“I used to say that our family’s DNA has a special mark: to make wines, to be winemakers,” Isabel Mota Capitão, 4th generation winemaker from Herdade de Cebolal, told me while we strolled through the estate’s vineyards in southern Portugal. Her son and chief winemaker, Luís Mota Capitão, was busy in the winery when I arrived but he apologized by handing me a sample of his ‘Blanc de Noir’, (tank sample) made from 100% Castelão grapes. Pale lemon in colour, it was delightfully fresh, crisp with a mix of minerality, red berries and slight floral notes. Medium bodied and persistent finish… all was forgiven on my end. The rain had finally stopped and it was the perfect opportunity to explore the property with Isabel.
Located in Alentejo approximately 170kms south of Lisbon and 15kms from the Atlantic Ocean, the 85ha property is stunningly beautiful in its gentle landscape of cork and eucalyptus forest, green pastures for sheep grazing, and of course, healthy rows of vines. With one foot in Alentejo and the other along the coast, Herdade de Cebolal is the southernmost estate found within the Setúbal Peninsula appellation/classification. An appellation that seems somewhat unsuitable given its geographic location, no appellation currently exists for this unique area of immense beauty and viticulture potential. A hidden wine gem found along the Costa Alentejana, what makes this region different is its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. The cool breeze from the Atlantic gives freshness and moisture to an area that otherwise would be too hot and arid. High summer temperatures are balanced out by the cooling winds, allowing grapes to slowly ripen reaching both phenolic maturity and high acidity. Luís, who caught up with us in the vineyards, also explained that the property is located in the valley of two mountains, Serra de Santiago do Cacém to the north and Serra de Cercal to the south, and lies along the banks of the Campilhas dam. The soil type also various quite a bit. Luís frequently stopped to show me different rocks that make up the soil of Herdade de Cebolal. Limestone, clay, loam, four different types of schist, chalk, and sand can be found on the estate. All these factors, Luís explained passionately, make up the terroir. And as a result, “you taste the grapes, and they are all different.” One row of vines can have two different types of soil at either end, which will then affects the profile of the grape. Luís’ passion for the outdoors was evident and as Isabel noted, “the winemaker doesn’t just work in the cellar, he must work in the vineyard and understand the land.”
Five generations, more than 150 years of history in the making, this family knows a thing or two about wines (and cork). Herdade de Cebolal was founded by Luís’ great-great-grandfather. The role of winemaker has been passed on from generation to generation. Isabel, who adopted the role of winemaker after her father’s passing, worked on the family estate for 20 years. She continues to work alongside Luís, but he is now in charge of the day to day operations, from harvest, bottling, to tasting events. Growing up with a family of winemakers, Luís began dipping his fingers in wine at 14 years old. He participated in his first harvest in 2003 at Herdade do Portocarro in Alcácer do Sal (Alentejo) and then later went on to study oenology in Porto. Following his studies, he completed an internship at Cartuxa wines in 2008. From 2010 on, he has been the head of Herdade de Cebolal wines. At a youthful 27 years old, he is dedicated and focused in the role he stepped into. With the wisdom and guidance of his mother, Isabel, and technical support from viticulturalist Francisco Mata and oenologist/consultant António Jose Saramago, he finds the best grapes for the terroir and then works them to take out the best qualities.
There are 15 different grape varietals, both Portuguese and international, planted in the 23ha of vines. Varying between 6 and 40 years old, they represent both the wine tradition of the region (Castelão, Aragonez, Antão Vaz and Roupiero, for example), but also the innovative and youthful spirit of the young winemaker (such as new planting of the typical Dão varietal Encruzado). Despite the deep winemaking history, when Luís took up the family trade it was important for him to carve out his own identity as a winemaker. The three top varietals, those that are signature of his Herdade de Cebolal wines are: Arinto (white), Alicante Bouschet and Petit Verdot (reds). After studying various grapes with António, they focused on these varietals as they express the subtle nuances of the unique terroir. Like a mad scientist, he likes the process of experimenting and studying the evolution of each varietal under different conditions. He vinifies most of his varietals separately, he ages batches in stainless steel or different oak barrels, and then finds the perfect blend either as single varietal blend or a multivarietal blend. The blanc de noir Castelão was one such experiment with 3000L produced, that Luís was happy to share with me.
During my visit to the beautiful winery, designed by architect and family friend João Ribeiro de Carvalho, we sampled the 2014 Caios Branco, a blend of Arinto, Boal, and Sauvignon Blanc, and three different samples of the 2015 Caios Branco: one fermented in stainless steel, one aged in French oak with light toast and one in French oak medium toast. Each one was incredibly unique and Luís and António will work to create the final blend. I was really impressed with the 2013 Arinto which is a limited edition of 1000 bottles to be released sometime this year. Spending two years in oak, it is fermented in oak, undergoes batonnage, then racked and placed into stainless steel tank for further ageing. With racy acidity and freshness but with some weight and body, there was a lovely melody of flavours of citrus and honey. We also sample the 2015 Rosé, the single varietal tank samples of Castelão, Alicante Bouschet, Petit Verdot, Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon. The tasting experience was exciting and Luís’ passion was contagious. All these experiments show that Luís is not afraid to learn by doing but that he also has much to learn. “I am young and I have lots to learn to define my style. Quality is important but you must also maintain your identity.”
Another important factor in Luís’ identity as a winemaker is making wines that can age. Many wine consumers view Alentejo as a “drink now” or “doesn’t age” region, so he wants to show that his wines have ageing ability. “I like to create wines that age, including whites. I want to drink them now but in 10 or 15 years I’d like to repeat the same wine but with a different evolution, different characteristics and different influences,” Luís explained. Because of Herdade de Cebolal’s unique location along the coast, there is potential to have great complexity while also maintaining freshness and acidity that is necessary for ageing. The oldest wine I sampled was the 2012 Alicante Bouschet from 10-25 year old vines. After spending two years in oak, the nose was enticing with toasty notes and red fruit. The palate, dry, fruity and fresh, with good acidity but still some firm tannins. Lovely finish and it will be interesting to see how it develops over the years.
Luís went back to work as there was much to get done but I appreciated the time he spent with me. I resumed my strolling through the vineyard, as I typically do and I remember something that Isabel had said earlier: “I love to be out here and hear the bells of the sheep. People from the city forget how good it feels to be in nature. It feels so good.” She was completely right, it felt spectacular out there. The sun was peeking out from behind thick grey clouds and I marvelled, once again, at the natural beauty of this fascinating country. I had found yet another favourite place in Portugal.
A few tasting notes of selected tank or barrel samples from my visit.
2014 Caios Branco – tank sample
Arinto, Boal, Sauvignon Blanc
Medium lemon colour. On the nose, mix of candied fruit, pine, resine and slight honey. Very enticing indeed, the palate had a great balance between acidity and body, both medium. There was a slight salinity mixed in with more resine and herbal flavours. The finish was long. A very distinct wine, definitely curious to try again after bottling. 14% abv Very Good
2015 Caios Branco – barrel sample
Aged in medium toasted barrel, this white of the same blend as above was a true delight. With medium intensity of straw-yellow, the nose was spectacular seductive. Warm, ripe stone-fruit mingled with slight toasty aromas. On the palate, it was completely dry with great acidity. Smooth and well-balanced with same stone-fruit profile, and lingering slightly spicy finish. Very Good.
2014 Homenagem “Lufinha”
Alicante Bouschet, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot.
As an homage to Luís’ grandfather’s 100th birthday in 2009, this is celebratory wine. 40 year old vines of Alicante Bouschet and Cabernet Sauvignon that were planted by Luís’ grandfather António. It’s been ageing 6 years in the cellar and 2 and half years in barrel. A beautiful complex wine that despite the ageing still feels young and youthful. The nose has pronounced notes of blackberries and spice. On the palate, it is dry, with firm tannins. Full-bodied with lots of red and black berries, a certain earthiness and salinity linger in the end. Lots of layers and a wine I truly enjoyed. Again, very interested to see how this will develop once bottled and aged a few more years. Outstanding.