Vinho da Ordem – Embracing Diversity in Vines: A Quest for Authenticity Beyond Appellations

Wine Producers

Vinho da Ordem – Embracing Diversity in Vines: A Quest for Authenticity Beyond Appellations

Pedro Jerónimo is an environmental engineer who commutes between Holland and the Vinho da Ordem vineyards of the Beira Interior National Park. His goal was to save endangered grape varieties. “We need them for the future, to preserve biodiversity.”

Discover the Beira Interior: Portugal’s Hidden Gem of Mountains, Wine, and Rich Tradition

Bordering Spain, the Beira Interior in central Portugal has a dramatic landscape of high mountains, isolated old villages and fortified towns. It is home to one of the country’s largest national parks, and the poor soil on the slopes of the Serra da Estrela mountain range has been used to grow wine for hundreds of years. In the small village of Valhelas, the Jerónimo family has worked the land for five generations. The tradition is carried on by Pedro Jerónimo, who makes wine in minimal quantities under the name Vinho da Ordem. The name is a tribute to the religious orders that once grew wine here.

River Zêzere, tributary of the Tagus, near its source. It flows here past Vinho da Ordem's estate. In the background Serra da Estrela, Portugal's highest mountain.
River Zêzere, tributary of the Tagus, near its source. It flows here past Vinho da Ordem’s estate. In the background Serra da Estrela, Portugal’s highest mountain. (Photo: Vinho da Ordem)

Preserving the Legacy, Nurturing the Future: Upholding Family Traditions and Revitalising Ancient Vines

“I was born in Lisbon, but I remember holidays with my grandparents here in Valhelas,” says Pedro Jerónimo, who couldn’t see the centuries-old vines decaying.

Twelve years ago, he became involved in the family vineyard – a hectare or so of black and white grapes planted alternately. “That’s how we used to farm; it was a way to survive. If one grape variety produced little fruit, another produced more. You always got something.”

The rugged terrain and remote location place demands on the winemaker. Conditions that don’t always match today’s reality. On the challenges, Pedro Jerónimo says: “There are still some vineyards around, but more and more are being abandoned because of the age of the owners – some are over 80 years old – but also because productivity is lower. People are simply giving up on them.”

The entrance to Vinho da Ordem with the mountains in the background, some of the old vineyards and the estate's house.
The entrance to Vinho da Ordem with the mountains in the background, some of the old vineyards and the estate’s house. (Photo: Vinho da Ordem)

Vinho da Ordem: Crafting Authentic Wines with Unfiltered Flavours, the Old-Fashioned Way

Pedro Jerónimo has a background in environmental biology and chemistry but knew nothing about wine. To help him preserve the vineyard, he has a team, all experts in their field, all local. The goal is to replant the old varieties and make wine the way it was done in the past – no irrigation, no fertiliser, no weed control. No cultured yeast and minimal sulphur. About 2,000 bottles are produced yearly, half kept for their own use and sold directly from the cellar.

Vinho da Ordem makes three different wines. One white, or rather orange, one red and one rosé. “All of them are a mix of the grapes we have. We have had help analysing the field, and I think we have around 16 grape varieties.”

All varieties are represented in the rosé wine. Among them are Rufete, Jaen, Síria, Fonte Cal and Folgosão. The winemaking process for all wines is quite similar and straightforward: “We harvest all the grapes at the same time and let it ferment for a week. Then, the wine rests in steel tanks until December, when we transfer it to another barrel after the solid particles have fallen to the bottom. This means we don’t have to filter. We only add a minimal amount of sulphur at bottling to stabilise the wine, a maximum of 30 milligrams per litre. We want the wine to result from our work in the vineyard, not the cellar.”

A bottle of Vinho da Ordem Rosado, the rose wine.
A bottle of Vinho da Ordem Rosado, the rose wine. (Photo: Vinho da Ordem)

Pedro Jerónimo: A Winemaker’s Tale of Tricky Harvests to Unique Vintages

He admits that choosing the right time to harvest can be a bit tricky. The least ripe grapes should not be too acidic, and the most mature ones should not be rotten or raisiny. “But we learn over the years, and the funny thing is that all vintages vary in colour and taste.”

With a smile that can be sensed through the phone lines all the way to Sweden, Pedro Jerónimo remembers the 2014 vintage. “We all loved it, but it no longer exists because we only make a few thousand bottles a year. But that’s also the charm of the whole thing.”

About 2021, which was a disaster in many parts of Europe, he doesn’t sound as gloomy as his colleagues, mainly in France – and that’s primarily thanks to the local grape varieties that have adapted over the years to the conditions here with hot summers and cold winters, and a mostly granite soil.

“The quality of the grapes was good, although we didn’t get a large quantity. It was not so hot this year and quite rainy, so some growers lost a lot to various fungal diseases. We did well because our vines don’t have as much foliage as the younger ones, so there isn’t much for the fungi to take hold. We also work hard in the vineyard to prevent fungal attacks. We can do that because we are so small; we only have one hectare and two small plots.”

An old vine covered with snow during winter at Vinho da Ordem.
An old vine covered with snow during winter at Vinho da Ordem. (Photo: Vinho da Ordem)

Unearthing the Forgotten Treasures of Ancient Grape Varieties

The disappearance of old varieties, despite their hardiness, is not unique to Portugal. The same phenomenon can be seen in most European wine countries – as well as a recent realisation that they are worth saving in a world that is expected to have an increasingly extreme climate.

“Not only were the ancient varieties not certified, but they were not the first choice for growers to replant – the older varieties produce fewer grapes and less colour. They simply weren’t accepted by the critics”, explains Pedro Jerónimo, referring to Parkerisation (In the 80s, wine critic Robert Parker was so influential that producers made wine to cater to the American’s penchant for muscular fruit and new oak, which could result in high scores and good sales).

“The growers destroyed their vineyards. There’s nothing wrong with growing Syrah, but I think it’s wrong to rip up old vineyards to plant Syrah.”

But new times are coming. More and more growers, producers and critics are beginning to appreciate the old varieties and realise their inherent qualities. “These grapes are adapted to local conditions through natural selection and thus deliver good results. Some of them may in the future be used in other places and be part of the international grape bank, such as Syrah and, more recently, Touriga Nacional (The blue Portuguese grape is one of six ‘new’ grape varieties allowed to be grown in Bordeaux to cope with a warmer climate).”

Unlocking the Unique Flavours of Vinho da Ordem: Breaking Free from Appellations and Embracing True Freedom

Despite the “ultra-local” grape varieties, Vinho da Ordem’s wines are sold as Vinho Portugal, not under the DOC Beira Interior appellation. “That’s what many people do here,” explains Pedro Jerónimo, who has his arguments ready: “Outside the appellation, we have more freedom to do how and what we want. Making wine from a certain number of grapes with a certain technique that goes against our style of wine. Besides, how can we certify our wine if we don’t know all the grapes ourselves?”

Pedro Jerónimo at Vinho da Ordem.
Pedro Jerónimo at Vinho da Ordem. (Photo: Vinho da Ordem)

Trailblazing Vinho da Ordem: Pioneers of Authenticity and Individuality in Winemaking

The emergence of vineyards like Vinho da Ordem signals a shift in the winemaking industry, a departure from the restrictive norms of appellations towards a more experimental and individualistic approach. They emphasise the importance of local grapes, nurturing their inherent quality and unlocking unique flavours that truly reflect their terroir. By stepping outside the established appellations and embracing their freedom, these winemakers are not only preserving an array of forgotten grape varieties but also carving out a unique identity in the international wine landscape. As the appreciation for such authentic flavours grows, the future seems promising for these trailblazers and their distinctively local wines.