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A Life Indomitable: The Wines of Casal Santa Maria, Portugal

“I have been condemned to death four times,” says the man that everyone calls Senhor Baron with a smile that emerges broadly from underneath his thin mane of snow-white hair and droopy eyelids, “but as you can see, here I am.”

It is two days after his one hundred third birthday and he is dressed in a bold three piece houndstooth suit with a brilliant blue tie and matching pocket square. His wrinkled, pale hands wrap sturdily if slightly trembling around the well worn handle of his cane, and he leans in with a conspiratorial air to tell me his story, but only after insisting I try every one of the canapés on offer at the modest lunch being served in his estate’s tiny tasting room.

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“Seven years ago, when I was 96, I had to go for an operation in Zurich,” he says from the couch beside me, “and when I woke up from the operation, I asked the man, ‘How long do I have to stay here?’

‘My dear friend,’ said the doctor, ‘You have had an operation and just now you are one minute awake. You need to stay here for at least three weeks. But may I ask why you want to know?'”

“And so I told him, ‘I must go home right now and make wine.'”

“I have never had the idea to make wine. It was absurd. But while I was asleep, someone whispered to me. And so I had to go with my full power. I have to carry crosses in this life, and only the age is easy to bear. Where there is a wish, there is a way.”

Two days later, at his direction, Baron Von Breummer’s chauffeur snuck into the hospital and carried him out, driving him while he slept from Switzerland back to his estate on the flanks of Mount Sintra overlooking the sea in Portugal.

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The work to plant a vineyard at Casal Santa Maria began the next day, as did plans to purchase a vineyard nearby.

Senhor Baron Von Breummer was born to an aristocratic family in what is today part of Latvia, but in 1911 was part of the Russian Empire. His family quickly found themselves on the run, hunted by the Bolsheviks, who eventually caught up with his parents and murdered them in front of his eyes when he was a young man. By his own count, Von Breummer attended more than 25 schools in several countries throughout his nomadic and tragedy-filled adolescence.

“He is a man with no country,” says his young and rather dashing winemaker and general manager Jorge Rosa Santos, with a shrug. “He has German and Swiss passports, but has lived all over Europe.”

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Manager Jorge Rosa Santos

At the age of 18, in the wake of his parent’s death, Von Breummer made a living selling cigarettes door to door. He then got work at an Audi dealership, and discovered someone would pay him to drive cars from Germany to Poland for customers, eventually starting a business to do just that. Von Breummer earned enough to put himself through college, and then law school, eventually settling into a career in Finance, working between the US and Zurich, the pinnacle of which involved the sale of his private bank to UBS.

At the age of 61 Von Breummer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a disease which today still has only a 6% survival rate after five years.

“When I was 62,” says Von Breummer, “they told me I had two weeks to live, and I thought I must find a place for my wife to live that is less expensive. In Zurich it is very expensive. I tried to look many places, but then I had a friend who told me to look in Portugal. I had never been to Portugal.”

Von Breummer, who by this time had, as he calls it “overlived” his first pronouncement of death, made several visits to Portugal and, at the urging of his friend, began looking at properties near the seaside north of Lisbon.

“We came many times, and I looked at many times of the day, and it was nice near here, but I did not find the spot I was looking for,” recalls Von Breummer. “Some weeks later I came again near here, and the man showed me many properties, but none was right. I was frustrated. Then the man stopped his car to show me the view, and I got out of the car. You know, here in Portugal, we have road signs and the old ones are made of cement. This man had parked his car right under a sign, and when I got out, I did not see it and I hit my head and I was furious. I said, ‘SHIT!’ and I looked down and I saw… it was just paradise.”

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The two men were perched above a sprawling derelict estate populated with massive trees and a with a commanding view of the beaches to the west.

“I grew up in Tsarist Russia. It was flat and boring. Here were hills and palms and bougainvillea, Things my eyes were not used to seeing. I asked the man, ‘what is that?’ and he told me, ‘It is a big piece of shit. It has been on the market 15 years and no one wants it. Only a crazy person would buy it.'”

“The next day, I began to buy it” grins Von Breummer, his watery blue eyes bright with pride. “I got it, as we say, for an apple and an egg.”

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The old estate didn’t come easy. Thanks to a combination of its age and a generous if impractical original owner, the title to the property was shared among the 16 living descendants of those who worked the original estate before the turn of the century, whose signatures on the original deed consisted merely of their fingerprints. After going as far as East Timor (“The entire length of the colonial empire!” chortles Von Breummer) to complete the purchase, Von Breummer spent 5 years building and restoring the old estate for himself and his wife, and settling into the life of a farmer.

Von Breummer began with cattle, raising cows for milk and meat on the gentle slopes of Mount Sintra. He then switched to breeding and raising Arabian horses during the height of the racing culture in Europe, only to have this very successful hobby-turned-business wiped out by the African horse sickness from Morocco that put an end to the racehorse business in Portugal and much of Southern Europe for a time.

“It all came to a very unnatural end,” Von Breummer says sadly, but he wasn’t out of the livestock business for long.

“One day a South African friend of his called him up,” explains general manager Santos, “and asked for a favor.”

This friend had plans to purchase an estate in the area, on which he intended to raise African midget goats. Could he, the friend wanted to know, send Von Breummer some goats in advance of his moving to Portugal so that they would be there when he arrived? Which is how a couple of years later Von Breummer found himself in possession of 200 midget African goats and no idea what to do with them, since the friend from Africa never bought an estate.

“That was a problem,” chuckles Santos.

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Around the time Von Breummer figured out what to do with the goats (“Some became pets, and the rest probably tasted pretty good” says Santos) his wife passed away. Her name was Dona Maria san Rosario, and in her memory Von Breummer planted his estate with 5000 roses, and settled into a somewhat solitary retirement for a couple of years, until the next time that the doctors told him he was going to die.

At this point in the conversation, Von Breummer removes a small careworn bit of fabric from the left pocket of his suit trousers. From this square pouch of blue silk embroidered with a brown floral motif, Von Breummer pulls a small brass pendulum, shaped like a mason’s plumb weight, hung from a twenty-inch length of red silken thread. To demonstrate its use, I am prompted to ask a question: “what do you want to know,” he says.

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Image © 2014 Peter Granoff – petergranoff.com

I ask if the rain, which has recently moved from intermittent showers to a monsoon-like pounding, will stop today. Wrapping the thread around his hand and grasping it between thumb and forefinger seven inches above the dull, gold patina of its hexagonal weight, he starts the pendulum swinging in a path perpendicular to his lap. After six or seven swings, the pendulum moves out of its linear path and begins to circle counter-clockwise.

“No,” says Von Breummer.

“He pendulums everything,” explained Santos earlier in the day, “all important decisions, questions we have about the weather, and whenever we are deciding when to do things in the vineyard.”

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Von Breummer learned how to use the pendulum during the terminal phase of his wife’s cancer, after being impressed by what he saw as homeopathic doctor’s ability to extend his wife’s life beyond the all-but-immediate death pronouncement from her doctors. An apprenticeship with the homeopath followed, and ever since, Von Breummer has subjected many things in his life to the judgement of the pendulum, but most of all, the advice of his doctors and the medicines they prescribe.

Perhaps to the slight discomfort of his winemaking staff, especially when the pendulum doesn’t swing their way, Von Breummer occasionally even pendulums the proposed blends of his wines

“I always liked wine my whole life,” Von Breummer says in mock outrage, “and finally now I produce wine, and do you know they tell me I am not allowed to drink!”

“But Baron,” I say with a smile, “surely you know where they keep the wine?”

He laughs and leans in for a conspiratorial whisper: “Do you know that sometimes I sneak in and steal a little glass? I feel like a young boy stealing a sip out of a bottle.”

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Image © 2014 Peter Granoff – petergranoff.com

Since his furtive return from the Zurich hospital under the cover of darkness at age 96, about 3000 of the estate’s 5000 roses have been removed to make way for the roughly 18 acres of indigenous and international varieties that are grown at Casal Santa Maria. The baron has also managed to purchase a small plot of ancient vines nearby, one that happens to be one of the world’s most remarkable vineyards.

Von Breummer’s estate and all of his vineyard holdings, sit within of the unusually small, and once world-famous wine region of Colares (pronounced “koo-lar-esh”) north of Lisbon on the coast. The gem of this region, which is occupied by only 6 wine producers and contains less than 100 acres of vines, is the tiny 16 acres of vineyards that qualify for making DOC Colares wine. These 16 acres include the spectacular plot owned by Von Breummer: the top of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic that happens to be the westernmost vineyard in Europe and consists of 150-year-old vines planted in sand dunes, spreading like massive starfish over the sand.

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The regulations of DOC Colares are as strict as they are remarkable. The soil must be pure ocean beach sand with no more than 10% clay content within 4 meters of the surface, and the vines must be bush-trained with no supports save a no-longer-than-30-centimeter stick that can be used to prop up a grape-bearing shoot of the vine during the summer months when the grapes might scorch if left in contact with the sand, though that is not always a worry.

“They say that Colares is where Winter comes for its Summer holiday,” jokes Santos as he shows us around the estate. The region, perhaps not unlike San Francisco, and for similar climatological reasons, often remains overcast and quite humid even in Summer, making for extremely challenging conditions to grow grapes.

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“We always harvest rotten grapes,” says Santos. “It is very difficult to control. And that is one reason we don’t use native yeasts as much as we might like to. We just haven’t had the guts to do it. Considering one berry with rot has the same number of yeasts as 1000 kilos of healthy grapes, we have to go commercial. Senhor Baron is always asking why we cannot move to biodynamics and native yeasts. We are going in that direction, but we have a lot of obstacles to overcome.”

The vineyards on the estate, and the DOC vineyard close to the sea are farmed organically, however, and with the exception of the commercial yeasts, Santos and his assistant winemaker António Figueiredo take a very non-interventionalist approach to the wine, using only old oak (and none on their DOC Colares wines) lest they obscure the flavors of the region. They do some stirring of the lees (leftover yeast and sediment from fermentation) to help slightly counter the often searing acidity of the wines (pH levels are often below 3 with 8to 9 grams per liter of acidity). These almost unheard of levels of acidity not only give the wines an incredible character, but also helps mitigate the effects of any rot that might make it past the winery’s meticulous sorting.

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The two permitted grapes in the DOC Colares region are the white Malvasia de Colares, a distinct clone of Malvasia indigenous to the region, and Ramisco, a light bodied red grape that has a similar character to Trousseau or Poulsard. Santos has these two grapes planted on the estate as well, but cannot bottle them under the DOC designation. In addition to these, the estate contains an experimental patchwork of grapes, whose whites include Sauvignon Blanc, Arinto, Alvarinho, and Riesling, and whose reds consist of Touriga Nacional, Merlot, and Pinot Noir, all of which are planted behind hedges that serve as wind screens to protect the grapes from the weather blown in off the Atlantic, which sits 350 meters to the west down the hill.

The estate produces about 6500 cases of wine, and of that, a measly 250 cases (3000 bottles) can carry the DOC Colares label. The freshly planted vineyards yielded their first harvest in 2010, a mere four years after Von Breummer’s midnight return from his fateful operation in Zurich. Wines from the old-vine DOC Colares that the Baron purchased at that time were made beginning in 2006.

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Though Casal Santa Maria is a new project, it seems to quite easily have tapped into the soul and history of its tiny, but storied wine region. The first mention of Colares wine appears in documents dating to 1148. In the 15th and 16th century, the Colares wines were consumed by royalty and aristocrats.

“The ships that ‘discovered’ Brazil and parts of Asia carried Colares wines,” says Santos, though he is unwilling to vouch for what shape they were in by the time they reached the end of their voyages.

Having an indomitable 103-year-old proprietor doesn’t hurt the sense that somehow Casal Santa Maria somehow represents a modern-day echo of the past. And then there are the wines themselves, which taste of exotic scents borne on the raw sea air.

I ask Von Breummer how he feels about his accomplishments now after hearing that voice while he slept seven years ago.

“I confess, sometimes I feel like I can’t go, but if you want to do something you activate yourself and you press out the last drops. You put in all your force, and success makes you a little bit tipsy and happy. I see all this and realize how much there is between heaven and earth we do not know.”

“Look at those doctors,” he says with a laugh, “they have given up on me. They wave their hands and say, “This guy is on a tightrope and he never falls.'”

At this he motions me closer, and with a wink, says, “but someday I will.”

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Image © 2014 Peter Granoff – petergranoff.com

Until then, he will continue this chapter of his life’s work in the house above the sea, surrounded by his vines and his roses, and by a small, dedicated staff who clearly know what a remarkable story they are keeping alive.

I hope you enjoy the notes on these wines, which are some of the most unique and remarkable I tasted while in Portugal, despite their not being available in the US (or indeed, many other places outside Portugal). Though given the reactions of the wine directors, retailers, and importers that accompanied me on this visit, that may change in short order.

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2011 Casal Santa Maria Red Blend, Lisbon, Portugal
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of green herbs, black olives, horse manure and wet forest floor. In the mouth, forest floor, red fruits, roasted green pepper, and wet leaves mix with a distinct saline quality that lingers in the finish with a sappy, crushed herb character. A blend of 50% Touriga Nacional and 50% Merlot. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $28

2013 Casal Santa Maria Arinto, Lisbon, Portugal
Pale yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of grapefruit pith and wet stones. In the mouth, pink grapefruit, wet stones, and lemon oil taper to a mineral saline quality that lingers for a long time in the finish with pink grapefruit sourness. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $43

2013 Casal Santa Maria Chardonnay, Lisbon, Portugal
Palest yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of cold cream and lemon curd. In the mouth, gorgeously saline lemon curd and wet stone flavors give way to grapefruit and exotic citrus in a long refreshing finish. Fermented in barrels. Outstanding. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $57

2011 Casal Santa Maria Late Harvest Petit Manseng, Lisbon, Portugal
Light amber gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey, candied orange peel, and roasted nuts. In the mouth, gorgeous candied orange peel, honey, and a wonderful saline character make for a mouthwatering wine especially when coupled with excellent acidity. A fantastic rendition of what this grape can do with a little botrytis and a late harvest. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $63

2013 Casal Santa Maria Malvasia, Lisbon, Portugal
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of candle wax and grapefruit pith. In the mouth pink grapefruit pith and wet stones have a nice saline quality and a long citrus finish. Crackling minerality and excellent balance. 12.5% alcohol Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $43

2011 Casal Santa Maria DOC Colares Malvasia de Colares, Colares, Portugal
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of candle wax, dried lemon peel, and bee pollen. In the moth gorgeous flavors of candle wax, citrus oil, and bee pollen are welded to a crushed liquid stone and seawater kelpiness that possess a fantastic texture and length. Gorgeous salinity. A completely amazing and unique wine. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $116

2011 Casal Santa Maria Pinot Noir, Lisbon, Portugal
Pale garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberries. tomato leaf, carob, and wet earth. In the mouth, fine grained tannins coat the mouth with a muddy river quality and flavors of raspberries, raspberry leaf, and wet earth. Good acidity, and nice earthy depth, but not special. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $85

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2006 Casal Santa Maria DOC Colares Ramisco, Colares, Portugal
Light ruby in the glass this wine has a remarkable aroma of garrigue, sandalwood, red fruit, and a hint of barnyard. In the mouth, gorgeous dried flowers, raspberries, and redcurrants mix with wet stones and a bit of mint. Faint, sandpapery tannins wrap around the edges of mouth. Orange and other citrus notes linger in the finish. Aged in Brazilian mahogany barrels. Quite unique and remarkable. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $116

2013 Casal Santa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, Lisbon, Portugal
Palest yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of green bell pepper and cut grass. In the mouth, deeply stony and saline flavors of green bell pepper, cucumber, and cut grass have a faint aromatic sweetness to them. Quite crisp and delicious. Excellent acidity. 13% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $43

2011 Casal Santa Maria White Blend, Lisbon, Portugal
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of salty buttered popcorn and wet stones. In the mouth lemon pith, green herbs and a bit of green bell pepper, seawater, and wet stones mix with a faint oak signature. That whiff of wood is quickly eclipsed by a finish of lemon scented sea air. Incredibly mineral and bright. A blend of 50% Arinto and 50% Chardonnay. The Chardonnay is aged and fermented in barrel, the Arinto in steel. Ages in bottle before release. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $29

2012 Casal Santa Maria Senhor d’Adraga White Blend, Lisbon, Portugal
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of sea air, green willow bark, and star fruit. In the mouth the wine has an extraordinary salty cucumber and star fruit flavor with a deep minerality. Fermented and aged in oak, but with very little signature of wood. Quite unique. A blend of 40% Arinto, 40% Alvarinho, and 20% Chardonnay. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $18

2012 Casal Santa Maria Senhor d’Adraga Red Blend, Lisbon, Portugal
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried cherries, wet redwood bark, and earth. In the mouth, leather, dried black cherries, and a faint herbal note mix with soft velvety tannins. Good acidity. The only wine produced at the estate that includes purchased grapes. A blend of Touriga National, Aragonez, and Trincadiera. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $18

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