Food by VICE

If the Garden of Eden Had a Vineyard, This Would Be It

Jesuit priests first came to Madeira in 1595 and set about creating a Biblical Eden of grapevines at the bottom of a 300-metre cliff. Malmsey wine is still made on the island today, even using the priests’ original vines.

by Johanna Derry
Sep 13 2016, 4:00pm

At the bottom of one of the tallest cliffs in Europe, I found Paradise. A little pocket of verdant fecundity, right next to the Atlantic Ocean. The only way to get to it was by sea.

Where is this arcadia, you ask? It is Fajã dos Padres, a vineyard enclave nestled in a small cove on the south coast of the Portuguese island of Madeira.

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Perhaps appropriately, the padres who lend their name to the vineyard were the Jesuit priests who first came to Madeira in 1595, recreating a Biblical Eden of grapevines to make wine on the fajã (or rockfall) at the bottom of a 300 metre-ish high cliff called Cabo Girão.

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Fajã dos Padres, a vineyard in a small cove on the south coast of the Portuguese island of Madeira. All photos by the author.

At its highest point, the cliff stands at a vertigo-inducing 589 metres above sea level. This means it's almost impossible to get to Fajã dos Padres. I arrived by sea, the old-school way, passing two pods of different dolphin breeds on the way, only to find that getting the boat to moor up to the jetty against the surf so challenging that I almost didn't make it off. This is how desperate the priests were for peace and quiet. Or perhaps, to keep their wine to themselves.

Because if Fajã dos Padres is known for anything, it's Malmsey wine.

Today, the island is in the hands of the less saintly but just as industrious Jardim Fernandes family, who have not only kept this little patch fruitful for three generations, but also discovered vines long thought lost to pestilence and disease, and recovered them.

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The cove is owned by four sisters who jointly inherited it from their father. I'm met quayside by one of them, Caterina Vinhena, who helps manage all the agriculture here as well as nine cottages and a small restaurant. I follow her down tunnel-like vineyards that literally butt up against a shallow pebble beach. She tells me what makes this spot so exceptional.

"It's an island within the island," she says. "It's a beautiful place and we don't want to spoil it so everything we do is organic."

The grapes are called Malvasia, famous for making a sweet Madeira wine called Malmsey. The Jesuits made it here hundreds of years earlier, and it was a great favourite in England. So much so, that Shakespeare immortalised the rumour that the Duke of Clarence chose drowning in a cask of Malmsey wine as his form of execution in Richard III. True or not, it's one hell of a way to go.

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"All the original Malmsey vines on the island were killed in 1852 by a plague," Vinhena says. It was a disease that decimated hundreds of vineyards all across Europe—phylloxera.

All, that is, but one.

Vinhena's grandfather had been a fisherman and every day, he'd sailed passed Fajã dos Padres, eyeing up this fruitful patch of land. Then, one day in 1921, he discovered it was for sale and snapped it up.

"The owner had a sick daughter and needed to sell the land to pay for her medical treatment," she says.

By this time, the land was mostly used for growing fruit and vegetables, but Vihena's grandfather discovered a vine that looked suspiciously like a Malvasia. Samples were taken and sent to the laboratories to be tested, and the results came back positive. Fajã dos Padres' remote location meant it had the only original Malmsey wine vine on the island.

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Caterina Vinhena, who helps manage the agriculture at Fajã dos Padres.

But even then there was a wait. Madeira wines are aged by the heat of the sun and it's a process that can take anywhere between 20 and 100 years. The first bottle of single vineyard original island vine Malmsey was opened and tasted in 1986.

Nowadays, Vihena and her sisters make around 1,500 litres of Malmsey every year, as well as growing bananas, figs, avocados, mangoes, and passionfruit—to mention just a few. The land is so fertile tomato plants grow like weeds in the paths.

I have to say I'm slightly confused. I grew up by the sea and I remember it being difficult to grow certain plants successfully because of the saltiness. I pick and pop one of the Malvasia grapes into my mouth and before I burst the skin, I can taste the strong saltiness of the sea on it.

Vinhena explains: "The land is volcanic soil not sand, so it's full of nutrients which makes it good for growing. The saltiness of the sea air actually makes the grapes sweeter. Our Malmsey wine tastes different to others grown on the island because of it."

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Although they're not making loads, it's still a mission to get both the grapes, after they've been handpicked, as well as crops of bananas, sugarcane, and other fruit and veg out of this tiny hidden spot and out into the wider world. Until the 1990s, everything came in and out via the sea.

Then they built a glass elevator which, from my perspective standing at the bottom of it, frankly looked terrifying. This year, the family have conceded to modernity and a cable car now brings people down to visit and take crops up.

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The Jardim Fernandes family wouldn't change anything else, though. The cliffs might make Fajã dos Padres remote, but they're also what protects the land from extreme weather. And while it's not quite The Beach, it's the seclusion of the microclimate on this patch, trapped between sea and rock, that gives the wine its distinct terroir—and it's hefty global credentials. Vinhena is well aware that the magic in their Malmsey comes from the uniqueness of their location.

Those priests were no fools, and sipping a glass of sweet Madeira wine with the sounds of the waves crashing in my ears staring at the way the green of the vines spills so easily into the clear blue of the Atlantic Ocean, I could almost believe that I am Eve, and this is Eden, and that I'm meant to stay here forever and ever.