Dão: a visit with António Madeira, Serra d’Estrela
Since I first tasted his wines at Simplesmente Vinho in 2014, I’ve been keen to visit with António Madeira. He is a man on a mission to interrogate and articulate the Dão’s terroir. Hardly surprising, perhaps, for a French man of Portuguese descent whose grandparents hail from the Serra d’Estrela.
Scaling the heights – the Serra d’Estrela
This elevated Dão sub-region, which is located in the foothills of mainland Portugal’s highest mountain, has fast become a hotbed of wine growing and making talent. Alvaro Castro (in whose cellar Madeira originally made his wine) led the way, making his first wine in 1989. Since then Quinta das Maias (acquired 1997) and Quinta da Passarella (acquired 2006) have been renovated by the Lourenço family of Quinta dos Roques and lottery millions winner Ricardo Cabral respectively.
Leading Douro players have homed in on the Serra d’Estrela too. Quinta do Corujão is home to M.O.B., the label founded in 2010 by Jorge Moreira, Jorge Serôdio Borges and Xito Olazabal. Having made Douro/Dão blend Doda with Castro since 2000, Niepoort acquired it own estate in 2012 – Quinta da Lomba.
Should you visit, why not stay at Madre de Água near, no kidding, the village of Vinhó. Owner Lurdes Perfeito and her husband Luis returned to her grandmother’s village in 2007, establishing this stylish boutique hotel among the property’s vines, as well as a queijaria producing the sub-region’s other renowned product – sheep and goats’ cheese.
Returning to António Madeira, last year he jacked in his engineering job in Paris to focus on wine full-time. “When I wake up in the morning I’m happy, because I love what I do,” he told me. Madeira, his wife Marina and two daughters now call Portugal home and, during harvest, occupy his parents’ holiday home in the Serra d’Estrela. Still based in France, it’s just as well they rarely use it. There would be no space to park the car. Since Madeira made his first wine in 2010, his output has mushroomed from 1,000 bottles to 30,000 in 2017, a high yielding year (he expects 20,000 bottles to be the norm). As you can see, the garage is packed to the gunnels with vats and barrels.
A short distance away we visited the site where Madeira is building a small winery, ready for vintage 2018. With no plans to scale up, he’ll take all the small format fermenters with him. Rather the aim is “to find and classify the best places for wine, like Burgundy’s monks,” then rent and cultivate the vines. This has involved talking to old people to find out which vineyards were held in highest regard in the past (according to Madeira, some 90% of aged vines have disappeared in the last 30 years). Ruefully, he tells me, it can take up to three years to persuade owners to rent him their vineyards and he has not always won them around. Still, he currently works with fruit from five villages and, in 2017, fermented 30 different lots from 15 vineyards, parcel by parcel. For his ‘entry-level’ colheita, he buys grapes.
Old vines, salivating wines
We visited a centenarian vineyard at 600m (pictured) where he, Marina and a hired hand were sowing cover crop (broad beans). Madeira is a keen advocate of working the vineyards manually and organically ,“to give life to the soils,” so the roots go deep (communicating with the mother rock) and the indigenous yeast population thrives. It is, he said, the way to express “minerality and all the flavours of the landscape.” His wines certainly have a distinctive goût de terroir – a taste of granite, salinity and subtle moist earth notes. Fresh air, after rainfall. Qualities which he is keen to preserve through use of large format “haute couture” 500l barrels whose oak has been very slowly toasted and stainless steel vats, “which give energy on the finish.” With A Liberdade, his first super low sulphur wine he has also learned that “you lose a lot by adding sulphites.” Super pure, mineral, taut samples of the 2017 A Liberdade white and rosé (“like an oyster on the finish,” he exclaimed) speak to this in spades.
Freshness is at the heart of Madeira’s wines – “I always want my wines to be salivating, it’s not about the nose, I don’t want cocoa, I want it to be drinkable; the Dão is a great region for that.” That said, he confessed he was worried that 2017 was so early that there would not be enough flavour accumulation and complexity – for the first time, vintage started in August. It was over by 23 September, the day on which it began in 2016!
However, like other producers with whom I visited in the region, he is in fact very happy with the 2017 wines. Both in quality and quantity (a relief for Madeira, who lost 50% of production in 2014 owing to September rains and reported that 2016 saw a 30% reduction in white wines because of lower juice ratios). Those 2017s I tasted in barrel and from vat were most impressive. Taut, mineral and, yes, salivating. Surprising given the tinder box hot, dry year in which fires took hold – fortunately, well after vintage was in the bag (Luis Lourenço speaks about the fires in this video here).
Here are my notes on the current release whites, of which the 2015 Vinhas Velhas Branco (pictured middle) is imported into the UK by Indigo Wines.
António Madeira Colheita Branco 2015 (Dão)
Like all his wines, the entry level Colheita is naturally fermented and made with minimal intervention. The difference is that the fruit is sourced from growers (old field blend vineyards, averaging around 50 years old). Although he does not himself manage the vineyards, none of the growers use herbicides. It is a fresh white, with a touch of green olive greeness, ‘fruit’ and salinity, granite and fresh air/earth. Being the junior wine in the range, it has a little more ‘flesh,’ not so much fruit, more a roundness, than his other whites (it was bottled after the first winter). But make no mistake, this is an emphatically mineral wine with a long, very un-pushed saline finish- oyster on the finish, as Madeira would say. 13%
António Madeira Vinhas Velhas Branco 2015 (Dão)
Made from old field blend vines ranging between 50-102 years old, the Vinhas Velhas was bottled after 18 months in stainless steel (85%) and French oak (15%). As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, unlike Madeira’s first white, it underwent malolactic fermentation and seems better balanced for it, with no loss of line, length or freshness (for Madeira, it will give his wines the stability to age long-term). It is taut, long and fine, tasting of sandy, crystalline, granitic earth and salt, as if it had been sluiced through them. Terrific minerality, freshness, purity and poise. 13%
António Madeira A liberdade Branco 2016 (Dão)
This is Madeira’s first super low sulphur wine (it sees a touch of sulphur at bottling only) which, encouragingly, is even more impressive than my initial encounter with it (a sample) at Simplesmente Vinho 2017 in February this year. It was refused certification by the Dão CVR’s tasting panel first time around but won them over. It’s exceptionally pure and mineral, as if untouched, with subtle green notes and pronounced, very persistent and precise granitic (clipped and crystalline) rat-a-tat minerals. The essence of Dão. 13%