The future’s orange

Name the most important ingredient of wine. Ten to one your answer is grapes. Not always though. Japan and Korea produce plum wine, in Guadeloupe they have banana wine, and in the Odelouca valley near Silves, Nick and Stella Downs make wine out of oranges. Why? “It’s very difficult to find anything that’s as good as Algarvian oranges.”

Pictures by Kyle Rodriguez

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine December 2016


Each year, between 250.000 and 300.000 tonnes of the juiciest and tastiest oranges in the entire world are produced here in the Algarve. Citrus fruits are important in the south of Portugal, which has over 150.000 hectares of orchards. Prices, however, are low; local orange growers usually only get paid 9 eurocents a kilo for juicing. As a result, they leave loads of good oranges hanging on the trees or lying on the ground to rot. Seeing all this wastage when they moved here in 2000, was what brought Nick Downs (83) and his wife Stella (73) to turn these laranjas into organic vinho.

The English couple have been producing orange wine in their homestead in the Odelouca valley since 2010. Their experience in vinification, however, dates back to 1972. When living in Devon, Nick wasn’t only a wine taster and judge, he also marketed his own apple wine. An apple, though, isn’t as easy to squeeze as an orange. Nick explains: “Although our apple wine was organic as well, we had to add yeast nutrients to it in order to produce a well-balanced wine. This isn’t the case with the orange; it’s a complete material for winemaking, right up to clearing itself beautifully in the barrel.”

This especially goes for the citrus fruits that are growing here in the south of Portugal. Nick: “The Algarve oranges are incredibly flavoursome. Particularly if they’re taken straight off the tree and directly made into wine, not transported across lots of countries and stored for weeks.” The abundance of sunshine and the lack of chemicals –Nick and Stella use oranges of their neighbours who don’t use pesticides- do the rest. (Those still mad about those poor local orange farmers, rest assured: the couple pay over double of what the growers normally get).

Turning the citrus fruits into wine is done in what Nick and Stella call “our experimental winery”, located next to their house. As they don’t meet all the latest European requirements, the wines aren’t yet for sale. That doesn’t deter them from making trial quantities though; every year from November to May oak barrels are filled. With oranges, the process is more or less the same as with grapes: juice, ferment, and ripen. The big difference is that grapes are crushed and oranges squeezed. Sometimes grape skins are left on during part of the process (that’s where reds get their dark colour from), but the orange skins certainly aren’t as it would make the wine too bitter.

At 18% ABV, their orange wine is quite strong. “In this heat, stronger wines keep better. It’s one of the reasons sherry was originally made in Spain and Australia,” explains Nick. An advantage of this high alcohol content: it gives you the choice to either drink it as an aperitif or digestif, or dilute it with still or sparkling water to get ‘normal strength’. Nick shows how: he takes a small quantity from a barrel, adds some water and checks the alcohol content with a vinometer: 12.5% – a perfect wine average. “We drink it every day,” says Stella, for whom this DIY-diluting works perfectly. “I definitely wouldn’t want a full strength glass with my lunch!”

The amber-coloured result tastes brilliant (that’s at least what Enjoy the Algarve thinks) and keeps getting better every year. Wine making isn’t something you rush into. Back in England, it took Nick nine years to make a perfect elderberry wine. Like many things in life, going slow seems to be the secret. Nick: “Any wine can be made in two to three weeks, but it takes nine to twelve months to properly mature.” The next goal for Stella and Nick is to get the younger generation interested: find someone with a grasp of practical wine making who can take the lead and make this into a successful business so the orange wine can be sold to the public.

They definitely want to at least start the production small and local and hope to stay on as consultants for as long as nature allows. “It’s a rural activity, a local organic product which could bring employment to the Portuguese countryside. I know I’m boasting, but back in the UK, my wines always won first prizes in village shows. The only time one of my wines came second was because another wine of mine came first,” laughs Nick. Serious again: “Still, there’s a lot to learn. Medal-winning neighbouring vineyards have helped us with technical assistance and positive encouragement.”

Apart from navel oranges, lately, they’ve been experimenting with tangerines and clementines. “You can make wine out of every fruit, raspberries, elderflowers,” Stella explains. “I tried growing raspberries, but last summer was too dry.” Always up for new ideas, the winemaking couple start discussing what would be better: peach wine or wine made out of apricots. Well, with dozens of different fruits growing in the Algarve, there are possibilities enough once they get through all the oranges…

More info? Contact Stella & Nick via email (or phone 282 449 222)

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine December 2016

Posted in Features, Food, People.