In 2017, Aline Domingues left Paris for Uva, a remote village on the Planalto Mirandês, a quiet and mostly desolate countryside in northeast Portugal. Born in 1989, in Cergy, a small suburb about twenty-five kilometers northwest of the center of Paris, she was the youngest of four children born to Portuguese parents. Immigrants from Uva, a minuscule and impoverished ancient village only thirty kilometer from the border of Spain, they came to France in search of better economic prosperity and to escape the dictatorship, like so many Portuguese in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Scientist First, Vigneron SecondBefore Aline cut her own first vine and crafted her wine, she became a scientist. She spent seven years between the Universities of Paris Diderot, Dijon, Cergy, and Orléans. During that time, she earned an impressive haul of three Masters degrees in Molecular Biology, Fermentation Science, and QHSE (Quality Health Safety Environment)—the latter of which was more focused on workplace management. Read more
While she was at university, she worked for two years in a laboratory where she studied the metabolism of yeast, and during a school break in September 2012, she worked a harvest in Beaujolais at a domaine that practiced conventional farming—which she immediately realized wasn’t for her. Then, it was during her time at the University of Dijon that she became more fascinated with wine and immersed herself on the subject. Her first official internship was with a Morey-Saint-Denis biodynamic producer, Gilles Ballorin, where she worked exclusively in the cellar.
A Committed LifeIn 2015, she met Merlin, the owner of a small watering hole in Paris focused on craft beer, Jura wines and other natural products. With Merlin’s encouragement and support, Aline started to explore the possibilities beyond Paris and what might come of her life with her interest in wine. She took a break from working and hit the road. After a few months she returned to Paris to work at a wine bar to learn more about the subject, from that perspective. Eventually, the idea to go back to her family’s roots in Portugal began to take hold. She considered going to where her grandfather Americo lived, in Uva, but thought that it might be too isolated. The idea of going to livelier regions, like the Douro, seemed more promising. She went to Uva in 2017, anyway, to make an experimental wine with Americo’s grapes. She explained that to make wine with Americo would be impossible because he simply wouldn’t let her do things her way, so she made a hundred liters of wine in a different building that had no power or electricity. That was the beginning of Menina d’uva and Aline’s life in Uva. With every visit to the girl from uva (Menina d’uva), thoughts of how incredible it is that at age twenty-eight Aline took the leap from Paris, one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, to Uva, clearly not a common move for a young Parisienne at the start of their professional career, or ever, for that matter; it’s in the middle of nowhere, even for Portugal, a country already on the true edge of continental Europe, and one of just a few European countries bordered by a single country on the mainland. In Uva there’s a coffee shop/bar in the center of town that never seems to be open, and a lot of not much else other than the beautiful, natural surroundings, and the ancient, yet nicely renovated bright-white structures for housing pigeons, called dovecoats, that litter the hillsides above the town. Aline’s choice was clearly not that of the vigneron inhabiting the modern lifestyle of close proximity to great restaurants and specialty grocery stores; I know from experience that there’s no place for a quick meal and what you can find isn’t going to be light fare. There’s also a dearth of like-minded people nearby—though she does have some cohorts about forty minutes away, at Arribas Wine Company, another Portuguese duo we work with who have the same kind of admirable commitment to working in Portugal’s Siberia as she does. It’s real European backcountry living and one has to be tough to live in the area—not only physically, but also mentally. Aline admitted that she struggled with the decision during her first year. But after that, it gradually became her home. Uva is a straight shot from the Atlantic directly east from Porto. It’s about two hundred kilometers, or a hundred twenty-five miles, as the crow flies, so it’s hard to accept that it takes about three hours to drive because it looks so close on a map. But the roads zigzag through and around a series of mountain ranges, and while there are a few straightaways (thankfully), it all leads to what seems like an endless maze of rural roads that pass through tiny one-lane villages and over an endless horizon of rolling multi-colored hills patched with fields, picturesque orchards and groves, with hardly a human to be seen outside a passing car. To the other side, on the eastern border of Portugal, it’s Spanish desert, and the closest city is Zamora, the local equivalent to Mali’s Timbuktu. The Trás-os-Montes and its most eastern subzone, Planalto Mirandês, is famous for high quality olive oil, nuts, meat, sausages, cheeses, and a multitude of crops. It’s also known for wine, but not the kind for those with a low tolerance for high alcohol and the overly flavored.
Menina d’uva’s WinesWhile the Trás-os-Montes is known for heavy wines, Menina d’uva couldn’t be much further from that style. Here, she’s begun to modernize the wines in the best possible way: indigenous local grape varieties, organic farming, naked wines made through gentle extraction and a low-tech, heavily thought out, soft-touch approach. The result is wines with soft-colored hues, low-to-medium alcohol with natural freshness and tension. Her wines have heightened aromatic nuances of spring fruits, moorland brush and flowers, with unusually deep minerally and metallic textures that vibrate on the palate. While Aline’s wines are mostly the opposite of what one thinks of with Portuguese wines, her white, made mostly from Malvasia, is more in line with the country’s white wine style in its texture and more subdued aromatics, as well as its likely natural capacity for the long haul; we’ll see about that in time, given her first vintage is 2018. I admit that I am extremely impressed by the depth and almost invincibility of many of Portugal’s white wines, like those from the Vinho Verde, Bairrada and around Lisbon, and I have a particular fascination with the Colares white wines made from the same Malvasia grape. The only thing that seems to hold back the consistency of older wines is how the Portuguese commonly allow their cellars that fluctuate too much in temperature throughout each year. Somehow in Portugal Malvasia is more attractively made than other parts of the world where there is almost a negative association with the grape for having too abundant of an aromatic sweet floral and perfume punch. They’re different here, as they are in Italy’s Carso, and some neighboring areas of Friuli. Her red wines, by contrast, are strangers from a distant land. They taste and feel every bit as much like they’re from central or western Galicia, or areas like Saint-Pourçain in France’s Upper Loire Valley, or a Côte Roannaise; or the nearly forgotten Persan from Isère, or perhaps even the Beaujolais Jules Chauvet’s made decades ago (which I’ve only read about)—not only from the alcohol level, but the tensile ripeness and gentle, attractive amargo of the fruit. The aromas in Aline’s reds are high-toned, fresh and bright, even in her Palomba, a darker red made almost entirely of Negreda, a grape variety that is curiously low in tannin for its dark, thick skins. The smell of both is impactful and vibrant, pure and beguiling, like energized spring fruits and the aromas of arid land with sweet red flowers in bloom—this really describes the red, Ciste. Once in the mouth, the textures are unexpectedly concentrated with vibrant, dense mineral and metal impressions. While Aline’s reds are often shy at first, they blossom into wines that are as beautiful and charming as they are contemplative and serious.
Filosofia: Uma Naturalista e MinimalistaWe here at The Source believe in and support the philosophic ideals of the natural wine movement. In fact, nearly 90% of our growers work in organic, biodynamic or natural ways; the others who are not are at least enlightened and craft wines no less compelling than the others. However, many winegrowers—especially newer ones—don’t come to the trade with a well-versed scientific understanding or enough experience to carefully navigate what the majority in the industry consider flaws or faults in wines; it’s often more like throwing spaghetti at the wall, or more to the point, at the unsuspecting consumer just looking for a bottle of wine to share during a good meal. Since I began my journey into wine in 1995, I’ve also witnessed many wine quality offenses in other inspired wine movements that came before the popularization of the term, “natural wine.” Some of those who committed early on to the organic and/or biodynamic movement are responsible for some of the worst wines I’ve tasted in my life, while they also made some of the most compelling I’ve ever had. Today, it’s different. Producers and consumers continue to learn and have higher expectations, and the excuses for negligence and blunders are now mostly unacceptable (with the exception of the followers of a few cultish holdouts). Aline aligns with the natural wine movement, but, like us, she posits that wine is a craft left to nature’s desires more than an art, and faulty or bad wine is avoidable and shouldn’t get a pass simply because of its ideological pretense. If only there were more naturistas like Aline, equally committed to science as they are to ideology! What follows may now be obvious after what’s already stated, but there are no synthetic treatments used in Aline’s vineyards. The exception is the usual inclusion of sulfur and copper, more or less obligatory for all European viticulture to combat powdery and downey mildew if a grower wants to have leaves and grapes on their vines. Since her first vintage in 2018, she’s done a lot of rehabilitation on old vineyards in the area. Prior to her arrival, most of them had been trained toward quantity production and looked like porcupine shoots before she put her clippers to work on them. She’s also planted a few new parcels with massal selections from the area. Aline’s approach to the cellar is minimalistic. She’s an active observer, taster and tester, but imposes little if any intervention until bottling. The positive consequences of collecting perfectly healthy fruit, proper cellar hygiene and making sure fermentations are clean and efficient is obvious. If those elements are done well, there is little else to do except judicious and precise adjustments until bottling time. Because she just began her new métier in 2018, she sees the need for experimentation and observation to better understand the behavior of the grapes she’s working with, while also letting the wine capture the essence of what she’s farmed with as few unforced errors as possible along the way.
Aline Explains (with slight adaptation)“The viticulture is completely natural, without any use of chemical or synthetic products. It is aimed at enhancing vine stock vigor by using plant and homemade compost. Life soil is stimulated by restoring plant cover with leguminous and graminaceous species (grasses, or grass-related plants), between the vines. In the cellar, whole grapes are used for the reds, while the white and rosé grapes are gently pressed with a manual vertical press. The fermentation process is entirely natural, without additional yeasts or additives. To preserve the terroir expression, the wines primarily mature in stainless steel tanks, and are bottled by gravity with a minimal dose of sulfites (30-40 mg/L total), left unfined and unfiltered.” -TV
Lay of the Land
Lost in Portugal? You are not alone…If the Trás-os-Montes or, for that matter, any Portuguese wines are new to you, you are in the same boat as a lot of wine professionals and consumers. Frankly, I consider myself ignorant on the subject given that the vast majority of my wine life has been focused on the wines of France, Italy, Germany, Austria, and more recently Northwestern Spain. But what keeps wine interesting to most of us is that there’s always something new around this subject; it’s a choose-your-own-adventure that always reminds us how little we know about the subject no matter how long we study it. Trás-os-Montes is the obscure within the already globally obscure world of Portuguese wines. (There’s even a wine from the Trás-os-Montes aptly named, The Lost Corner.) This is a consequence of many historical factors, including vine diseases, phylloxera, alien mildews from the new world, wars, poverty, and a dictatorship; you know, the typical European wine region challenges. Also, the commercial wines in Trás-os-Montes perhaps are and may have always been too rustic for the American wine consumer weaned on fruit-forward domestic wines, other more enologically polished wines from famous European regions, as well as various new world wines with more common grape names and familiar euro-phonetics found inside American culture. Read more
After moving to Portugal in 2019 I quickly came to realize that American’s nearly non-existent references to Portuguese culture and language plays a major part in the lack of presence of Portuguese wine in the US market. While every other major wine-producing country in Western Europe contributed a lot of immigrants to North America who brought their cultures along with them—citing especially France, Italy and Spain—whose Romance languages and cultures are ubiquitous throughout the county, Portuguese wine fame is mostly limited to Port wine and to a lesser degree, innocuous bargain white and red still wines. The wines of the Trás-os-Montes are well known for tasting like not much more than liquid fuel made for the purpose of keeping the field workers going. But before you click away based on this description, there’s hope! Hope in the form of wines like the heroine of this story, Aline Domingues. Her wines bottled under her label, Menina d’uva, are not at all like the wines historically grown in this region. Just as Aline, a Parisienne by birth, sticks out in the area, and so do her wines. But before we dig into her wines, a little foundational material might be useful.