Since 2002, Howard Bilton and David Baverstock, Portugal’s premier winemaker, have partnered to bring to the market a range of outstanding wines under the Howard’s Folly label. Bilton is a businessman hailing from Yorkshire, now living in Hong Kong, an enthusiastic art collector, wine lover and admirer of Portugal’s wines especially from the Alentejo region. Australian-born Baverstock has won the Portuguese Red Wine Trophy at the International Wine Challenge on two occasions, and in 1999 he became the first non-Portuguese person to win International Wine Challenge's Winemaker of the Year (Portugal). With a newly opened state-of-the-art winery, this unstoppable winemaking duo have been catching the attention of respected critics across the wine world. We caught up with David Baverstock to find out about his fine wine project Howard's Folly and the growing reputation of Alentejo in Portugal for producing some of Portugal's most exciting wines...
After reading a couple of interviews with yourself I read that your first vintage was in Morgon. This is where I did my first harvest in 2006 and that experience got me hooked on wine! Can you recall the effect that harvest had on you?
Similar effect, although I had already studied winemaking in Oz and was convinced it was the career for me. I worked at the famous LaPierre winery with Marcel and learnt a lot from him about winemaking but also how to have a good time during a vintage - every night was a party with great company, food and amazing wines from all over France.
Can you give a brief timeline of events of your career following this that finally led you to Howard’s Folly?
My career had a lot to do with the fact that I had / have a Portuguese wife. After the Morgon vintage we travelled down to Portugal and I started working in the Port trade, firstly with Croft and then the Symington Group. During this latter time, I became interested in Douro table wines and kicked off Quinta de la Rosa, and a couple of years later, Quinta do Crasto. I left the Port trade for Herdade do Esporão and the Alentejo in 1992 and have been the chief winemaker there since then.
How did you and Howard meet and go on to decide to work on this project together?
Howard, who lives in Hong Kong, used to find old bottles of Esporão on the market there which he loved and decided to contact me on one of the regular trips he makes to Portugal - we had a working breakfast together, hit it off pretty well, and the rest is history. He was keen to do a wine project with me based on the Alentejo for reds and Melgaco for an Alvarinho white.
Congratulations on opening the new winery - just in time for the harvest. How did the harvest go, were there any teething problems?
Actually no, the winery worked well, the fruit from Portalegre was excellent, no dramas!
Now Howard’s Folly has its own winery does this give you more freedom in terms of the types of wines you produce?
Absolutely. I have been making the wines now for about 10 years and we have been in and out of four wineries, so logistically it has been pretty difficult and hard to settle the project down without a proper home. Now we have a winery designed for our purpose, to produce the best from the Portalegre region including small batches of old vine mixed variety plantation, we have small tank fermentation, storage and barrel capacity for this.
Has working in Port production taught you valuable lessons when it comes to working with non-fortified wines in Portugal?
Yes, mainly on the blending side. Port wine is a blended product and to create and maintain a house style, blending is quite an art form, but very disciplined. I think that experience helped me a lot in creating and maintaining the consistency of our branded wines at Esporão.
What are the key profile descriptors that help you identify wines from Alentejo? And Pertelegre in general?
Alentejo reds are generally rich, full bodied, good depth of fruit, soft tannins. Portalegre reds should be more fresh and elegant, with more fruit intensity and acidity because of the high altitude, cooler climate fruit.
Can you explain why you use the grape varietals you work with (Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, Touriga Nacional ,etc.) and the importance of blending in Portuguese wines? Have you thought about increasing the different varietals you work with?
The varieties are well adapted to the heat of the Alentejo and produce wonderfully complex and spicy wines when blended accordingly. We believe the sum of the parts is more interesting than the individual varieties on their own, but occasionally we like to offer an individual Touriga Nacional to show the quality of this top Portugese varietal. Pretty happy with the five varietal reds we have at the moment and very excited to be working with old vine Portalegre fruit where we have mixed plantings of around 20 grape varietals where we don't even know the full range.
Do you have limitations sourcing grapes from growers or does it give you more flexibility? How closely do you work with the growers?
We have our own 6.5 hectare vineyard for the production of Sonhador and reserve red wines and have just started this last year to work with farmers with small plots of old vines - the plan is to evaluate these and work closely with them in the future.
Portugal has a fantastic reputation for producing quality wine at inexpensive prices. Does this help or hinder the reputation of fine wine production in Alentejo?
I think it helps, nobody questions the quality of top growth Bordeaux reds but we all know that most of what comes out of Bordeaux is pretty average. The Alentejo is increasingly producing better expensive red and white wines and I think having the volume good-value-for-money wines to back them up only helps to promote awareness.
How best can the region raise its profile for fine wine production? How best?
Unfortunately, the obvious, Parker points, Wine Spectators, influential comments by Jancis etc. We are still a relatively recent wine region, the Alentejo was only demarcated in 1986, so I think we are doing okay and things will develop naturally over the next few years, there are a lot more ambitious wine projects around now compared to 10 years ago.
What in your mind makes Howard’s Folly wines “fine wine”?
Tricky one! We're good winemakers! Having the vineyards based in the cool climate Portalegre region is fundamental, especially with climate change happening, and then it comes down to attention to detail, knowing the vineyards, picking at the right time, and following through in the winery. We aim to make elegant, well balanced wines with complex fruit characters based on the local varieties which can age well and will be good with food pairings - this is pretty much my definition of fine wine.