Tiago Sampaio of Folias de Baco shows the world a much-needed alternative side to the Douro Valley. Although this is a region famous for port (fortified wines) and for its big, muscular red wines, this wasn’t always the case. Just a few decades ago, there were much lighter, lower alcohol wines made here, and Tiago’s mission is to recreate these.
Although it’s famous for its red wine varieties (namely Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca), the region is actually home to dozens more indigenous varieties. Tiago works with historical field blends of over 30 varieties, and has a new project focused on their conservation. These are crucial and brave steps to ensuring that the history of the region is not lost.
It would be easy for Tiago to simply follow what has become the norm, but that’s not his style — through protecting genetic diversity of previous generations, but while experimenting with new methods, Tiago is truly a revolutionary winemaker. His work is about bringing new thinking into the next generation, while safeguarding heritage.
Thank you to Tiago and Modal Wines for the photos
Tiago comes from a traditional winemaking family, but as with so many others in the wine world, things drastically changed during the second half of the 20th century. He says,
“My family is originally from the Douro Valley, and both sides of the family had vineyards, but they stopped making their own wines in the late 50s and 60s. Instead, they would sell in bulk. At the time, a lot of cooperatives were created here in Portugal, and many joined them, stopping their own wine production and just selling to them instead. There was one exception though: they still made some wine to drink at home. That always continued.”
His parents were the first generation to move outside of the Douro Valley — to Porto — so Tiago grew up in the city.
“We’d go to the valley on weekends, for holidays, and during harvest of course. Ever since I was a little kid, I enjoyed being in vineyards, and so even from a very early age, I was pretty certain that’s what I wanted to do in life.”
When Tiago says an early age, he means it — at just 13, he joined the local agricultural school instead of going to a regular high school. At college, he studied agricultural engineering for five years, eventually deciding to study viticulture and oenology in Oregon. He was hooked.
“I convinced my dad to start making some wine again. The old winery was still there, but it was in bad shape. We recovered it bit by bit and finally started making wine in 1999 again.”
During his studies, Tiago learnt about both conventional farming and organic farming, but it was the latter which spoke to him. He says,
“Ever since the start I was interested in organics, but in the very beginning I couldn’t immediately start farming organically — it was a transition. My family farmed conventionally before, and then I had to convince them step by step to change. The first step was moving away from herbicides, and then in 2011 we moved entirely to organic farming.”
It’s not a simple black and white organic versus conventional situation, however. Tiago is a thinker — and he constantly contemplates how to improve the overall sustainability of the vineyards.
“My view of agriculture is that it should be organic, but it needs to be sustainable, too. For example, it’s also possible to farm organically — but too intensively, with too many inputs. The idea is to reach a balance between production and input. We always want to balance things out – when we have to spray, we use a bit of copper and sulphur, so the idea is to reduce that to the very minimum. Sustainability is fundamental to everything, not just agriculture. The goal should be to reduce the impact of human activity.”
Working organically does mean taking more risks, so Tiago explains he’s often glued to the weather forecast. He’s also begun working with some aspects of biodynamics, using various plant extracts in his sprays, noting the lunar calendar and using compost. He has been working together with Abhros, a leading biodynamic winery in Vinho Verde. Tiago helps them with regards to winemaking, and in turn they teach him about biodynamic farming.
Their vineyards span 20 hectares across several plots. Some are 80+ years old and planted to dozens of grape varieties, in the typical field blend manner the region was once famous for. One of the larger vineyards was replanted in the 70s by his grandfather. Tiago explains,
“After my grandfather had joined the local cooperative, he’d realised their focus wasn’t on quality, but rather quantity, as they paid by the kilo. He chose varieties that were more productive, which guaranteed a larger crop. So, I decided to replant those vineyards again, even though they were the youngest, as I’m looking for quality.”
In 2001, Tiago replanted it to many of the old heritage varieties of the region. He says,
“The old vineyards of the Douro were traditionally planted as field blends. They have a very big diversity of varieties — white, reds, pinks — everything mixed together. Often, they feature over 30 or even 40 varieties.”
To ensure that his old vineyards and their swathes of genetic diversity can be perpetuated (after all, nothing lives forever), he replants via massal selection. This means he propagates cuttings from the old mother plants, thereby essentially recreating the healthiest plants of the vineyard.
Some vines look so unique and different to their neighbours that Tiago suspects he doesn’t even know the varieties. He says,
“This year (2021), I’m going to arrange with some specialists to try to figure out what some of the varieties I don’t know actually are and catalogue them. I replanted a little piece of a vineyard, and my idea is to do a genetic saving of the varieties in the old vineyards. As the vines are very old, some die, and the idea is to propagate some of them, to create new plants. That way I can save them all to keep that diversity, and to introduce that to new plants.”
Unfortunately, as in so many other regions, the genetic diversity present in the vineyards of the Douro is at grave risk. Tiago explains,
“There’s been heavy replanting during the past 20 years. Most farmers don’t get paid more for grapes from older vines, so they replant their vineyards to have a bigger crop. Plus, if they replant them to enable mechanisation, it’s less physical work, so a lot of diversity has been lost. Some vineyards have gone from 40 varieties down to just one or two, so some varieties are becoming more and more rare.”
It’s a sad tale, and if it weren’t for growers like Tiago, some of these varieties could be at risk of extinction. Who knows — perhaps some of them have never even been documented! It’s a lot of work for this young man, but it’s admirable and hugely important (and very exciting — we can only imagine how it must feel to finally discover what your vineyard is planted to…)
You might ask: why are they at risk? Why don’t more people protect their field blends and plant more varieties? The answer: it’s not so simple. Tiago explains,
“Viticulture in the region is still heavily influenced by research done in France. And in France, often vineyards are planted to just one, two or three varieties. In the 80s, there were studies to figure out which were the best varieties in the Douro. As a result, there was mass replanting. Companies told farmers, ‘we don’t want to mix varieties,’ and people just followed what they said. There were also European funds for replanting – they gave money to help modernise the vineyards. It’s only now that some people are paying more attention to the old vines, but it’s still easier for farmers to replant — it’s an easier life, so to speak.”
You can understand why — if growers sell to a cooperative and get paid per kilo, and on top of that get grants for replanting, it makes financial sense to plant these productive clones of specific varieties. But with this comes the compromise of losing vinous history — and for Tiago, that compromise is out of the question.
Furthermore, there’s another reason for working with these old varieties: they might be able to help us in our struggles with global warming. Tiago explains,
“Global warming is a reality. I remember what it was like 20/30 years ago. We picked one month before we pick today. My grandfather began harvesting at the end of September, and now we’re harvesting at the end of August. So, it’s really important to return to those old varieties — perhaps more important now than ever before. We can find varieties that better resist the heat, that have delayed ripening… Besides the conservation issues, we also need to look for solutions for the future.”
Although Tiago had learnt a bit about organic viticulture at college, winemaking was taught according to modern, technological methods. He says,
“When I was studying, nobody spoke about natural wine. We were told we have to add yeast, enzymes, nutrients… I think even today in the college environment a lot of people still aren’t aware that it’s feasible to do things in another way.”
When Tiago began making wine, he did so in the manner in which he’d been taught. But step by step, he began moving away from these methods, first ditching the lab-cultured yeasts to allow his wines to ferment naturally instead, then quitting the other additions, until by 2011 he was just using some sulfites.
He has also made a name for himself with his experimental pét-nats, even featuring an orange pét-nat, which looks like Fanta (but the eco, wine version). He says,
“The inspiration for the pét-nats came from a trip I took to New York a few years ago, in 2012. I went to some natural wine bars and came across these pét-nats and was so intrigued by them. So, I started experimenting a little bit, trying it out… just a few hundred bottles. It worked! I like experimenting. My philosophy in winemaking is about experimenting and creating, which is why almost every year there’s something new coming out from the cellar. That’s what I really like about winemaking — the opportunity to create something different.”
And different they are — from skin contact, to amphorae-aged, to darker rosés, to the aforementioned florescent orange pét-nat — but they’re also always about purity.
“I’m always researching to figure out how to achieve my goal: elegance and freshness. That’s what I really like. Wines that — when you drink them — the body asks for a little more. Not something that makes you fall asleep after one glass.”
It was this realisation that changed Tiago’s own philosophy. He recalls,
“In the beginning, when I came out of college, I was looking for concentration and alcohol. I told my family that I was going to make a red wine from red varieties. Everyone thought I was a bit crazy — they said no Tiago, the wine will be too dark, it won’t be drinkable, you shouldn’t do that. I said, no — this is the way it’s done now. We have to make a red wine; it needs to be concentrated.”
Previously, wines had been made with all of the varieties present in the vineyards — so blends of red, white, pink varieties — whatever was historically found. When Tiago tried making wines from solely the red varieties, he realised why this hadn’t traditionally been done. He says,
“Our vineyards here are at high elevation, so the wines I was trying to make were out of balance. They needed a long time ageing to find balance, and I thought: this isn’t the way, clearly this isn’t working. I was trying to go against what I have naturally in the vineyards.”
The reason he’d been wanting to create these larger tannic wines was because that was what he’d been taught the Douro should be:
“The DOC still believes in a Douro style that has to have concentration, colour, tannin, oakiness… but I don’t see that as the future. I think a lot of producers are trying to change, but yet they still don’t break out. That said, if you compare what’s happening today to what was happening in 2000, the wines have a bit more balance. Back then, they were almost all 14/15 % ABV, and really dark red — almost black — with a lot of oak. They were really intense. But even these days they’re still on the ripe, sweeter side of things.”
Tiago quickly realised that he should pursue a different path if he was to faithfully translate his vineyards and fruit, and crucially, if he was to create something he actually wanted to drink:
“I wanted to make something that was light and refreshing, that can go with almost any type of food. That made a lot more sense, and that’s why the wines here were so popular, because you can combine them with pretty much any dish. And in the old days, you’d take wine to the vineyards while you were working, so it couldn’t be something too heavy or alcoholic. And that’s what I like to drink, too — something light and lower in alcohol.”
Soon, he also discovered that there were other ways to play around with winemaking styles. While working with his friends in Vinho Verde, he came across amphorae as a vessel type. He decided to get some for his cellar, too, and received two amphorae from southern Portugal in 2019. He says,
“What I like about amphorae is this slightly more organic influence. You can smell the amphora, but it’s not as overwhelming as oak can be. My idea was to adapt my winemaking to the amphorae. when I was searching for rare varieties, I came across two white varieties I really like — Donzelinho and Samarrinho — and I top grafted some vines with those varieties from cuttings of old vineyards. I thought — why not put those rare varieties in the rare vessels?”
Aside from his experiments, he also makes a wine which he feels represents the historic wines of the region; the kind of wines that his family used to make. This is the Renegado cuvée; which has also recently been joined by a Renegado pét-nat version (essentially the same as the still, but with bubbles).
The name Renegado (Renegade) is meant somewhat ironically — even though this wine is made according to how his grandparents (and the generations before them) made wine, the DOC doesn’t see it as a typical wine rather seeing it as a rebel wine. And the other hand — in rebel style — Tiago won’t let the DOC influence how he believes in making wine or impact his decisions. He says,
“The Renegado is the style of wine that my grandparents made, just like everybody else in the region. It was the kind of wine that was made to be drunk at home — all the varieties picked together, foot stomped as whole bunches in the lagar, with a short maceration period of three or four days, as people wanted to be able to start drinking it in November time. It was a wine for recreation.”
And that’s what Tiago’s wines are for, too — they’re recreational wines — wines to drink when you’re having fun with friends. They’re wines that make us smile. But that doesn’t mean they’re less serious; rather Tiago’s mission is about creating a wine that’s drinkable and which inspires conversation. And judging by how energised we felt after just a glass of Renegado… we think he’s succeeded.