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. Read more