Influenced by the cool ocean breeze of the west coast, Vicentino wines bring us a taste of the Atlantic
When Norwegian farmer Ole Martin Siem first came to Portugal in 1984, he chose the Atlantic coast – the Alentejo region more specifically – for his vegetable and decorative foliage plantation. “Meaning everything that you don’t ask for in your flower bouquet!”, says Ole Martin, jokingly. “This is the only place in Europe producing this type of plant. Elsewhere, they can only be found in Florida, Costa Rica or Guatemala.”
He found the land that would become Frupor, his 550-hectare plantation, in Brejão, near Zambujeira do Mar, 220km south of Lisbon. “I was told numerous times that I was crazy. Nobody had braved such a project in a place where, at the time, there was nothing,” he recalls. “But I told them that in this business, nothing is impossible. Later, I read that Napoleon had said the same thing,” jokes the farmer. “Anything is possible, it’s all about resources.”
Naturally curious, in 2007 he decided to experiment with new plants. “We had land that wasn’t suitable for horticulture, the soil was too poor. That is why we thought about wine. But there was already a lot of competition, so I put the idea aside several times, until I read that 95% of a good wine is the result of good grapes. The remaining 5% come from the work in the cellar. So I thought, why not?”
In 2014, a complicated vintage, due to heavy rainfall, meant that Ole Martin had to quickly find additional storage for his grapes. “I was told that at Santa Vitória, near Beja, they had room, but that I would need my own winemaker. Luckily they had someone available for the job.” This is how Bernardo Cabral came into the picture, the young winemaker with whom he created the Vicentino wines, which, until then, had neither name nor image.
They called upon Rita Rivotti, Portugal’s most reputed wine label designer. “It was a great coincidence, as a child, Rita had spent her family holidays on this coast,” explains Bernardo. “She has an emotional connection to this location, which makes her the ideal partner.”
The result is simple yet expressive: a two-colour label, which represents the horizon seen from the vineyard, in shades of blue for the whites, and shades of pink for the reds. And then there is the Pinot Noir label, which is darker, since the harvest is carried out at night. The wines are fresh and light, very different from anything found in the Alentejo, and make quite an impression. “We received a lot of praise,” says Ole Martin. “Especially from French winemaker Henri Boillot, one of the biggest Burgundy players, who drank two bottles of the Sauvignon Blanc. The next day he asked us if we had a digger; he wanted to see the profile of the soil. He was so impressed that he asked us if he could plant a hectare of Chardonnay here. And so he did, the following year.”
Boillot told Bernardo that he fermented his white wines in oak barrels, but only used them once, before selling them on. The Portuguese winemaker made the most of this unique opportunity. “Every year, we buy 10 to 12 Burgundy barrels, in which half of our wines are aged. This gives them more structure and light woody notes.”
For the reds, Bernardo works with Syrah, Aragonez, Touriga Nacional and Pinot Noir. For the whites, Sémillon, Alvarinho and, of course, Sauvignon Blanc, which best reflects the perfect symbiosis between the Atlantic Ocean and the terroir. The result is surprisingly vegetal and reveals hints of passion fruit.
The sea breeze plays an important part in the Vicentino wines, giving them freshness and salinity. After all, the 60-hectare vineyard is located just 2km from the coast. “The high temperatures of the Alentejo are mitigated by the Atlantic,” explains Bernardo. “The grapes ripen slowly and evenly, with cool, wet winters, mild summers and the constant presence of maritime winds, creating elegant wines with intense fruity aromas and well-balanced acidity.”
If you close your eyes, you can almost feel the breeze on your face.