Consultant winemakers – oenologists as they’re officially known in the trade – have a certain image. Often, they’re the ones who went to winemaking school and learned about the tech, how important it is to use the right selected yeasts and enzymes for fermentation and how you need to be sure to sterile filter your wines so that supermarkets can purchase with confidence.
They’re a breed usually hired by larger, more commercial wineries, who will retain a jobbing winemaker onsite and then fly in the consultant to add an extra veneer of professionalism and experience. That term ‘oenology’ is key – these guys are concerned more with what happens in the cellar, than with what might have happened in the vineyard. They’re there to make sure that actual winemaking takes place.
But speak to most growers on the natural wine/minimal intervention side of the industry, and they’ll say the last thing they want is an oenologist coming and invoking actual winemaking. If the grapes are perfect, the cellar work is often not much more than rigorous hygiene and patience.
Not just a winemaker
Rodrigo Martins sits in a different bracket – even though he does describe himself as a consultant winemaker. First, he started out with a focus on agronomy and vineyards, only adding winemaking to his belt later, via a masters degree. Second, when Martins takes on clients, he consults on both the vineyard and cellar work. Furthermore, he now works solely with wineries who are either already farming organically or committed to conversion – and, his winemaking has evolved into a minimal intervention affair.
As we walked through an idyllic new vineyard that Martins has planted in the hills near Alcobaça town, he explained that the lightbulb moment for him was a visit to Raw Fair London in 2017. “I realised that 90% of the time, I prefer wines that have been grown organically” he says. And via the focus on organic viticulture, the natural wine ethic of doing less in the cellar was the logical next step.
Reinventing the cooperativeMartins got his first consultant gig in 2007, working for the local cooperative cellar – the Adega de Alcobaça. A giant industrial hulk of a building, it’s a typical find in just about any winemaking town or village across the Lisboa region, where cooperatives ruled the roost during the second half of the 20th century. The Adega de Alcobaça once used to produce 10 million litres of wine a year, but these days it manages less than a tenth of that amount. Lisboa’s reputation for knocking out cheap bulk wine for export to Portugal’s African colonies has not done it any favours in the modern age. With the price of a kilo of grapes sometimes as low as 30 eurocents, many of the region’s growers long since uprooted their vines and replaced them with more lucrative apple or pear plantations.
To some extent that has been to Martins’ gain. The Adega has so much empty space that he’s been able to rent a corner for his own barrels and tanks. Since 2014, he makes his own wines under the name Espera. Although he works closely with friends and colleagues who own or rent old vine plots, Martins has taken a different route, focusing on planting his own vineyards. This allows him more control over the viticulture, and he hopes to have organic certification by 2023. That said, Martins has to reckon with the apple orchards close by one of his plots. Apple crops are routinely sprayed with synthetic fungicides up to 25 times a year, making the orchards a very unwelcome neighbour for any grower with their sights on certification.
The Espera wines have a style that dovetails perfectly with Martin’s character: charming, lighthearted and free from artifice. My favourites from the 2020 vintage are the crisp, delicately fruited Palhete (a blend of red and white grapes, co-fermented) and a wine that Martins makes for Niepoort’s natural wine distribution project NatCool. A featherlight Castelão, it majors on bright raspberry fruit and tickles the palate with electric acidity.
Like so many of his contemporaries in Portugal, Martins declassifies all of his wines to table wine status (IVV, in Portugal). Lisboa’s wine association Comissão Vitivinícola da Região de Lisboa (CVR) still seems stuck in a past where light coloured, low alcohol wines shall not pass the tasting panel to get their DOC classification. The irony of this, in a cool climate Atlantic-influenced region, is not lost on Martins. “The CVR’s job is to stand for what’s typical from here” he says. “We’re using native grapes and making wine in a traditional way from 50 or 100 years ago. We’re not making Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah [unlike many of the larger wineries in the region]”.
The curse of appellations
Martins had a chance encounter with the CVR’s president Toscano Rico in a restaurant, and the two ended up in discussion. Making no bones of the matter, he told Rico “before you change your tasting panel, I will not send one bottle to the CVR”. Yet, his is not a rebel cry. “I want to be DOC Óbidos” he says – this being the relevant appellation that covers the area, including the sub-region of Alcobaça. “Óbidos is my home town and there’s no-one in my home-town with their own vineyards and the DOC”.
I did a double-take when Martins told me this. But the issues are two-fold: DOC Óbidos, like many of the Lisboa region’s other theoretically prestigious appellations, is devalued as a concept and holds no sway with customers. The other problem is that so many growers planted international varieties such as Chardonnay or Syrah, which don’t qualify for the DOC.
It’s a cause that Martins is passionate about. He recounts a ludicrous situation where the CVR Lisboa hosted a Canadian importer and toured them around a few of the more major producers in the region. After the first day, the Canadians shook their heads and said “this just isn’t the kind of wine we’re looking for”. They missed freshness and lightness in what they had tasted. The CVR called Martins, in desperation, and sent them to him. The Canadians ended up importing his IVV wines, rather than anything that had been on the official itinerary.
Frustrations aside, Martins has the clout to be a catalyst for change. The CVR is considering creating a separate category for “organic wines” – which would presumably be more tolerant of factors such as unfiltered and slightly hazy wines, lighter alcohol or colour and less oak influence. If it does, there could be a good number of takers in the region – and many of them are of course Martins’ clients.
Espera wines are exported to the UK, US and many other countries Check wine-searcher for further information.