Algarve wines are finally taking up more space on wine shop shelves and restaurant menus. As vine plantation increases, so do the number of brands on the market.
From 16 producers just 10 years ago to 50 today, the region is making leaps and bounds on the national wine scene, and beyond.
But what very few know is that this regeneration of the Algarve’s wine industry and the rise to fame of its ‘queen variety’ – the Negra Mole – owe much to the vision of one man for the region.
José Cabrita, whose father was a fruit farmer and started making wine for home consumption, has a great sense of community and set himself up as a sort of incubator for new wine producers.
His own project started in 2000, when he decided to invest in new vineyards and invited winemaker Joana Maçanita and her brother António, together with Cláudia Favinha, to produce quality wines made with Portuguese and native Algarve varieties.
For this, they planted 16 hectares of vines: Arinto, Verdelho, Gouveio, Moscatel Galego and Encruzado for the whites, and Touriga Nacional, Negra Mole, Trincadeira, Aragonez and Tinta Miúda for the reds.
Seven years later, they were ready to release their first wine.
With a vision much broader than his own vineyard, José Cabrita set out to help other small producers as they start out, helping develop the industry in the region.
Today, these producers have their own installations and new ones, such as Arvad, Morgado do Quintão, Edd’s, Malaca and Barradas, rely on Cabrita’s hospitality to make their wine as they build their businesses.
“Mr Cabrita had a tough time building what he has today. That is why he wants to help these small businesses grow,” explains Duarte Rito, wine tourism manager at Cabrita Wines. “Today, they may be competitors, but we don’t see them as such. What we want is to grow as a region.”
The large winery set between Alcantarilha and Lagoa can vinify up to 300,000 litres at a time, of which 65,000 litres are Cabrita’s. Their small production sells out fast on the local and national market, which, for the moment, means they do not need to export.
Sixteen years since the launch of their first wine, Cabrita now has 10 references, with its Negra Mole unsurprisingly being its best seller.
Consultant winemaker Joana Maçanita – who now also works with various other producers in the region – and resident winemaker Dinis Gonçalves have created a unique portfolio that represents the Algarve and brings out the potential of its native grape varieties.
“Joana is a great believer in Algarve wines and Negra Mole,” says Duarte. “Like José Cabrita, she saw the great potential of this variety.”
For years, Cabrita’s bottles were easily recognised by their cartoon of a little goat (“cabrita” in Portuguese).
However, the ever-evolving producer recently modernised its image, removing the goat to create a cleaner, more elegant image representing the brand and the evolution of its wines. Its Classic range includes a white, an aromatically complex blend of Arinto, Verdelho, Gouveio and Encruzado, with citrus and white pulp fruit notes; a fresh and fruity rosé made with Negra Mole and Touriga Nacional; and an elegant red, a blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragonez and Trincadeira, with a fruity aroma and balsamic and spicy notes.
To share the incredible profiles of the region’s native grapes, they made three mono-varietals: a Negra Mole, an Arinto and a Moscatel, which is yet to be released. The Negra Mole, made in stainless steel vats, reveals notes of strawberry, cherry and raspberry and is best served chilled “at 13ºC”, insists Duarte, adding that the fridge door is the ideal place to store it.
“With the Native Grapes range, we want to individually share some of the grape varieties that best adapt to the climate and soil of the Algarve. Or, as is the case of the Negra Mole, bring back one of the oldest grape varieties in Portugal, exclusive to the Algarve.” A grape variety that got a bad rap because it produced light-bodied red wines, drunk by the working class, and which almost disappeared when tourism boomed in the region, and vineyards were replaced with resorts.
Luckily, some vines survived. Being the second oldest grape variety in Portugal and native to the Algarve, José Cabrita took it upon himself to be the first to give the unloved variety a chance. “It was a struggle, but today it has become a reference. Nowadays, consumers look for lighter, easier, less alcoholic wines. The Negra Mole fits perfectly.”
Two Reservas are produced in exceptional years, chosen for their quality and elegance. The White Reserva 2018, a blend of Arinto and Verdelho, has notes of white fruit and apple. And the Red Reserva 2018, a blend of Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional and Aragonez, has a pleasant acidity supported by ripe tannins. They are aged in used barrels so as not to mark the wine with too much wood, resulting in softer and more delicate wines.
Cabrita’s latest launches are its two sparkling wines, a Blanc de Noir and a Rosé, both made with Negra Mole. Their nine-year-long ageing process has given these wines incredible profiles, which have already earned them several medals and caught a top wine critic’s attention.
“We had the opportunity to have Sarah Ahmed taste them a few months back. She loved the Blanc de Noir. She was amazed by its profile.” So much so that, according to Duarte, she has accepted to return for an event in the autumn “as long as there is Cabrita sparkling wine”.
A guardian of his region’s heritage, José Cabrita recently ‘rescued’ a limited production of Moscatel Graúdo, an Algarve variety used to make fortified wines.
“The largest producer of this grape variety in the Algarve was a gentleman based in Lagos. When he died, José Cabrita visited the winery to buy vats, as the man’s family was selling the contents. Cabrita saw old and neglected barrels full of wine and offered to blend it for them. When the man’s children declined, he bought the wine and, for two years, worked on it with Joana and Dinis to create something absolutely unique.” A piece of the Algarve’s history, the result is a delicate and elegant fortified wine with great acidity and notes of candied fruit, apricot, walnut and almond, of which little more than a thousand bottles were made.
These Algarve treasures can be tasted in Cabrita’s beautiful tasting room overlooking the vineyards, the cellar and the barrel room, where Duarte organises two tastings a day – a classic and a premium. As for the future, José Cabrita and his team have plenty of ideas fermenting in their cellar.
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