It is impossible not to look at the history of Quinta de Covela, a winery in Portugal’s Douro Verde region that has faced misfortune, gotten some lucky breaks and survived tricks of fate, as a masterpiece of literature, one that could easily be adapted to the cinema.
In fact, the area around the winery already has ties to both genres: It inspired A Cidade e as Serras, the last work of José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, the 19th-century writer who is one of the towering figures of Portuguese literature. And it was here that famous Portuguese film director Manoel de Oliveira bought a large swath of property to prove himself a worthy candidate for the hand of Maria Isabel Carvalhais, the woman who would become his wife.
When we arrive at the train station, it’s clear that everything around Covela is an aid to the imagination. Admirers of Eça de Queiroz’ work wander around the station, where the two main characters of his novel arrived from Paris, and climb the steep streets – Caminhos de Jacinto – that run through the mountains to the Eça de Queiroz Foundation’s house-museum.
Yet we do not follow the road to the end because we are chasing a story with a different and unlikely hero: a Brit who speaks Portuguese with a Brazilian accent. After we turn off Caminhos de Jacinto, we find Anthony Smith working under the shade of a vine – his office, as he calls it. Formerly a journalist, he tells us the whole story of Quinta de Covela, one of the region’s most creative wineries, and how it had been left to rot only to be revived.
The farm dates back to the 16th century, when monks and nuns cultivated mainly potatoes and corn there. In the 1950s, it belonged to the family of Maria Isabel, whose father vetoed his daughter’s marriage to Manoel de Oliveira. The argument? He didn’t possess the so-called “moonlight goods,” the traditional Portuguese expression used to describe real estate that is visible to everyone, such as buildings, properties and, in this case, land. “It’s a beautiful expression,” Smith says, almost sighing.
“We have,” explains the Brit, “in the middle of Covela, a stream, which was the border between two lands. What did Manoel de Oliveira do? He bought the other side, Quinta das Turquesas, and returned with the deed in hand. He combined both [properties] and expanded the Covela. At that time he had vineyards, but it was to make wine to have at home. The main crops were still potatoes, corn and fruit trees.”
In the 80s, a new owner, entrepreneur Nuno Araújo, oversaw the first experiments with commercial winemaking: He planted foreign grape varieties, such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer, and mixed them with the local varieties avesso and arinto. “Portugal had just joined the European Economic Community, it was not the country it is today. People were thirsty for new things,” Smith explains.
“There must be those who think we’re fools, but we’ve inherited a somewhat wacky vineyard,” Smith jokes.
By nature of its location, Quinta de Covela is already quite different: It sits on the border between the Douro Valley and the Vinho Verde wine region, so they call it Douro Verde (Green Douro). The vines are grown in granite terraces instead of shale, and then there’s the climate, which is dry, hot and much less rainy, almost Mediterranean, resulting in a shorter maturation of the grapes, which, together with the unusual grape combinations, resulted in “odd wines,” as Smith calls them.
By the 1990s, the winery was producing some of the region’s most innovative vino. “Covela had earned a reputation for being irreverent, they were seen as the wine geeks, the extremist oenophiles, or, as the Brazilians say, the eno-annoying,” Smith says. “The wines were, and still are, unique. It is very difficult to categorize them. In a blind tasting, most people would not say Vinho Verde. Maybe not even Portugal. The grape variety is very special, very few people recognize it, and it is difficult to propagate in the world. It’s almost an exclusive club.”
Covela’s calling card is the avesso grape, which is “good for a producer who likes to experiment but is complicated,” Smith tells us over lunch. Despite the quality and acidity that allows it to be stored for a long time, the grape variety “does not travel very well,” so attempts to plant avesso outside this region have never been successful.
But how does a British journalist, a former war correspondent, get to Covela? This story alone could be a book. Smith did not arrive by himself, but with his good friend and business partner, Marcelo Lima, a Brazilian businessman with a background in finance. “The story of how we met enters the ‘it could only be like this’ category, it was our fado [destiny],” he says.
It was 2000, and Smith had just moved to Sao Paulo after working in Portugal. At the time, while traveling in Uzbekistan, Lima met a friend of the British journalist who told him to “help my friend Tony because he doesn’t know anyone in Brazil.” As if that were not enough of an impetus, Lima stopped in Lisbon on the return trip, where he met more of Smith’s friends.
Back in Sao Paulo, Lima sent Smith an email, and the two struck up a friendship: They began going to happy hours with a group of wine-loving friends who not only drank vino together but also organized trips to wine regions around the world. The idea of starting some sort of wine business began to percolate.
In 2009, ruinous investments led to the failure of Quinta de Covela, which was consequently put up for auction. In another detail worthy of literature, Lima learned of the sale while chatting with two businessmen from Braga, a city northeast of Porto, around the pool in Rio de Janeiro. “I didn’t know the farm,” Smith says, “but I told [Lima] right away that the wines were good.”
As the auction was the following week, the two friends did not have time to bid. But thanks to luck, or fado, Covela didn’t find a buyer. Later, while one was going to London and the other to Istanbul, Smith and Lima made a stop in Porto, rented a car and drove to Covela. “It was a horrible day,” the Brit recalls, “it was raining cats and dogs, but we could tell the place was wonderful. Neither of us said anything during the visit. When we got in the car, we said, ‘That’s it.’”
But the real estate gods did not favor our protagonists. At the second auction, the bank, the farm’s main creditor, offered twice the amount presented by Smith and Lima. “I left the auction very sad,” the former journalist recalls. Soon after, however, the bank entered its own insolvency proceedings, which translated to months spent in court. “We went to see other farms,” Smith admits, “but they didn’t have the same charm as Covela.”
The happy ending would come almost two years later in another match of fate. A friend called Smith to report that the court was forcing the bank to sell its properties, including Quinta de Covela. But who was this friend? The same one who, in the 1990s, in Algarve, first introduced Smith to Covela’s wines: “He said at that time, ‘you have to try these wines. They are made by crazy people up there [in the North] who are mixing national and foreign varieties. It’s wild.’”
Smith visited Covela again, only to find a very different vineyard: “It was all abandoned, all black, they had not picked the grapes, and had sent all the employees home,” he recalls. But the partners bought it anyway, in 2011, “a decision more from the heart than from the head.”
The first thing they did was to rehire everybody because “when you’re an outsider, the easiest thing is to go get people who know the land.” António Loureiro, the overseer, came back, and so did the Rui Cunha, winemaker, and the entire field staff. For Cunha, in particular, Covela was “like first love,” Smith says. “We asked him if there was anything that he wanted to do but had not had the chance to do. He said 100 percent avesso, unmixed. So that’s what we did.”
“We’re not arrogant, we can hear,” Smith says as to why things have gone so well, given that neither he nor Lima had much experience in the wine industry before purchasing Covela. With imports a dime a dozen nowadays, the partners bet on planting domestic grapes. “The trump card here are our varieties – avesso, arinto and touriga,” he explains, pointing out that the former isn’t grown anywhere else.
Covela was reborn. “We increased white, reduced red and found that this area is awesome for making great whites and a beautiful rosé,” Smith says. Farm staff, fellow producers and critics liked what they saw. “Many said that it had to be two foreigners, with different ideas, to champion the Portuguese grape varieties.”
When it comes to the vineyards, however, the two partners haven’t made any changes. Smith stresses that everything is done by hand in Quinta de Covela, because “these are very high terraces, with many steps and a deathly heat…. I understand why there aren’t enough [villagers] to work the vines.”
Yet there is no shortage of people looking for their opportunity in Covela. In addition to interns who often come from abroad, there are two young men who chose to work at this farm in Douro Verde. Tiago Figueiredo and Miguel Moniz are in their early 20s. Tiago is from Lisbon and spent several years in London, where he worked at the Cavalry and Guards Club, a swanky gentlemen’s club. Today he is the sommelier and guide at Covela, doing the reverse of many young people in Portugal, who often leave the country in search of better opportunities.
Miguel comes from Aveiro, but today he wears the chef’s jacket in the kitchen of Quinta de Covela. Drawn to the tranquility of rural life, he finds much of his inspiration – and his ingredients – on the property. It helps that Covela has long been a biological farm, far from chemicals and pesticides, and the first with a biodiversity certificate in Portugal, where all kinds of aromatic herbs flourish and the vines grow side by side with a forest full of wild boars, plus a number of fruit trees.
After managing Covela for seven years, Smith admits that, despite not being a religious man, he has a better understanding of the importance of religion in these communities. “Because you are surrendered to God,” he says, especially when it comes to the rising temperatures and other atmospheric changes brought on by the climate crisis. “If I learned anything here it was praying,” the Brit says. “There is nothing more you can do.”
We visited a week or so before the harvest, at which point Covela expected production to rise slightly in some plots, while others struggled with the strong winds that came at the time of flowering. “We never had this problem here. We have frost, fungus, but these are regular [problems], we are aware of them and have treatments. The wind I can’t control,” he says.
In addition to Quinta de Covela, Smith and Lima bought two farms in the Douro, where they have produced red wine since 2013. But Covela continues to be the feather in their cap. “There must be those who think we’re fools, but we’ve inherited a somewhat wacky vineyard,” Smith jokes. “We’re not crazy, but we have a good deal of irreverence. People respect us for what we have done.”
Editor’s note: To celebrate the start of fall, we’re running a series focused on the grape harvest and winemaking.