The Algarve’s vineyards, enclosed in an amphitheatre which is protected from the northern winds, has a unique climate characterised by an average of 3000 hours of sunshine per year, which is a benefit to the producers of the region. The soil is also ideally suited, so the raw potential is there to grow excellent grapes and therefore create great wines.
It is the art of combining all the essential elements to create a synergy, and this is what separates the good from the great
Expert maintenance of the vineyards and scientific precision in the cellar backed by modern technology so that nothing is left to chance. Motivated engineers use cutting-edge techniques and dedication to create a long-term asset rather than short-term thinking.
By pursuing a strict policy of quality before quantity, the up-and-coming Algarve winemakers can today compete in a competitive market in which Portugal is currently producing a total of around 80 different grape varieties. In the smaller Algarvean farms, each wine has its own personality and characteristics, which comes from the successful marriage of the ‘terroir’ and the dedication of the winemakers. This is supplemented by carefully controlled pruning in the vineyard that reduces the grape yield. Ideally, the pruning is executed twice a year, the first in January and the second a few weeks before the harvest. During the first pruning, only the branches are cut down in order to reduce production capacity, whereas in the second pruning, nearly ripe grapes, sometimes up to 50%, are removed. This process drastically limits the quantity produced but increases the quality, because the growth energy of the vine and its capacity to bear the best fruit is heightened for the simple reason that the process is divided among fewer receptors. As an example, the average yield in Portugal for one hectare of vineyard is 10,000kg of grapes. Mass wine producers in the New World sometimes yield up to 35,000kg, whereas some of the new boutique wine producers of the Algarve often cut down to 5,000kg or less per hectare.
Another important aspect of vineyard maintenance is the benefit of hand labour over machinery in the direct contact with the grapes. Hand-picking of the grapes during harvesting causes less stress to the plant. There are also fewer damaged grapes and the risk of an early fermentation is consequently lower.
This does not mean that mechanisation is unwanted. In wine-farming, machinery and technology have greatly simplified and enriched production.
It has proved to be effective in many areas – the transport of the harvest from the wine fields in cooled trucks to prevent early fermentation, for example, or the pressing of the grapes to the precise point at which the seeds are not damaged. Extra pressing, which is used by many industrial producers may extract the last drop, but may create unwanted bitter tannins that can result in a harsh note in the mouth. The negative effects of this excessive pressing requires then the use of taste compensating additives in the cellar, a process which is absolutely a “no-go” for quality producers like Quinta dos Vales, the award winning winery in Estombar, Lagoa.
This leads to the next phase of creating quality wine – precision in the wine cellar. Carefully measured pressing of the grapes is also a vital part of quality control. Wine producers who aim for excellence, reduce, as a precaution, the amount of liquid extracted from the grapes from 75% (which is more or less standard) to 60-65%. It means a lower quantity but higher quality. The stricter the selection of the finest grapes on the conveyor belt, the greater the final quality, because only the best grapes from the harvest pass through to the final product.
Oenologists, of course, play a vital role, so it is essential they are up-to-date in their field. Oenology is a very old profession but one that is constantly changing, so it is important for the oenologist to be conversant with the latest innovations, technology and equipment and to implement them in the quest to improve the wine produced under his supervision.
The most important aspect of the entire process is perhaps the awareness that creating excellent wines takes years, so the production philosophy must be considered from a long-term perspective. The goal, therefore, should be a long-term asset creation rather than short-term direct cash flow. Long-term planning is also essential because wine is influenced by many factors, especially the weather, which obviously cannot be controlled.
Detailed, comprehensive plans must be made years in advance. Grape variety selection, for example, is important, because different varieties need to be harvested at different times. The grapes must be picked at precisely the right moment so that the alcohol content and acidity level is exactly at the desired level during the production process. In order to have a balanced season, it is necessary to ensure that the harvest times do not overlap, to make better use of manpower, and with only one variety going through the pre-fermentation process at a time. After the harvesting and selection, the exact vessels need to be in place to take in the wine.
It is not difficult to see that creating a truly high quality wine is a complex and time-consuming business involving many elements, but there are producers in the Algarve who have made in the last years their mark on the Portuguese wine market. Among these is Quinta dos Vales, located in Estombar, Lagoa who was awarded 8 times in the last 11 years with the title “Best Wine of the Algarve” in local and national competitions. It is also this winery which surprises always with new offers and products, namely “The Vines”, the first buy-to-let wine-resort in the Algarve, embedded in the middle of vineyards, or recently “The Winemaker Experience”which sees wine-lovers to become authentic wine-makers, each of them with their own little vineyard.