Winemaking Symphony: Casa de Cello’s special...

Winemaking Symphony: Casa de Cello’s special vinho verde wines

By: James Mayor, Grape Discoveries

Headed by João Pedro Araújo, Casa de Cello produces special vinho verde wines

If you were to confide to an English speaker that you had just visited Casa de Cello, they might imagine you had been to a luthier.

The Casa de Cello I visited recently is in fact a Portuguese boutique wine brand that embraces two properties, Quinta de Sanjoanne in the Vinho Verde region and Quinta da Vegia in the Dão. Both properties play a supremely elegant score, with a range of wines that have the breadth of a symphony and the individual subtlety of great chamber music.

Casa de Cello is managed by João Pedro Araújo who, in 1989, after studying oenology in Bordeaux, France, took over development of the four-generation family wine business, near Amarante. João Pedro is a Portuguese explorer who has developed his talent through contact with wine regions far from his home country. Today, he remains in touch with old friends in the Medoc, one of whom visits Quinta de Sanjoanne every autumn to offer his advice on winemaking.

Early one January morning, as I drove east from Porto, mist was rising from the valleys and mingling with smoke from forest-clearing fires. It was one of those sparkling mid-winter days that make you feel privileged to live in Portugal. Casa de Cello is a substantial 19th-century farmhouse built in granite with an elegant colonnaded terrace that overlooks the garden and vineyards. The descendants of famous modernist painter Amadeo de Souza Cardoso own much of the surrounding land.

Chatting in the sun with João Pedro and Tatiana, his tourism manager, I was reminded that the journey taken to become a talented wine producer is often a long one. João Pedro has evidently arrived, as Quinta de Sanjoanne’s Escolha Branco 2014 was given 90 points by renowned wine critic, Robert Parker.

“It’s not the age of the vine that’s important, it’s the age of the wine producer,” João Pedro observes with a twinkle in his eye. The learning curve must undoubtedly have been steep: “It took us several years to start to make really good wines. In the early days, you’re experimenting and never know exactly what result you’re going to get. We only know if the decisions we have made are the right ones years later…”

Quinta de Sanjoanne has 14 hectares of vines, farmed with sustainable viticulture methods. When I challenged João Pedro and asked him what sustainability meant for him, I received a pragmatic reply: “Using pesticides can sometimes save a vintage, or even the vine itself, but we always try to make minimal use of them, and we never use herbicide.”

Winemaking is a profession with a notably high element of risk and today, with accelerating climate change, risk has become a daily companion. In 2018, Casa de Cello’s production was down by a staggering 80% — in late May, Quinta da Vegia was hit by unexpectedly heavy rainfall resulting in an adverse flowering, while at Quinta de Sanjoanne, grapes were frazzled by a sharp rise in August temperatures, almost turning them into raisins and dramatically reducing the yield.

Our increasingly erratic climate is not the only challenge. The wines of the Vinho Verde region, in Minho, have become popular in the Portuguese and international markets, as they are young and inexpensive, drank soon after the vintage, like Beaujolais Nouveau. However, just as in the Beaujolais region, there is Nouveau and ‘serious’ Beaujolais, and here we can sometimes find wines of more pronounced character, suitable for ageing, as well as the typical young thirst-quenching ones.

João Pedro Araujo protests, and rightly so, that the region’s wines are often condescendingly considered as cheap and cheerful, commenting that this image doesn’t leave much space for a seasoned producer creating quality wines with ageing potential.

Casa de Cello’s consultant oenologist is the talented Paulo Ruão, who has achieved impressive results with the Lavradores de Feitoria brand in the neighbouring Douro region. Together, Araújo and Ruão have crafted a strong range of field blends. I particularly enjoyed the Quinta de Sanjoanne Superior 2015, a superb white with delicate notes of orange, only made in the best years. The Sanjoanne Escolha 2015, a premium white, is also an elegant, balanced wine.

João Pedro Araújo’s wines are ‘vinhos de paixão’, wines made with passion, and perfect whether you’re looking for wines to lay down in a cellar, buying a few bottles for a special occasion, or just for daily consumption. Compared with many wines of similar quality, from other regions of Europe or beyond, Casa de Cello wines are remarkably good value.

Quinta de Sanjoanne receives small groups by appointment, and you can taste their wines, accompanied by petiscos or lunch.

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