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How the World Nearly Lost the Wines of Fogo

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A volcano has put a temporary stop to a 140-year tradition of winemaking in a tiny village in Cape Verde.

When Pico do Fogo volcano on the Cape Verde island of Fogo erupted in November 2014, the lava flows from the volcano destroyed the village of Cha das Caldeiras completely.

The lava’s slow creep across the barren landscape meant that there was plenty of warning and the whole village was safely evacuated before this happened. There was no loss of life, just of livelihood.

The local wine co-operative was in the path of the all-consuming lava. Volunteers from local army units rallied together to save equipment and wine, but the winery itself was destroyed, as was a large portion of the island’s vineyards. The many small-scale farmers in the caldera face a long wait before there will be grapes ready to make into wine again.

Pico do Fogo’s wine traditions are only a little surprising, when you consider the history of the island. It is part of Cabo Verde – as it is known correctly – a previously-uninhabited archipelago off the African coast, which was colonized by the Portuguese in the 15th Century. The island hasn’t always remained populated – intermittent eruptions over the centuries meant that it has only been the hardiest of individuals who have colonized the island.

 Among these was one Manuel Montrond, an extravagant count en route to Brazil from his native France in 1870 to avoid some kind of undisclosed scandal. Brazil seemed far away, and Fogo pleasant enough, so he decided to remain in Cha das Caldeiras, planting the vines he had naturally brought with him, because that’s what you do when you are French and go to a new place.

The vines were turned into a sweet red wine in the style that Montrond was particularly fond of. The wine was known as Manecom and, presumably, had some part to play in the subsequent population of the village with blue-eyed, blond-haired people – the very image of the busy Montrond himself.

The volcanic terroir here is actually quite well suited to grapes, as it is in several pockets around the world, most notably on the slopes of the still smoking Mount Etna on Sicily. But visually, it’s closer to the vineyards on those other volcanic islands – the Canaries. Shrubs poke from the ground on the black sand, glowing greenly and producing a range of red and white grape varieties. At last count, Fogo made dry red, white and rosé wines that are, by all accounts, quite drinkable, especially if you’ve spent the day climbing a volcano.

Although Cabo Verde is much, much closer to the equator than any wine region really should be – at 15 degrees north – its altitude of more than 5000ft (1500m) above sea level makes viticulture possible, contributing cooler temperatures at night, slowing ripening. To put it in perspective, this is about as half as high again as most of Argentina’s Mendoza region, which is particularly famous for its altitude but sits at a relatively paltry 3500ft above sea level.

Montrond’s adopted home, Cha das Caldeiras, was located in the caldera, which is itself in the shadow of Fogo’s imposing peak. Here, a small community with a strong culture sprung up around the count and his vines, and remained there until late last year.

Happily, there are some vineyards left in the region and a few producers not affected by the eruption – among them Vinha Maria Chaves – have pledged to help get the Cabo Verde wine industry up on its feet again. And it undoubtedly will – a 120-year-old wine tradition and some hardy locals are not going to let a little thing like a volcano stop them now.