The collected wine-tastings & wine-ramblings of one who prefers to describe wines with metaphors, not percentages

Portugal diary finale: wine, branding & stories

Here’s part two of my final day in Portugal (grab a look at part 1 if you missed it, yeah?)

Two crosses on a red-tiled roof and, in the background, a view of sun-bathed countryside, hills and skySo — for our final tastes of the Vinho Verde region we found ourselves at Afros.

Well, strictly speaking, they weren’t my final tastes of the trip — which were my pre-flight breakfast of yoghurt and jasmine tea, and my in-flight sandwich of reconstituted dead children of which I took but one traumatic bite.)

But let’s not dwell on that, eh? Back to Afros. (Two words of warning for that link: 1. the website doesn’t do the winery justice, and 2. IT PLAYS MUSIC AT YOU WITHOUT YOUR ASKING IT TO. So beware.)

Vasco Croft of Afros is a biodynamic wine producer. He tries to do things in a natural kind of way. The upshot of this is that he preserves biodiversity (in other words, tries to grow vines in harmony with, rather than in replacement of, all that other nature stuff that exists), he keeps bees, his grass is grazed by roaming sheep, and he concocts exotic potions from, um, walnuts and stuff? Or whatever that is in those jars.

In the foreground, a large jar of walnuts; in the background, green leavesNow, people who are far better informed than I have strong views on this stuff. I’m not going to venture into that territory, because, honestly, beyond an instinctive, kneejerk scepticism, I don’t know squat. And, in any case, what you want of me — am I right? — is shallow, superficial aesthetic observations and predictable bouts of strained humour. So if you’re hoping for Old Parn’s rigorous deconstruction of the principles of biodynamism, I’m afraid you might be better cutting your losses and fucking off somewhere more scholarly.

What struck me about Vasco was that this is a man who has opinions, who feels. Coincidentally, I’d scribbled (in that achingly tedious way I have) in my notebook, earlier in the day, a little memorandum: ‘Knowing about wine vs understanding wine… FEELING wine’.

(Hat-tip to Freya Reinsch for getting my old brain churning along these lines, thanks to a remark she made on the distinction between knowing & understanding wine.)

And I think this is pretty important. Because so much is spoken and written about wine that insulates it from everything else. Puts it in the lab, hermetically sealed. Obviously this approach has its place, but for me wine is all about experience. On its own, I’m not really interested in wine, you know? I’m interested in what wine makes people feel. In the crossover between wine and people. Wine and stories. Wine and emotion. Wine and laughter.

It’s like the difference between being interested in a painting and being interested in paint.

A bottle of Afros sparkling wine, black-labeled, on a white tablecloth

And, at Afros, we got painting. We drank Sparkling Loureiro Reserve on the terrace, looking out over dusky vineyards, soaked in slow evening sun. To me, this was hands down the best sparkling Vinho Verde we tasted. But, you know what? It might not have been, objectively speaking. I honestly can’t tell you. But it felt fucking awesome.

Then we ate. De-goddamn-licious. Monkfish and orange. Sardine and lime… Lovely combinations — regional elements with a global twist. And beautifully matched to Afros’ wines. In each case, Vasco told us about the food we were eating: its origins, the reasons for its pairing with the wine.

Finally, after an intriguing (and excellent) fortified, Port-style red — and some gob-hoofing grappa — I found myself (alarmedly) in the unaccustomed position of after-dinner speaker. A position to which I was elected, ad hoc, on account of my ‘wonderful Oxford English’. Unlike the occasion on which I found myself compelled to make an unprepared speech at the end of our school Christmas dinner (aged 13) — a humiliating memory that still kicks me in the emotional bollocks each time I recall it — I was fortunately able to think of something to say other than ‘Thank you.’ I said that, as well as offering us hospitality, giving us delicious food and wine, he’d also inspired us with his passion — and, most of all, with his stories.

Portrait of Vasco Croft, talking to an audience, off-camera. In the background, out of focus, Vinho Verde countryside, a spired church, bathed in evening sunlight

In his reply, he cast himself as something akin to a figurehead or conduit. ‘I, the winemaker, am really just the last stage of a process that goes so much deeper.’ An ancient process. An old, old story, whose beginnings are obscure.

And I cast my mind back (not that hard, because it’s only a day ago that I wrote it) to my post about the surprising lack of ‘commercialism’ in many of the winemakers we visited. And realise that ‘commercialism’ isn’t necessarily what I mean, at root. What I mean is simpler (and potentially more innocent). I mean a story.

Because here’s the thing: we’re all people, and we’re all build around these wobbly, fragile, sporadic hearts. And we can’t help but respond to the other wobbly, fragile, sporadic hearts around us. This is what the fucking thing is all about. And by the fucking thing, I mean life. Right? And it’s stories that span those gaps between us. If I’m grabbed by a story that give me a sense of a passion, a journey — this will stay with me longer than any number of statistics about residual sugar, acidity and alcohol levels.

That’s all branding is: imbuing a product with people and passion and stories.

And, yes, it’s the man who says he doesn’t give a crap about marketing and fashions and the like who (as far as I’m concerned) did the best job of actually creating a brand. Because he knows his wine, sure — but he also knows his story.

(Now he just needs a website that tells it as well as he does.)

Edit: I’m not the only one, it turns out, to admire Vasco and his wines. Have a read of Robert McIntosh’s thoughts on the Afros experience.

3 Comments to Portugal diary finale: wine, branding & stories

  1. July 12, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    A unique take on a favourite of mine; Afros wines from Vinho Verde http://bit.ly/r85WlQ (by @billicatons )

  2. July 12, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    A unique take on a favourite of mine; Afros wines from Vinho Verde http://bit.ly/r85WlQ (via @billicatons @thirstforwine )

  3. February 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Dear Tom,

    I was one of the native german speaking guys and I was somtimes laughing great while reding this your stuff, not understanding all but now I know:
    - you are having a healthy humour
    - some wines we both enjoyed very much
    - and maybe your teeth are sensitive as mine ??
    - and you are a “aberrant weirdo from England”

    Great, thank you and go on, I have to check some words at leo.org for me.
    Jörg

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