Producer Q & A with Howard Bilton of Howard's Folly in Alentejo, Portugal

"Our newest relationship, Howard's Folly, is particularly interesting to me. Why would a successful businessman (not from Portugal) move to the Alentejo to build a winery from scratch? How did Howard convince winemaker David Baverstock, who was busy leading the winemaking efforts for one of Portugal's larger wineries, to join him? While I can't answer these questions, I can say that these unexpected choices brought together a special team, and we are all lucky to be reaping the benefits of their labor and dedication. The Alvarinho, in particular, is a real treat."


-Importer's of Howard's Folly wines, Peter & Nina Brinkman.


Howard's Folly in town center, Estremoz, Portugal.


Q: How did you end up at the winery?


A: I wanted to build a new winery in town center. I wanted people to visit and to build a relationship with our wines, so I built the winery in the most convenient place for as many people as possible. Estremoz, I believed, was the ideal location. I spent days walking around the town and inquiring about buildings that appeared empty, eventually we found what is now Howard's Folly. It had been used as a warehouse by an agricultural cooperative and is a heritage style building with plenty of beautiful space.


Q: What is your role?


A: I am the Founder and Chairman of the business but I am very hands on. I get particularly involved in our Hong Kong sales efforts, as I have lived there for 30 years.


Q: Everyone talks about terroir, what makes yours unique?


A: The altitude. The vineyards are at 600 meters so the climate is significantly cooler than much of the Alentejo. This allows us to make wines with freshness and elegance which is not the classic style of the region, or of Portugal in general. It is the style of wine I prefer to drink so it is naturally the style I prefer to make as well.


Q: What do you do to keep your wines and land healthy?


A: We practice minimal intervention, we only pick grapes by hand, and we try to let the terroir speak for itself.


Q: How many different grape varieties do you work with?


A: We don't entirely know how many grape varieties we are working with to be honest. In addition to our own vineyards, we buy grapes from a large number of very small and very old vineyards surrounding the houses of some of the local farmers. They grow grapes to make a bit of wine for their own use but are now selling some amazing materials to us. All their varietals are mixed together and in some cases we have found it impossible to identify them. We know that there are at least 13 different varieties in these vineyards and we use those to make our new white wines and super premium reds which will be released next year. Our main vineyard site is the Falcao Vineyard which is a 7.5ha site. The main varietals there are Syrah, Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional, Aragonez and Alicante Bouschet. We use indigenous Portuguese grapes and we make Portuguese style wines, but our high altitude gives us the freshness and elegance that sets us apart.


Q: If you use non-indigenous grapes, what is the reason?


A: We do not use non-indigenous grapes.


Grape vines at Howard's Folly vineyard.


Q: What is the most difficult part of the wine business?


A: Undoubtedly it is selling the wine. It's enjoyable but hard work and initially requires a lot of traveling and putting on a lot of events and promotions to get the wines recognized and known. Hopefully this side of things gets easier as we progress.


Q: What are your goals for the winery?


A: We want to be making the best wines in Portugal through innovation and experimentation. Already, we are mixing different vintages and creating special bottling (which have to be declassified) but are our best wines. We are inviting other winemakers to make blends at our winery. We are experimenting with Amphorae and different barrel toastings and we are experimental with unusual blending practices. We want to make wines that are worthy of the highest prices in Portugal. This takes time. We are getting there.


Q: What impact is climate change having?


A: We are definitely seeing changes that are due to global warming but, luckily, our altitude shields us from the worst of the temperature increases.


Photo taken at a small parcel of ancient vines used by Howard's Folly.


Q: Tell us something about your region or area's history, music, art, etc.


A: Our business actually mixes wine and charity. We support The Sovereign Art Foundation, which uses art as rehabilitation and therapy for underprivileged children throughout the world. Art is featured on our labels too. We change the label image every year and use an image by one of the finalists of the SAF art prizes or by artists associated with the brand for other reasons. We produce special limited edition collectors cases bearing art labels. The next release of wines will showcase paintings done by some of the children counseled by SAF. We are proud of this association and the support we give to the global community. Our visitor center, bar and restaurant, tasting area and private dining room all feature art and we have an art gallery where we will show different exhibitions in the coming years. At the moment, we are showing the finalists of the Portugal schools prize.


Howard's Folly Sonhador Tinto 2016 label, featuring artwork painted by disadvantaged children assisted by the Sovereign Art Foundation.


Q: Tell us a little bit about the food of your region.


A: The Alentejo is the larder of Portugal so we have fantastic local produce. The region grows fantastic fresh vegetables and is famous for its pigs which make the Portuguese equivalent of Jamon Iberico. Olive oil is also a specialty here. Nothing needs to be imported as every type of food is available locally, something we highlight and take advantage of in our restaurant.


Q: What is your favorite local restaurant?


A: Our own. We use only local ingredients and try and showcase the best of them. We are newly opened but already have a great reputation for quality. Unusually we serve wines in our restaurant from a large number of Alentejo wineries, not just our own.


Q: What is their specialty?


A: We don't currently have a particular specialty, we just specialize in featuring local produce, whatever is showing best at that particular time. Our menus change regularly through the seasons.


Q: What do you eat at home with your wine?


A: I live in Hong Kong where every conceivable sort of food is available. I don't necessarily believe too much in food and wine pairings. Eat what you want with whatever you like to drink.


Chef's 'petiscos' at the Howard's Folly restaurant.


Q: What do you do for fun?


A: I like to play tennis, squash and paddle tennis.


Q: What about your next vacation?


A: That will be in Portugal.


Q: Anything else we should know about the winery or you?


A: The winery offers the opportunity for customers to blend their own wine and make up their own blend with their own label. I think this is fairly unique. It's certainly unique in Portugal. There is much more to know, but come and visit and find out for yourselves.



View the Howard's Folly shop page or shop their wines below.





Howard's Folly 'Sonhador' Branco 2018

Alentejo, Portugal

$25


This white wine is a field blend aged for 4 months in new French oak on lees. It has complex aromas of citrus, lychees and toast. The palate is rich and structured with a creamy texture and fresh acidity that gives it balance. The finish is long. It pairs fantastically with richer fish dishes, pork, chicken and anything in a cream sauce or with mushrooms. View in store.






Howard's Folly 'Sonhador' Tinto 2015

Alentejo, Portugal

$25


A blend of Alicante Bouschet (30%), Syrah (30%), Aragonez (30%) and Touriga Nacional (10%) aged for 9 months in a mix of stainless steel and neutral oak. The palate gives notes of red berries, cherries and plums with a hint of black pepper spice. The palate it rich, structured, silky and layered with youthful fruit. It matches well with roasted meats and vegetables spiced with Asian five spice and cumin. View in store.





Howard's Folly Alvarinho 2017

Alentejo, Portugal

$25


100% Alvarinho aged for 4 months in stainless steel on lees, this wine is full of fresh citrus aromas, especially lime, that jump out of the glass. It is dry, clean and crisp. The fruit flavors are ripe and lush, highlighted by a mineral driven finish. This wine is great with anything from the sea. It is exceptionally good with white fish and meats, leafy green herbs, seafood risotto, fish tacos, oysters, mussels, clams, soft cheeses like burrata and salty feta. View in store.





Howard's Folly Reserva Tinto 2015

Alentejo, Portugal

$64.70


A blend of Syrah (70%) and Alicante Bouschet (30%) aged for 12 months in a mix of new and neutral French oak, this wine strikes an earthy balance of black plums, blueberries, cocoa and balsamic. It has firm tannins and a very long but smooth finish. Darker meats and exotic spices bring out the deep, dark fruit notes of this wine. We think you should try it with lamb shawarma, gyros, Asian five spice pork and Indian tandoori meats. View in store.





Howard's Folly Winemaker's Choice 2013

Alentejo, Portugal

$41.17


A blend of Syrah (40%), Alicante Bouschet (30%), Aragonez (20%), and Touriga Nacional (10%) aged for 9 months in neutral French and American oak, this wine has complex aromas of dark berries and plum fruits. It has a firm and structured palate with lush fruit and great acidity on the finish. Darker meats and exotic spices bring out the dark fruit notes in this wine. Try it with lamb shawarma, gyros, Asian five spice pork and Indian tandoori. View in store.






To learn more visit their website at www.howardsfollywine.com


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