In June, James Mayor of Grape Discoveries interviewed Tony Smith of Lima & Smith, an Englishman shaping Douro table wines on the international wine map.
In 2011, reacting to shifts in the media industry, Tony Smith decided to step aside from a successful career as foreign correspondent and editor, exchanging the dangers of covering conflicts in Bosnia or Rwanda for the risks of vineyard ownership. His career as a journalist had included a posting in Portugal, where Smith had bought a home and made friends. The next step was to realize Smith’s life-long yearning to own a business linked to his passion for wine.
Smith formed a business association with Brazilian businessman and long-time friend, Marcelo Lima. To get sufficiently up to speed on the rudiments of the profession and be able to converse with oenologists he attended an intensive wine course at the Culinary Institute of America in California, which he refers to as “the other CIA”.
The two associates had begun the search for a vineyard a few years earlier. Lima and Smith were looking for a property of cultural importance. Portugal was in deep trouble in the years following the 2008 financial crisis: this context offered opportunities.
Quinta de Covela was not only a beautiful property, it came with a seventeenth-century ruined manor house and chapel, was a recognized wine brand and once belonged to renowned Portuguese film director, Manoel de Oliveira. Under subsequent owners, however, the estate had gone into bankruptcy and been abandoned. In July 2011 Lima and Smith bought Quinta de Covela, after a two-year period of complete neglect.
“Two years in the life of an untreated vine is a long time, it’s touch and go whether it will survive,” recalls Smith. The partners took two strategic decisions that were to prove vital for the future. The first, to embark on extensive replanting of Covela’s vineyards. The second, an inspirational move to bring back Rui Cunha, the gifted consultant winemaker responsible in the past for many of the property’s vintages.
Smith asked Cunha if there was something he had always wished to do at Covela, but had never had the opportunity to put into practice. Cunha’s reply was decisive: a one hundred percent Avesso monovarietal. “We must plant more Avesso, this is the cradle of Avesso.” Covela has now become the standard-bearer of pure Avesso, a distinctive Portuguese grape variety which produces wines stronger in structure and alcohol. Smith believes that Portugal’s exceptionally wide palette of grape varieties is the country’s “secret weapon”. “We need to make native grapes important in our wines and communicate this strength to the world.” This strategic positioning with more characterful wines coincides with the emergence of better-informed wine consumers, willing to experiment and look further than the “Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon shelves”. Covela demonstrates Vinho Verde as a geographical appellation which embraces far more than its fizzy young wine moniker.
Quinta de Covela is in the south-eastern-most corner of the D.O.C. Vinho Verde region, perched on the north bank of the River Douro. Smith notes this area is drier than most of the rest of the Vinho Verde, and that the term ‘Douro Verde’ is beginning to gain currency. Lima and Smith decided to axe production of the estate’s red wines, “we took out the Cabs,” as Smith puts it, and give a new direction to planting to switch the balance of the portfolio to whites. In addition, the partners asked Cunha to create the gastronomic Covela Rose, made from Portugal’s emblematic Touriga Nacional grape. Through experimentation, trial and error, and despite extreme weather incidents such as devastating hail, the vineyard was gradually regenerated, with production focused on whites and roses, that were granted time to age and develop before being placed on the market.
The revival at Covela was now well underway. The grounds and orchards of this paradise-on-earth were restored to their former glory. When not travelling to promote the new wines, Tony Smith offered hospitality and tastings on the quinta’s terrace. The new wines were well received, and the company has achieved notable export successes in Germany, Brazil, the US and UK. The combination of Cunha’s winemaking talents and Smith’s marketing skills were building the business and accumulating industry awards.
Eager to go further, the two associates decided to look around for a property that would add some quality reds to their range.
Lima and Smith struck lucky a second time. One of the jewels of the Douro was up for sale. Venerable Quinta da Boavista, west of Pinhão in the Cima Corgo sub-region, has some of the best vineyards in the Douro. In the nineteenth-century, it had been rented by a remarkable Scotsman, James Forrester, created a baron by the Portuguese monarchy in gratitude for his services to the Douro.
In the same week that Lima and Smith acquired Quinta da Boavista, another opportunity presented itself: to take on the lease of Quinta das Tecedeiras, a property on the south bank of the River Douro between Pinhão and São João da Pesqueira with a mix of olive groves and old vines that would provide some beautifully structured entry to mid-range wines.
Boavista is approached by a winding road which eventually loops down through the vineyards to the estate buildings and farmhouse that cluster above the River Douro. It is a remote, incredibly beautiful place, where you long to linger and contemplate. On the day of my visit, there was not a soul in sight, the only sound birdsong.
I meet Tony Smith in the elegant living room of the farmhouse, where an engraving of Baron Forrester occupies a position of honour above the fireplace. A vigorous defender of the concept of terroir, Forrester promoted purity in winemaking while combatting the industry’s charlatans and meddlers. Smith describes his predecessor at Boavista as a Renaissance man. In addition to his wine activism, Forrester was a gifted painter and photographer, creator of the first maps of the Douro region, and owner of a luxury “rabelo” yacht on which he gave fantastic parties. “Forrester was an admirable historical character who deserves his place in the Douro pantheon,” Smith enthuses, adding, “he was a man I feel I could have worked with and learned from.”
To assist in building a new range of reds at Quinta da Boavista, Lima and Smith brought in the expertise of one of the great figures of contemporary winemaking. After several decades at Chateau Petrus, in Bordeaux, there is little that Jean-Claude Berrouet does not understand about making fine red wine. Moreover, Berrouet has always firmly believed that great wine should be an expression of its terroir.
“Portugal is a blending country, the best wines are always blends,” Smith reflects. The famous ‘Oratorio’ vineyard at Boavista, a series of steep terraces arranged like an amphitheatre facing the main house, is a notable example of the traditional Douro field blend concept, where any number of grape varieties mingle in a single vineyard. The vines here are one-hundred-years old and the terracing permits absolutely no mechanization: these low-yielding vineyards are still ploughed by horse.
Historically, Quinta da Boavista was reputed for its Ports. Smith considers however that the estate should focus in the immediate future on dry reds. He mentions the huge investment required for making Port wine, commenting, “with Port, you are basically condemned to be a follower of the main players”.
Our conversation turns to the current position of Portuguese wines in international markets. Smith points to the need to raise the perceived quality of Portuguese wines and shake off a persistent ‘cheap and cheerful’ image. Vinho Verde has been instrumental in opening up markets to Portuguese wines, but the marketing narrative now needs to lever Portugal’s extensive choice of indigenous grape varieties and focus on the perceived image of quality. Smith is encouraged that major Portuguese producers are beginning to segment the market and produce more value-added wines. “Quality has improved enormously and it’s now almost impossible to find a bad Portuguese wine”, he remarks. Today, Lima & Smith, with their string of properties along the Douro Valley, export 60% of their production, a high figure for a wine producer in Portugal.
Smith believes that Portugal’s current boom in tourism has made an important contribution to placing Portuguese wines on the map. “People used to wonder if Portugal was part of Spain. These days, the River Douro is Europe’s third most popular river cruise destination and people return home to their countries talking about the Douro. The Douro has become a brand.” He adds that one of the principal international locomotives for Italian wines has been the omnipresence of the pizzeria, and suggests that Portugal needs a comparable, defining food concept.
When I ask how he thinks wine consumer behaviour will evolve in the next few years, Smith replies that consumers have become far more open in their choices, with women more involved in buying decisions, accompanied by a shift towards wines with lower alcohol content, lighter bottles and better-designed labels.
The rosy picture of rising quality and sales needs, however, to be weighed against at least two major challenges to the future of winemaking in the Douro. Smith is one of several producers in the region who have recently talked to me about the increasing difficulty of finding seasonal workers to pick the grape harvest, physically demanding work in temperatures that are rising. One solution is to offer people year-round work, but this comes at a financial cost in a region where the raw material price is high and yields per hectare extremely low.
The other significant challenge is, of course, the need to adapt farming everywhere to climate change. Smith & Lima have reduced the company’s carbon footprint by extending the woodland at Covela, and woodland now outnumbers the hectarage under vine. The estate has also invested in sustainable farming methods and practices solar energy production and intelligent water management. In January 2018, Quinta de Covela vineyards were certified as organic. Smith suggests that some standards or guidelines are needed here to nudge producers towards sustainable farming methods.