At the top of a low coastal ridge in the Algarve region of Portugal sits the Quinta do Miradouro estate – home of the Adega do Cantor winery. Part-owned by long-time British pop star Cliff Richard, the winery is notable not only for its celebrity status, but for its production of boutique rosé wine. From a state-of-the-art building designed by Castle Rock Logistics of Western Australia, winemaker Max Birch looks down on 25 hectares of vineyards and the sparkling waters of the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
Birch has been the winemaker at Adega do Cantor since it began production in 2003. His parents, Nigel and Lesley Birch, first moved to Portugal from England in the 1960s and bought Quinta do Miradouro (Golden View) in 1978. The grapes for Adega do Cantor’s wines come from their vineyard, as well as the land owned by Cliff Richard at neighboring Quinta do Moinho, and Max Birch’s own property, Vale do Sobreiro.
Birch grew up in Portugal but then spent some years in England. It was there that he first "got into wine," completing the intermediate WSET tasting course in 2000. He took his family back to Portugal two years later.
At Adega do Cantor, Birch started from scratch, tripling the size of the vineyards from their initial 8 hectares and overseeing the building of the winery. The managing director of Castle Rock, Mitch Hayhow, inspected the site before construction started and made several other design-review trips. But much of the design work was sent via the internet from the company’s headquarters in Dunsborough, Western Australia.
The plan to make Adega do Cantor a high-tech winery was a step into the unknown. Birch says: "The scariest thing about being a producer here [in Portugal] is that there really is no tradition of modern winemaking, so there was no one in front of us feeding us data back saying, 'This works, this doesn’t work.' Basically, everything we’ve done has been trial and error."
Birch’s previous experience was at various Alentejo wineries – "a much bigger, more commercial, factory-based style of production" with less opportunity for experimentation.
That experience has served him well, but the blisteringly hot location of the Quinta do Miradouro in the far south of Portugal presents particular problems. "[It’s] the hottest you can go before you hit Africa. But we’re lucky, because we’re three kilometers from the sea, which keeps temperatures down during the hot season."
Birch draws comparisons with the wine region of Margaret River in Australia. Buying land to plant vineyards there is expensive, as it is in the southern Algarve. "If you’re coastal, it’s because of the tourism and the price pressure on local property. And if you’re up in the hills, you’ve obviously got to cut terraces out of the hillside," says Birch. The good news is that, like Margaret River, "the soils are poor enough to make good wine."
Big reds obviously work well here and Birch reports that the winery is just beginning to experiment with oaked whites. "Constant learning is always great fun and keeps you on your toes."
The Adega do Cantor vineyards are far from homogenous and while Birch would prefer a little more consistency across the terroir, he appreciates the challenges of working with complex geology. He cites 15 different kinds of soil, including white sand, black sand, loam and clay. "The only thing we haven’t got is schist." Alicante bouschet vines (Birch’s personal favorite) are planted on the site’s brightest, chalkiest soils, precisely the kind of location where this variety thrives.
The annual crush at Adega do Cantor is 200 tonnes, with half of the wine being exported. At present, the winery has established markets in the UK, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, but in 2012 it plans to aim at the southern hemisphere, beginning with South Africa. The wines are labeled Vida Nova (blends of indigenous and international grape varieties) and Onda Nova (single varietals). No direct mention of Cliff Richard is made on the labels, although his signature "appears quite subtly on the back label, as well as hidden on the capsule and on the cork." Richard does step in to help with the marketing and sometimes to lend a hand in the vineyards.
The most important Adega do Cantor wine in terms of volume and sales is its rosé (when the winery began production in 2003, rosé wines were almost unheard of in this area). However, the wine that Birch most looks forward to is the Onda Nova Alicante Bouschet varietal, which is produced only in exceptional vintages. With just a tiny quantity of the grape in the vineyards, this is a rare wine. Birch originally planted the variety to bring structure and intense color to his standard red blend, but every so often the grapes warrant special treatment.
"Every three or four years we get an awesome crush of it and we keep aside 15 barrels," explains Birch. The wine spends 18 months in new American oak, so the flavor profile of what he calls "this monster" is unapologetically intense.
Cliff Richard bought his 300-year-old house in Portugal more than 30 years ago as a summer holiday home. He initially planted fig trees, aiming to provide the land with verdant foliage throughout the summer. However, after he received advice from David Baverstock of Barossa Valley fame, the idea of a vineyard took hold (early on, the grapes were made into wine off site). Baverstock, who currently makes wine at the Herdade de Esporão in Alentejo, is now Adega do Cantor’s consultant winemaker.
The winery was specifically designed to allow all the winemaking operations to be controlled electronically (the tanks are temperature-controlled to within 0.2 of a degree). Birch says this provides a certain amount of automation, "but we still want to interact with the wine."
He reports that there are significant changes underway in this most traditional of winemaking regions; rosé is emerging as a new wine style, export markets for Portuguese wine are increasing (sales to the United Kingdom, for example, rose by 22.5 percent in 2010 and nearly doubled in value), and the wine industry in general is becoming more internationally focused. However, Birch adds the caveat that many local consumers much prefer the traditional reds. "They still can’t get their head around rosé. In fact, sometimes they can’t get their heads around white wines. For them, it’s all about red wine. The longer it’s been hanging around and moldering, the better."
With this in mind, it is particularly significant that Adega do Cantor has made a verdelho-viognier blend labeled Vida Nova Branco. More ambitious still is a varietal viognier tipped by Birch as the winery’s flagship white for the 2012 vintage. It’s an unusually confident white wine portfolio. However, with a wave of innovation now sweeping Portugal, Birch is pinning his hopes on Adega do Cantor’s wines striking a chord with wine lovers.