A visit with João Afonso at Cabecas do Reguengo, Portalegre

Old vines and olive trees intermingled

In 2009, the same year that I first visited Alentejo’s Portalegre sub-region, wine writer and former ballet dancer João Afonso acquired a neglected farm there – Cabeças do Reguengo, in Reguengos.  As you can see from the photos, a fair few of its centenarian field blend vines lost the good fight.  I say good fight because the survivors make the kind of wines which excite me most from this region.  Wines like Rui Reguinga’s Terrenus Tinto 2007, which I selected for My 50 Great Portuguese Wines in 2010 after that original visit.   

Joao Afonso with a cane for potential layering

I’m pleased to report that Afonso is “layering” old vine canes and grafting cuttings from old vines to plug the gaps and preserve the DNA of his vineyard.  Or more accurately, the phenotype.  In other words, characteristics which have been determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences.  It’s about these vines, these varieties, in this place.

Cut canes for grafting

In January, I spent a day tasting and touring Portalegre with Afonso and Reguinga.   The pair are embarking on a journey to cultivate their vineyards biodynamically with consultancy from João Castella.  I learned a good deal about this uniquely higher, cooler, wetter Alentejo sub-region with its old vines.

You’ll find my notes on Afonso’s wines below and I’ll be writing up Reguinga’s latest releases very soon. Their wines are very different and, what I’m noticing about the region is the individuality which, not only old vines confer on the wines, but also winemaking philosophy (and of course terroir).

While field blend wines have a common thread of ‘dryness’/good freshness and old vine/terroir-driven complexity which it is difficult to attain elsewhere in Alentejo, Afonso is at the opposite end of the spectrum from say Vitor Claro (Dominówho goes for an early-picked more austere style.

A view of Reguengos – these fancy houses attest to its historic successful trade in wine

Afonso’s take is that his wines are still from Alentejo, so while he is fanatical about dryness, he also believes his wines should be smooth (although from 2016 he told me he is picking earlier for more freshness – “at 13%, you could drink a glass more”).  Compared with Claro’s Dominó, Cabeças do Reguengo’s wines have more overt power – a weightiness of body and mouthfeel.   A solidity which gives them a stillness, rather than a heaviness.

The old barrel room

Still, both Claro and Afonso are minimal interventionists or, as Afonso puts it “I’m not a winemaker.  I just try to protect my vineyard and harvest the grapes to let them become wine.” Natural yeasts are de rigueur, old oak is preferred, he does not filter or fine and uses minimal sulphur.

A fermenting space for grapes and ideas (at the bar)

As you can see, the winery is pocket-sized.  Indeed forms part of Afonso’s cosy agriturismo, doubling as a wine bar when vintage is not in full swing.  Having stayed overnight I can heartily recommend it.  Surrounded by a polyculture of vines, orchards, olive trees, sheep and goats, the location is very peaceful, with just the tinkle of goat bells.

Another advantage is that it’s a short drive from my favourite restaurant in Alentejo – Tomba Lobos.

Cabeças do Reguengo Respiro Espumante Brut Nature 2010 (Beira Interior)

Afonso bottles wine made from bought in fruit for his Respiro label.  While Rui Reguinga is planning to make fizz from his highest Portalegre vineyard at 760m, at Cabeças do Reguengo (600m), Afonso prefers to look elsewhere.  It’s not the only reason.  Where Afonso harboured ambitions to make a Champagne beater, this sophisticated bubbly is a classic Blanc de Blancs made from Chardonnay.  The fruit is sourced from the Almeida Garrett family’s 36 year old vineyard, Quinta da Estação, in Beira Interior, due north of Portalegre.  From granite and clay soils at 360m.  It’s a region the writer knows well because his family had a vineyard there (which produced Afonso’s first wine in 1994).  The base wine was fermented in aged oak.  It was then fermented again in bottle where it aged for a rather grand 65 months on lees.  This dry (zero dosage) fizz is both complex and very fresh (with a pH of 3.17 and just 2g/l residual sugar).  It has a delicious core of sweet (honeyed) bruised and dried apple fruit with tangy, creamy yoghurt, nutty, biscuity autolytic nuances and a hint of greeness (green almond?),which is part and parcel of its freshness.  A lively backbone of acidity and fine but persistent bead makes for an arrow straight, long, mouth-watering finish.  Just 1200 bottles or so were produced.  It’s very classy; just a shame about the label – it deserves better!  12.6%

Cabeças do Reguengo Respiro Red 2015 (Portalegre, Alentejo)

A “backyard” vineyard

Afonso and Reguinga took me on a tour of “backyard” vineyards – essentially, extensions of people’s gardens.  Heck, the one pictured even has a garden chair from whence you can pluck grapes from the vine or oranges from the tree as you look out to the rolling plains of Alentejo below.  They sprawl well into the distance.  Respiro red came from a blend of small field blend vineyards around Reguengos, located between 500-720m.  And true to a field blend, expect a Heinz-like number of varieties, red (Trincadeira, Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet, Castelão, Grand Noir) and white (Arinto, Assario, Fernão Pires, Roupeiro, Alicante Branco, Rabo de Ovelha, Tamarez, Manteúdo, Uva Rei, Uva Formosa, Vale Grosso, Excelsior, Salsaparrilha). Afonso’s aim here was to create a lighter summer red.  Respiro is certainly that hue – light red, with a sweet intensity to its fruit (though it’s bone dry at 0.1g/l of residual sugar).  A hint of greeness reflects the fact that this foot-trodden wine was part whole bunch fermented, as does its backdrop of fine tannin. It was aged for 12 months in old French barriques. A lighter, less extracted frame as one would expect given Afonso’s aim; a bit more lift and fragrance would have nailed the brief. But it’s a little more serious – brooding and mineral – than that.  12 %

Cabeças do Reguengo Equinócio 2013 (Portalegre, Alentejo)

Equinócio is the estate-sourced white wine from Cabeças do Reguengo’s century-old grapevines, located at 598m on granitic soils. Arinto, Assario, Fernão Pires, Roupeiro, Alicante Branco, Rabo de Ovelha, Tamarez, Manteúdo, Uva Rei, Uva Formosa, Vale Grosso, Excelsior and Salsaparrilha have been identified thus far. September was hot and dry until the 27th, when “rain came to stay.” The grapes were harvested on 14th September. This wine was naturally fermented and aged in old French oak barrels on fine lees for around 14 months, then bottled without fining or filtering. Slow Food adherent Afonso then believes in bottle maturing the wine for a further 6 to 12 months.   This is a weighty, stone-fruited and stonily mineral wine with a leesy edge and subtle nutty oak/apricot kernel nuances.  It puts me in mind of a powerful but dry Chardonnay, made the old fashioned way.  It is very still and self-contained, rather than showy.  Afonso reckons it shows best if you leave it in the fridge for 3-4 days.  But I suspect this will never be a showy wine as such.  But it does have muscles to ripple.  14%

Cabeças do Reguengo Equinócio 2014 (Portalegre, Alentejo)

Sheep at work – pruning the olive trees at Cabecos do Regeungo, which Afonso farms organically

In 2014, rain dogged both growing season and vintage.  Though Afonso picked the white grapes before afternoon rains on 6 September,  I detected an aldehydic note in this wine – bruised apple, as well as melon and white peach.  It doesn’t dog the wine, but this vintage is more open-knit – not as long or concentrated as the 2013.  But I like its salty kick and freshness – gifts of the year.  This wine spent around 13 months in barrel.   14.3%

Cabeças do Reguengo Equinócio 2015 (Portalegre, Alentejo)

June, July and August were hot and dry. The harvest was early, starting on August 29th and finishing on September 6th.  This vintage was fermented and aged in 5 old oak barrels and one new 1.000 litre cask, then bottled a year later; there was no malolactic fermentation.  It’s very reductive now, with flinty/green tea sulphides to nose and palate and lively lemony fruit.  Good drive and length if still a touch discombobulated.  Quite different – more ‘new wave’ Chardonnay – tight and flinty (no malo would help), than the first muscular take on the genre.  I am interested to see how this youthful wine evolves. 13.2%

Cabeças do Reguengo Solstício 2013 (Portalegre, Alentejo)

The dominant varieties in this estate-grown red are Trincadeira, Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet, Grand Noir, Tinta de Olho Branco and Castelão. July and August was very hot. September was hot and dry until the 27. The harvest was made on September 14th, after which the grapes were de-stemmed and crushed.  The wine was naturally fermented with indigenous yeast in a small 2000l vat, then aged for 18 months in new (500l) and very old French oak barrels. Afonso pointed out he doesn’t like to use new oak, but you have to start somewhere…. Solstício 2013 is deep purple with inky, black notes.  In the mouth vivid layers of fruit (ripe black fruits, sloes with a bitter edge) are interspersed with penetratingly smoky minerals.  The tannins, ripe but present and dynamically melded to the fruit, put me in mind of Steve Pannell’s description of Nebbiolo/Barolo tannins – like wet cement.   They have that plasticity. Very good.  Like the 2012 (reviewed here), which was voted top wine of the night at an indie dinner last year, it has great profundity – a sense of precipitous minerality. 14.1% abv

Cabeças do Reguengo Seiva 2014 (Portalegre, Alentejo)

This is the first vintage of Seiva (meaning savour).  It is sourced from neighbouring early twentieth century field blend vineyards planted between 500-720m to predominantly Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira, Aragonez and Castelão.  The grapes were de-stemmed and crushed and the must fermented with indigenous yeast in a small 2000 litre vat.   It was aged for 23 months in very old French oak barrels. Seiva has a deep, plummy hue with an intensity and sweetness, but no density or jamminess, to its red berry and cherry fruit and wilder fruits of the forest.  Plum skins and fresh acidity lend bite and length.  A whisper of smoky minerals echoes the Solstício.  The tannins are of that wet cement variety – dynamic,very fluid – which I guess makes sense when they’re predominantly fruit (not oak) tannins.  13.3%

Cabeças do Reguengo Solstício 2014 (Portalegre, Alentejo)

Picked earlier than the 2013 – on 6th September – to dodge the rain.  The vinification process was the same, although this wine saw 23 months (not 18m) in very old French oak barrels. The tannins, here mouthcoating wet cement-like but with a firmer (a little furry even) quality, foreclose the fruit of this youthful, markedly spicier wine.  Liquorice and cassia bark notes abound, while the fruit – bitter-edged pomegrante and sloes – is on the backfoot.  Still with some rawness about it despite its longer stage in oak, this is definitely the wine to stash away in the cellar.  A powerful expression of vintage, with a tangible sense of dry extract.  13.8%

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