Afros, Bryn Terfel & Divinho Verde

Put a wine-loving world renowned baritone and an architect turned passionate biodynamic wine producer in one room and there’s bound to be chemistry.  And so it was when Bryn Terfel met Vasco Croft, the man behind Afros Vinho Verde.  Tasting Afros Loureiro to Croft’s backstory on the Afros name (Afros was born to celebrate the birth of Aphrodite) inspired Terfel to exclaim “I feel like a God.” Suffice to say Terfel left clutching a bottle of Afros Loureiro to his breast.  All true, because I was there, recording a BBC Radio 4 programme with Terfel who, enchanted with Loureiro, burst into a rendition of The Green, Green Grass of Home.  How very Vinho Verde, for there is an air of abundance about this verdant region.

This July, I visited Quinta do Casal do Paço in Lima, the home of Afros.  Until the 1960s, it was Croft’s great grandmother’s home, since when it’s been the family’s country retreat.  It’s a beautiful, tranquil spot, the house shaded by trees which she planted 100 hundred years ago.  As was tradition, the estate’s corn fields used to be surrounded with ramadas – vine inveigled shady pergolas.  Then, wine was made in the cellar underneath the house and sold on to producers and latterly the local co-operative.  This became unprofitable and, in 2003, concerned that the estate was dying, Croft decided to invest in the renovation of the vineyard and cellars.  The ramadas have gone, replaced by modern vertically shoot positioned trellises which maximise vine health through aeration and ripeness through better exposure and increasing the height of each vines’ “solar panel.”

Biodynamics – a new lease of life

Having once lived on a biodynamic farm, Croft, a President of Portugal’s Steiner Association (Steiner founder biodynamics), was committed to farming the estate biodynamically from the outset.  Today, Quinta do Casal do Paço is the country’s sole certified biodynamic estate and it brims with life – birds and insects, not to mention the horses and sheep who graze the weeds and fertilise the vineyard.  In spring, pollination has a helping hand from Mother Nature thanks to the bee hives installed on the terrace.  This year Croft planted a new 12ha vineyard 8km away, which is also being cultivated biodynamically.  Both vineyards are planted to Loureiro (for which Lima is renowned) and Vinhão (the Douro’s Sousão), a red teinturer variety.

Vineyard operations are run from the biodynamic “kitchen” overlooking the estate (pictured), an electricity-free zone which houses biodynamic preparations and the hand-operated dynamiser to energise and dilute these homeopathically applied treatments. Ready-dynamised water arrives via the neighbouring flow form (pictured above) whose gentle but audible babble serves to reinforce the estate’s tranquillity.

Vital signs – making the wines

The wines, made by well known consultant Rui Cunha and Pedro Bravo, are crafted in the original cellar, complete with granite lagares for foot-treading, which are still used for Afros’ red wines.  After cold settling and careful racking just to get rid of sulphites – a technique which Cunha picked up from Bordeaux’s Denis Dubourdieu – both red and white wines are fermented with natural yeasts then aged on the lees with batonnage for as long as possible to enhance mouthfeel and ageing potential.

Interestingly, until its sad demise last year, Cunha used to consult at Covela, a certified organic Minho estate which also used biodynamic techniques.  He told me though it’s hard to lose 10% of your crop to mildew, which happened this year, “with biodyanmics the wines are stronger and more beautiful, so it’s very rewarding for us.” Croft’s brother, businessman Rodrigo, who hosts the visit confesses “initially, I thought biodynamics was crazy, but I’ve seen the benefits, for the land, wine quality and the people who work the land.”  He told me in Portugal, people don’t even understand what organics means, let alone biodynamics, so most are not prepared to pay a premium for the wine.  Fortunately, international demand is good.  Around 70-80% of Afros’ production is exported and, with production set to increase once the new vineyard comes onstream, Croft is building a new winery at the vineyard he purchased last year.

The tasting

These notes are based on a pre-lunch tasting of the wines, but each was beautifully matched with a course, details of which I’ve provided below and in pictures!  For Croft and Cunha, this is very much how their wines should be enjoyed, after all, this is not just Vinho Verde, this is Afros Vinho Verde…

Afros Espumante/Sparkling Loureiro Reserve 2007 (served with smoked salmon canapes) – early picked fruit undergoes 2nd fermentation in the bottle, spending two and a half years on the lees.  Around 30% of the base wine is barrel fermented and, if necessary, a dash of table wine is added for weight.  Tight, lemony and fragrant with subtly waxy lime, lime blossom and just a hint of toast on the palate.  Plenty of fine bead lends persistence and line.  Very good.

Afros Loureiro 2009 (served with barbecued langoustines) – a very clean, zesty lime nose, with lime and perfumed melon in the mouth.  Rolling (as opposed to angular) acidity reflects a deft touch of residual sugar.  Lovely mouthfeel and persistence with a touch of fennel on the finish giving lift to the tail.

Afros Vinhão 2009 – a deep, inky hue.  A vivid nose and palate has a chicory edge to its concentrated but sappy cassis and wild berry fruit.  Lees ageing buffers the acidity without losing the freshness or minerality.  Vinhão can be angular, while this is wonderfully svelte  –  a sophisticated match for my char-grilled fillet of salt cod.  Cunha recommends that it is served cool (half an hour in fridge will do).

Afros Vinhão Sparkling 2006 – this shows a tight, smoky nose and palate.  The bead animates the line of tannins, making for a novel style of sparkling red.  But it’s brisk and invigorating and most definitely a wine to pair with food, here sardinha de escabeche. Lamprey was also a recommended local match.

Secret Spot Moscatel do Douro NV – though sweet wines are made in Vinho Verde (watch this space for my write up of a meeting with Anselmo Mendes), we concluded with a fortified Moscatel do Douro from Cunha’s own Secret Spot label.  Cunha ferrets out special vineyards and wines for Secret Spot, hence the name.  The Moscatel is a blend of 20-100 year old wines which Cunha bought from five different families.  It’s a delicious wine, with dried fruits, orange peel, maple syrup and a rich, woody/nutty (walnut) timbre.  Good freshness too, so it found its perfect match in an eggy creme caramel Portuguese-style with fresh orange segments.

Afros wines are imported into the UK by leading natural wine specialist Caves de Pyrene.

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