Energy in wine is intangible, but immediately recognisable. Does it come from the acidity, a bracing, mouth-puckering sharpness that makes a wine feel alive and pulsating with energy? Is it salinity, that salty, sea-spray taste that gives it a sense of liveliness? Some wines just sparkle and demand another sip. When it comes to António Maçanita, however, there’s as much energy in the winemaker as there is in the glass – no mean feat when you taste his electric new Porto Santo project.
António was interested in the natural world from a young age, he loved body-boarding and fishing on family trips to the Azores. He decided to study agriculture at university, enrolling at the University of Algarve; but made a mistake mistake on the course enrolment code, which turned his desired Agronomy into Agricultural and Industrial Engineering. However, this proved to be a happy accident, as the course offered a third-year viticulture module.
Under the tutelage of Rogério de Castro, one of Portugal’s leading viticulturists, he fell in love with the world of wine, and raced into action, planting his own vineyard in the Azores with friends, and heading around the world to get first-hand experience. Stints in California with Charles Thomas, former winemaker at Opus One and Mondavi; McClaren Vale, with Chester Osborn at d’Arenberg; and in Bordeaux at Château Lynch-Bages all followed. Since returning to Portugal Antonio has set up winemaking projects across the country, in the Azores, Douro and beyond; but it was his latest in Porto Santo that intrigued us.
Discovering a new territory
“I only reached Porto Santo in 2020. [During lock-down] a good friend of mine, Nuno Faria (owner of Michelin star 100Maneiras in Lisbon) was on the island of Madeira. We all had a lot of time on our hands, and we were talking about the future, like we all were back then. He showed me the vineyards in Porto Santo and I started to get excited”.
Porto Santo is a tiny island, 43 kilometres north-east of Madeira, with a population of just over 5,000 people. Despite the Atlantic location, it’s the driest place in the whole of Portugal and the climate is semi-arid. While Madeira averages 2,700mm of rain per year, Porto Santo receives less than 400mm.
“It’s tiny and almost in the middle of nowhere- it’s like nowhere I’ve been before,” he said.
So what was it that drew him to this seemingly remote island with a climate most vignerons would run a mile from?
“I started researching the grapes, in the beginning I assumed they were all hybrids, planted post-phylloxera. There was a grape called Cunningham which came from America and was used to make Madeira. And then Nuro said they’re Caracol, and I looked it up: Vitis Vinifera, that had been abandoned and was nearly extinct.
“Then he said Listrão, and I said ‘no, no, no! Don’t tell me it’s Listrão like Listán Blanco? That’s when I started to get really excited. As soon as I could get a flight I said: right, let’s go“!
Porto Santo: a unique environment
There are just 14 hectares of vines on the island, ten of which are Caracol and four of Listrão, called Listán Blanco in Tenerife or Palomino on mainland Spain. The majority of grapes on the island, António explained, are either sent to nearby Madeira to make their eponymous wines. It’s not an island that’s geared towards wine production.
Farming has to be hands-on and well planned. Irrigation is important: there are channels running across the island that guide water down onto the properties to drench them, so the soil can take in as much water as possible. António points to the sponge-like, high pH limestone soils as a key factor here, in contrast to the more volcanic soils of the Canary islands, which have a low pH. The high winds which could batter the vines are dealt with in two different ways: by using protective canes that encircle the vines or with ‘muros de crochet’, a local method in which they train the vines along the ground with dry-stone walls built around them.
What’s in a name?
António began the project without a winery, on Porto Santo at least:
“When the project started we were using a tiny winery in Madeira, we had to ship the grapes over there. We started picking in the morning, put them in a refrigerated truck, on a boat, they would arrive at 1am in Madeira, and we’d start pressing.”
They’ve recently bought a small facility on Porto Santo, a true garage winery in that it was a former car repair shop! But for the first two vintages the wines were produced in Madeira, meaning they had to negotiate both islands complex bottling laws. As they labelled them as Madeira, they had to pass a strict, old-fashioned test from a tasting committee:
“As you can imagine, none of our wines passed the tasting commission of Madeira. They ‘lacked the Madeira character’, so I convinced the head of the chamber to do a tasting with the team, something they had never done before. I bought some wines along from Envínate, Suertes del Marques and Jerez to show Listrão in different forms. I know this is not typical Madeira but nobody had tasted Listrão from Porto Santo before“.
They weren’t allowed to be labelled Porto Santo, so the wines read “P. Santo”, something that will change in future vintages with the introduction of their own winery.
They makes four wines in total, two from Caracol, one from Listrão and a red made from Tinta Negra grapes grown on Madeira.
All the whites are whole-bunch pressing and fermented naturally in stainless steel tanks. Caracol dos Profetas spends 3 months on its lees, before bottling. It’s refreshing, with a blistering surge of freshly squeezed citrus and olive brine, tempered by a creamy texture and some salted almond notes:
“It’s almost like a base champagne with the aromatics. Citrus and biscuit with the mineral notes, chalky and broken stone notes.”
Their top Caracol, the Caracol das Areia, comes from “Vineyards that look like they struggle more, with sandier soils, berries are smaller and the fruit felt very concentrated,” António says. It spends 10 months on lees in neutral oak. It has an amazing density in the mouth, weight and concentration combined with steely citrus, some tropical, crystalline notes and a light, almost saffron-like spice note on the finish: “There’re mineral flavours but there’s also a lot of freshness. There’s an iodine sensation, there’s more texture here, more to chew on.”
The Listrão dos Profetas comes from 80 year-old vines and is made the same way as the Caracol das Areia. Despite some similarities with the Canarian interpretations, it feels quite distinct, there’s no smoky reduction, but an avalanche of zippy, fresh citrus fruit, lemon, lime and grapefruit all combining with green olives and a floral streak.
“It’s a wine I’m really proud of. It tastes like rocks breaking against it each other, it has a lot of texture. Compared to the Caracol it’s crunchier. There’s less warmth or spice, more freshness and sharpness”.
His only red is made from Tinta Negra, a light-skinned variety that is generally used in the fortified wines of the island. Made with 30% whole-bunches, it’s a crunchy, juicy, brimming with cranberry and raspberry flavours and a distinctive minerally graphite note.
António’s first releases are stunning, combining concentration with linear precision, they are wines that unfurl in the glass as you spend an evening with them. We can’t wait to see how the project develops as he learns more about the island and with the introduction of his new winery. Get in touch with your sales rep if you’d like to try these remarkable island wines.