Once upon a time, there was Casa da Passarella

Once upon a time, there was Casa da Passarella

By: Cristina Alcock

The legendary winemaking region of the Dão is beginning a new chapter, and few tell the story better than the wine estate of Casa da Passarella

No one should underestimate the power of a good story. This is especially true in the wine world, where we often come to love a wine when we learn about the vines it comes from and the people that make it. Fortunately, Portugal’s wine estates have stories by the bucketload, and their historical compendiums have helped win over the Brazilian market, according to a recent article published in the national newspaper Público. But there has to be more than a narrative; as Wine Spectator’s Tim Fish once wrote, “If the taste of a wine isn’t compelling, why tell its story?” Luckily, Casa da Passarella is a winery with both stories and substance.

Located in the hamlet of the same name in the Gouveia area of Guarda, Casa da Passarella was built by Joaquim Oliveira Santos Lima in 1892. Having made his fortune in the coffee industry in Brazil, he decided to build this striking property at the foot of the Serra da Estrela mountain range. Nowadays, both the main house – a Brazilian-style, stone-clad building shaded by tall trees that stands proudly at the entrance – and the outbuildings overlook acres of vineyards, planted over the course of 125 years.

When the Cabral family took over the estate and brought in the prominent winemaker Paulo Nunes in 2008, what they found was a generous vineyard (the oldest vines are some 90 years old) planted in a natural amphitheatre at an altitude of between 600 and 800 metres. Its unique terroir of poor granite soils, steep hillsides and a significant temperature range of hot days and cold nights ensure equally unique wine, with high minerality, good acidity, incredible freshness and marked longevity. For this reason, the harvest often takes place in October when the nights are significantly cooler.

Around 60 hectares of land are planted with the quintessential Dão varieties of Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, Tinta Roriz and Jaen in the reds, and Bical, Terrantez, Alvarinho and the classic Encruzado in the whites, among dozens of others. According to Paulo Nunes, the latter “is fantastic for its longevity and plasticity – it can sustain various approaches and always responds well”, while the estate has also been investing in Uva Cão, a grape that adds acidity and, therefore, longevity, to the wines.

Although the newest plants are two or three years old, the owners recently catalogued the old vines and registered the percentages of the 24 varieties they found. The idea is to plant an exact replica of the so-called vinhas velhas. “In my opinion, Dão is very modern right now, but it runs the risk of becoming monotone. This is the legacy we have, and we need to ensure a legacy for the coming generations,” explains the winemaker.

Somontes is the estate’s entry-level range, while Villa Oliveira, first bottled in 1893 – even before the Dão wine region was demarcated in 1908 – is currently the estate’s top-end line after it was reintroduced in 2009. A tribute to the founder, it consists of an Encruzado monovarietal, a Vinha da Província and a Touriga Nacional, recently named Wine of the Year at the Portugal Wine Competition. While all the wines reflect 125 years of history and winemaking tradition, the estate’s best stories (and respective illustrations) can be found in the wines under the Casa da Passarella umbrella and in the O Fugitivo collection.

The likes of Abanico (the Portuguese word for fan, a classic blend), O Oenólogo (the winemaker, vinhas velhas, always made in vat number seven), O Brasileiro (the Brazilian, a rosé), Enxertia (graft, an Alfrocheiro monovarietal) and A Descoberta (the discovery, comprising the four main red grapes) all have a specific story or character behind them. As for the O Fugitivo (the fugitive) collection, so called because it breaks away from the norm, the bottles tell the tale of a Mr Hellis, a Jewish Frenchman who escaped to Portugal with his family during World War II. These are the wines that the producer feels are unique and are launched only in years deemed worthy enough, such as the Colheita Tardia and Vinhas Centenárias.

Visitors can hear (and taste) the stories of Casa da Passarella through tours and wine tastings. The next chapter will be accommodation, with the renovated 19th-century house set to become a boutique hotel.

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