest winters on record. We decide, reluctantly, to hold off planting.

25 November 2004

I first set foot on what is now to become my vineyard. It is ten years since I first started looking (during which time real estate prices have escalated) but I know I have found the right place. Not too big, not too small, therefore manageable and with the potential to produce a viable quantity of wine (about 55,000 bottles when we get into full production). It is a warm day for late autumn and I bask in the sunshine, surveying the property – my estate. I meet up with Rui Reguinga in the excellent local restaurant, Tomba Lobos, and we celebrate with a bottle of Pol Roger 1996!

11 November 2004

I sign the sinal or promisory contract for the purchase of Quinta do Centro. I feel numb from both excitement and fear.

2 November 2004

My mind is all over the place. I have finally received the surveyor’s report. It has been too wet for him to get into the vineyard but I now have a detailed map of the property and the all-important valuation. It is a bit higher than I expected but lower than the asking price (as I expected). It gives me some room to negotiate and after a few days of haggling back and forth, we finally agree a price. It is still too high but this place is now in my heart (and getting into my head).

13 October 2004

Doubts start setting in – I wonder if I am doing the right thing. I like the place but am I going to pay too much for my bit of Portuguese terroir? The current owner is putting pressure on me – ‘we have some people from Leiria who are very interested’ which I don’t quite believe. I stand my ground. I talk to my friend Dirk Niepoort over dinner at Quinta do Napoles in the Douro. He has built a stunning modern house on the quinta with plate glass and local schist. ‘If it’s in your heart, do it’ he says, rather like the Nike advert. It is in his heart and he has done it but Quinta do Centro needs to be in my head as well before I can proceed.

3 September 2004

I meet the owner of the Quinta – he wants to sell! Then cold reality sets in: the price (much too high) has to be negociated; lawyers have to be engaged. I instruct the best legal firm in Lisbon. I also hire an independent valuer to survey the estate.

19 August 2004

The birth of our first son having prevented me from doing so earlier, I visit Portalegre to see Quinta do Centro for the first time. With the help of a friend and winemaker who consults for the local co-op, I’ve been scouting the area for some time. Everything is for sale but not. With potential for tourism as well as wine, the property would make a viable business.

12 May 2004

An e-mail arrives with pictures of what might just be the property of my dreams. An estate, a little over 20 hectares in size in the Serra de São Mamede, an area that I have had my sights on for years. The highest point south of the Tagus (rising to just over 1,000 metres) and therefore cooler and wetter than the rest of southern Portugal – which has just suffered one of the hottest summers in decades. Granite and schist soils, although mostly granite here and perfect for viticulture and for making really distinctive red wine. So far the region has been a virtual monopoly for the local co-operative but great things have been done here from time-to-time by Tapada do Chaves (a magnificent 1970 which resembled a fine Chateauneuf-du-Pape in a blind tasting) and the d’Avillez estate (an outstanding Garrafeira in the mid 1980s). This region really has potential and it is my mission to prove it.

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