It’s easy to get swept away by beautiful places and fascinating stories in the world of wine. And I will be the first to admit (and have already admitted) that that’s what makes me tick, marvel and dream. But it’s not all about stories (I’ve got my logical hat on today). Wine is very much an intellectual exercise and learning process to understand what’s actually in your glass. Intellectual? It seems an inappropriate word to use when it comes to what is essentially a pleasure. It seems too hard, too serious, and just too academic for something so fluid and so subjective. But the reality is that just like most things that you savour, you have to (or would want to) be conscious of that experience. The typical questions ‘what makes this wine so distinct and unique?’ can eventually lead you to ‘where does this wine come from? What’s in it? How is it made and who made it?’
These questions are important. First, they are important in assessing the quality of the wine. Understanding the components, the notes, and whether the melody is harmonious is all part of the song. This can be taught in a classroom, which is where I started, but you have to do a little more digging to really understand what’s in your wine. This may come as revelation to some (particularly my non-wine friends), but in many cases wine is not just fermented grape juice. Wine labels only include the varietals, the vineyard location and the words “Contains Sulfites” so it is no wonder that many consumers don’t realize that there can be numerous additives and preservatives in wine. Some people say that these are not detrimental to our health and additives and preservatives are all part of the food industry anyway. But if you consider all the alterations, manipulations and enhancements that are permitted in the winemaking process which give wine more acidity, less alcohol, more color, more weight, texture, longevity (and so on…) then what’s the point of even making wine? The grape juice becomes unrecognizable and that spark, that magic of such a fascinating and deep-rooted beverage is lost. Not just magic, though, there is the question of taste (and even health). Am I tasting something fabricated or is there an authenticity to it? Very tough questions, yet of which some producers are very clear on their position.
One such Portuguese wine producer (who is not alone in his mission) that is bringing it back to the basics is winegrower/winemaker Rodrigo Felipe of Humus Organic Wines/Encosta da Quinta. I first tried Humus wines at Simplesmente Vinho, a low-key wine fair, in Porto this past February. The name Humus, printed in big bold black letters, stood out and we chatted briefly about his project. As an organic producer, Rodrigo goes one step further and practices ‘natural’ winemaking in the cellar. That is, just fermented grape juice using wild yeast. His mission: to show that great wine can be made this way. I was curious to find out more about his project and try his wines without so many distractions so I made a note to visit his winery.
The 20 hectare family property, Quinta do Paço, is located just outside the town of Alvorninha in the municipality of Caldas da Rainha, approximately one hour north of Lisbon. The project was started by Rodrigo’s father who planted the first parcels of vines in the 90s as more of a hobby than a project. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Rodrigo took on the role as winemaker (winegrower actually) after working as a civil engineer. “It was a bit of an adventure for me” he explained as we walked through the vineyard. Without formal oenology training, Rodrigo learned by reading his father’s old wine books, attending various courses and workshops, and by pure intuition. His process has been that of trial and error, he admitted, with the bulk of his learning coming from experimenting with the vines and grapes. His process has also been a real 360. As he explained it to me he started in a simple way, taking grapes and fermenting them, but as he continued his trial and error process he received more input from others who recommended to add this or take out that. Not happy with those results he eventually went back to where he started and focused on the quality of the grapes, the health of the soil and finding true expression of the terroir in his wines.
Certified organic by Sativa PT since 2007, the nine hectares of vines lie between the Atlantic Ocean (20kms away) and the mountain range of Serra dos Candeeiros. With the use of natural compost as fertilizer, small quantities of copper and sulphur on the vines to protect against pests, Rodrigo’s view on organic is pretty straightforward: “It’s my land and I want to keep it clean.” Fair enough. Planted in clay and limestone soils and benefitting from the cool Atlantic breeze and high humidity of the area, the grapes ripen slowly and maintain a high level of natural acidity. Working with predominately Portuguese varietals including Castelão, Tourigan Nacional, Tinta Barroca and Syrah (reds) and Fernão Pires, Arinto, and Vital (whites) at approximately 150m above sea level, Rodrigo relies on his tasting skills to assess when the grapes have reached optimal ripeness and the desired acidity for harvest. Harvest is done by hand and parcels from the same varietals are picked separately based on their location in the quinta. In the cellar, things get even easier. With the exception of a bit of sulphur, Humus wines are really fermented grape juice in its purest form. They are ‘natural’ in that they contain no additives, no preservatives, no corrections or adjustments, and occasionally not even sulphur. Because of the high acidity (mainly the whites), it is possible to omit sulphur altogether, explained Rodrigo. But of course, this is a risk and gamble for a small winery currently producing 20,000 bottles per year. The whites are pressed and then barrel fermented using ambient yeast. The reds are destemmed and crushed, they undergo fermentation in stainless steel tanks and then aged in used oak barrels. None of the wines are fined or filtered. Rodrigo explained that it’s a “very simple, natural way” of making wine.
So the question on many people’s mind, is it possible to make good wines using only what nature provides (with some added sulphur) and also respecting nature? This, of course, depends on the grapes grown and winegrower who tends to them. But the Humus Red Reserva 2010 was awarded gold medal at Millesime Bio, an organic wine fair in Montpellier, in 2013. Not bad for trial and error. Unfortunately, like many Portuguese producers who follow the same approach that he does (Casal Figueira, Casa de Mouraz) the majority of Humus wines are exported to the US, Canada (Quebec), Northern Europe, the UK and Belgium where they are better received. In fact, Rodrigo was one of a handful of Portuguese producers who was present at RAW Wine Fair in London this past week.
If you believe that great wine comes from great grapes which require great care in the vineyard there is no reason why organic and natural wines can’t be great. But then again, each person, each consumer can decide for themselves by actually trying these wines. They are distinct, they are intriguing, but they are also exciting because they express personality and character.
The world of wine is a passionate one. There is endless debate between organic and non-organic wines, between biodynamic, natural and conventional wines. People’s feathers get ruffled. Everyone has an opinion which they can back up with some study or critic note to show this or that. Personally, it’s taken me over a year to define what it is that really makes me tick about a glass of wine. Although I may not always go this route, I prefer sustainable practices. I like organic agriculture. I have a soft spot for biodynamic and more and more I’m intrigued and excited by these ‘natural’ wines. What’s more, I like knowing where my wine is coming from and who is making it. These are luxuries, I recognize that, and bordering on Portlandia hipster but I am part of a generation (and a culture) that lost a connection to the people, the places and an artisanal way of production. Wine as an experience is a connection to nature and to each other and I want wine that makes sense in every way.
For my Canadian friends, you can find Humus Organic Wines in Quebec through Insolite Import http://www.insoliteimport.com
I leave you now with some tasting notes. Cheers!
HUMUS ROSE 2015 – Tank Sample
Touriga Nacional and Castelão
Whole grape clusters were pressed and then the free run juice fermented in used French oak barrels. Light salmon colour with a subtly and elegance of red fruit on the nose. The palate was smooth, refreshing with red fruit and slight floral tones. Lovely and easy to drink.
HUMUS NO ADDED SULFITES WHITE 2015 – Tank Sample
Single varietal white that has an enticing mix of lemon, citrus zest and salinity on the nose. On the palate, crisp and lively with medium body and pleasant mineral finish. Great for ageing as Arinto has natural high acidity and would pair beautifully with seafood.
TINTA BARROCA 2015 – Tank Sample
Beautiful purple-ruby color. Nose offers lovely red fruit and soft berries aromas. On the palate it is medium-bodied, tannins are soft and mellow and has lots of juicy red fruit.
TOURIGA NACIONAL 2015 – Tank Sample
Deep and intense ruby with purplish hues and tainted legs. The nose is delightful, lots of blackberries blueberries and slight sweetness from floral tones. On the palate, tannins are firm and muscular, lots of body but still with balanced acidity. Good finish but quite young.
HUMUS CASTELÃO 2014 VINHO REGIONAL LISBOA
Medium ruby color with slow forming legs. A nice scent of cherries, raspberries and some darker berries. On the palate, velvety tannins with a little bite to them, fresh acidity with same fruits showing as the nose and some minerality. As who very balanced and enjoyable wine that goes down easy.
HUMUS RED NO ADDED SULFITES 2010 VINHO REGIONAL LISBOA
Medium ruby but with a crimson rim. On the nose, intense aromas of dark fruit, dark berries, floral and earthiness. The palate is medium-bodied, with matching acidity that balances well. Tannins are smooth and lots of layers of flavours from stewed black fruit, marmalade to spiciness. Really enjoyed this wine and paired exceptionally with aged cheese.
HUMUS RED 2012 VINHO REGIONAL LISBOA
Touriga Nacional, Syrah, and Tinta Barroca
Intense and vibrant ruby colour. On the nose, there was lots of spiciness mixing well with violet notes. The palate was really exciting with lots of ripe red fruit, floral undertones, pepper and some sweet spice. Tannins were somewhat mellow but still good weight and lingering finish. 13% abv
HUMUS RED RESERVA 2012 VINHO REGIONAL LISBOA
Tinta Barroca and Syrah
My favourite of the tasting, powerful and complex wine. A wonderful nose with pronounced intensity of blackberries, spice, black pepper and forest floor. The palate was an explosion of flavours with lots of ripe black fruit, beautiful spicy, lead and hints of earthiness. Full-bodied wine with balanced acidity from start to finish, supple and well-integrated tannins, lots of character and distinctiveness. Outstanding. 14% abv