Lusa's Paulo Novais photographs life-long grafter José Soares as he helps the renaissance of ancient grape varieties in the Dão region
Lusa's Paulo Novais photographs life-long grafter José Soares as he helps the renaissance of ancient grape varieties in the Dão region

Long-forgotten grape varieties produce wine again

First wines with commercial potential reach Portuguese tables this week

Grape varieties that had been forgotten in the Dão Demarcated Region have been recovered and planted in a Lusovini vineyard in Carregal do Sal, and the first wines with commercial potential are beginning to reach Portuguese tables this week.

Vinha da Fidalga was acquired by Lusovini in 2015, and two years later, with the aim of recovering the genetic heritage of the Dão, specimens of 12 grape varieties that had been abandoned for several decades began to be planted.

“We decided that this would be the project where we would focus on recovering the region’s old grape varieties, which I had heard about, which many people knew about, but which were practically no longer available, let alone wines on the market for us to taste,” Sónia Martins, Lusovini’s chief executive and head of winemaking, told Lusa.

From the 2022 harvest came the first five wines that will now be launched on the market under the Pedra Cancela brand: the whites Terrantez, Uva Cão and Douradinha and the reds Malvasia Preta and Monvedro.

The focus is on the national market, and a very small number of bottles will reach the wine shops, just between 1,000 and 1,500 of each variety.

But the project is broader, with the Arinto do Interior, Gouveio, Rabo D’Ovelha, Luzídio and Barcelo varieties (whites) and Coração de Galo and Corninfesto (reds) awaiting their turn on the market.

“These five wines will be launched now. We have others from the 2022 vintage that are staying in the cellar because we don’t think it’s the right time to release them yet. And from the 2023 vintage, we also have the 12 grape varieties vinified and bottled separately,” said Martins.

According to the winemaker, the aim is to “understand, over two or three years of harvesting and vinification, what the characteristics of the grape varieties may be” and the wines that result from them, not least because it’s currently not possible to have a term of comparison.

“In the case of Uva Cão, there are other wines besides ours, but for the other varieties, there are no commercial wines, and so we find it very difficult to make any kind of comparison,” she said.

In order to have the grape varieties that allowed it to move forward with this project, the Nelas-based company relied on the help of grafting experts from the region and the Dão Wine Studies Centre.

José Soares, who started grafting vines at the age of 15 and has been doing it for half a century, was one of them. In Brazil, France, from the north to the south of mainland Portugal and also on the Azorean islands of Pico and Faial, there are vines that have grown thanks to his grafting, but it is “in the heart of the Dão” that he knows the grape varieties best.

It is also in the Dão that his heart beats the strongest, says Lusa, and so it was with great enthusiasm that he took on this Lusovini project.

“I was happy because it’s an asset for the region,” he said, and he was pleased that the people in charge of the company had decided to look to the future without forgetting the past – not letting this heritage be lost.

José Soares recalled that around 40 years ago, four red grape varieties began to be grafted onto the Dão, namely Jaen, Tinta-Roriz, Rufete and Alfrocheiro.

“Today, we’ve expanded to other varieties that came from here, and we’ve recovered those varieties that were already falling out of favour,” he said.

Unsure why these varieties have been forgotten, José Soares pointed out some peculiarities that give producers headaches, such as the early ripening of the Terrantez grapes.

“The bees, the birds, are the first to eat, and when the producer goes to pick the grapes, he gets there and doesn’t find them anymore…”.

Sónia Martins said that, with regard to some grape varieties, it has already been possible to observe behaviour in the vineyard that requires special care and could explain why they have been overlooked.

“In the case of Terrantez, as it’s a very vigorous grape variety, it doesn’t usually grow very vertically, but more horizontally, and this makes it a little difficult for us to manage the vineyard and fertilise it at flowering time,” she admitted.

The Douradinha “is very prone to rot. It rots quickly when it has some humidity,” while the Monvedro “is very sensitive to heat, to scalding,” she added.

“These are observations that we’ve been making over time, but it’s true that there’s a lack of information about the past and this information, especially in the area of viticulture, is fundamental for us to have over the next few years in order to understand the best way to enhance these varieties.” 

Despite all the difficulties, those responsible at Lusovini are certain that it was worth investing time and money in this project, says Lusa, as they believe that these grape varieties “can make a change in the region in terms of sustainability and climate change“.

“We believe that some of these grape varieties have characteristics that allow us to keep the Dão wines with this freshness and elegance, even though heat waves and temperatures that are rising every year,” said Sónia Martins.