Should you one day decide to treat yourself to a journey to the vineyards of Aphros, open your eyes wide, take a deep breath and be prepared to vibrate with the Earth’s energy, as cascades of water rush down the mountainside, like so many electric shocks. Take a seat on the terrace of the Casal do Paço Padreiro, a property that has been owned by the Croft family since the 17th Century, and which lies in the county of Lima in the Portuguese Vinho Verde region. There, in the shade of a vine, as you chat to Vasco Croft, you will find yourself slipping into a non-lineal dimension of time and space, while the lovely igrexa (church) of Padreiro discreetly accompanies the scene, like some faithful, all-knowing housekeeper….
Born in Lisbon, educated in London, Croft is an architect and designer. In London he came across Rudolf Steiner on some street corner – that’s bloody London! – and got heavily involved in the anthroposophic way of thinking and living. It was not until around 2000 that he decided to make his own wine, taking over the reins in the quinta as he set about elaborating a Grand Design which would turn the whole property into a sustainable operation and become a worthy legacy for future generations. And there they are, the future generations, I can see them, busy learning all the secrets of permaculture, up there on the top of the hill from where Paradise itself is visible.
“You’ve got to come and see the whole project at daybreak!” he ordered. So I went because I needed to discover where on earth he finds the energy and the natural ingredients to make his magical wines. They are wines that revive body and soul, remind you just how marvellous life is, and provide a means to connect the forces that rise from the Earth (below) and the Sky (above).
Above, the steep hill. A group of youngsters are gathered around an old barn to learn the theory and practice of permaculture. The building has been turned into a kitchen with an overhanging wooden extension that provides a shady place for meals. Close by, another building has become the classroom. Standing there, you can see the gaps left by the removal of all the non-native species of tree. They’ve been replaced by young chestnuts, by an orchard and all the vegetation essential to restore the natural balance between plants and insects. Last but not least, I glimpse a group of beehives where their Highnesses, the bees, busy themselves keeping life sweet.
Unwinding your steps back down the hill, you will discover all the facilities that make for quality of life laid out in a spiral shape. Nonsmelling toilets, showers with natural hot water, compost boxes. I’m reminded of Junichiro Tanizaki who talks about the place of the lavatory in the Oriental way of life. It has to be a beautiful place, somewhere for meditation, situated in the middle of the woods, far from the main house and is open, built of wood and stone. I am especially reminded of this when I see the showers which have been erected along the pathway, raised on stone supports (like the ones you use for vines.) Here in Aphros, if you could fly like a bird over the property, you would discover that its outline is as perfect as the golden proportion, with delicate traces of the human presence that respect what was there originally.
Half-way along the path lies Vasco’s own home, surrounded by two grape vines typical of this region, the Loureiro and Vinhao (known in Galicia as Sousón), built over the little stone wine cellar in which he still works but from which he is about to move. A few kilometres away, he is building a new concrete wine cellar in the midst of his 20 has. of vineyard. It’s to be a one storey building, with a 3-eyes stone winepress where he will able to process all his grapes and produce up to 110.000 bottles, enough to make the project viable. Meanwhile, all traces of modern equipment will be removed from the original stone cellar which will be used to make wine as they did in the 18th Century, blending modern know-how with ancient tradition and technology.
Below, the earth. The vineyard combines the aerial and the earthy to produce a rich, clean and surprising fruit. One section in particular, 6 hectares of loureiro, of which I don’t know the name – if indeed it has one – is preceded by some halfburied ruins that look like some sort of open-air temple. At this time of year, when I was here – mid-August – the air was thick but a slight breeze gave some relief, and its tinkling music was hallucinatory.
The rustling leaves were like running water as the small birds twittered piercingly and the chicharras deafeningly reminded us of the violence of summer. Every living creature walking over the sacred blanket of untidy velvet green vegetation was a little sticky with sweet sweat amongst the scattering of tiny yellow and violet .
The vineyard was as regal as Siddhartha, hidden behind a huge gate and protected from toxic menaces, from spraying, from the sound of cars and unwanted visitors. The fruit is the focus point of all the energies here and is picked by hand and taken to the wine cellar where it is joyfully pressed, until the wine develops and can be bottled.
Vasco tests everything out with great care. Every wine he makes, whether still or bubbly, is perfectly calibrated. At each tasting, there’s no deception, it’s quite clear what you have there.
Coherent, true to the region, the natural result of carefully premeditated work with the vines. The whole process is inscribed in what that other great wine activist, Joao Roseira of the Quinta do Infantado calls the “new paradigm of Portuguese wine” which, in the case of Aphros, is changing the way the wines of the region are viewed and valued.
To give one example, connoisseurs are often heard to remark that a white wine from the Vinho Verde region can’t be expected to be anything other than a simple, everyday, all-yearround wine. In the case of Aphros, up to now the great surprise – until it stops being a surprise – is that the 100% Loureiro wines have the acidity, the complexity and the structure to permit them a long life in the bottle. (a long bottle life ?) And as for the Vinhao, which is a highly productive, difficult variety, generous in tanins, he has succeeded in taming it to the point of making it a soifable wine, agreeable to the palate, expressive, a wine that enters the body with a rush but which its years in the bottle have made more serene, without its losing a pinch of its character.
Vasco isn’t bothered by preconceptions, about “the way things used to be” or the “family traditions”. He IS bothered about the absurd bureaucracy he has to confront. But, apart from this, Vasco seems to have a very clear idea of what he wants to achieve and why.
The way he has set about transforming his surroundings is not just a personal matter because, although he does enjoy every minute of it, he is also building a legacy, something designed to last and to get better and better, long after he has gone.
*English translation by Hilary Sandison