Why José Mota Capitão is in a league of his own

Why José Mota Capitão is in a league of his own

By: Ana Tavares

His wine was considered the best Portuguese red. His rice boils in the pots of Portuguese chefs. In everything he does, José Mota Capitão is in a different class altogether

He wanted to be a doctor, like his father, but he hated the smell of hospitals. He liked the countryside and so became a farmer. José Mota Capitão breeds cows, produces wines and grows rice (always his own way) freely, his favourite word. This approach earned him the title of “rebel pacifist”, coined fittingly by his eldest daughter, who inherited the vocation for her father’s businesses. At the age of 54, Pepe, as he is known to his friends and his team, conquered an unwavering reputation on the Portuguese food and wine scene for creating quality products through a distinct and ever-innovative modus operandi.

He planted vines on his estate when no one else was doing it, and confirms he was the first rice producer to have 15-hectare crops, when the usual size is half a hectare. “I don’t like dogmas,” he says, “and I’m always having ideas”. It’s these ideas he tells us about, sitting in his office in Lisbon which opened around a year ago, in part driven by exhaustion. Until then, Herdade do Portocarro, acquired in 1990, had been a true one-man show.

This difficulty in delegating – which he admits he still has – can be traced back to his origins. The many weekends spent in the Alentejo with his parents and siblings (he is the youngest of six) made him sure of one thing: that he would very much like a life in the country. “It was something in the sense of freedom, of having something that was mine in which there was no interference. How naive!” he laughs.

This desire for country life led him to enrol in an Agronomy course. He worked in the areas of horticulture and vegetable nutrition (with two years in the Air Force along the way), before renting Herdade do Portocarro in Torrão, in the Setúbal Peninsula. In a twist of fate, the owner of the property died just three days later, and José went on to buy the 142 hectares of land at the age of just 28.

Today, the name Portocarro is synonymous with wine, but at the time that wasn’t the intention: “Rice already existed there and breeding cows was an obvious choice; making wine isn’t something to take lightly. When planting a vineyard, we know that it’s going to last at least 30 years.” The first years were therefore of experimentation. “When we’re young, we think we know everything. I didn’t want to listen to the people that already worked there when experience and observing nature gives them a knowledge that we have to respect.”

This practical know-how, along with his avid reading on the subject, led him to discover that there had once been vineyards in that area. In 2002, after speaking to other winemakers, a lot of research and winery visits, José planted the first hectares at Herdade do Portocarro. “In a 20km radius, nobody had vineyards. Because I’m a little bit different to the others, they thought I had lost the plot completely.”

Lunacy aside, he knew well what he wanted: fresh, elegant wines, with pronounced acidity and not heavy in fruit, which showed the specificity of the location, which is considered the Setúbal Peninsula but whose characteristics are similar to the Alentejo. “We are in an area with hilly terrain, sandy and clay soil, and we have warm days and fresh nights. It’s similar to Tuscany, California or Bordeaux, and I went in search of these wines by taking the Portuguese varieties that would adapt to them.”

Today, Herdade do Portocarro has 15 hectares of vines. There are the classics, like Touriga Nacional, used only to improve the lots, and Aragonez, to give fruit, but also bolder choices such as the Touriga Franca, which thrives in the Douro and doesn’t travel well, but José thought that it would be “spot on” in his land. He was right. The Touriga Franca grew so well at Portocarro that the grape embodies one of the estate’s most famous and prized wines, the Cavalo Maluco, launched in 2005. The distinction of best Portuguese red awarded that year by the Grand Jury Européan was, he says, the launch pad for the brand.

The originality stretches to the use of the Italian grape Sangiovese, the base of the exceptional Anima red and the interesting Tears of Anima rosé, and which was most likely planted in the Sado valley by the Romans. “And that’s the only reason I won’t say that I was the first to plant it,” he jokes. With a current production of around 100,000 bottles, half of which are exported mainly to the European market, the estate has news for 2017. In a portfolio dominated by reds – except for an excellent white, the Alfaiate –, there will be two whites launched this year.

The first is the single varietal of Galego Dourado, a Portuguese grape forgotten in the eagerness to make fruity wines with high production (something this varietal doesn’t offer) and which José discovered had already been planted in this region. There are currently six hectares of Galego Dourado in the world, one of which is at the estate. “It’s a 100% Galego Dourado from 2015, and it will knock your socks off; it’s like a high-calibre Burgundy,” he assures. The second new launch is a Sercial monovarietal, a wine that, according to the winemaker, “is fascinating in its longevity, acidity and salinity”.

A love of the grain

But the love of this producer isn’t by the glass; it’s by the grain. Rice is Pepe’s desert-island food, and he says he eats it every day. He has grown it for more than 25 years, but only two years ago did he realise “that I was doing it all wrong” by producing quantity over quality and selling everything to industrial companies, leaving him with no margin to negotiate. “I came to the conclusion that if I had the varieties I wanted, introduced them to the market and educated the consumer, I could make more of a profit.” He adds: “It’s ours, produced in the Sado valley; it’s unique, and people are willing to pay for the food safety and source that we guarantee. I’m the first to do so and I believe that a lot of people will follow me.”

The brand that materialised this new philosophy was Loverice, launched in October 2016. At this moment, there are three types of carolino rice on the market (there are around 300): Ronaldo, perfect for risotto; Centauro, for sushi; and Fúria, ideal for the Portuguese-style malandrinho rice dish, but the producer ensures that even more new products will arrive on supermarket shelves until the end of the year.

Just like the wines, Pepe wants to export around half of his production (which stand at 200 tonnes per year). He looks for types of rice that adapt to Portuguese cuisine, but also hopes to recover varieties that were traditionally ours through a partnership with the National Institute for Agricultural and Veterinary Research.

His rice is certified by an independent entity and the quality stands out both in the dish and in the word of mouth that has spread among chefs: Henrique Sá Pessoa, Vincent Farges and Diogo Noronha are among the chefs to use Loverice. “Its fame spreads through word of mouth; they come to us,” says José. Now we just have to convince them to cook his favourite dish: a beautiful curry rice, “but without basmati and with Ronaldo”. The best in the world couldn’t stay on the bench.

Herdade do Portocarro wines are available at wine shops and gourmet stores nationwide, as is Loverice, which can also be purchased at any big supermarket.

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