Winemakers often name their wines after especially beloved, or inspirational members, of their family and it’s always fascinating to hear them talk, often emotionally, about the loved ones they’re paying vinous tribute to. Over the years, I’ve been privileged with many great familial insights and, just last week, I sat utterly transfixed as Marta Soares, at home in her prized Vermelha vineyards, 50 miles north of Lisbon, told me the moving story behind her stunning wine, Antonio.
Sipping her wine in the afternoon sun, Marta explained that, as a graduate of the Faculty of Fine Arts from the University of Lisbon, she never dreamt of becoming a winemaker. Indeed, back in 1999 she was on the brink of going to New York to further her career when, on a whim, prior to leaving she asked friends if they knew of a rural retreat where she could set up a makeshift studio and collect her thoughts before emigrating. They told her about “a crazy friend with a farm” in Vermelha who probably had the space for a studio.
The ‘crazy friend’ was Antonio Carvalho, who, having studied with top winemakers in the south of France, had determined to reject the local tradition of quantity-focused wine production in favour of quality, terroir driven wines at his family owned farm, Casal Figueira.
To her great surprise, after a while, Marta began to help Antonio in the vineyard and discovered that for her, as an artist, chores such as vine pruning were, mentally, if not physically, very relaxing because the course of the day was dictated by nature and not her own creativity. Eventually, having fallen in love with Antonio, she gave up on her New York plans and decided to pursue her art closer to home and, when she could, help Antonio in the vineyards and cellar.
Unfortunately, the couple’s wines were, stylistically, way ahead of their time and in 2003 they entered into bankruptcy. Antonio’s family re-possessed the farm and the couple travelled north to Galicia in Spain to work for illustrious Spanish winemaker, Telmo Rodriguez. When Antonio’s father died the following year, they returned from Spain and worked the farm at Casal Figueira once more until it had to be sold in 2007 to pay off family debts.
At this, their lowest point, Antonio cast his mind back to his childhood and remembered his grandmother taking him on trips up the north side of the nearby mountain, Serre Montejunto to see her relatives, “Didn’t they grow grapes up there?”, he asked himself. Indeed they did, and very special grapes they proved to be.
Up there, on Serre Montejunto, at 250m to 400m above sea level, were 4 ancient plots of a very rare indigenous grape variety called Vital that were named Acacio, Cremilde, Humberto and Pedra after Antonio’s grandmother’s cousins. Previously, the grapes had been sold to the local coop who, according to Marta, used them to make a “very strange, very oxidative” wine but Antonio instantly realised the grapes potential and the resultant Antonio wines have proven his winemaker’s instincts to be entirely correct.
Finally, everything seemed to have fallen into place for the long suffering couple but then midway through their first harvest in 2009 Antonio collapsed and died from a heart attack while treading grapes. He was just 43 years old.
Marta, with two young children to support, says she had only three seconds of hesitation about carrying on with the project. A hesitation, she adds, which stemmed only from wondering if she could live up to the man she describes as “an incredible winemaker…the best in all of Portugal.”