In the north and south of Portugal are two wine estates: Quinta Nova is built on three centuries of history; Herdade da Malhadinha Nova is more than one hundred years old. Two contrasting terroirs; two distinct identities. Yet both are facing up to the challenges of climate change.
“Nine months of winter, three months of hell.” This adage, heard often in the Duoro region, neatly sums up its winemakers’ eternal struggle. Long, harsh winters; scorching summers; and back-breaking labor. Along its entire length, the Douro–the river that passes through Porto on its way to the Atlantic Ocean–carves out a meandering path, listed as a World Heritage Site with UNESCO, with a dizzying beauty like no other. Twisting roads, slopes rising to more than 2,296 feet/699 meters, and vineyards carved into terraces along the sheer hillsides. The river is a means of transport that was once used to ship barrels of wine to Porto on vessels built to withstand its turbulent waters. Each trip was a perilous saga. Today’s challenges are different: climate change is now threatening the yield each year.
An 18th-century chapel commissioned by the owners to celebrate mass and local ceremonies and, not far away, the Estate’s cellar with some of the barrels of its finest wines.
Rounding a bend in the steep vineyards of the Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo estate in the north of Portugal, with the Douro glittering below, we spot a granite road marker bearing two inscriptions: ‘0km’ and the year: 1758.
The marker dates from the times of the First Marquis of Pombal, the prime minister who imposed his visionary signature throughout the country and was renowned for rebuilding Lisbon after an earthquake in 1755. Between 1758 and 1761 he created the world’s first protected designation of origin of the country’s finest wines. By delineating the production region of Porto’s wines, including the vineyards of Quinta Nova, he guaranteed their quality and authorized them for export.
Two centuries later, in 1999, the Amorim family–of the country's leading cork manufacturing company–purchased this 86-acre/35-hectare property, replanted the existing vineyards, created new ones (123 acres/49 hectares, in fact), and opened a small hotel in the historical manor. Of course, the estate produces more than the Port wine of Marquis of Pombal’s times, but Luisa Amorim is intent on carrying forth a certain heritage and meaningful winemaking methods. For example, the soils are worked traditionally, with a horse and plough.
Luisa Amorim, head of Quinta Nova: “We don’t try to be anything other than what we are: a traditional wine estate.”
Staying at the quinta–a typical Portuguese farm–offers a rare glimpse into a secluded 18th-century home. Peering down from the windows, we see the chapel where sailors prayed to Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Our Lady of Carmel) for protection before embarking upon the unpredictable voyage to Porto along the Douro. “This property is still in the middle of nowhere, far from everything,” says Luisa. “That’s why we serve produce from our garden and ingredients grown by farmers in the local community, within a limited perimeter. Our restaurant also features the Slow Food label. We adapt to what we have, including the landscape and architecture that we have inherited. We don’t try to be anything other than what we are: a traditional wine estate.”
Views of the vineyards from Quinta Nova, a secluded 18th-century estate, with the Douro glittering below.
Today, though, the quinta must also adapt to something else: climate change. In September 2022–at the time of this report, just after a heatwave in the midst of harvesting season–Ana Mota, the head of wine-growing and winemaking at Quinta Nova, presents two bunches of grapes. The first is plump; the second, a third the size. The first bunch is typical for the season, fat and juicy. But it is the only example of its kind. All the others we saw on the vine stocks look like the second bunch. Ana is not worried about the quality of the juice that the grapes will yield–indeed, it could even be exceptional. It is the quantity that is seriously lacking, with production at just a third of the usual amount. That raises questions: in particular, will the price per bottle need to increase? And what will customers’ reactions be?
The Slow Food-certified restaurant Terraçu’s gives pride of place to produce from the garden and ingredients sourced within a tightly defined local perimeter.
More than 300 miles/500 km to the south, at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, climate change is also affecting the wine estate’s output and the question of water management has become paramount. The Soares family, who owns the estate, has built dams to retain the waterways’ winter overflows. “In the summer, the thermometer regularly reaches 104°F/40°C, but those periods are becoming longer with each year. Vines are resilient. They can survive without irrigation with very deep roots. However, the leaves and grape bunches are smaller,” says João Soares. These days, harvest begins at 4 a.m. to avoid these increasingly oppressive daytime temperatures. Before daybreak, farm workers strap on headlamps and move at an impressive rate from one vine stock to the next. The crates quickly fill with grapes. A race against the clock is underway. The idea is to get as much done as possible before sunrise at 7 a.m.
In the Portuguese Far West, Herdade da Malhadinha Nova is located in a Natura 2000 network which aims to protect biodiversity.
This family adventure rallies both Soares brothers–Paulo and João, wine and spirits dealers based in Algarve–and João’s wife Rita. Moving from careers carved in wine distribution, they turned their attention to wine-making in 1998, purchasing farmland which had been abandoned for a century and establishing their first 49 acres/20 hectares of vineyards in 2001. Today there are 197 acres/80 hectares of vineyards, across a property spanning 1,111 acres/450 hectares that now accommodates a hotel and contemporary restaurant. Their efforts perpetuate the wine-making heritage of a region that stretches back more than two millennia.
The Soares family (including Rita, shown here) cultivate a modern aesthetic.
With 40 horses, the Soares family possesses one of the largest ranches in Portugal. In fact, horses and equestrian arts are the other passion of the household, or more precisely that of António Soares, son of Paulo. At the age of 15, he represents his family and his country in international competitions. “Tradition is very important to us. In fact, we appreciate both tradition and modernity, and it shows in what we are doing here,” says João, as he watches his son ride through the estate’s endless expanses in traditional attire.
The Lusitanian equestrian arts–with António Soares and the professional rider Pedro Sousa–mingle with elegant picnics for an irresistible combination.
In this same spirit of tradition and modernity, a vast organic vegetable garden provides for the restaurant. Its dishes are created by Joachim Koerper, the most Portuguese of German chefs who also presides at the Eleven, one of the first restaurants of the capital to acquire a Michelin star. So what is his guiding principle at Malhadinha Nova? To strive for self-sufficiency by producing a large portion of their provisions. Organic agriculture is the cornerstone of the estate.
The organic agriculture of Herdade da Malhadinha Nova goes beyond vineyards and extends to olive oil production.
This founding principle stretches beyond winemaking to encompass the production of olive oil, flour and honey, as well as livestock–including cows, sheep and Iberian pigs or porco preto–which roam free through the estate’s fields. The idea is to protect the natural balance of this land “which has never been contaminated by intensive soil exploitation,” say the Soares. They intend on continuing to respect this ecosystem where olives grow among cereals and cork oaks, and where pigs forage for acorns. With this sustainable, and naturally resilient dynamic, the owners brought Herdade da Malhadinha Nova into Natura 2000, a network created by the European Union which aims to protect biological diversity across a number of natural sites while maintaining socio-economic activities. The objective: for the earth to provide even as the climate changes.
Together, these two vineyards, at first glance so different, share a fundamental ethos: to reduce man’s intervention to a minimum in the name of protecting and preserving their beautiful surroundings. Theirs is a story of adaptation–of responding to the challenges they face, but in sympathy to the planet, and never at its expense. By prioritizing the integrity of the thin layer of soil that covers the earth, and the biodiversity it supports, they not only perpetuate the conditions crucial to the production of world-class wines, but are setting an example to vineyards and farms everywhere.