Wine and the art of living: Casal Figueira

“Perfect harmony with its environment, and perfect expression of its own inward nature are what constitute Beauty; and our ignorance of the nature of the thing or its environment may shut our eyes to the Beauty it already has. It takes the genius of a Millet to paint, or a Whitman in words, to show us the beauty of those ordinary work-a-day figures with which our world is for the most part peopled, whose originals we pass by as having no form or comeliness.” — Thomas Troward, The Hidden Power

Casal Figueira Marta Soares
Marta Soares of Casal Figueira

About an hour north of Lisbon, there in the small Portuguese town called Vermelha. A small town of a dozen streets, a couple of cafes and a few churches, Vermelha is hidden in a beautiful landscape of lush green vineyards with a splendid backdrop of the Serra de Montejunto. Somewhere in Vermelha there is a small winery too. Hidden in one of the side streets of this town, you could easily walk pass it without noticing it. Just like the wines made inside said winery, you’d only be able to find it if you know what you’re looking for or have an incredible sense of adventure. All very secretive and mysterious, I know, but if you manage to find it you are in luck because in that winery you will find an incredible winegrower, an artist, a mother and a very inspiring woman.

Her name is Marta Soares and she is the woman behind Casal Figueira wines, a wine project that was started over 20 years ago by her late-husband António Carvalho. I was lucky to find the winery, to meet Marta and I have spent the last couple of days stewing over what to write. It’s not easy. In fact, it is never easy because every wine experience is different. Every vineyard is different, every conversation is different, all the sensations are different and trying to convey these experiences into words and make them have meaning is a great challenge. But I think meaning is important. Stories are important. Impressions, feelings, thoughts and experiences are all important components of wine. Why? Because wine and the art of living go hand-in-hand. It is the human experience bottled up, labeled and shipped away to all corners of the world and contained inside that bottle are the stories, the feelings, the joys, the pains and the passions of the men and women behind them.

Regular humans are swallowed into the enchanting world of wine in various ways. Some are conventional, straight-forward and follow linear paths that involve family lineage or university degrees. Others are intertwined with our own personal growth, ordinary experiences that get mixed in with perceived coincidences and perfect timing. They are paths that enfold randomly when doors open and shut, when our search for one thing leads us to something so unexpectedly perfect and beautiful. Marta is in the second category. Far from linear, her story is that of a young artist who stumbled upon the wonderful vineyards of Casal Figueira in the late 90s. It was there that she met António Carvalho, a viticulturist and winemaker, who showed her another expression of beauty, another form of creation, and another outlet for her restless creativity. António was a bit of wine maverick too. Having spent his educational years in France, studying both agriculture and oenology, he realized his passion was not in the cellar but in the vineyard, working and tending to each vine with the utmost respect. Wine is made in the vineyard, it is said, and this was definitely true for António. From his time abroad, he brought with him a new wine vision to his native country of Portugal and thus started Casal Figueira wines. So it was that Marta entered into the world of wines with António as her guide and her teacher.

From his passion and devotion of growing grapes she learned to care for vines as she would care for a child, she learned to work with nature and respect all the natural boundaries and limitations imposed by this fickle friend. They fell in love, naturally (the passion of wine…) and their family grew. Their views and philosophies were solidified: working biodynamically in the vineyard and opting for minimal intervention winemaking in the cellar. As a team they worked together to find a new place to call home after the original Casal Figueira vineyards were repossessed by António’s family. Their new project was born: they recovered century-old vines of Vital and Castelão that were dispersed in small parcels on the slopes of the Serra de Montejunto and breathed new life into them. The project flourished and continues to get more and more recognition, but Marta now works on her own after the passing of António in 2009. She is now the passionate winegrower, the wine maverick, the lady behind the man’s name on the Casal Figueira bottles.

Marta speaks passionately about Vital, like a lover or a best friend. The white grape varietal that was perceived to be neutral in flavours and aromas was long forgotten in the region (and in Portugal). Many added it to blends to give wine more acidity. But the reality is that it’s a star on its own. The 2.5 hectares of vines are planted on the north side of the Serra de Montejunto, at about 200 to 400m above sea level in limestone soil. The Atlantic influences along with the high altitude create wines of natural acidity and freshness. Alcohol levels normally reach between 10.5% to 12.5% abv max and Marta works Vital in the most simplest of ways. Besides love and passion, the two fundamental ingredients, it is imperative to work fast and cold. That is because Vital is delicate in its aromas. As she explained, the whites are rigorous work and requires militant discipline. Harvest must be done quickly, the grapes are refrigerated while transported to the winery, pressed and the juice is placed into stainless steel tanks with temperatures at around 8C. The juice then goes into barrels where it undergoes spontaneous fermentation using the ambient yeast of the grape bloom and the winery. Bâtonnage is done occasionally to encourage fermentation. Sulfites are only added at the beginning on the process, at the reception of the grapes, but no more than that. As Marta explained, “It is a very simple process but must be done perfectly.”

The other varietal is Castelão, a red grape also native to Lisboa region, where one hectare is planted on the south side of Montejunto. While Vital is all work and no play, Castelão is a “party”. Marta says, “The tinto is not a business, it’s a legacy.” And so during harvest, her kids come to play, to crush the grapes and to enjoy in a shared family passion. After a short period of cold maceration, the grape mass is pressed and then goes through the same process as the white. It ferments and matures in tanks for about 7 months and then bottled and released.

Casal Figueira bottles

Casal Figueira wines, albeit small in production (no more than 10,000 bottles per year), have somewhat of a cult-following in Portugal among those who know what they’re looking for. But the majority of Casal Figueira wines, in fact 99% are sold abroad. Outside of the country, her wines receive praise and recognition by top wine critics in the UK and Spain. Of course this would have anyone slam-dunking and high-fiving like an egomaniac but Marta smiles and focuses on other victories. For example, working with the velhinhos (the old folk who tend the vines) to understand her views on biodynamics. These men and women of previous generations, those that relied heavily on chemical sprays and fertilizers in agriculture, have finally understood her. It’s taken a few years, she says, but it’s integral to her work. Other such victories include the approval of a selfie-shot photo for the label of new her vintage. In the picture it is Marta, fellow winery worker Tiago, harvest interns and a restaurant friend with a funnel on top of his head like a party hat. Rebellious in spirit but joyful in her battles she showed me such label and the picture lit up my heart and made me giggle. But this is all part and parcel of Casal Figueira. It’s a collective work of love and passion. Her wine barrels bare the names of the vineyard workers. There is a João, a José, probably a Maria somewhere in the lot… And her labels are also hand-drawn by vineyard workers, drawings of what they see and what they feel from each harvest. Her labels are recognizable and give something of a familiar, homely feel. In their simplicity, they are beautiful and connect in ways far greater than a signature of a famous winemaker or a chateau in a splendid vineyard.

There is so much more I could say but all I can recall is the famous words of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” For some people, this comes easily. Marta is a woman of immense power and confidence, and I felt a huge sense of admiration for her. She’s got her shit together, I thought. She knows where she stands and she knows what she stands for. Seeing her so beautiful in knowing Vital as she knows herself, of respecting the grapes and the vines, of integrating all the people in the creative process of Casal Figueira wines, of speaking about António with an incredible glow and radiance was something that left me marveled. The world of wine is indeed a fascinating one. It can be both beauty and beast. It can be a thing of awe or an ugly obsession. It is a world of shared joys and beautiful moments, but also highly competitive, self-indulgent, and filled with all sorts of peculiar characters. And it is easy to get lost in the bottom of a wine glass when you don’t have that privilege or haven’t come to terms with it yet. Marta knows who she is because at the moment of her greatest sorrow and loss, she carried on with a path she had chosen or one that had chosen her.

As I left Vermelha I had a strange sensation, a feeling of lightness and joy, as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Throughout my wine journey I’ve discovered my own passions and have come to terms with my own wine philosophy. It is one filled with wines (of course) but with fascinating stories, with beautiful people, breathtaking places and those precious moments of bliss. Wine, studying wine, travelling through wine reawakened in me a desire for truly living and giving. The reason I started this blog was to capture all those moments, all those thoughts, feelings and emotions. The world of wine cannot just be an alcoholic beverage of ratings and reviews. As Marta says, “o vinho é uma coisa viva” (wine is a living thing) so I tell it how I feel it, with colours and sounds, with people and places, with stories and myths because as James Joyce wrote in the Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, “I am proud to be an emotionalist.”

Tastings Notes

António Vinho Branco 2015, Vinho Regional Lisboa

100% Vital

Pale clear lemon color. On the nose, a sweetness followed by citrus, mineral and slight floral. The palate fresh and lively, with incredible acidity and lots of backbone. Wonderful flavours of citrus and crushed stones, as well as lingering salinity. So fresh and so clean. Lovely.

António Vinho Tinto 2015, Vinho Regional Lisboa

100% Castelão

Lovely ruby color of medium intensity. On the nose, beautiful aromas of berries, black tea and ocean (yeah, the ocean). On the palate it had crispness with round fine tannins. Great structure and went so incredible well with our pork bifana sandwiches with piri piri. The acidity just cut right through the fat and the spice brought out so much more. Beautiful!

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