“In the Dão you have to look for the vines… It is not easy”, explains Sara Dionísio, co-owner of Casa de Mouraz wines, an organic and biodynamic wine producer in central Portugal. She changes gears on her pickup truck, maneuvering left and right in attempts to avoid the bumps and rocks along a narrow dirt road. “But having the vineyards hidden in the middle of these [hills], this for me, is the magic of the Dão”. We are no more than a five minutes’ drive from the sleepy town of Mouraz, where the winery is located, but the landscape turns rough and unpredictable as soon as we leave the quaint town. Immense pine trees and thick green brush hide our way on the adventurous journey to find their vineyards. Sara suddenly stops the truck in the middle of the road, gets out and proceeds to climb up a faded footpath that leads to their “chateau”, as she calls it. We follow behind her, awkwardly trying to keep our balance while jumping from rock to rock until we finally reach a clearing. There, on the edge of two giant granite boulders, the view is idyllic and almost mystical: lush green forests of pine and eucalyptus surround the endless rows of vines that run up and down the slopes of the hills below. Along the horizon, we are surrounded by the famous Serra de Estrela Mountain, Portugal’s highest mountain range, to the east, and the Caramulo Mountains to the west, mountains protecting the land like guardians.
Casa de Mouraz is a winery started by Sara and her husband and wine producer António Lopes Ribeiro in 2000. The small winery is tucked away behind the town’s church where the Ribeiro family, along with Mouraz winemaker César Augusto Fernandes, make wines from the traditional Portuguese grapes Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro, Jaen, Baga and Água-Santa (reds) and Malvasia-Fina, Bical, Cerceal, and Encruzado (whites). António, who was born and raised in Mouraz, grew up with a secret dream of making wine. The path to fulfill this dream, however, was not without a few detours along the way. Coming from a family that had a winery in the house (bottom floor) and working the vines his father planted, it was only after studying law and working as an editor in Lisbon that António finally decided to heed his call. In 2000 Sara and António quit their jobs, left Lisbon behind and set out to make wine – organic and biodynamic wines at that.
The Dão is not easy though, as Sara points out. Rough and rocky it may be, but dealing with damp and humid climatic conditions is challenging enough for an organic producer. Despite the protection from the mountains (Estrela, Caramulo, Buçaco, and Nave) which shield the area from the harsh Atlantic rain and the strong easterly winds from Spain, the Dão region sees a large amount of rainfall in the winter and most conventional growers would stick to the use of synthetic chemical products as protection from mildew, rot and fungal diseases. But being organic has always been the norm and way of life for António’s family so it was natural to stick to those same principles. The 25 hectares of land, that once belonged to his great-grandfather and have been inherited over three generations, includes beautiful vines that were planted by António’s father, now 94 years, as well as pine, oak and chestnut trees. Since 1996 they have been ECOCERT certified, very much ahead of the curve in Portugal. The benefits of being organic, besides reducing the damage to the soil and atmosphere, is also the greater biodiversity in the vineyard, explained Sara. As we visited the many parcels that make up the Casa de Mouraz vines in the Dão, it was clear from the greenery and vegetation growing in between the rows of vines that they were achieving that mission.
Respect for nature, for the land, for man and for life is integral to António and Sara’s approach. Thus, taking the plunge into biodynamic in 2006 was just the natural evolution of the Casa de Mouraz’s philosophy.
While organic viticulture refers to avoiding the use of synthetic chemical products, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers, biodynamics is much more holistic approach to agriculture. Based on the ideas of Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture emphasizes the interrelation between every living organism, each contributing in the “circle of life”. The more António read about biodynamic, the more he resonated with it and “it just made sense” to go ahead. But “being biodynamic here is not easy,” admitted Sara. First, the work in the vineyard is far more labour intensive. Besides being organic, biodynamic viticulture involves the application of certain preparations made from fermented manure, herbs and minerals as well as carrying out work on the vines according to the position of the sun, the moon and the planets. There is also limited or no mechanisation at all on the vines. Second, changing people’s minds and perceptions of biodynamics is another beast to tackle, perhaps far more challenging than physical work. Doing a little online research, I came across an article in one of Portugal’s wine magazines, which made reference to organic and biodynamic producers no longer being just the “poets and environmentalists”. The stereotypes of biodynamic producers gets in the way of the actual mission: we are what we drink. Conventional winemaking has an enormous and scary amount of chemicals and additives that eventually find their way into our bodies. I’ve visited wineries where men in lab coats and test tubes roam the halls, where the wine is manipulated and altered in alarming ways. Organic and biodynamic, perhaps a little difficult to comprehend, offers wines that are pure. Not only can the wine speak for itself, it is original, unique, and complex. Sara and António’s work is definitely unconventional, thus in that sense they are true poets. Those that break from the norm, those that offer something new. And their wines are their expression of land, life, and love.
Since 2009 Casa de Mouraz has forms part of La Renaissance des Appellations (Return To Terroir), an association of biodynamic producers from around the world.
For my Canadian friends, Casa de Mouraz wines are currently available in Quebec and hopefully in Ontario in the coming year.
Tasting Notes – Dão DOC*
Casa de Mouraz White 2013
Encruzado, Malvasia-Fina, Bical, Cerceal-Branco, Rabo-de-Ovelha, Fernão-Pires, Uva-Cão, Síria and others
A blend of more than nine different grapes from old vines, which are all co-fermented based on vineyards. This white has lemon colour with a spark of golden tones. The nose is very enticing with a mix of pine, nuts and stone fruits. On the palate, it is dry with more citrus fruit character, medium acidity and has good body. Good. 13%abv
Casa de Mouraz Encruzado 2013
Single varietal of Encruzado grapes.
This Encruzado, typical of the Dão region, is crisp lemon with sheeting legs. On the nose there are buttery notes and along with some ripe stone fruit and even melon in the background. On the palate, it is full-bodied, round and floral and mineral flavours mingling in a wonderful way. Good.
Casa de Mouraz Encruzado 2010
This is one of my favourite whites. On the nose, it is showing lovely ageing aromas of petrol, ripe stone fruit, and minerality. On the palate, it is dry with bright acidity from start to finish. It is a little spicy, with medium plus alcohol, and good intensity of ageing flavours as on the nose. Very Good 13.5% abv
Casa de Mouraz Rose 2015
Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro, Jaen and Agua Santa
Made from the free run juice, this Rose was still undergoing MLF (malolactic fermentation – a process of converting malic acids into lactic acid) so there was a slight fizz to it. On the nose it showed seductive warm pears and on the palate, some strawberry and raspberries. It’s lively, fresh with balanced acidity. I really enjoyed it and would be great for summer, watching the sunset. Very Good.
Casa de Mouraz Tinto 2012
Touriga-Nacional, Tinta-Roriz, Alfrocheiro, Jaen, Água-Santa, Tinta-Pinheira and Baga.
Red blend with medium ruby color and some slow forming legs. It is medium intensity of aromas, the violets of the Touriga Nacional are quite evident but also there is lots of black cherries, cola and herbs. On the palate, it is dry with a bit of spicy alcohol and tingling acidity, soft tannins, red fruits linger for a bit. Still young but has lots of potential for ageing. Very Good
Casa de Mouraz Tinto 2010
Same grape varietals as above.
Medium ruby color with slow forming legs. On the nose, floral notes and smokiness along with dark berries. On the palate, round and medium-bodied, still lots of fresh acidity. Good.
Casa de Mouraz Tinto 2009
Same grape varietals as above
Colour is a little bit less intense than the 2012 but still deep purplish. On the nose, a great mix of an earthy, wet soil with pine. On the palate, it had really crisp acidity, very fresh and lively. Some oak spices from barrel ageing, medium bodied and smooth tannins and good finish. Outstandiing.
Casa de Mouraz Dão Tinto Private Selection 2009
70% Touriga Nacional with 30% of old vines from grapes Jaen, Alfrocheiro and Agua-Santa
I really enjoyed this Private Selection with a captivating deep ruby purplish color. On the nose it had powerful intensity of ripe red berries, violets and a little bit of forest floor. On the palate dry with spicy and pronounced alcohol but well integrated, structured tannins, lots of black cherry and mineral flavours. Lingering and persistent finish. Very interested to see how things develops over the years. Outstanding. 15%abv
*Although this post is specifically on their Dão wines, they have also started to produce wines in the Vinho Verde, Alentejo and Douro regions under the AlR label.