The natural wines of Herdade do Cebolal

Seven years ago, we booked a table at Boi-Cavalo in Lisbon and chef Hugo Brito told us that dinner included a pairing with wines from a great family winery in Alentejo called Herdade do Cebolal. The wonderful food and wine turned the dinner into a party in which everybody talked to each other as if we were longtime friends.

We experienced the same festive feeling during a memorable lunch at the Lamelas restaurant in Porto Côvo. The spectacular food prepared by chef Ana Moura was accompanied by wines from Herdade do Cebolal. What is it about these wines that hang out with chefs who know how to turn meals into celebrations?  

Ana told us that Herdade de Cebolal is a stone’s throw from the restaurant, so we called the winery to see whether we could go by for a visit. We were received by enologist Luis Mota Capitão. The winery has been in his family since 1880. His great-grandfather made wines and vinegars to sell to doctors for medicinal use. 

Luís also wants his wines to be good for us. He avoids as much as possible using chemicals in wine production. And he is passionate about creating an ecosystem that is healthy and sustainable. The 20 hectares of vineyards are surrounded by 65 hectares of forest planted with cork and holm oaks, carob and lime trees, and many other species. He uses algae, including sargassum harvested in Porto Côvo, to fertilize the land because he believes it produces superior grapes. Luís encourages animals to roam the farm. There many bees, as well as chicken, hares, and sheep. Even foxes, lynxes, wild boars, and saca-rabos (Egyptian mongese), which are often considered a nuisance in other farms, are welcome at Herdade de Cebolal. “They all have a role to play and this land belongs to them too,” says Luís. Later, as we were leaving the herdade, we saw a large wild boar crossing the road. 

Luís’ grandfather used to age the wines he served at Christmas time inside a water well. Inspired by this experience, Luís started aging wine in bottles immersed in sea water. The wines age faster and something magical happens, perhaps because of higher pressure, cooler temperatures, and less oxygen. 

The herdade has many different types of soils and sun exposures. Luís says that the best way to illustrate this diversity is to go to the cellar and try some wines from the barrels. We first sampled a white from a vineyard planted in sal gema (rock salt) soil. It has great persistence and acidity. Then, we tried a complex white from “vinha do Rossio,” a vineyard planted by Luis’ great-grandfather 82 years ago. His grandfather added to the vineyard resulting in a mixture of 13 varietals, include some rare species like Tamarez and Tália. Next, we tasted an elegant blend of Arintos that is bright and fresh.

We moved from the cellar to a terrace overlooking the vineyards to try two fascinating reds: a clarete (claret) and a palhete. The clarete is made from Castelão, a grape popular in the Setúbal region. The palhete is made from a mixture of white (Antão Vaz) and red (Aragonês) grapes. These are highly enjoyable wines that can quench the thirst on a hot summer day. In old times, when drinking water was unsafe because of possible contamination with pathogenic bacteria, these were the wines preferred by farmers. Their alcohol content is relatively low (12.5 for clarete and 10.5 for palhete) but high enough to kill any pathogens.

Luís brought us some food to pair with the next two wines: a plate with wonderful sausages made in Alentejo from black pork, small cups of stewed chicken gizzards, an assortment of cheeses, and a delicious honey made from esteva (rock rose) and tojo (gorse). 

A 2017 white made from Fernão Pires and Arinto paired perfectly with the cheeses. Then came the grand finale: a red called Caios, which was the name of Luis’ great-great-grandfather. It is produced only in exceptional years and it includes grapes from vines planted by different generations: Alicante Bouchet planted by Luís, Petit Verdot planted by his father and grandfather, and old vines brought from Saint-Émilion by his great-grandfather.

The sun had long retired and the Alentejo stars shined brightly on the vineyards. Luis kept talking with revolutionary zeal about the legacy he wants to leave to future generations: a way of producing wine that is good for us and good for the earth.

Herdade de Cebolal is located at Vale das Éguas. Click here for their website (in Portuguese).