Meet the Women Winemakers of Portugal
Female winemakers are rare in Portugal. Though many women train at the oenology schools, they have been more likely to work at city-based laboratories or research facilities than wineries located outside of major towns. But a new cohort has transitioned to cellar life, and like other distinguished winemakers around the globe, they bring innovative approaches to vineyard management and wine styles through meticulous standards, attention to detail and experimentation.
Rita Ferreira Marques, owner and winemaker of Conceito Vinhos, talks about the “attention to the smallest detail” and how “everything has to be perfect” when starting new projects. Sandra Tavares da Silva, co-owner and winemaker at Wine & Soul, says that she loves to make white wine, “where everything is so delicate and fragile,” and where terroir is better expressed than in red wines.
All of the winemakers profiled here came to their practice through familial connections, as well as their own inherent love of wines and vines.
Some of their families have grown grapes for generations. Julia de Melo Kemper’s family has had vines in the Dão for 150 years. Filipa Pato’s father, Luís, is a major winemaker in the Bairrada. Ana Rosas’s family founded Ramos Pinto in Oporto in 1880.
These winemakers share another unmistakable trait, too: a fierce attachment to their land. No matter how each arrived at that place, they strive to showcase their home in every glass of wine they create.
Tavares da Silva is tall. As a volleyball player for the Portuguese women’s national team and later a model, her height was an advantage. When she decided to work in wine, however, her appearance was a definite downer.
“I asked my mentor, Cristiano van Zeller [of Quinta Vale D. Maria in the Douro], for help getting a job,” she says. “He tried and then told me, ‘Nobody wants you, they think an ex-model will just stand around not getting her hands dirty.’ So he gave me a job himself.”
The impetus for wine came from her parents, who bought Quinta de Chocapalha in 1987. Trained at Lisbon University and then in Piacenza, Italy, Tavares da Silva started work in the Douro in 1999. Like so many before her, she fell under the region’s spell, prompting Wine & Soul’s creation in 2001.
That year, she married a scion of a local Douro family, Jorge Serôdio Borges, and they bought land that included the established Pintas vineyard. In 2009, they inherited one of the Borges family’s hillside vineyards, the beautiful, remote Quinta da Manoella. It wasn’t far from their other plots in the Pinhão Valley, located close to some of the most iconic Port vineyards.
Tavares da Silva is a perfectionist. She says she brings elegance to winemaking, while her husband brings fruit and power. But in the 17 years they’ve worked together, she’s added an extra dimension: the ability to craft wines that build and evolve with age, without losing their terroir expression of the Douro.
She’s also bringing the same skills to her parents’ Lisboa property. Here, the land produces such different wines. Of Touriga Nacional, Portugal’s iconic grape, she says, “in the Douro, it gives fruit and power. In Lisboa, it gives floral wines with freshness.” Same grape, same winemaker, different terroir.
Building Wine & Soul from the ground up has made Tavares da Silva conscious of the relationship between ideas and land.
“We had to create a style of wine,” she says. “We created the profile that we wanted before we went looking for the vineyard. And then we have to see each parcel individually. Some are easy, some are tough. We end up looking at terroir, rather than brands.”
Filipa Pato, Filipa Pato Wines, Bairrada
“Authentic Wines Without Makeup” is both Pato’s slogan and philosophy. She makes pure expressions of biodynamic wines with a strong sense of place.
That place is Bairrada, stretching west from the mountain range of Serra de Caramulo toward the ocean south of Oporto. It’s where she was born and where her father, Luís Pato, produces fine wines under his namesake brand. Her vineyards are around Ois de Bairro, with some parcels near Mealhada.
She has taken on her father’s devotion to the fickle, moody Baga grape that produces the region’s top red wines. She’s also added the Bical grape to the repertoire for white wines.
With 24 parcels scattered around the region, Pato searches out old vines to craft wines released under the possessive name Nossa, or “Ours.” The other half of “Ours” is her husband, William Wouters, a top Belgian sommelier, chef and restaurateur, and one of her earliest supporters in that country.
The winery, filled with amphora as well as barrels, is on the ground floor of the family house. Upstairs, the great room is where the family lives: where Pato entertains visitors, pours wines for tastings and cooks meals in her professional-grade kitchen. Her home and her wine are intertwined.
On a walk outside, Pato admires a small parcel of old vines that she bought from an 80-year-old ready to retire. They are ancient Baga bush vines, some 100 years old or more. Olive trees are scattered among the vines. “The owner would only sell if we promised to keep them,” she says. “There is an advantage to be growing grapes where you were born. It is a special feeling. You can relate to the people as well as to the land.”
Julia de Melo Kemper, Julia Kemper Wines, Dão
“This is my favorite walk,” says Kemper as she strolls uphill through pine trees to her vineyards in the heart of the tough granite landscape of the Dão. “You get to see how hard the land is. It shows how the terroir finds its way into the wine. We are responsible for that land.”
It’s cold, even in the sun. Kemper is bundled in a long mink coat and suede boots, hardly the clothes of someone who works the land. But then again, she’s hardly a typical country dweller.
Kemper took over the family vineyard in the heart of the Dão in 2003, and released her first wines under the Julia Kemper label in 2008. And until 2016, she was also a corporate lawyer working in São Paulo, Brazil, and Lisbon, where she still lives.
Her father originally asked her to take over the 150-year-old family estate in 2000. “It took him three years to convince me,” she says.
“Now I am in love with it.”
“It was strange to let a woman take charge. When I was younger, we girls were not even allowed in the cellar to taste. Now it’s my baby for the rest of my life. It’s family land. I could never sell.”
As soon as she took over, Kemper decided to convert to organic viticulture.
“In my private life, I am organic, so I didn’t want to do these vineyards in a chemical way,” she says. “The wine deserves good raw materials, just as an omelette needs good eggs.”
Kemper has since forged two routes with her production; the oaked Julia Kemper range and the unoaked Elpenor, named after a nocturnal olive-green caterpillar, whose appearance in the vineyards signaled that the switch to organic practices was working to encourage biodiversity.
It’s the Julia Kemper wines that sing of place most. The white in this line shines with the high quality of the Encruzado grape, blended here with Malvasia and occasionally Verdelho, while the complex yet focused red Reserva, a field blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro and Jaen, comes from a vineyard in the heart of the Dão.
Rita Ferreira Marques, Conceito Vinhos, Douro
Marques thrives on challenges. One of her recurring phrases is, “If you don’t do anything new, it gets boring.”
Considering her continual experimentations, ideas and new wines, Marques is anything but bored. The oenology graduate of Bordeaux University is her family’s first-ever winemaker.
But vines have been in the family for much longer. The family owns 212 acres spread across plots in the Douro Superior. “When I graduated, I wanted to do something on my own,” she says. “My mom said, ‘Why not do it here?’ ”
So she did. Ten years ago, Marques created Conceito Vinhos and two ranges of wines, Contraste, and the top of the line Conceito. Bottled with striking labels, they regularly garner scores of 90 points or higher.
And she hasn’t stopped there. She planted Grüner Veltliner in a corner of a white-wine vineyard around 2,000 feet in elevation, to make a sparkling wine. “I love the grape, so I wanted to see what it would do in the Douro,” she says.
Marques also made a red wine from old-vine Bastardo that her grandfather planted. It’s one of the many Douro grapes that has fallen out of favor, but she wanted to try a sulfur-free wine, and one made from an underappreciated variety at that; Bastardo was just right.
Neighboring the Bastardo site, she planted a modern field-blend vineyard, small blocks of vines that will all be harvested at the same time.
Marques also found some old vines that were virtually abandoned further south in Beira, and she’s producing both a white and a red wine from them, called Ontem (Portuguese for “yesterday”). Oh, and she works as a winemaker in Franschhoek, South Africa, too.
If it seems a whirlwind, remember, “if you don’t do anything new, it gets boring.”
Ana Rosas, Ramos Pinto, Oporto
Rosas loves the magic of Port. As a child, she often made the mountainous trip from Oporto to the family’s Quinta do Bom Retiro estate in the Douro. There, she and her cousins would listen to her uncle talk about the stars as they sat by the pool. At age 10, Rosas wrote an essay on the poor quality of brandy supplied for Port.
Today, she stands in her white lab coat inside the tasting room in Vila Nova de Gaia. Rosas is the master blender for Ramos Pinto Ports, the only female in that position among the Port houses. As she talks, her eyes light up.
“I was always involved in the family business, because it is family,” says Rosas. While the Rouzaud family of Louis Roederer Champagne now owns the firm, her family still runs day-to-day operations at Ramos Pinto. Her cousin, Jorge, is the managing director.
Rosas was studying engineering and forestry in 1990 when she was called to Ramos Pinto to help out at harvest. She stayed, first in the lab, then in quality control, and in 2002, she was put in charge of Port winemaking.
At the beginning, she found it difficult to be the boss, “especially in the Douro,” she says. “The old-timers were not used to a woman being in charge.”
Port is her passion. She’s proud of the Vintage Ports that Ramos Pinto makes with increasing success, as well as her favorites, the Tawny Ports, where her blending skills come into play.
“We have a million liters of Port, some back to 1880, in the lodge [cellar] here,” she says. “I can play on the samples like a piano when I make up the blend. Port is all about viticulture, aging and blending.”
And, of course, it’s also about preservation. “I have to preserve stocks to pass them on to the next generation,” she says.
Memories are important to Rosas, both in her Ports and in her family history.
“Those old barrels [720 bottles] have memories of all the wines they have held,” she says. “I always remember the scent of the hot schist on a summer’s night in the Douro. That stays in the wine.”
- 1Sandra Tavares da Silva
- 2Filipa Pato
- 3Julia de Melo Kemper
- 4Rita Ferreira Marques
- 5Ana Rosas