Vasco Croft Recreates Traditional Portuguese Winemaking—And Channels The Cosmos—At His Biodynamic Estate Aphros

Aphros_Vasco and Amphorae_RSigner
Aphros winemaker Vasco Croft with his amphorae

A sense of the past, of the old Old World, is evidenced by the granite stone blocks, infiltrated with dark green moss, surrounding what was once known only as Quinta Casal do Paço, and which is now, thanks to a biodynamic conversion (and a mid-life crisis) also the estate where Aphros wine is produced.

Vasco Croft, a silver-haired man with piercing gray-blue eyes in his early 50s, greets us with the story of his estate. We are on a media tour of Vinho Verde, a wine region in northern Portugal’s Douro Valley known for spritzy, cheap white wines produced in cooperatives; Aphros will prove to be the extreme outlier in a region obsessed with modernization, mass exportation, and profit.

During summer vacations while growing up in Lisbon, Vasco visited his family’s quinta (estate) in the far north, in the region of Arcos de Valdevez, which had been in their possession since the early 17th century; he always loved these visits. He describes to us a bucolic scene of villagers who went barefoot and used bullcarts to work the land. “The vine was integrated into life, here was not monoculture,” Vasco says, illuminating how grape growing in Portugal was part of other kinds of agriculture, rather than being a commercial enterprise as it has recently become.

Village Pergola_Rsigner
Traditional village agriculture / viticulture in a village near the Minho River

All over the Vinho Verde region, one sees grapevines hung in the old Pergola style, draped high above where the cool breeze protects them from moisture and mold, arranged in a square around a family or neighborhood garden. It’s beautiful, and also very practical on a small scale. Before the recent focus on exportation, winemaking in Portugal was, and still is to an extent, a household or community operation, and drinking wine was a commonality in everyday life. Vasco’s family quinta was once a central place for converting the villagers’ grapes into wine, but by the time Vasco was visiting, as a child in the 1960s, its winery and vineyards had largely been abandoned.

As an adult, Vasco became an architect, but his attention was diverted when he began studying “anthroposophy,” a central tenet of Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic philosophy. Vasco’s entry to biodynamics came through Steiner’s teachings about education (I don’t think this is uncommon; I heard a similar story from the couple who run biodynamic estate Castello di Tassarollo in Piedmont, whom I visited last fall), and he began studying to become a Waldorf teacher. Meanwhile, Vasco developed an interest in wine—but only drinking it. When he decided to give up his career in architecture—and his marriage and children—he knew nothing about making wine, but nevertheless set out to restore the quinta to its former glory, and resurrect a more traditional, integral way of life. In fact, Vasco’s concept hearkens much, much further back than his family’s 17th century roots in the village; his winery is named “Aphros” after the foam from which Aphrodite was born, and whispers of Greek and Roman histories emerge in various aspects of Vasco’s winemaking. The first Aphros vintage was in either 2004 or ’05, and the estate now produces around 70,000 bottles annually.

“It’s coming back to simplicity—do less, but more meaningful actions,” explains Vasco, who speaks slowly and deliberately, his eyes at once intense and soft. “We’ve been in this trend of reductive methods, avoiding oxygen at all cost. The wines before were made oxidative, with less technology and more focus on soil work, but you can use this natural technology of oils and extracts.” Vasco laments what was lost in the rush to upgrade everything for commercial purposes: “Peasant knowledge, centuries of wisdom, was forgotten, and replaced with modern methods.”

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To get his estate up and running in biodynamic fashion, Vasco sought help. He first asked Anselmo Mendes, a renowned regional winemaker who has a very interesting, eponymous experimental label (the wines aren’t much exported, so you’ll have to look for them in Portugal) for help; Mendes gave him “a plan” for getting the 5 acres he had at the time of Loureiro (a floral, high acid white grape) and Vinhão (a sour, low-alcohol red grape that’s strangely seductive) into shape, and advised him to install a new winery with stainless steel tanks. Vasco also hired a vineyard manager from the village, and a French biodynamic consultant named Daniel Noel, whose successor still helps out with Aphros, to teach him about all the treatments as prescribed by Steiner’s method.

Currently, Vasco is using local herbs—nettles, horsetail, willow, and ferns—to provide nutrients to the vines and protect them from fungus; he first makes them into an extraction and then puts them through a dynamizer. He also has a “flow form” installed in the woods behind his preparations shed, comprised of large, round stones through which water flows, which is meant to affect the overall energetic force at the place. The estate grounds are very beautiful, lush and verdant—as is most of the Douro Valley—and populated by enormous, old trees.

Although Vasco uses a new cellar for nearly all of his vinifications, the old cellar is still intact, and in it he is aging wine in 90-year-old clay amphorae that he found in the Alentejo region, in southern Portugal. He says that Portuguese wine was commonly made in such amphorae, prior to modern times. There is also the old lagare, a granite receptacle built into the cellar itself where red grapes are foot-stomped when they come in from harvest, in the old cellar. After touring the vineyards, old cellar, and grounds, we sat down to taste the Aphros wines during lunch prepared by a chef named André Antunes, a friend of Vasco’s who has a restaurant called Delicatum in Braga.

Aphros bottles_RSigner

Below are the wines we tasted (several are available in the U.S., and perhaps more in London, where Vasco works with the importer Les Caves des Pyrenes); most were made in the newer cellar, although Vasco uses his old cellar for foot treading, as mentioned, and for amphora aging. In general, he adds only a little sulfur at harvest, and when he racks the wine. Nearly all the wines are in the 11-12% ABV range, which was a good thing for me because I drank every drop poured into my glass and still managed to take fairly legible notes. Aphros is imported by Skurnik Wines in New York, and they are in California though Winewise.

  1. “Phaunus,” pétillant-naturel, Loureiro, 2015: It’s the first year that Vasco has made a pét-nat and it’s damn good. There are only 600 bottles, though, and it sounds like most of them are destined for London. Vasco was inspired by Dierdre Heekin’s pét-nat, which he spoke very highly of.

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  1. Bruto, methode traditionelle, Loureiro, 2012: A fantastic, fruity and bright, low dosage (3g) sparkling wine with soft bubbles, which spent two years on the lees. We had this with a traditional Portuguese dish of creamy, brothy rice with shrimp and cilantro.
  1. “Ten,” Loureiro, 2014: In 2011, Vasco decided he wanted to make a clean, fresh wine that was only ten percent alcohol, so he tried harvesting some grapes ten days earlier than the rest, and this wine was the result. It’s light and floral, and easy to drink, although the flavors do develop a bit as the bottle is left open.
  1. Loureiro, 2015: This is the wine I’ve seen most commonly in New York. All the floral notes of Loureiro are balanced here by a searing acidity and lingering, fresh minerality. It’s the kind of wine you can easily pour two, three glasses of—it makes you salivate and want to have food.
  1. “Daphne,” Loureiro, 2015: Vasco calls this wine the “older sister” of the other two; Daphne means “laurel” in Greek. The juice undergoes 12 hours of skin maceration before fermentation in concrete egg (70 percent) as well as large barriques. At first the wine’s freshness is most apparent, although the body is noticeably richer than the previous two whites; with some time and air, the minerality and acidity are heightened and it becomes a gentle, yet powerful wine.
  1. Vinhão, 2014: Vinhão is the wine that most Portuguese people actually drink at home; traditionally, they would drink it in ceramic bowls, and it’s considered an essential accompaniment to any meal (the white wine industry has been developed more for the export market). I was very surprised at how Gamay-like this wine was—light, a touch fruity, a bit of funky earth—given Vinhão’s tendency, in other winemakers’ hands, toward bigness. Vasco invites his friends, whom he described as a bunch of Brazilian musicians from Lisbon, to join him in foot treading during harvest, and to make this wine, they did it only for 3 days (3 times per day, around 15 minutes each time) rather than a whole week, to achieve lower extraction. This was a cold, rainy vintage, according to Vasco. It’s a delicious, very drinkable wine.

Aphros Palhete_RSigner 

  1. “Palhete,” 80 percent Loureiro / 20 percent Vinhão, 2015: This is one of Vasco’s experimental wines and my personal favorite of his entire line-up (although there is one amphora-aged white that we didn’t taste, which I brought home in my suitcase to drink soon). Its color and texture remind me of Poulsard, and were it not for the predominant, sour flavor and tannic character of Vinhão—despite it being only 20 percent of the blend—I would even think it was a light red from the Jura. This wine is also made in amphora. The amphorae wines are unfiltered.
  1. “Pan,” methode traditionelle rosé, Vinhão, 2012: A fresh, classic, elegant sparkling wine made from free-run juice, aged on the lees 12 months before bottling. Very good.
  1. “Yakkos,” methode traditionelle, Vinhão, 2006: This is one of those outlier wines that geeks clamour after, but which would have to be hand-sold to anybody else. It’s quite extraordinary. The wine saw four years on the lees before bottling, and it has pronounced notes of dark berries, a whiff of brett, a subtle oxidative overtone, and a silken texture, with very soft bubbles. It reminds me of some of the biodynamic Lambruscos I’ve had. We drank it alongside a cut of pork with some delicious pan-roasted potatoes. I could also imagine it with certain hard cheeses made from sheep’s milk, or perhaps Morbier, or charcuterie. Pizza, too.
Wine writer Meg Houston Maker engages Vasco in questions of anthroposophy
Wine writer Meg Houston Maker engages Vasco in questions of anthroposophy

 

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