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New Life in the Old Region of Lisboa

A new generation is turning a bulk production region into a hotbed of excitement

Simon J Woolf By February 23, 2022
Red tiled roofs of Lisbon, Portugal
Red tiled roofs of Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Sean Pavone/iStock.

When João Tereso stumbled across an abandoned 80-year-old vineyard in 2019, it looked like nothing more than a patch of weeds. Tall as a person, they almost completely concealed a few wizened stumps. “I realized they were vines,” says Tereso, “so I went to have a closer look. Then I saw that some of them were still alive.” The thought of bringing the old plot back to life came to him immediately. 

It isn’t uncommon to find vineyards like this in the northern hinterlands of Portugal’s Lisboa region, which lies to the north of the country’s capital, Lisbon. The region’s wine has fallen on hard times, its reputation destroyed by over half a century of giant co-ops pumping out plonk for Portugal’s African colonies. But Tereso had a different problem — who on earth owned the abandoned plot?

Out of obscurity

Hailing from Alcobaça, a small town to the north of Lisbon, Tereso is a sound engineer by profession. He’s more likely to be found behind the mixing console at a jazz festival than in a tasting room. But wine is part of his heritage. He vividly remembers foot treading grapes when he was just two years old, at his grandfather’s house. Tereso was inspired to dive into winemaking in 2016 when the family wanted to sell his grandfather’s increasingly abandoned old vines.

Lacking any winemaking skills of his own, Tereso called Rodrigo Martins, a young consultant winemaker and viticulturist from the area. They met in his grandfather’s plot. A naturally ebullient individual, Martins encouraged him to go for it. “It’ll be easy,” he said. The two quickly became friends and colleagues, and Martins arranged for Tereso to rent space at the nearby Adega de Alcobaça cooperative. Both now own modest piles of old barrels and tanks situated in the huge industrial facility, and both have adopted a minimal intervention ethic in the cellar and organic farming in the field. Their wines are light and fruit-driven, sometimes quirky, always refreshing — as they should be, caressed by the almost constant sea breezes from the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

The Lisboa wine region is littered with vast cooperative cellars like the Adega de Alcobaça, which once produced 2.6 million gallons of wine a year. Now it doesn’t even manage one tenth of that amount. Even though the area boasts nine theoretically prestigious DOC classifications — the equivalent of French appellations — most have little to no recognition outside the region. Adding insult to injury, virtually all the wines made by Tereso, Martins, and their friends are rejected by the official tasting panels and bottled as declassified table wine or IVV. Their international customers have never heard of Alcobaça or its enveloping Óbidos DOC.

Old heritage, new life

After a dream first harvest in 2017, Tereso created the brand Chinado — Mexican slang for a flick-knife that has become popular in Lisbon — and sought more old vineyards. “I’m basically in the salvage business,” he says. The 80-year wreck that he discovered in 2019 threw up some unexpected challenges. Thinking he had correctly located the owner and gained her permission to work the vines, Tereso began pruning in earnest before discovering he’d wrongly identified the plot. After some nail-biting moments when the rightful owner offered the forgotten vines to her children, an agreement was eventually reached and the plot was sold to Tereso.

Its remaining 900 vines, a mix of old and gnarly reds and whites, are co-fermented to produce a delicious “palhete” — a light and refreshing red/white blend that used to be a Portuguese staple in times past.

Tereso was lucky that no one had taken out the vines. Over the last 30 years, huge amounts of land around Alcobaça and nearby Óbidos have been converted from vines to orchards — a much more lucrative business in the 21st century. The vineyards that are left tend to be either old and abandoned, or young and in service to a handful of giant private wineries producing similar fare to the co-ops.

But Tereso joins a passionate and gradually expanding group of millennials who want to breathe new life into their region’s heritage. Martins has been the lynchpin for many, kick-starting a revival at the nearby Quinta Olival da Murta and working with Quinta Várzea da Pedra to evolve their farming and winemaking. Also situated within the Óbidos DOC area are Rodrigo Filipe of Humus and Luis Gil of Marinho. A little further south, Marta Soares from Casal Figueira, and Antonio Marques da Cruz and Tiago Teles from COZs, continue the tradition of working vineyards on the slopes of the Serra de Montejunto. Still, further south in Torres Vedras, Pedro Marques of Vale da Capucha makes a diverse range of mainly white blends.

What these mainly young and garagiste-sized winemakers have in common is the conviction that their homeland can offer much more than just bulk wine: With its ability to produce fresh, light wines from old-fashioned varieties like Vital or Castelão, the region is tailor-made for 21stcentury tastes. The precious old vineyards rescued by João Tereso and others provide a beautiful link with the past, showing a continuum. As the bulk wine era becomes consigned to history, those preexisting vineyards are starting to shine again.

6 Lisboa wines to try:

bottle of 2018 Casal Figueira Antonio Vinho

Casal Figueira António Vinho 2018 (~$31)

Artist Marta Soares took to winemaking after her winemaker husband died suddenly in 2009. She works with 80-year-old vineyard plots on the slopes of Serra de Montejunto, mostly planted with an old and now unloved variety named Vital. Here, she shows how it can make a captivating and age-worthy wine when treated with a delicate hand in the winery. A slight nuttiness on the nose gives way to salty white peach with a mineral, balsamic tang. Even though the fruit is lean and understated, the texture and the finish are fleshy and satisfying.

bottle of 2019 Quinta do Olival da Murta Serra Oca Moscatel Graúdo

Quinta do Olival da Murta Serra Oca Moscatel Graüdo 2019 (~$23)

Quinta do Olival da Murta is a historic property near the town of Cadaval, previously better known for bulk wine production. Three siblings and cousins from the Vivas family now run the vineyards and winery on very different lines. Organic conversion was completed in 2016, and the wines are made with no additions, apart from a pinch of sulfites. Morning mists, clay soils, and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean all add up to the perfect conditions for fresh, elegant wines. This Muscat of Alexandria is delicate and nuanced, with wonderful mint and fresh lemon peel on the nose. A subtle chalky texture and the suggestion of some tannins on the finish adds to the refreshment and drinkability.

bottle of Portuguese White Wine “Punker”, Marinho Vinhos 2019

Marinho Punker Branco 2019 (~$35)

After almost two decades working as a flight attendant, Luis Gil became fascinated with his home region’s viticulture and wine, worked a few harvests for friends, and then sought interesting vineyards. Some of the plots he now farms or owns are over 120 years old. Most are co-planted with varieties, some common and some very rare. This white field blend with Fernão Pires, Vital, Arinto, and more has a deliciously tangy green plum and citrus character. A few days of skin contact have fleshed out the texture, which has a satisfying creamy, leesy edge. Slightly hazy and made without added sulfites, with just 10% alcohol.

bottle of Espera Nat Cool Red 2020

Espera Nat Cool Red 2020 (~$21)

Espera is the personal winemaking project of Rodrigo Martins. When he’s not busy consulting for other local wineries, Martins makes pure, fruit-driven wines like this feather-light Castelão. With very light extraction, it majors on freshness and juicy raspberry fruit. The vineyards are in Alcobaça, a sub-region of the Óbidos DOC to the north of Lisboa. Dirk Niepoort, the famed wine producer from Douro, has chosen to add this wine to his Nat Cool portfolio of interesting independent winemakers.

bottle of Humus, Vinho Tinto (NV)

Quinta do Paço Humus Tinto 2016 (~$20)

Rodrigo Filipe discovered a love for winemaking in his late 20s, when his father no longer had the time to tend vineyards that had originally been planted just as a hobby. Filipe has become one of the region’s pioneers when it comes to both organic viticulture and low intervention winemaking. 

This is a surprising blend of Tinta Barroca, more commonly found in the Douro, and Syrah, both planted more than a decade ago when fashion demanded more full-bodied reds. With Filipe’s typically fresh early-harvested style, the nose has hints of soy sauce, iodine, and red berries. On the palate, it’s clear that the Atlantic Ocean thumbprint of the region exerts a stronger influence than the varieties, though there is a lick of Barroca’s richness and Syrah’s pepperiness.

bottle of COZs Vinho Tinto vn-c2 bg 2017

COZs Vn-c2-bg Tinto 2017 (~$29)

COZs is a collaboration between Antonio Marques da Cruz of Quinta da Serradinha and Tiago Teles. Most of their wines are made from old vineyards in Montejunto, but when the pair started working together they commandeered some old Baga vines just north of Lisboa. Sadly the old-timer that worked the vines couldn’t be persuaded to either sell or continue the collaboration, so this is the one and only vintage.

The name might not be catchy, but Vn-c2-bg is a brilliant exposition of Baga, made in its most traditional, take-no-prisoners style. Packed with cassis, graphite, and dried herbs, the fruit feels well-rounded with an attractive bitter chocolate finish. But then the angular, grippy tannins roll in, reminding you that this is a wine that will last for decades. It’s broachable now, if in tow with rich and fatty cuisine, but worth cellaring for five to 10 years for best results.

Tereso’s Chinado wines are not yet available in the U.S. The wines recommended here are made by his colleagues and friends.