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Interview with Simon Woolf – Foot Trodden co-author

I first met Simon in 2011 at the European Wine Bloggers Conference. We were in northern Italy on the post-trip when both Simon and I had our first experience meeting Sandi Skerk. For Simon, it was life-changing and eventually led to his award-winning book “Amber Revolution.”

Over the years that followed, Simon and I formed a fast and furious friendship. We met at wine conferences and events, in addition to his frequent trips to Portugal to debate, chat and explore Portuguese wine. It was on one of these late night evenings that we began a deep discussion on co-writing a Portuguese book together….a discussion that quickly turned into a full fledged book!

A few weeks ago, we successfully launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the book. In an effort to help clarify the details however, we decided to interview one another for our respective audiences. Thus this is my interview with Simon. If you would like to read his interview with me, make sure to check it out here: Interview with Ryan Opaz – Foot Trodden co-author

Tell everyone about how you first fell in love with wine? Did you have an ‘aha’ moment?

Probably several moments, but the earliest was when my mum served a Pouilly Fumé with a fancy dinner on Christmas Eve. I must have been about 15 at the time, so I was allowed a half glass. The flintiness left such an impression on me that the following year, when we had the same family friend come round again I asked “mum, are you going to serve a Pouilly Fumé again?”

Things didn’t really start getting out of hand until I was in my early 30s. For the first time in my life, I had more than two beans to rattle around in my wallet. That fuelled more discovery, more spending and ultimately wine education – which really ruined me, as I just wanted to try everything.

In the end, the only solution was to stop pretending to have a different career and surrender to wine!

Over the past few years you have become the expert in the style of wine some call “Orange” – Can you give us the short definition of it, and why you are so entranced by it? 

For me the definition is very simple: orange wine just means a wine made from white grapes that were fermented with their skins. I’ve been a huge fan of the style (or maybe we should say “the technique”) since 2011 when I visited (thanks to you) the cellar of a rather talented winemaker by the name of Sandi Skerk.

Sandi’s wines that day just blew my mind. It showed me that there was a whole world of possibilities in terms of aromas, flavours and hues that I’d never encountered. I wanted to understand where this tradition of skin fermenting white grapes had come from, and it set me off on a multi-year quest which (as you know) resulted in a book.

More to the point perhaps, is that I just really love orange wine as a drinking experience. I am always perplexed when people say “I like orange wines but I don’t think I could drink more than a glass”. For me, not only is the world of orange wines at least as varied as that of red, white or rosé, but they often represent an ideal “best of both worlds” point mid-way between white and red. You have freshness and acidity, of the kind that you might expect in a white wine, but also the texture and body that’s more normally associated with reds. To me that is a winning combination – and a very food-friendly one too.

Now we’re working on a book about Portugal? How is it that Portugal captured your heart? 

Well I think that’s largely down to you Ryan! At least you were the catalyst who gave me ample opportunities to travel to Portugal over the last 8 years. And then I would have to mention the Simplesmente Vinho wine fair, which has given me such an amazing opportunity to discover the full diversity and dynamism of the Portuguese wine industry.

It’s through Simplesmente that I met a great deal of the younger generation – winemakers who are doing some of the most exciting stuff I know about. And gradually the penny dropped that this is one of Europe’s most dynamic, yet largely undiscovered wine cultures – with hidden treasure at every turn.

But if there is one trip that really turned my fling with Portugal into a full-scale romance, it was visiting a few of the villages around Vidigueira in November 2019. Alentejo was the last region in Portugal that I thought would excite me, until I discovered its hidden culture of making wines in talhas (portuguese amphorae). There is such a vibrant culture around this, a truly Portuguese feeling of community, and amazing to see that such an ancient tradition still resonates so deeply.

Beyond the wines, when you have been researching the book, has anything surprised you about the country as you traveled through it? Landscapes? Food? People? 

The food took me a while to understand. Portugal doesn’t seem to have any tradition of “haute cuisine”, in a way it’s more like Italy where the emphasis is on good ingredients treated very simply. I think I was expecting culinary fireworks at some stage, and then I realised Portugal is the ultimate comfort-food country. Now I salivate at the thought of nicely grilled secretos or a flavourful caldo verde.

I have found the Portuguese in general to be a very open, warm and friendly people. There is no Mediterranean ego or machismo here. People don’t tend to shout too loud about what they’re doing – to the point that it was hard researching and writing this book (I know you agree on this point!). No-one stands up and says “I’m the greatest” or “I was the first” or “I do it differently to everyone else” – like they might in Italy or France.

In terms of landscapes, everyone goes on about the Douro – and it is spectacular – but I think I prefer the wild, remote feel of the Dao, with its vast swathes of mountain and those rock formations that look like a giant ran rampage a million years ago, littering the landscape with random boulders and outcrops.

We’ve drunk a lot of wine together. That might be an understatement, but when it comes to Portugal, what are a couple of wines that you feel any wine lover needs to try?

The reds from Colares are simply unique. I have never tasted those slightly briny, roasted seaweed-like flavors in another red wine. It might sound weird but they are such lovely wines to just sit and drink – understated but so full of nuances when aged for a decade or more.

With Dao, everyone talks about the reds but for me it’s the whites that are its hidden gem. You can achieve Burgundian levels of finesse and complexity in Dao, with the right vineyards and sympathetic winemaking. Casa de Mouraz, Antonio Madeira or Alvaro Castro will convince you!

Then in terms of bucket list wines, I guess everyone should try a traditional talha-fermented wine – a style that’s often surprising for its freshness and fruit-forward character. Oxidation plays a very minor role indeed.

And talha-fermented or not, the palhete style (a co-fermented red-white blend, usually with around 20% white grapes) is becoming very hip right now – and no surprise, because it’s just pure Portuguese glou-glou.

Finally, what is one tip for any food and wine lover who wants to visit Portugal? 

Don’t ignore the humble places – it’s often where Portugal really excels. You can go high-end if you want, but it’s not the true Portuguese experience.

The roadside cafe in the back-end of nowhere, a tiny adega (cellar) with an open door instead of a sign. This is where you’ll have the most fun.

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