Sometimes it takes an old head to come up with a new idea. Nick Downs is 79, but he has a plan that could take Silves’ oranges and make them nationally, if not internationally famous. It is an idea that would boost local employment, as well as regional tourism, when both are flagging, and, even better, it should leave everyone (or certainly nearly everyone) with a smile on their faces!
What are we talking about? Portuguese Orange Wine... Put more coherently, wine made from Portuguese oranges. A “full-strength product”, authentic, organic and basically very easy to produce.
Considering global warming is threatening the world’s conventional wine-producing regions - including those in southern and central Portugal - Nick Downs’ idea may be just what the Algarve needs.
We visit his wine-experimenting homestead at Dobra, in the Odelouca valley, to learn more about this rural activity that could create a new niche-market for Silves and its hundreds of thousands of largely wasted oranges.
“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. They were very successful, 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 12 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 what he could see made absolute sense: a way of using the oranges to create something wonderful, popular and ultimately delicious.
“Globalisation is killing this country,” he considers as he pours us a tiny glass of his most successful experiment so far, the 2011 hand-pressed variety of aperatif/ digestive wine. “I think more and more, people will realise that ‘small is beautiful’. The best way forward, and the best way of bringing employment to rural areas”.
At 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 strangely very gentle on the stomach.
This is where wife Stella, 69, has come into her own. “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”.
Stella, a former teacher and social worker who once set up a small business providing work for Vietnamese refugees, was quick to pronounce on the 2012 harvest, still maturing in French Oak barrels. “Cleaning fluid...”
The disappointment has been easily explained - and reinforces Nick’s original idea, that Portuguese Orange wine has to be a labour-intensive rural activity, with as little machinery involved as possible.
“We used machine-pressing for the oranges in the wine for 2012, and that’s the reason for the wine not being as good as the batch made in 2011,” he explains. “Orange wine has to be made from only the juice of the oranges.
“Mechanical-squeezing involves the essential oils from the skins, pith, etc. When this comes 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 have found that dried orange skins left over from the squeezing process make for excellent firelighters - so there could eventually be a environmentally-friendly spin-off from their cottage industry.
However - and this is a big ‘however’ - the Downs’ have come to something of a crossroads in their quest to create Portuguese country fruit wines.
The small warehouse they converted at considerable cost into an “adega”, has failed to satisfy the authorities who have called for all kinds of modifications, including the construction of men’s and women’s toilets. As Nick explains, toilets should be as far from the wine-making process as possible, and as only he and his wife are currently involved - and they have toilets in their home yards away - they cannot see the necessity for investing in new ones. Another modification they were told was vital was to raise the roof by a metre...
Thus demands that make little sense to the couple, and involve investment they cannot raise, have led them to seek “younger partners”.
“What we need is someone with skills and energy, keen to go for a majority holding,” says Nick. “Someone I could work with as a consultant/ advisor, and who sees a project like this as something fun. Something that will help the local community, but at the same time be immensely personally rewarding.”
“This is to be our ‘talking year’,” conclude the couple - mindful that agricultural grants are available for projects such as theirs. Indeed, they have already had meetings with PRODER (the programme for regional development), and are keen to try and submit an application for funding within the next few months.
“Location, image, sales, marketing, website - these are all key issues that a younger person could come in and help us with,” says Nick. “We will need help to satisfy the authorities, in Brussles, Faro and locally, and help to increase production...”
“Ideally, these wines should be produced in a warehouse on the road to Monchique, for instance. Somewhere where tourists and locals could stop easily...”
“There is a huge potential for these wines, we just have to find the right partners to take this forward”.
Anyone interested in learning more, should get in touch with Nick Downs on 282 449222/ 966 829795 or via email: email@example.com