On the outskirts of Lagos, in Sargaçal, Guillaume Leroux, aged 49, Luso-French – or Franco-Algarve -, has been producing Algarve’s first organic wine since 2012. ECO123 set off to meet him on Monte da Casteleja, the 6.5 hectare estate he inherited from his mother’s side of the family, to find out just what is and how you produce organic wine.
Guillaume Leroux (GL) – Aged 18, following the death of my father, I returned to France and began to study agriculture, which had always been my interest. I began with landscaping and parks before moving onto general agriculture and cattle breeding out of a maternal influence but it didn’t grab me.
ECO123 – And why wine?
GL – My father, French, liked a good wine. He had a particular predilection for Portuguese wines, focusing especially on the Douro and had an excellent wine cellar. The Algarve did not have any great wine making tradition. I went to study in Montpellier and discovered a vast world and totally fell for vines and wine. After two years of study, I decided to gain some experience in Portuguese wines. I began in Torres Vedras, where we had a country house, I moved onto Porto and port and, afterwards, I spent five years on the wines of the Douro, a great school. In the meanwhile, I did a post-graduate qualification in viticulture in the University of Porto, a course given by Australian professors. Afterwards, I went to Australia where I learned how to make good wines in warm climates as is the case of the Algarve.
When did you begin this project and with how many hectares of vines?
In 1998. We have 3.5 hectares of vines. My objective was to run a small-scale vineyard on my own scale, farmed by the family and without major labour costs. A small area but producing a top range product and also including an agro-tourism component.
What castes did you choose for your grapes? Indigenous or imported varieties?
I decided to make a local wine with the castes that we traditionally have in the region and that I already know. At that time, there were not many good examples of quality wines from the Algarve. There was plenty of Periquita with which I did not greatly identify. I chose Bastardo(1) for the reds, an old caste from the Douro and the Dão regions and that makes ‘Bastardinho’ in Sagres, a famous liquor. Perrum(2), the base grape for the wines from Cartuxa, and Arinto(3) were chosen for the whites. As I wanted to make blended wines, I ended up also planting Alfrocheiro(4) to go along with Bastardo as they make a good match.
Was the choice of indigenous castes also motivated by the desire to produce organic wines as they cope better with pests?
Initially, no. the organic came later. Having had a traditional training and education, I began by using pesticides, in addition to what I had learned in schools, also out of the influence of their manufacturers. However, I saw their toxic effects in the terrain. I was building up my affection for the plants and understanding just how pesticides were not doing them any good and that I should not think exclusively about income and productivity output levels.
And that’s where the organic comes in: out of the greater resistance of the castes chosen?
Without a shadow of a doubt, the indigenous castes do stand up better to the conditions prevailing in the region, especially the lack of water and the long months without much rainfall at all.
However, you are now allowed to irrigate vines…
Yes, but irrigation was not within the scope of my original plans. Even today, I do not make systematic use of it. only in extreme situations. Bit by bit, I’ve been understanding just how irrigation is a very useful tool and enabling us to replicate the effects of a thunderstorm at the beginning of summer. And the plants end up benefitting. However, we should not fall into dependency.
How do you therefore resolve the water shortage problem?
I increased the number of plants per hectare so that the roots would stretch deeper and to have more competition between the branches and to lower the vigour of the plants. If they grow less, they produce less and they have correspondingly less dependence on water.
However, with more plants, you are still able to gain the same levels of production.
What do you use in place of chemicals? Just Bordeaux mixture(5)?
I also use sulphur and some copper to combat mildew. And some natural insecticides. We have a plague that appears at the beginning of every summer, leafhoppers, that need controlling. However, going back to the castes, they were chosen not only because they were the best adapted but also in accordance with the type of wine that I wanted to make. I was striving for a full-bodied wine, with both the scope for ageing well and with local characteristics. The switch over to organic took place in 2007, a test year. In 2008, I signed the contract with the certifying entity and the two following years were periods of transition and in 2011 we got our first 100% organic harvest.
The conversion to organic and without any recourse to chemicals does affect production. What returns do you get from you vines?
In the best years, I get four tons per hectare.
What does that represent in terms of wine?
I make, on average, 10,000 litres per year that works out at around 2,850 lts/ha. The vines are around fifteen years old and some have wood rot and this does all impact on production. Those vines require substitution and along with expanding the planted area of vines by 1 to 1.5 hectares.
What are the advantages and disadvantages to organic wine over the traditional version?
Organic requires more care and attention. There is some financial compensation in support of it but it does not cover the costs.
In what way do organic wines stand out from the traditional? Are the wine making techniques different?
There was no major change as we already used natural products to make the wine but the certification process is double: vine and wine. And, when making the wine, we have a list of natural products that we can apply along with their authorised techniques, such as for the filtration filter.
We know that you do tread some wine by foot. What difference does that make to the wine?
I saw wine treading in the Douro and the happiness of making wine that way and I wanted to bring it to the Algarve. The process of treading the wine slightly crushes the pulp and separates it from the skin. Afterwards, you continue to smoothly and slowly turn it and mix together the juice, the pulp and the skin and beginning the fermentation process with already worked grapes. In this way, we get shorter fermentation periods as the extraction is done well.
There is a lot of talk about enzymes. What is their role?
The enzymes dissolve the skin as the yeasts do the work of fermentation. Sometimes, we use industrial yeasts, even if only those ones recommended for organic wine, to give a boost to the whites and the rosés as they are more sensitive wines and need quicker fermentation. As these wines don’t have any skin, and just the juice, they are more vulnerable to oxidation and hence it makes sense to get the fermentation going to cause carbon dioxide that then protects them.
What about the maturing process?
In wood. I love the nobility of oak, which allows for a smooth maturing.
Where do you have your wines on sale?
Organic products have their own niche market. However, I aim to get my wines into the top range of this segment. Their consumers are more interested in the fact of them being organic, their region and means of production than in their aesthetics. Marketing is less important even if the organic market is in change and that requires greater care with wine making as there is greater competition. Our export rate has been rising although our focus is on direct sales here at the farm. We produce one blended wine, ‘Meia Praia’ and regional reds, rosés and whites named after the estate.