Orange is the new wine

Inside meets the driving force behind The Algarve Fruit Wine Company Husband and wife team, Nick and Stella Downs, have taken a prized regional product, Silves oranges, and incorporated them in a new product, which not only puts surplus oranges to good use, but also creates jobs and puts a smile on peoples’ faces.

Their invention, Portuguese Orange Wine, is a “full-strength product”, in Nick’s words, as well as authentic, organic and original.  We visited Nick and Stella at their wine-experimenting homestead in the Odelouca valley, to learn more about this rural activity and try it for ourselves. “This is something we want to leave behind for Portugal,” Nick, formerly one of the UK’s leading fruit wine producers, explains. “We want to see this idea blossom, and it will!” Back in the 80s, Nick produced English Apple Country wines in Devon. The wines proved to be very successful and were snapped up by tourists, locals, shops and hotels and offered endless opportunities for part-time employment in and around his hometown area of Honiton.

When he retired to Portugal with wife Stella, 15 years ago, he was stunned by the sight of endless orange orchards littered with fruit left to rot on the ground. His professional brain went into overdrive, and it wasn’t long before he started experimenting with a way of using the oranges to create something wonderful, popular and ultimately delicious. “We have spent the past five years, or so, experimenting with turning oranges into fruit wines, researching the technical difficulties and developing a suitable method of production. The result is a beautiful, low-acid wine, golden-orange in colour and around 18% in alcoholic volume. In its raw state it is suitable as an aperitif or digestif, however, if diluted with one third purified still or sparkling water, it can be transformed into a very palatable table wine,” the couple explain.

“Globalisation is killing this country,” Nick considers, as he pours us a tiny glass of his most successful experiment so far, the 2011 hand-pressed variety of his orange wine. “I think more and more, people will realise that ‘small is beautiful’ and, as such, the best way of bringing employment to rural areas.” Packing nearly 18%, the proffered wine raises the eyebrows long before it has even touched the lips. But it is exceedingly good, smells wonderful and is very gentle on the stomach. “Stella is actually my most sophisticated form of equipment,” Nick confides. “If there is anything wrong with a product, Stella’s stomach will tell us.”

Nick explains further. “Orange wine has to be made from only the juice of the oranges. Trial and error has taught us to steer clear of mechanical squeezing, as this releases the essential oils from the skins, pith, etc. When these oils come into contact with the juice, it does not result in a good quality wine. This is another reason why we have to keep production small.”

Intriguingly, the couple has found that the dried orange skins, left over from the squeezing process, make for excellent firelighters – so there could eventually be an environmentally-friendly spin-off from their cottage industry. Nick and Stella also believe there are definite health benefits in well-made orange wines – still to be proven by science, but definitely worth investigating.

The past five years have seen the couple attracting business partners. A prestigious chain of hotels, here in the Algarve, has indicated its interest, while the wine has already been approved by importers to the UK, Dubai and India.

Expansion plans didn’t run as smoothly as the Downs had initially hoped. Starting off as an experimental exercise and a bit of a hobby, they soon realised that living in Portugal comes with a new set of bureaucratic rules and regulations. When they originally tried to convert their outbuilding into an “adega”, they were faced with very restrictive laws, such as the need for male and female toilets, which of course made no sense to them, as they live on the land and are husband and wife. The costs involved were just too prohibitive and slowed their progress.  Some time passed, but their perseverance eventually paid off. They now have a professional team and intend to go commercial in the near future – setting up a local fruit winery/tourist attraction. The team includes local growers, a well-qualified young Portuguese graduate in Food Science, currently completing a master’s degree thesis on different types of fruit wine yeasts, a young Portuguese graduate, with a degree in biology and environmental studies, and of course, Nick and Stella. They are particularly keen that the project should stay and grow in the local economy, and not be exported overseas or cynically exploited into a mass-produced, low-quality product. Developing Orange Wine is the primary goal of The Algarve Fruit Wine Company, but the team is keen to begin experimenting with other fruit-based wines to take advantage of the varied bounty of delicious fruit that grows here, but which is often not marketed or even harvested.

Photos Sara Alves

Author: Inside Carvoeiro

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