When in the mid-eighties the British Howard Bliton first came to Portugal, he would not have imagined that one day he would come to our country to produce wine. Today, in addition to being present in two national regions, he invested in the opening of a restaurant and bar in his winery in Alentejo, in Estremoz, which has enriched his wine tourism offer.
Wine is an art. One of the many arts Howard is passionate about. Just enter the building that transformed into a wine rye and restaurant / bar (the old Guild of Estremoz where in the past cereals were stored) to realize that the project is special for several reasons. There is not only a place where wine is produced or if you will enjoy a meal. It is also a space of various cultural manifestations, with paintings or pieces of art scattered a little everywhere. Highlights are the long graffiti mural of the artist Portuguese Le Funky; a work by Miao Xiaochun, renowned Chinese artist and photographer known for large-scale works; and also the pigs painted for the art exhibition of the Sovereign Art Foundation (a charity founded by the entrepreneur to help asian children in need) that served to celebrate the Year of the Pig in 2019. But there are still other works of art strategically placed to give in the sights and ancient ampovens traditionally used in alentejo to make wine since roman times. The dining and bar space, designed by the architecture and interior design studio Arkstudio, also reflects traditions of the region, such as Alentejo blankets and blue shop.
It is not today that Howard Bliton (pictured in the lobby, left, chatting with winemaker David Baverstock) is a wine lover. Born in Yorkshire, a historic county in the north of England, he grew up in the countryside. His father, a pig breeder (hence his predilection for these animals) left Pig farming when Howard was 12 years old to devote himself to the wine trade. At the time, Howard couldn't drink, but he saw his father work and talk about the wines he was selling. They passed him by the Rieslings of the Mosel who were very fashionable in England, but also some Rioja, and others, Italians. "But there were many more," he says. However, although he began to enjoy wine a few years later, in a country where beer was the drink of choice, it was after finishing his studies, starting to work in finance and traveling the world, that his taste improved. He tasted wines from various countries, of different styles, renowned and not renowned, to notice the differences. And gradually began to understand the scores of the wines given by critics. "Over time I started collecting French, Italian, Spanish, Californian wines, among others... In Portugal, where I was first in 1986, I paid special attention to the Ports and, in reds, I started by drinking Dão wines. Over time, I realized that although Portugal was not one of the most valued countries, it had good quality wines and enormous potential," says Howard. It was in Hong Kong (where he resides and leads the financial group The Sovereign Group) that he met the wines of The Esporão and decided to meet his winemaker, David Baverstock. Today, they're partners and friends.
The partnership translates into the production of premium wines from vineyards in the Upper Alentejo, a region that gives great freshness to its wines from altitude vineyards (between 500 and 600 meters), and temperatures that fluctuate between cold nights and hot days. Without their own vineyards, they start buying grapes and rent a winery to vinify. Only much later, in 2018, do they invest in the recovery of the old building of the guild to set up a winery of their own. Even today it keeps buying the grape from local farmers. "I saw in Portugal an opportunity and a challenge. Besides, i had good incentives. Nowadays I come more and more often to Portugal and from next year the idea is to move here. My son is already living here and studying Portuguese. We want to value Portuguese and the region," says Howard. The wines, with the names Dreamer and Howard's Folly, also follow the entrepreneur's passion for art, with much of the bottles labels prepared by children or renowned artists. As we can see, for example, in the 2019 harvests labels with colorful clouds drawn by the couple of painters Rob and Nick Carter, or in the bottle of Touriga Nacional the corkscrew pop on black backgrounds of the Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin.
The art is also visible in the wines produced in the region of Verdes wines, where a partnership was made with producer Carlos Alberto Codesso through the purchase of grapes of the Alvarinho variety that grow near the village of Melgaço, and that give rise to wines of good freshness and character.
The strong bet on the Ecotourism
Both the wines produced in alentejo, as well as those that come from the Region of Vinhos Verdes can be bought in the cellar store or enjoyed in the new restaurant and bar that has chef Hugo Bernardo at the helm. This space, the most recent investment, opened in early 2020, but had to close shortly thereafter due to containment. It reopened in June, along with a small art gallery where guest artists can exhibit and sell their work. In fact, like all the pieces inside the building, which can be purchased.
The menu reveals a comfort food, relaxed, but it is not for that reason to be creative, because the offer changes depending on the seasonality and the products available. The head of Xara da Dona Octavia, the mythical Salsicharia Canense, the hamburger or the breaded chops of lamb; duck breast with beet root puree; sea bass ceviche; roasted ham or fresh cod toast are some of the proposals for snacks, which work as main dishes to share. In the desserts, stand out the ice cream of goat's milk with pumpkin; chocolate mousse with pink pepper or crumble with seasonal fruit.
Along with the tastings in the restaurant, the team at Howard's Folly created for the wine tourism area a selection of experiences that make the daily life of the winery known in a fun and interactive way. In addition to the visit to the winery and wine tasting (from 3 to 5 wines), there is also the chance to taste directly from the tanks and barrels or to make a wine workshop with the winemaker where participants can create their own blend. Tastings are made at the restaurant bar and can be accompanied by a selection of some of the best handmade cheeses, sausages, olives and bread in the region, or by snacks from the restaurant's menu. After tasting, all participants are entitled to a 10% discount on the purchase of wine in the cellar store. "In addition, people can design their own experience and tastings according to their preferences to make the most of their visit," howard says.
In the future, a new tourist investment may be in sight to allow visitors to stay longer in the region "We want to further develop our wine tourism, allow people to stay more than one night in the city, in the region", says Howard, without 'decoser' on planned project. But while that doesn't happen, Howard is leaving his mark. In addition to supporting an art competition with students from schools in the area (which can then exhibit in the gallery of the winery) the entrepreneur also wants to organize a gala dinner of arts where he will seek the best Portuguese artists to exhibit and sell their pieces, and by excluding the commission of galeristas who are not part of this equation, part of the revenue of these sales reverts to the children in need of the Sovereign Art Foundation. "Every year I have these dinners in Hong Kong, Africa or Europe. I also want to make them in Portugal. I want not only to do a charity action, but also to help Portuguese artists). For Howard, boosting, creating, supporting are the words of order. "These are the few steps we climb, small steps that we take. We can't change the world but we can make a difference by building the future and doing different things," says the businessman.