The small Portuguese wine region of Colares is home to a family legacy that is so extraordinary, it must be seen (and tasted) to be believed. The story of Casal Santa Maria features all the themes that make for a great novel: war, bravery, love, heartbreak, loss, perseverance, and ultimately, triumph. In this case, however, every word is true.
The protagonist is Baron Bodo Von Bruemmer, a 105-year-old Russian who escaped the Bolsheviks near the end of the first World War, cheated a death sentence from cancer (twice), and decided at the age of 96 that he wanted to start making wine.
Born in one of the formerly Baltic Russian Provinces, Baron Von Bruemmer fled to Germany during the Russian Revolution in 1917. He spent the remainder of his childhood moving around different homes and schools before finally landing in Switzerland as a young adult. For the next several years he worked as a professional banker but upon turning 50, his yearning to retire someday in a house with acreage started to take hold and he began looking at properties throughout Europe.
About a year later, the yearning became a sense of urgency when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had just weeks to live.
He recovered from the bleak diagnosis but wanted to ensure that the love of his life, Rosário, had a home where she would be comfortable and happy long after he was gone, “Dreams and sunshine came together, and on one of my trips to Portugal, in 1962 I came across this magnificent spot in Almocageme – Colares. The house was a ruin, but the views and the fields were magnificent. So I decided to go ahead and buy the Casal Sta Maria.”
The main house was built in 1720 and managed to survive the devastating earthquake of 1755.
Wine was produced at the estate in the 19th Century, but it was low quality bulk wine and production stopped in 1903. Restoring the main house and constructing the 3 other buildings that make up Casal Santa Maria today took close to 5 years.
When he first purchased the estate, the Baron and Rosário worked it as a small farm with cows and chickens. They then decided they wanted to start breeding Arabian horses—an unusual choice given they were the first in Portugal ever to do so. The business was incredibly successful and at one time the estate had 100 Arabian studs. But the success of that venture would come to an unfortunate end in the 1980s when the equine world was struck with a pandemic of its own that restricted horses from competing or travelling for 5 years.
Around the same time, Rosário was diagnosed with cancer and ultimately passed away in 1994. The Baron was 80 and continued to live quietly at the property for several more years. At the age of 90, he was diagnosed with cancer for the second time and returned to Switzerland for an operation. The surgery went well but his first inclination was to return to the estate as soon as possible. “It was after that operation in 2006, aged 96, that I woke up with the idea of producing wine in the Casal Sta Maria. As always in my life, passionate and efficient, I started the project 3 weeks later.” Six months after that, the first vineyards were planted with input from French and Portuguese viticulturalists on what would grow best in the region.
North of Lisbon and very near the coast, the Colares region holds the country’s highest classification as a DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada). It is famous for having grapevines that grow directly in sand, along with the distinction of having the most westerly vineyards in mainland Europe. Because of the sandy soil, the region was spared from the phylloxera outbreak that destroyed so many of Europe’s vineyards in the late 1800s as the aphids cannot survive on sand. While phylloxera-resistant, the climate presents its own challenges given its combination of regularly overcast skies and high humidity, making it ripe for mildew and fungus to thrive.
Casal Santa Maria’s location between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sintra mountains allows the ocean to provide a cooling effect while the mountains form a natural barrier to capture the ocean breezes. The estate also uses hedges to effectively block the wind and, as a result, there is an almost 5-degree difference between the vineyards located on the lower part of the estate versus the vineyards on the upper side of the hedges. Most notably, the estate’s proximity to the ocean results in their wines taking on a saline characteristic that is very distinct, particularly in the white wines.
While the estate is farmed almost entirely organically, they do use commercial yeasts to help combat the potential for disease.
The first vineyard planting tested about 20 grape varieties, but they have since settled on seven that they believe work best given the unique terroir: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia, Petit Manseng, Touriga Nacional, Merlot and Pinot Noir. All the fruit is hand-harvested, and the red wines aged in French oak barrels.
In November of 2016, after five harvests and just a few weeks past his 105th birthday, Baron Bruemmer passed away quietly at Casal Santa Maria. Given his life experience, he likely surprised many that he wasn’t in fact immortal after all. But his legacy lives on in the wines being produced today that no doubt have a very long future ahead. More importantly, they serve as an inspiring reminder to us all that it’s never too late to pursue your passion.
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