What do you call a group of small, artisan wine producers at a tasting? If you’re in France or Italy, the “natural wine” moniker might well rear its head. The suggestion being that these are winemakers who eschew overtly industrial production methods, intervene less and attempt above all else to express their terroir.
The less charitable may claim this merely means long beards, stinky wines and radical stances on sulphur.
In Portugal things are a little different. Here, no-one seems that interested in defining such a slippery category – least of all the 23,000+ visitors to Porto’s annual Essencia do Vinho tasting. The mix of trade and consumer attendees are packed in tighter than sardines, and beating a path to your favourite producer’s stand can turn into a military operation. With a 10 year pedigree, the event is comfortably established as the wine event of the year, not to mention a valuable barometer for the Portuguese wine industry as as a whole.
The cost and size of Essencia is a barrier for smaller producers. Quinta do Infantado‘s João Roseira responded by launching “Simplesmente Vinho” as an alternative “off event”. 2014 was the second year, and judging by the packed arches on the Largo do Terreiro, it was an unqualified success. But how does João select the participating producers, let alone categorise them? “There are no rules, we just want people who care about their grapes”.
João has a very simple proposition: “Portugal is going through tough times. We want to spread a little happiness, by combining our wines with good food and good music”.
Is this a natural wine tasting then? “You probably won’t find a single natural wine here. That’s not our point. We want to show that Portugal has diversity and quality – and to demonstrate why these wines shouldn’t be on the bottom shelf selling for €4.99”
In one sense, this event is totally unique – there’s no generic wine body, no sponsors and no PR company involved– Simplesmente is organised by the producers themselves. The style is defiantly grass roots – a nice contrast to the glitz and splendour up the road at the Palacio da Bolsa, where Essencia takes place.
The wine selection was eclectic, with 22 producers from all corners of the country crammed into three rough and ready arches. Some names were familiar – “godfather of Bairrada” Luis Pato held court in a tiny annex, just metres away from winemaking daughter Filipa. Even the giant Niepoort had muscled in, showing some lesser known wines in their “projetos” range, from a newly acquired vineyard.
Pato had a personal response to the natural wine discussion, in the form of his Baga natural 2012. “Most natural wines are faulty”, he cheekily claimed, “so I’ve made one that’s not”. And it was deliciously fresh and sappy, like sucking on a raspberry cane.”
This tasting was much more about new discoveries than established names. A serious looking young man poured me a superb “Vinhas Velhas” from the Dão. His story was as captivating as the wine. Half Portuguese half French António Madeira lives in Paris, but now spends every available weekend and holiday returning to half a hectare of abandoned vineyards, to craft this exquisitely focused red. Madeira explained “I had to come and do this. Too many winemakers here just go for over-extraction and oak ageing. That’s a pity. I want to show that our wines can be elegant.”
According to Isabelle Legeron’s Raw Fair manifesto, Madeira would qualify as a natural winemaker. As indeed would Quinta da Serradinha, one of the few organically certified producers in the room. But the beauty of Simplesmentes Vinho is that these distinctions and categories didn’t seem to matter. It was exactly as João told me – passionate winemakers who care about what they produce and how they do it, without being hidebound.
There were plenty of treats in store for the eagle eyed. Bairrada has been building a name as Portugal’s most important sparkling wine region, but who knew that these wines could age quite so well? Quinta des Bágeiras generously uncorked a 1992 Brut Nature which seemed to have the gift of eternal life – nutty and smoky, but utterly fresh and bone dry. An overly oxidative 2006 Grande Reserva had seen better days – a fascinating demonstration of just how much vintage variation and winemaking technique can influence longevity.
Not just for fun
There are few wine tastings I’ve attended that had this much energy. By 7pm on the Saturday, most attendees were gearing up for a party, the music was cranked up, and spittoons were no longer required. It didn’t matter that a number of producers had already run out of wine, or that calls of nature had to be answered down the street in a nearby bar.
People may have been having fun, but the event carried a serious message. Sylvia Bastos from promoter/distributor OS Goliardos (who were showing some excellent red blends made by Quinta do Mouro) summed it up: “The Portuguese wine market is dominated by big brands, much more so than other European wine producing countries. Consumers just want to buy the well known names, and it’s not helped because the small guys often lack decent distribution. This event is a great way for them to get their wine in front of a larger audience.”
This vibrant and characterful event definitely bears a return visit in 2015. If you want to check the health of Portugal’s wine scene, Essencia provides a basic temperature reading, but Simplesmente Vinho is the beating pulse.