BIOMECHANICS, ORGANIC, NATURAL WINES
One of the big issues in the industry is defining exactly what terms like organic, biodynamic, natural, and integrated production even mean and how they can be defined. This is a big issue for Antonio, as he feels it impacts the wine world greatly. “For instance, you hear that natural wines don’t have sulfates..it’s not true. All wines produce sulfates naturally.” It’s just marketing.
Additionally, what if Organic isn’t clear enough from the viticulture point of view? What do we do? Antonio gives us his point of view. “What if I were to tell you that organic farming is worst for the planet then integrated protection! 20% of our vineyards in Alentejo has been organic for over five years now. That’s 25 acres of that we´re farming Organic. Due to the lack of effectiveness of the products we have to go in with the tractor 1.5 times more; which means using 1.5 times more fuel, producing 1.5 times more CO2 and compacting the soil 1.5 times more the soil.”
“Additionally we have to use up to two times more copper than with non-organic production. Copper is highly toxic to humans and it has a high persistence in the soil, but is not synthesized by man so that’s…fine?.”
“Can you imagine the impact on the planet if the entire industry would move to this definition of organic? CO2 emissions for the entire sector multiplied…to what benefit? Is the wine better or healthier for human consumption? To my knowledge, there is very little science to support that. So why are producers doing it? A very know international winemaker told be the answer… Market, market, market. Market rules and the market wants organic, so we give them organic. Some wine bars have even banned nonorganic; only accepting organic wine or natural wines that don’t even relate.”
The current trend is impacting every industry, but Antonio is not entirely convinced it is best for the wine industry – or the people. And there is a reason for it.
“My point is that the hype of organic farming can be a dangerous sound bite that consumers follow; unaware of what the impacts are and what it actually means. Wine production is generally organic in common sense that people perceive organic, that is a low added chemical, this so because wine’s pH and alcohol preserves itself well without the need of preservatives.”
To get his point across, Antonio mentions a recent ranking of Douro wines — done based on a chemical analysis in Proteste Magazine September 2017. Their Douro wine, Maçanita White, was ranked highest, with the lowest free and combined sulfur of the lot; beating out all organic wines on the list. And Fita Preta is not organic, they are minimum intervention, as are most of the producers that are focused on quality.
Antonio is unsettled by the organic trend. “This association of the word organic to wines is generally to attract all the Bobos — a French word for the followers the Bobos or Bourgeois Boheme, those who follow trends a lot. But what happens when sustainability is at stake because of that, a trend? I hope it’s not, but there’s a cost involved! The concept of organic needs to improve greatly.”
“It is irresponsible to defend this type farming without proper reflection, and without weighing pros and cons. It may seem like bio, organic, natural — all these labels seem healthier, but there’s mostly a lot of consumer marketing and psychology involved”, he continues.
“When a consumer buys a wine they are not buying the wine because they are into helping the planet. They´re thinking about their own health. But does the consumer think or does the marketer care… about the long-term consequences of selling the idea of natural wine? Or is it just that the concept sounds better? So, in the end, is organic always truly better than integrated production?”
“There are of course ways to fight CO2 emissions and some farmers have done it, moving back to use just bulls or horses instead of tractors to pollute less. It is possible, and if a producer does that, damn are they engaged! And the wine will show it. Then again, organic farming doesn’t require that or would never impose it, and I can’t be convinced that it is the solution for the entire industry. Should people pay twice the price for a wine as a result?
There’s no definitive answer here, but there is an alternative solution in Antonio’s eyes.
The way Antonio approaches his production is to produce wine with minimal intervention. For instance, the grapes used in his amphora wine happen to be from an organic farm. In addition, the amphora process is itself a natural way of making wine… but it’s not the way he is marketing the wine. He is not out to make a buck off a trend. It just the philosophy he has.
”Regarding our farming, we are always learning, but our mindset hasn’t changed much from the beginning. We believe in minimum intervention — in the vineyard and in the winery. In the end, it is all about sustainability, “durabilité” in French. This means leaving the land and the environment how we found it, or better than we found it, for our children and grandchildren.”
Antonio also raises other points on organic. “Is the fruit better? Although I have no side by side trials of organic vs. not organic vineyards, I think so, our reds in organic vineyards have typically high levels of anthocyanins and tannins — important compounds in grapes for color, structure, and aging potential.”
You don’t need to reinvent nature.
WHICH RULE, RED OR WHITE WINES?
It is a common question asked by someone new to drinking wine. Which wine is superior?
And it is a hard question for many winemakers. It’s like saying which leg to you like most? Which ear would you rather keep?
Antonio expands on this. “There are more things in red. More complexity. Its easier to mask with more grape skins and more color. White wines you can’t fake. They’re more pure, more transparent. White wines are more handmade. You can’t fake a fresh oyster. Its either fresh or it’s not. But a steak you can season it more; like using pepper and grilling it on charcoal etc..”. The process is more complex for red, which gives more room to hide mistakes. White is a bare, honest process which takes perfection.
MONO-VARIETAL vs BLENDED
The word VARIETAL refers to the grape variety grown and used to make the wine: such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and so forth. So mono-varietal means one variety. A blended wine comes from many varietals. It is fair to say that it is the new world that started to sell wines by their varietal, and although some regions in the old world are mono-varietals. What does Antonio prefer?
“I am both… both mono-varietals and blends are interesting, I do both and drink booth. Most of the mono-varietals I do are Malvasia, Gouveio, Castelão, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and the Azores Varietals. I have somewhat a pedagogic mantra behind them of showing the pure grape or an interpretation of the grape. For example, I do a Baga, a grape from Bairrada in Alentejo, meaning when you taste it compared to a Bairrada, a colder region, one the difference is you are actually tasting the different terroirs between them. I believe that making consumers aware of varieties and the common denominators between some wines and regions in one of the greatest contributions of the “new world” to consumer knowledge.
Now, from a more philosophical but also a technical point of view. In the Old World Regions, grape varietals that exist in certain regions are the result of trial and error of several generations, where they tried to find the best solution for that specific terroir. Some regions managed to tackle balance and style using only one grape varietal. Best examples here could be Burgundy with Chardonnay or Pinot, and Barolo with Nebbiolo. But in other areas like Bordeaux, Alentejo or Douro? There it is the mix of grapes that create harmony; that is how consistency and authenticity can be found. The New World (North America, South America, Australia) favors wine which blends more.
New World vs Old World and the “Terroir” Misconception
“There is a slight misconception here,” says Antonio. “ People tend to perceive that higher alcohol and low acidity is a “New World Style”, and low alcohol and acidity is the “Old world style”, wherein reality it is most of the times it is a “Warm climate vs Cold-moderate Climate” climate issue.”
“During the ripening process, 2 main things are happening in the grape. One, the synthesis of sugars, which will determine alcohol levels. Second is the degradation of acids. This process, as all processes in nature, is faster with temperature. This means that in warmer regions, sugar synthesis and acid degradation is faster. In cold climates, it would obviously be slower. Wines are therefore simply the reflection of that.”
The simplest explanation we’ve heard yet. Antonio continues:
“Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piemont, Alsace, things that are “old world” references are also cool to moderate climates, whereas regions like Australia, USA, South America are the reference of the “new world” and are mostly warm climates. This perception exists. But as you know, Tuscany, most of the areas of Spain, inland Portugal, and Southern France are old world, but have warm climates.” Classification is not so simple.
“There was a moment when Bordeaux was trying to be riper, meaning warmer and more concentrated, and it was doing so by both viticulture and reverse osmosis techniques because the market pressure existed. Conservatives protested because Bordeaux should be Bordeaux it shouldn’t be trying to become riper/warmer. Now the pressure is on for the warm climates like us in Alentejo to be fresher.”
“The new fascism “terroir” defenders think that terroir is wines that are rough, low alcohol and edgy. This terroir may exist in some cold climates, like our Azores wines. It is sad if we make everything taste the same to make the masses happy. I refuse to do so. Terroir should be about a sense of place. The fruit is riper, tannins smoother; it is all the talent of regions “blessed” with the sun. Terroir is such that you should grab a glass of wine and be able to feel where it is coming from.”
In conclusion, Antonio feels that wherever the wines’ origin is, it should respect that origin and stay true to where it comes form. And of course, should never forget the balance between power and freshness.
TO YOU, WHAT IS PORTUGAL´S TERRIOR ALL ABOUT?
“My friend used this example: ‘Do you know that relationship status on Facebook? Well Portugal is ….it’s complicated.’” He marks his answer with loud laughter before continuing on.
“When I am traveling and present Portugal I like to start by quoting a description of Portugal by the famous 16th-century poet, Camões, that says, ‘Here it stands, head of Europe, where land finishes and the ocean begins’.”
“I do this to explain the cooling influence of the Atlantic Ocean on the Coastal regions of Portugal like Bairrada, Verdes, and Lisboa; and also to explain the warm impact of Continental Spain in the inland in regions like Alentejo and Douro.”
“After this idea is clear I move on to another quote now form a famous historian, José Hermano Saraiva, that states, ‘If Portugal would have a race it would defy the definition of race…we are made from people from all over the world, that came, occupied, fought, lived together, built families, and so on for thousands of years’. I do this to explain the immense genetic diversity of grapes that we have in such a small country, which represents what happened with the blending of the various populations as well. And each population brought their own grapes, and after crossbreeding this immense diversity shows up; there are around 250 native grapes today, but 100 more to be published very soon.”
“I then explain that you combine just this two elements you get immense complexity from region to region, and this is Portugal greatest treasure…and also our biggest handicap.”
Portugal’s complexity makes it difficult to reduce into neat, explainable terms. As Antonio puts it:
“You Can’t Soundbite Portugal. You Can’t put it in a nutshell! It’s complicated”
“Bairrada, a Coastal Region is stylistically almost the antithesis of Alentejo — almost no grapes in common. So how I can I say Portugal is this or that? I can’t. I have to say … it depends. I have to ask. Are you talking about the South or North? Coastal or Inland? Touriga or Baga or Aragonez…or..or 350 times more.”
“That’s why I believe the world wasn’t ready for us until now. But now consumers have never been more educated about wine as they are today. They have done all the Chardonnays, Cabernays, Merloays, Viognays (the ays are on purpose), they have their opinions and they are ready to taste more things. People are now ready to understand by their own opinion, beyond the critic’s opinion, rating or label. That is perhaps the greatest gift that was given to a Portuguese winemaker of my generation … finally an audience.”
And what a chance today brings. To stand out from the crowd and articulate what their product is truly about. How it’s able to connect with its consumers and remain connected.
“It is perhaps the reason why you’re starting to see some of today’s greatest wines come out of Portugal. The message is finally something people can understand,” says Antonio. “What’s exciting about Portugal is that it’s endless.”
We couldn’t agree more.
I met Antonio while finishing construction for his new winery in Alentejo, a rebuilt monastery called Herdade da Oliveira in Evora, Portugal. António is known to be one of the leading winemakers in Portugal, but there´s a lot more to him than just great craftsmanship. As founder and owner of FITAPRETA, Antonio is also a consultant winemaker for over 13 other wineries in Portugal through his consultancy company Wine ID.
To me, his philosophy around the world of wine, people, and nature as a whole is simply remarkable.
Born in Lisbon, Antonio’s father was a chemistry teacher from the Azores island, while his mother was from Alentejo.
Antonio’s early life knew plenty of structure and discipline. He was a successful Olympic gymnast who competed with the national team. At 16 he switched his focus to rugby, again playing for the national team.
In his free time, Antonio loved surfing and spearfishing. His love for water had him seeking out marine biology after high school. But a teacher inspired him to get into agro-industries. This was a happy accident, as his real intent was to get into agronomy. We can thank the stars that brought him to us!
The program offered interesting education about ancient ways of living that have since been taken for granted. The careful, patient process of turning milk into cheese or grapes into wine. While most of his college peers decided to become engineers and attorneys, Antonio felt he could generate true change in the world through the remembrance of these ancient ways.
Antonio’s first vineyard in the Azores islands in 2000, breaking ground in the San Miguel island.
It was a very remote and windy part of the island, and if there was a prize for extreme wine growing, he definitely would have won it. As a lover of nature in its most raw form, even Antonio described the ordeal as crazy. His vineyard was soon hit by a dry storm. As the ocean pounded away on the coastal rocks, it through atomized salt onto his land, burning a chunk of the vineyard. It was a lesson best learned early on.
But his passion for the Azores would not flee him. He returned again to the land later in his career, running a trial with a forgotten varietal called Tarantejo do Pico (2010). Antonio recalled his love for the land, saying “I wanted to do something with the Azores. “
There were only 89 Tarantejo do Pico plants in various Azorian vineyards. He worked closely with the local government to protect the plants throughout the process. Together they did a massive cloning program in order to grow this vine. The result is a fantastic wine unlike any other. High in acidity, high in alcohol, it was a pure, fresh, & crisp wine. Described as brainy and salty.
Naturally, the wine was a hit with everyone. When he started farmers were selling grapes at 80 cents per kilo and now the price is up to € 5.
In Antonio’s words:
“I think that trying to make Azores wine taste like Azores wine and not like Douro or anywhere else is the key to the success of this program. “
Antonio’s journey continued, bringing him to Napa California with Merryvale vineyards, St. Helena. Here he met Will Thomas, the son of Charles Thomas, ex Mondavi /Opus One. Together they did a lot of experimenting; especially in regards to seeds. They tried double seeds and even no seeds— a process in wine production that removes a good percentage of the seeds with the goal of minimizing the harshness and bitterness that seeds can contribute to a wine’s profile. They worked on researching and reporting about using gravity flow vs. pump flow; exploring the advantages on control and quality. Antonio Loves the experimentation work involved in the process. There is something new to explore in every step.
In 2002, Antonio went to work with Charles Thomas himself, now in Rudd Estate (owned by Leslie Rudd from Dean and Deluca). Here his thirst for knowledge continued and segued to his time at d’Arenberg, Maclaren Valley. Antonio discovered that the way of making wine here was in stark contrast to the way the Americans were doing it in the US. There it was more about science and precision. Here in d’Arenberg, the process hinged more on the discovery, revolved around philosophy the will to try new things out. It was here he met Jack Walton: winemaker, rugby player, and now a man in charge of d’Arenberg. It was he who advised Antonio to contact a rugby club and send his sports CV rather than his wine CV to stand out and become a member of the winery.
The turning point in Antonio´s career was meeting his business partner David Booth, who has since passed on. They met at Lima Mayer Winery in Portalegre, Portugal. After getting to know each other, they hatched a plan to create the company Fita Preta together. Antonio borrowed €30,000 from his family and together he and David bought their first €50,000 worth of grapes. It was his one and only shot, if it failed, he would never have a second chance.
Calling on some of that American experience, Antonio and David focused all their efforts on precision — it was the only way to make this work. And the decision paid off. They received the first award in Alentejo. Some would call it beginners luck. And this could be true — except for the fact that it was just one of many awards to come.
The recognition that came with this award gave them strength to tackle new projects in the coming years. Even through the terrible reviews from local critics, the pair had their eyes on the bigger prize. They knew it wasn’t about what any critic said of their precision or value, it was about doing it the way they felt was right.
“We make wine the way we think is right, we wanted to develop our own style. New to Portugal maybe and we couldn’t wait for the feedback to come accordingly. Then we went from deep precision to the ‘Freedom of Spirit’; we decided to work on a looser framework…less constrained”
2008 came with a huge white grapes speculation in Alentejo and prices spiked. They asked themselves why pay three times more for white grapes when it costs the same to produce as red? Turning his back to the skyrocketing white grape prices in the region, Antonio decided to actually make a white wine with red grapes. It was the first of its kind in Portugal. Although it wasn’t approved by the local CVR (Comissao Vitivinicola Regional Alentejana), it was the wine of the year in many local reviews.
In 2010 he was in Quintessa and saw some concrete eggs that showed the blend after aging. This Inspired Antonio to do his first amphora (Vinho de Talha) wine. In his mind, it was just an experiment. At first, it was disgusting, way too much kerosene and had a distinct clayish taste. It was awful. But he bottled it anyway because he couldn’t go half way, even with a simple experiment. Six months later a buyer convinced him to try it just for kicks and to their amazement, it was perfect.
Science gives us the details about what our ancestors did years ago, but the will to experiment and try new ideas can be taught in no book. And it opens us to worlds of possibility. The idea of amphora wines is not new, it has been carried out for hundreds and even thousands of years. Yet it was never truly done in a way that could be appreciated in an elegant style. And all Antonio did has he let it be what it was. Nothing added, nothing is taken away. Antonio notes, “I love the idea that anyone can do that”. It is a very accessible process.
When people tasted Alentejo White, they discovered it had a true aging capacity. It could be collected and aged for years to come and enjoyed at any time. Much of his work drastically changed the outlook of the region for the better.
Antonio lives by a strong motto: Don’t spend your life just trying to blend in. Just simply stand out and be yourself.
Easier said than done in such a competitive business.
But it is a formula that is proving to work wonders for Fita Preta. Antonio comments on this. “When your wines are made to just ‘fit in’ …then you´re doing something to adapt to an existing taste. Nothing really unique about it.” You lose the authenticity that you were destined to deliver.
Another example of Antonio’s way of doing things both in a traditional manner while still thinking differently is by picking grapes during nightfall.
It may seem odd, but when you think about it, it significantly improves logistics, grapes that arrive at a cellar in the early morning at a temperature of just fourteen degrees Celsius ( 57 Fahrenheit) can be immediately chilled at a far lower cost than if they came from the hot Alentejo sun in the middle of the day. Plus farmers in the vineyards are working in cooler environments and less harsh conditions, which they are sure to be thankful for.
Antonio thinks that one of the most beautiful Cuvée ( prestige or quality) ever to exist in Portugal is the Castelao varietal, which is the third most planted grape in Alentejo region. He believes it is a grape with remarkable identity, a great fruit explosion, and wide versatility. And since he is an experimenter at heart and loves the challenge of discovery; he has successfully delivered both a young version and an oak version. Its pinot-ish and indigenous. It is truly a delight to experience
Don´t be a Parrot.
Antonio could never be in the fast food business because in order to create profit you have to rely on high efficiency, speed, and severely underpaid staff. What a lack of creativity! Antonio likes that you’re entirely involved with the wine from beginning to end. He compares this to a fashion designer for instance, who would be tending the sheep in the beginning of the season, spooling the yarn another, sewing your garments, then showcasing it on a runway in New York. No other industry goes to this depth.
Above all, Antonio believes it creating a better world. You need to build interesting teams with good energy; each person with their own strengths coming together to generate true value. Antonio is most interested in the regions his family is from, namely Alentejo and the Azores.
“I want people to grow inside and through our company. I want to generate a great product and great value. I think we make the industry better.”
One takeaway from Antonio?
“The best way to really learn about wine is to think for yourself. Don’t be a parrot! Make your own judgments. Get into a tasting group. Those who know less usually gets it right.”
In closing, to truly appreciate this winemakers spirit, it is found in every drop of his FITA PRETA ‘Cuvée David Booth‘ 2013; 94 Pts by Mark Squires in Robert Parker’ Wine Advocate. Of course, his Fita Preta Talha and Fita Preta Indigena wines speak volumes as well.
No matter the bottle, age, or varietal; Antonio and Fita Preta are doing what they aim to — making the wine world a better place.