Wine is a gift from nature, a means to awaken the senses or soothe a day’s struggles. From pressed, fermented grapes and man’s hard work alone, it matures, has its own life and magic. But when you study the labels, ingredients are sometimes omitted.
If industrial wine producers were to publish everything that’s added to one bottle, the list could exceed the size of the label. So points out Guillaume Leroux, vigneron of Monte da Casteleja, the Algarve’s first certified organic vineyard, located in Sargaçal.
A stone’s throw away, in Odiáxere, organic wine producers at Monte do Além emphasise the contrast that organic wines offer: their hand-picked grapes are without acidity correction or particle precipitation and have only a strict minimum of sulphates added. “In other words, wines whose consumption are a plus to our health,” they say.
With the quality of their grapes and soil of paramount concern, organic methods are at the heart of these producers’ craft. A preventative form of cultivation that uses natural means to protect the vines, organic viticulture is done “with respect for the soil, and the well-being of consumers, no synthetic fungicide, insecticide or herbicide products”. And since the suffix -cide derives from French for ‘killer’, you may understand why Vinciane, of Monte do Além, put organic production methods in place from the start.
For Guillaume, the journey towards organic wine was serendipitous. With a bachelor’s degree and a post-graduate degree in Viticulture and Oenology, he intended to produce the best-quality wine using Portuguese grapes on Portuguese soil. Organic winemaking was not a goal: “I was curious about it during my education, but I started in the conventional way,” he says. “I soon realised it was not a good way. With the herbicides, the land looked burned. There was no grass. Also, we had to use insecticides, especially products that directly affect the fruit. You are the first to get the poison.”
It was not until 2006, six years after establishing Casteleja, when a chance meeting with a Swedish organic farmer changed everything. Guillaume offered the farmer use of some of his land and soon found himself observing and experimenting with organic farming methods. The bleached, dry, nutrient-deprived earth began to restore itself, becoming rusty-brown and green grass began to grow where there had been none. The grapes developed in quality, too. In 2007, he decided to go organic and, by 2012, he had produced the Algarve’s first certified organic wine.
Transitioning to organic production meant using different ways to manage the terroir, including techniques familiar to many of us: recycle and re-use. Guillaume explains that what is taken from the vines is put back into the earth to nourish it. Even his resident geese make their contributions. While preventative methods do not completely protect the grapes, “the earth and the weeds can help you. For example, the growing of fava beans attracts snails so they stay away from the vines”.
At Monte do Além, Caroline points to her colleague busy strimming between the vines. These hands-on methods control weed growth and harvest the vines when the time is ripe, proof that man’s hard work and nature’s magic are in some wines.
Another key ingredient is water. In its beginning, Casteleja didn’t have irrigation. The intention was that roots reach for subterranean reserves. However, with a rapidly changing climate, diminished water resources meant Guillaume finally had to install a system.
At Monte do Além, the vine-to-vine drip technique minimises water waste and ensures controlled hydration. In spite of their efforts, their yield was down by around 20% while Casteleja put the estimate at close to a third below average.
Looking for solutions, biodynamic techniques are being explored to assist with water retention, and Casteleja initiated a permaculture project that introduced biodiversity to the monoculture of vines. These efforts are driven by the commitment to caring for the terroir by mimicking nature and to ensure longevity. “Protecting the soil has become the most important thing. What we do today is going to influence the soil’s fertility, and what comes later. The question is, how can we keep maintaining this?”
Perhaps the answer lies in nature’s cycles or Monte do Além’s emblem, the Ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. The symbol was chosen because “there is no one truth for the winemaker, only a never-ending quest for perfection based on the accumulation of knowledge acquired over centuries”.
If centuries of wisdom and organic farming methods can bring modern viticulturists to recognise the rewards of working congruently with nature, in spite of the challenges, then there is hope yet for the labels on our bottles of wine.
By ANNA LOEWY