Proof money can buy happiness, in a bottle.
This story started at a wedding we attended during our first week in Portugal (thank you Ana & James!). When we mentioned the concept behind our world tour, one of the bride’s friends who happened to be sitting at our table immediately thought of her friend Jorge who had “started from scratch and now makes wine” and offered to put us in touch. Forty-eight hours and a few emails later, we were headed towards what felt like a blind date.
The meeting point was Bem Haja, a hidden gem of a restaurant in Nelas, part of the Dao region in Portugal. Over an exquisite meal that once again proved Portuguese cuisine could indeed be full of nuance and flavor, we met and traded stories with Jorge Leonardo.
A diplomat by trade, Jorge spent many years living in Belgium – a wonderful coincidence given Francois’ Belgian roots (another fun coincidence is that Jorge’s sister-in-law and myself share a not so common name) – before eventually coming back to Lisbon and deciding he wanted to buy a house there, in part just to have somewhere to store his many belongings accumulated over decades spent living abroad. As luck would have it, Lisbon real estate prices did not play nice with Jorge’s budget, and before he knew it he ended up doing a “permuta” (type of real estate “swap”) with an elderly couple who wanted to downgrade. In other words, his apartment in Viseu was more or less exchanged for a house in Gandufe, Quinta Lobo da Estrela. The fact that it came with a forty-year old vineyard was in fact a downside (no, really).
Jorge renovated the main house in just under four months, a feat in and of itself. And somewhere along the way, he realized selling grapes off for someone else to turn them into wine made no sense (the previous owner did this on the side and accepted a measly 1200 Euros for 4000kg of grapes). So naturally, he started producing wine himself.
He does not use any herbicides, which means he keeps the lush, fast-growing grass and flowers in check manually. He also keeps an eye on the vines, plucking any new growths too low on the vine, to make sure that each plant puts all its energy into producing grapes and sugars – essential for good wine.
The brand is Ignorante wines, a reference to the fact that he dove in head first and was on a steep learning curve when he somewhat unintentionally became a wine producer! The 2013 batch is called “Grandalhao” (Portuguese for “big boy” – a play on words with an epic label to match), and the 2014 wine has the same name as the overall brand, Ignorante. That label is a gorgeous, with a manually embossed golden sun.
Most importantly, these Ignorante wines taste incredible.* The 2013 and 2014 editions of course taste different, but both share common traits: they are full-bodied, bright, and work just as well for a fancy occasion than to enjoy when camping (tested and tried). The 2014 Ignorante Reserva scored 90 out of 100 in a blind tasting by the “Best Sommelier in the World”, the Swedish Andreas Larsson.
We were lucky enough to stay on Quinta Lobo da Estrela for two nights – in the “Punishment Room” which is in fact a very comfortable studio room annexed to the house – in exchange for doing some work. So we got to cutting grass, plucking new growths, and watering the vegetable garden. The orange trees provided fruit for fresh juice in the mornings, and meals were an excuse to try different restaurants in the region or enjoy a bottle of wine with cheese and cold cuts. The word idyllic comes to mind.
Personally, I learned vines are both much tougher than they look and much more fragile than one would think; no matter what you are trying to grow, soil – and how much rain, sunshine, and love are added to the mix – makes all the difference; and wine tastes that much better after a day’s work on the vineyard.
So if you are ever in Lisbon or Viseu and go out for a meal, ask about Ignorante wine in case they have a bottle you can try. And if you’re based in Brussels, look out for Ignorante wines at “Le Meilleur du Portugal” on June 25-26.
*In case you were wondering, we were not paid in any way for writing this blog (I wish!).