Meet the maker: the Portuguese vintners taking natural wine back to its roots

In a small valley in central Portugal, vineyard owners Jorge Cardoso and Fernanda Rodrigues are reviving ancient wine-making traditions, favouring clay pots over barrels. 

By Jez Fredenburgh
Published 18 Sept 2020, 08:00 BST
After pooling their savings and buying a patch of land in Alto Alentejo, central Portugal, vintners Jorge ...

After pooling their savings and buying a patch of land in Alto Alentejo, central Portugal, vintners Jorge Cardoso and Fernanda Rodrigues produced a Reserva that became the first natural wine to be certified DOC Alentejo.

Photograph by Revista de Vinhos, Fabrice Demoulin

When Jorge Cardoso and Fernanda Rodrigues stumbled across a little valley in Serra d'Ossa, central Portugal, it was love at first sight. Its gentle sunny slopes, shale soil and rolling views of olive groves and cork trees all seemed too good to be true.

Then young graduates, the couple pooled their savings, bought the spot in Alto Alentejo and set about turning their dream into reality — to produce natural, organic wine so good it would rival the region’s most respected vineyards. Not only that, they were going to do it using ancient techniques.

“The locals thought we were mad,” says Jorge, a wry smile creasing his face as he surveys the vines, heavy with grapes, at Herdade dos Outeiros Altos.

“Natural wine doesn’t have a set definition and is difficult to make because you must interfere with nature as little as possible — in the vineyard and in the winery. So, you can’t use additives or anything other than naturally occurring yeasts in fermentation.”

Using knowledge gained from studying agriculture in the Douro Valley — Portugal’s best-known wine region and where the couple first fell in love with both viticulture and each other — Jorge and Fernanda replanted their land with indigenous grape varieties adapted to the hot and dry conditions. 

It was the sunny slopes, shale soil and rolling views of olive groves and cork trees that first drew Jorge Cardoso and Fernanda Rodrigues to the Alto Alentejo region of Portugal.

Photograph by Jorge Cardoso And Fernanda Rodrigues

In their new winery, surrounded by lavender bushes and olive trees, they gradually amassed a collection of talhas (clay pots) from neighbouring farmers. These huge amphorae, for fermenting grapes, were first used by local people some 2,000 years ago.  

Twenty years on, they’ve achieved their ambition. Their Reserva — a blend of three grape varieties — became the first natural wine to be certified DOC Alentejo, a big accolade in a region with a rich wine-making history and some of the country’s best wineries. 

“It has a bouquet of red fruits, with notes of blackberry and herbs,” says Jorge thoughtfully, from the shady veranda of their pretty white-washed farmhouse. “And it’s smooth and creamy with a slightly toasted finish.”

As a further nod to their willingness to experiment, the couple also practice ‘field blending’ — picking different grape varieties to ferment together in the talhas, rather than blending after fermentation. “It’s like making perfume,” explains Jorge. “You decide the wines in the field. We spend time between the rows trying the grapes and building up a profile so we can decide where to start picking. When things start to change in the mouth, we set down the boxes of grapes and make a decision.”

For Jorge, the natural wine-making process and the use of talhas help reveal the true tastes and aromas of the grapes. “Ageing in oak barrels, pfff, what’s that?” he scoffs, rolling his eyes. “It’s more interesting to discover good wines by respecting the grapes. Our wines are fresh, but with a nose of red fruits and an almost jammy, balsamic flavour. It’s a very different wine and you either love it or you hate it. But it’s a true expression of this place and its terroir.”

Jorge and Fernanda produce nine organic, vegan wines at Herdade dos Outeiros Altos.

Photograph by Rachel Laidler

Three more Portuguese wineries to visit

Quinta de Sant’Ana 
Half an hour outside Lisbon, this organic family farm has been producing wine since 1630. They use international and native varieties and also run wine tastings. 

Quinta Vila Rachel 
Located in Portugal’s best-known wine region, the Douro Valley, this quinta has a rich, artisanal wine-making heritage. 

Morgado do Quintão
Experience a wine tasting under a 2,000-year-old olive tree at this small Algarve vineyard. With every bottle purchased, the vineyard will donate €1 to the Portuguese Red Cross to support the fight against Covid-19.

Jorge and Fernanda produce nine organic, vegan wines at Herdade dos Outeiros Altos, including a white wine made using red grapes, a rosé, and reds. Visit their winery near the town of Estremoz for tastings and to pick up some bottles for home.

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