After our profitably unsuccessful visit to Casa de Saima, we set off in our feeble rental for the Douro, Portugal’s most prestigious wine DOC and also the world’s oldest (created in 1756). The Douro valley is bounded on all sides by mountain ranges, sheltering it from moderating Atlantic influences and making temperatures extremely hot in the summer, particularly close to the river. By extremely hot I mean over 40C/110F. Enough to fry an egg on the stones, according to Miguel Roquette from Quinta do Crasto. In much of northern Portugal, a thin layer of earth covers a bed of granite, inhospitable for agriculture, but the Douro River, the selfsame Duero of Ribera fame, cuts a mighty swath across the granite and, between the villages of Barca d’Agua and Regua, that reveals an underbelly of schist, often referred to as slate, but different (slate is a magazine). The silvery schist is foliated vertically, like a mille-feuilles turned sideways, allowing moisture to infiltrate and roots to insinuate. Douro viticulture starts where the schist starts, and ends where it ends.
While the Douro bisects Portugal horizontally from the Spanish border to the Atlantic, it winds restlessly, both margins exchanging exposures every couple of hundred yards. Southern exposures, being warmer, tend to be used for Port, while other, cooler exposures tend to be used for dry wines.
It was blustery and raining when our road began its descent into the Douro valley. After a bend, the river appeared, slithering majestically like an olive green snake, its surface coarsely ruffled by the squalls. The weather became fine a day later, making the skin smooth as glass, but the river seemed angry the day we arrived, despite the many locks that have tamed its once formidable fury. Our hotel was in the small but centrally located town of Pinhão, and our room had a beautiful view of the river. But the general air was one of melancholy. This being the lowest point of the low season, many restaurants were closed, and the unusually severe cold was keeping people off the streets. The Douro may be the most beautiful winegrowing region we have ever visited, but the desolation subtly compromised the beauty of everything we saw. When not visiting the three producers we scheduled, we seemed uncharacteristically at a loss for where to go and what to do.
That evening, after a short walk around Pinhão, we stayed in the room and enjoyed a monastic snack of cheese and bread accompanied by a red given to us by Luis Pato:
2007 Trepa Vinho de Mesa 13.5%
An interesting blend of grapes from the Douro’s Quinta do Popa and Bairrada
’s Vinha Panasqueira, combining Touriga Nacional and Baga, hence the acronym. Both wineries share the same enologist (Pato), and the label says that combining wines from different regions was a tradition that disappeared with the modern emphasis on DOCs. Blackberry and eucalyptus aromas, tending towards ripeness. Good weight, vibrant acidity and mouth puckering tannins. Goes well with food. Marcia starts sneezing after an hour, an indication of more than minimal SO2.
Wednesday, January 6: Visit to Niepoort
When I wrote to Dirk Niepoort requesting an appointment, I may have been inelegant by saying that I was interested because of his decision to switch from inoculated to ambient yeasts in 2004. His enologist, Luis Seabra, replied that Dirk would be travelling, but graciously invited us to lunch at the winery. Dirk is perhaps the most visible of the five “Douro Boys,” an informal group whose considerable winemaking skills extend to competent marketing and effective self-promotion. While Alentejo and Estremadura are the volume leaders of Portugal, the Douro Boys have transformed the Douro into the premier winemaking region for high-end dry wines.
We spent the morning driving around the region, entering small hamlets so quiet as to seem uninhabited (when breaking eggs to make hamlets that supply manual labor, if you can call feet manual, for the lagares, the quintas use the whites to fine their wines and the yolks to make a stunning variety of egg-based desserts that carry, in restaurants, the generic designation “Conventual” because they were developed by nuns in convents). At noon, we arrived at the Quinta de Nápoles and found it, too, deserted. The Quinta is a compound of five or six closely clustered one or two story houses built in a tastefully modern combination of iron beams and layered schist exteriors. We heard voices inside one of them so I knocked. The voices continued, so I knocked again and entered slowly. A radio was broadcasting a talk show, but there was nobody listening. After more knocking about the place we managed to locate the housekeeper, who took us to Gabriela Santos, who gave us a very good tour.
Gabriela told us about how the Niepoort winery began in 1842, and Dirk was a member of its fifth generation. Before him the Niepoorts had no quintas, buying their port from others and bottling it in Vila Nova de Gaia, like many Port houses. Dirk changed all that by buying the old and dilapidated Quinta de Napoles in 1987, and then the adjoining Quinta do Carril in 1988, both in the central and most prestigious region of Cima Corgo. Gabriela told us about the different colors of schist and how nearly all older Douro vineyards contain dozens of varieties growing side by side, generating complexity and diversity (as a result, old vine varietal bottlings are rare). All white grapes come from the Alto Douro region, where higher altitudes, cooler temperatures and the beginning of granitic soils result in greater acidity. She showed us the original two story schist house, beautifully renovated and transformed into a public tasting room, and showed us around the new winery, finished in 2007.
It’s not as if I’ve visited a million wineries but I have never been so impressed. Carved into the mountainside by Austrian architect Andreas Burghardt, you hardly notice its structure. Below the ground level loading dock, where Cor-Ten I-beams frame walls of layered schist with minimalist simplicity, lie the pharaonic chambers of the winery, filled with cutting edge technology, like the sleek lair of a design conscious Bond villain. Combining esthetics with functionality, everything operates by gravity, and descends as you move to the next step. After the grapes are sorted and destemmed on the loading dock, they go down an ingenious stainless steel chute that rolls across the length of the fermentation chamber and deposits them into any of a long row of shining steel vats where mechanical pressing takes place, followed by temperature controlled fermentation (maximum set at.27C). Whites use pneumatic presses and do not undergo malos, so sterile filtering and inhibiting doses of SO2 are used.
From the massive fermentation hall we moved to cooper heaven, a series of smaller, adjoining chambers, all spotless, filled with barrels proudly imprinted with a pantheon of famous names like François Frères, Allier Vosges, Radoux, Seguin-Moreau, and Taransaud. All toasts are light or medium (never high). Natural wine fans may wince at legions of new French oak barrels like vegetarians at a meat plant, but the efficiency with which Niepoort and his architect have implemented their objectives is admirable.
At this point, Gabriela handed us off to Luis Seabra, Niepoort’s enologist since 2004. We could tell from the stains on his hands and nose that he had been busy tasting. Seabra cuts a handsome figure, polite intelligence laced with a dose of steeliness. Handing us a pair of glasses, we began tasting from a sequence of barrels:
2008 Red (will probably end up in Vertente) barrel sample 12.5-13.5%
Unspecified blend. Fresh, herbaceous, cherry aromas with a mineral touch. Good acidity, attractive mouth feel. Very nice. All reds come from schist soil, in this case, red and yellow. Seabra explains to us that there is also blue schist, poorer, that generates more austere and structured wines.
2008 Red (will probably end up in Redoma) barrel sample
A barrel containing Tinta Amarela from older vines. Light reduction, earthy and chalky aromas. Lovely mouth feel, good weight. Curious banana flavor. Seabra says this may be due to green tannins.
We talk about the challenge of choosing the right time to pick, arguably more complex here than anywhere else. Since each vineyard contains a different mix of sometimes dozens of varieties, the only way to determine the optimal moment of average ripeness for each vineyard is to keep tasting a representative sample of grapes and rely on past experience.
2008 Red (will probably end up in Batuta) barrel sample
Unspecified blend. Fermentation and maceration for two months in stainless steel, floating cap, closed after fermentation ends. From more austere blue schist soils. Not giving much aroma at this point, just some minerality. Good weight, classy structure, but not much to get excited about at this point.
Next we moved to what I consider Niepoort’s two most interesting wines, the ones I most wanted to taste:
2008 Niepoort Charme barrel sample
First vintage 2000. 100% whole clusters foot trodden and fermented in lagares. Old vine Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz, and some others. Short maceration. Funky aromas, animale, violets. Very fresh and lively, fruity, yet nervy. Lighter than the preceding three, yet somehow deeper. Smooth and elegant.
Charme is sold in Burgundy bottles and is Dirk’s tip of the hat to what appears to be his favorite region. Too bad Charme is rather expensive, because it manages to appeal to the Burgundy esthetic in a more interesting way than other non-French pinots I’ve tasted. How ironic, yet fitting, that the secret to making good pinot outside France might be to use altogether different grapes and terroir. This could also be seen as scary evidence that cellar techniques (like maceration times and stem inclusion) can dictate the final result more than grape and terroir. Perhaps I have to give enologists more credit than my attraction to the idea of “soil to bottle” would like.
2007 Niepoort Robustus barrel sample
From two vineyards, one facing west, the other east, the latter higher and cooler. 30% whole cluster, 45 day maceration, floating cap with closed lid, no pump-overs. Will spend four years in old 100/2000 liter Slavonian oak Garbelotto casks. Fabulous aroma, exotic cherry, eucalyptus and pine resin. Great acid/sweet balance, vibrant tannins.
2008 Niepoort Robustus barrel sample
60% whole cluster, 55 day maceration. Muted nose, chalk powder. Lovely mouth feel, fresh, acidic, slightly green tannins, yet very attractive. Will also spend four years in old 100/2000 liter Slavonian oak Garbelotto casks, scheduled for release in 2012.
Jamie Goode’s blog has interesting information about Robustus, Niepoort’s first dry red (see http://www.wineanorak.com/dinnerwithdirk2006.htm
): in 1990, hoping to avoid the fast ripening effect of southern exposures, Dirk made a wine from north facing vines from the recently purchased Quinta do Carril, but it was judged too acidic and tannic, and was never launched. In 2004, the pendulum having swung in favor of such a profile, Dirk relaunched Robustus by repeating, according to Goode, many of the same ‘mistakes’ made in 1990. I was most curious to try this because its reintroduction dates from 2004, the same year that inoculation was discontinued and Seabra was hired. I’m not sure what the causal links were, but the year obviously marked a sea change at the winery.
After these two, there was no point in tasting more reds, so we started to walk towards the dining room for lunch. Along the way, we tasted a barrel sample of 2008 white port, the only port vinified at Quinta de Nápoles. 100% whole cluster, oxidative, smells of walnuts and honey; tastes delicious in a discretely sweet way, with harmony and balance. A revelation to us, and a perfect aperitif. Up one floor, and we taste a sample of 2009 Niepoort Riesling, from schist soils 800 meters high, vinified in a temperature controlled stainless steel tank at 11C. By keeping the temperature that low, fermentation that would ordinarily take five days takes five months. According to Seabra, this technique only works for whites, and the slower extraction generates fresher aromas and better acidity. This Riesling had sweet peachy aromas, and tasted like a cross between Riesling and Moscato (only because still fermenting, says Seabra). I’ll be interested to see what this tastes like when ready.
At this point, Seabra showed us the terraces behind the winery, with spectacular views of the Rio Tedo, a Douro tributary, and took us to lunch in the compound’s dining room, in one of the small houses we had encountered upon arrival. Gabriela joined us there, along with Nicholas Delaforce, Niepoort’s enologist in charge of Port, who drove over from the different quinta where Port is handled, and a shy lab technician whose name I didn’t catch. I’ll try to summarize several observations from Seabra:
All Niepoort vineyards are organic and selection is massale. It is true that acid must often be added in the Douro, but it wasn’t in the 2008s that we tasted earlier in barrel. He prefers to add acid once only, in the must, because any excess will form crystals and drop out. He agreed that acid, when added, often tastes poorly integrated.
The switch from inoculated to ambient was not just to make the wine more authentic. Purchased yeasts require nutrients and behave like junkies, stopping fermentation when food runs out and restarting when more is given, generating roller coaster fermentation.
While the open pores of new wood allow for greater natural micro-oxygenation, Seabra doesn’t believe, like Luis Pato, that wood tannins bind with grape tannins to improve polymerization. He also doesn’t believe that a wine needs “structure” to withstand new oak, otherwise how could pinot noir withstand new wood? It only occurred to me later that pinots aged in new wood are most likely fermented with whole clusters so they have enough structure to handle it. When I suggested that all that new oak might make these top Burgundies tough to drink for a long time, he disagreed, saying that he had tasted several young DRCs that were fresh and approachable. Pathetically disadvantaged in the DRC department, I let the matter drop.
We talked about how 2003 was a polarizing vintage, pleasing to many critics but unpopular in the blog and message board world. Seabra said that all the 2003 that he had tasted lately seemed to be aging poorly, with unbalanced structure. Over time, he believes, the vintage characteristics will trump whatever you do in the cellar.
Delaforce talked about the challenge of producing, year after year, a balanced and consistent style of tawny and ruby, in contrast to the vintage Ports, that can express their particular year.
Over a lunch of “rancho,” a delicious Douro stew containing meat, pork ribs, lard, chorizo, pasta, potatoes, collard greens and carrots, we drank:
2008 Niepoort Tiara Douro 12.0%
From 60+ year old vines of Codega do Larinho, Rabigato and others, planted at 550+ on schist and granite soils facing east, vinified for five months at cool temperatures. Very nice acacia and mineral aromas. Fresh, good weight, slightly more sweet than acid.
2005 Niepoort Redoma Tinto
A blend of Tinta Amarela, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and others. Closed. Some aroma starts to appear towards the end of the meal, a slightly stewed blackberry, very ripe. Mouth feel, however, is lovely and fresh. Hard to judge at this point, but could become very good.
At this point Delaforce asked us if we wanted him to open a half bottle of 05 or 07 vintage port to accompany dessert and a cheese plate. We went with 2005 (he graciously gave us the 2007 to go).
2005 Niepoort Vintage Port
Few Port houses declared in 2005, says Delaforce. Closed, but mouth shows delicate fruit, vibrant acidity, fine tannins. Quite lovely.
Niepoort 10 Year Tawny (just bottled)
Nutty aroma, lovely peppery piquancy. Delaforce says this is from the “aguardente” (the grape spirit that is added to fermenting wine to make it Port), and will tone down with time.
Even in Dirk’s absence, the hospitality at Niepoort, with all the senior employees assembled for our benefit, was really quite impressive, and set a standard that other visits will be pressed to match. Though Dirk was absent, he seemed everywhere, in the esthetics, in the winemaking choices, in the way people said his name. My impression is that the dependable profitability of the Port side of the business allows Dirk to experiment on the dry side, while indulging a Falstaffian appetite for the finer things in life (i.e., Burgundy). Jamie Goode’s blog contains reports of visits to Niepoort in which, in addition to keeping tabs on the evolution of Niepoort wines, Jamie gets to drink many reasons for envy. While the wines are technological to a significant degree, nowhere did I taste poorly integrated oak or that stewed taste of hot climate grapes that seems to characterize the modern profile, and would be so easy to achieve in the Douro. They are mostly light on their feet, with good, natural tasting acidity.
That night we stayed in again and had cold cuts, cheese and bread with the 2008 Casa de Saima Reserva Branco that Dona Graça of Casa de Saima had given us. Took no notes, but it was fresh and lovely, with good acidity and very tasty fruit.
Thursday, January 7: Visit to Jorge Moreira/Poeira
Niepoort and Crasto are relatively large wineries, so I wanted to balance that by visiting a smaller producer, Jorge Moreira, known for breaking the mold by trying to make more acidic, less international styled wines. It was not easy to find Moreira’s quaintly named Quinta da Terra Feita de Cima (Quinta of the Land Made from Above), so we were unfashionably late. Our conversation was animated and engaging, and Moreira came across as a brainy but intuitive inventor, intense and creative. Previously at Real Companhia Velha, he felt that many of the new Douro red wines were similar, and were being made with a port mentality, using grapes with excessively sunny southern exposures. They had unbalanced intensity when young, and aged uncertainly, when not poorly. Believing that higher acidity was the key to better aging, he began to make wines using vineyards facing north, with less direct sunshine and longer maturations. His first effort, the 2001 Poeira (Dust), was an immediate success, something he modestly credits to being there at the right time, when tastes were changing and people were looking for something different (he is also enologist at Quinta de la Rosa, whose wines have been receiving good notices).
Moreira talked about how expensive it is to cultivate the steep inclines of the region; everything has to be done by hand. The Douro cannot compete with Alentejo and Estremadura in terms of cost, so their only option is to go for quality. He talked about his struggle, every year, to keep alcohol levels down. The alcohol level of the current vintage (2009) was looking high because summer had been too hot, and even north facing vines experienced dehydration. Even so, he says his musts rarely require acidification (2003 was the only year in which he had to do it). Like many, he says he wants to bring out the character of each vintage, realizing its potential to the fullest extent. But he says he is definitely not a purist and has no qualms about intervening. This apparent contradiction generated much semantic sorting out, both during our conversation and, later, between me and Marcia in the car (“If you child is musical and you get her piano lessons, is that a “correction”? No, but if you want your child to be balanced, perhaps you should get her lessons for those areas in which she is not naturally gifted.”). Moreira wants to create wines that are balanced and reveal the character of the vintage, even if these are at odds; for that, there are years in which he has “to do nothing” and years in which he has “to do everything.” He is particularly driven to prevent defects like brett or premox. Every vintage is vinified differently and he approaches each without preconceptions. For example, in 2002 he used no barriques and the malos took place in wood, while in 2003 he used 60% barriques and the malos took place in stainless steel. To symbolize that changing aspect, the symbol on the Poeira label is a knot, and every year it’s different.
All Moreira’s wines are manually sorted and foot trodden in cement lagares. Large lagares increase the danger of contamination, so he has to be extremely careful and fermentation has to start quickly. There is risk of brett becoming dominant instead of being dominated; also of volatile acidity, and other dangers. Total SO2 for reds at time of bottling runs at 70/80mg/l. Asked about yeasts, he replied that he inoculates. Pressed to elaborate, he said that he can’t leave something like that to chance. Even when he doesn’t inoculate, he prefers to say that he does because if you do it just once, from that point on you will never know, even if you never do it again, what proportion of native v. non-native yeasts did the trick. That was definitely food for thought, and made me understand that while Niepoort may have stopped inoculating in 2004, that doesn’t mean that his fermentations were performed by native yeasts. Clearly, ambient ≠ native, and begs the further, perhaps unanswerable question (applicable to all immigrants) of how much adaptation time is required before the descendants of inoculated yeasts can legitimately be called native.
2005 was the first vintage Moreira was truly happy with. It was a dry and balanced year, and alcohol came to 13.5%. But he doesn’t like the way it is aging. He was initially dubious about his 2003s, but they were drinking well in 2007. He really likes his 2007, but expected most people not to like it because it has a vegetal aspect. But it got good reviews, and is practically sold out, mostly overseas. I expressed my hope that a certain transfer of power was happening from critics to blogs and message boards but Moreira said this was still marginal, at least in Europe. He railed against the disequilibrium generated by critics. Depending on reviews, wines can go from overstocked to sold-out in a day, and he gave us several examples of things that had happened to producers he knows. He believes that, to survive, the larger producers have to “hold hands” with critics, particularly now, when demand is very weak because of the recession.
We went to Jorge’s cellar to look for a bottle of 2007 Poeira. As he searched, he kept bringing out bottles of chateauneuf-du-papes from 2000 and 2001 and complain about brett. Apparently a local shipper went bankrupt and Jorge had to accept wine as payment. Many have turned out to be bretty, so his intolerance for that defect was running high during our visit. Not finding any 2007 Poeira, Jorge opened a bottle of Pó de Poeira, his second wine:
2007 Pó de Poeira Douro 14.0%
Aged in used oak. Initially closed, opens a little after a few minutes, with a bit of simple cherry. Good mouth weight, slightly bitter finish, light vegetable note, good acid/sweet balance, good natural acidity.
Jorge commented on how the weather in 2007 was unprecedented. It rained very lightly, but throughout, so there was no hydric stress and maturations were prolonged, with substantial acidity. Wines had concentration without too much alcohol. In 2004, 2006 and 2009, on the other hand, there was dehydration. The decision of when to pick is the single most important task of a Douro enologist, he said, because of the bewildering variety of varieties with which they make their non-varietals (this one’s for the Norse God Grammar Patrol). Moreira decides when to pick based on intuition, by tasting the grapes and the seeds, applying whatever knowledge is transferable from previous vintages.
Moving on to the small cellar, we tasted a few barrel samples. The first two we tasted were likely to end up in the 2009 Poeira, and contained grapes picked ten days apart. I guessed wrong, Marcia guessed right:
2008 Poeira barrel sample #1
Ripe cherry aroma mixed with reduction. Fresh and fruity, excellent balance, nice CO2.
2008 Poeira barrel sample #2
Nose is closed. Thick and chewy, quite acidic. Has 1.5% more alcohol!
At this point Moreira surprised me by saying that he avoids certain grapes that he considers “bad.” Among these, he includes Tinta Barroca, Bastardo, and Tinta Roriz. When I protested that the last is Tempranillo, he says he thinks the clones in Spain are different, because those he likes.
2009 Souzão barrel sample
As an example of a grape he likes, we tasted from a barrel of 100% Souzão, a first for me. Aromas were knock-out lovely, with loads of crushed violets. Good acidity, and less concentrated than wines made from standard Douro grapes. I enjoyed this very much and could easily see this doing well as Portuguese answer to lighter aromatic grapes like Gamay, Poulsard, Trousseau, Pineau d’Aunis, etc.
Frustrated that he couldn’t find a 2007 Poeira to open, Jorge called a warehouse in a nearby village and arranged for us to pick one up there to take home. A welcome gesture, that will allow us to test drive it slowly, in ideal settings.
It being Marcia’s birthday, we had a fancy dinner at the luxurious hotel restaurant. I wanted to take the occasion to try a Barca Velha, but prices in Portuguese restaurants are prohibitive, so we submitted to the by-the-glass recommendations accompanying the prix-fixe menu. I didn’t take notes, but we started with a nice Moscatel de Favaios, sweet, but with good acidity, then a 2007 Altano Douro (white), fresh but acid-challenged, a 2007 Quinta do Vallado Douro (white), thick and showing some premox, a basic 2007 Quinta do Crasto, correct but uninspiring, and an agreeable João Ramos Portugal tawny.
Friday, January 8: Visit to Quinta do Crasto
Several years ago I went to one of those Wine Spectator extravaganzas (where you spit the world’s most highly rated wines) and met Miguel Roquette, who was pouring for Quinta do Crasto. Miguel lived in Rio de Janeiro as a child, loves Brazil, wishes he could live there, and can turn on a Brazilian accent at will. He is also very charming, and his dynamism is surely a major factor in the winery’s visibility. I was looking forward to seeing Miguel again, and hoped to understand what makes them tick. Crasto’s 2000 Vinha da Ponte and 2001 Douro Reserva were my Portuguese benchmarks at their respective price levels during my early, point-driven days, but my palate has moved towards greater acidity and less oak and ripe fruit flavors. Crasto, on the other hand, has remained faithful to their style, prizing consistency, rigorous quality control and slow, incremental improvements. They would never do anything as radical (and apparently risky) as switching from inoculated to ambient yeasts, like Niepoort did in 2004. Perhaps because, unlike Niepoort, they don’t have an established Port business that could allow them to take greater risks with their dry wines, on which their survival depends.
Our appointment wasn’t until 11AM, but the drive is tricky, so we checked out of the hotel and set off for the hills. Crasto is on the north side of the Douro, in a particularly elevated area near the town of Gouvinhas, and we made several stressfully vertiginous hairpin bends (I finally understood the term “hairpin”!) and wrong turns before finally getting there. While not quite as steep as the slopes on Madeira, these are challenging enough to visit, so I can imagine how difficult it must be to harvest them.
Miguel Roquette was scheduled to arrive from Porto at around lunchtime, so we were originally going to be taken around by enologist Manoel Lobo. But Lobo was busy with visiting Australian winemaker Dominic Morris, who has been overseeing Crasto’s table wines since 1994 (Morris has his own winery, but the opposing hemispheres allow him to perform double duty, and he has been making the long trek three or four times a year since then). So we were taken around by Catia Barbeta, who was thorough and knowledgeable. First she showed us the Port lagares, where destemmed grapes are foot-trodden by the villagers of Gouvinhas, who also do the harvesting. Unlike most Douro houses, that make a full range of ports, Crasto only makes a vintage and an LBV.
Catia then showed us the chamber where the reds are fermented, in large, temperature-controlled steel vats. Interestingly, there is no maceration. The wines are fermented dry and immediately transferred to barrels. The only exception is Xisto, made in collaboration with Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Chateau Lynch-Bages, a friend of Miguel’s father, Jorge Roquette. Xisto is made by Lynch-Bages’s enologist, using Portuguese grapes, and is the only wine there that macerates, for up to 20 days after fermentation. Ports use ambient yeasts, but all table wines are inoculated with yeasts and malolactic bacteria. At Crasto, there is a strong emphasis on quality control and dependability. They want a single yeast, quick and safe, to be responsible for all fermentations. Once dry, wines are transferred to different steel vats for malos, and from there they go to barrels, assembled in neat rows in a gigantic warehouse, like a Chinese emperor’s terracotta army. Crasto uses a mixture of predominantly French but also American oak, always new or, at most second or third use, and predominantly medium toast (Catia says that the definition of medium varies from cooper to cooper). Different French sources are used for variety (I noticed Quintessence, Taransaud, Seguin-Moreau). Crasto also uses American oak “because its tannins are softer.” Barrels are topped up every 15 days. Wines are racked every six months, at which time barrels are cleaned, a lot of work for the sake of hygiene. All wines are bottled with inert gas.
Crasto’s top vineyards, Vinha da Ponte (2 hectares) and Vinha Maria Teresa (4.5 hectares), have many centenarian vines and somewhere between 30 and 40 varieties. A DNA study is underway to identify them all, but this is slow work. In special years, these generate single vineyard bottlings, otherwise they go into the Reserva. Vinha da Ponte sees 100% new French oak while Vinha Maria Teresa sees 70/80% new French. The Xisto collaboration, intended as a “Portuguese wine with a French accent,” also sees 100% French oak, and is the only red that is fined (with egg albumen). All Crasto wines are filtered, some more, some less. Crasto uses four gauges, and wines go through some or all, in succession.
The choice of when to pick is made by periodically collecting random samples, starting in August, and sending them to the lab for analysis. There are no preset targets, it depends on the weather conditions. There are years in which the maturities of the different varieties coincide, and years in which they don’t. The decision of whether to bottle the single vineyards as such depends partially on that. There was no Vinha da Ponte was made in 2005, a relatively good year, because of maturity disparities. Crasto has no recipes, but aims for consistency of profile.
Catia then took us to the oldest house in the compound, where there is a dining room. We passed by Jorge Roquette, the owner, who greeted us warmly. Catia then took us through a selection of recently bottled Crasto wines. Whenever the word Quinta appears on the label, the grapes are entirely home-grown. If it says just Crasto, some are purchased. According to Catia, with every passing year the proportion of purchased grapes is becoming smaller and smaller.
2008 Crasto Douro (white) 12.5%
Only the second vintage of Crasto’s first venture into white wine, underscoring how commercially dependent they are on dry reds. From a vineyard leased in Murça, at a higher altitude (600m). Blend of Gouveio, Roupeiro and Rabigato, aged in stainless steel. Pleasant citrus and white flower aromas. Served chilled, shows excellent balance and acidity, with a touch of residual CO2 for freshness (reminiscent of Ceretto’s Roero Arneis, where the same is done). After it warms in the glass, the sensation of acidity begins to flag, but this is a commendable effort. Catia tells us that Rabigato is there for acidity, while the other two provide fruity aromas.
2008 Flor de Crasto Douro 12.5%
Blend of the four main Douro grapes – Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz – from young vines. No wood. Simple cherry aromas. Light tannins, slightly green. Acid tastes a little unnatural. Needs more time in bottle.
2008 Crasto Douro 13.5%
Same blend, except from 30/40 year old vines. Cherry and earth aromas. Good balance, some structure. Acidity adequate, but also tastes a little unnatural.
2007 Quinta do Crasto Douro Reserva Vinhas Velhas 14.5% (from half bottle)
A blend of 30/40 varieties from 70 year old vines. This sees wood, some of it American, and shows it. Jammy cherry aromas with an animal note. Good mouth weight, good acid/sweet balance, but the acidity, again, appears separate. The oak is not overbearing, but needs time to integrate. Way too young to judge, but not giving much complexity today.
At this point, Miguel Roquette arrives and we exchange greetings and promise to chat later. On the subject of monovarietals v. blends, Catia tells us that Crasto is planting new vines, one variety per parcel, at a newly acquired 130 hectare property called Quinta da Cabreira, near Foz Coa. In special years, Crasto produces two monovarietals – the Tinta Roriz, last made in 2003, and the Touriga Nacional, last made in 2006 - which sell for prices similar to the Vinha da Ponte and Maria Teresa, even though the vines, at age 40, are several decades younger. This is attributable to the scarcity of older vine varietal bottlings in the Douro.
2005 Roquette & Cazes Xisto Douro 14.0%
First made in 2003. Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz, from purchased grapes, each vinified separately. Nose shows an elegant package of judicious oak, cherry, fat, and meat. Good body, good balance, well integrated wood, attractive fruit. Drinking very well now.
2004 Quinta do Crasto LBV Port 19.0%
Nice, pruney aroma, but none of the oxidative notes I was expecting. Excellent mouth feel, vibrant acidity, very tasty.
We are done, but an enjoyable coda awaits. Miguel reenters and says that he spoke to his father and they’d like us to stay for lunch with them and their enologists, Dominic Morris and Manuel Lobo. At the table, Jorge Roquette talked warmly about the gratitude the family feels towards Brazil for receiving them so well when they fled the revolution that overthrew the 48 year old Salazar dictatorship in 1974. At the other end of the table, Miguel and the others were talking about critics and scores, speculating about why Mark Squires might have scored the 07 Reserva higher (94) than the more pedigreed 07 Vinha Maria Teresa (93). In addition to these lofty scores (the 07 Vinha da Ponte got 95), the winery is running high because the 05 Reserva was recently declared #3 in the Wine Spectator’s Top 10 Wines of 2008. This was not the time to get on my soapbox and rail against critics and points, but I couldn’t help wondering how addictive it must be, like adrenaline, to receive such high scores. Not to mention profitable. I also couldn’t help wondering what that might do to one’s willingness to take risks.
The delicious lunch was accompanied by a 07 Reserva, followed by a 07 Maria Teresa. Both young and oaky, years away from their prime, but the latter is clearly in a different league. I had a chat with my neighbor, Manuel Lobo, about acidification. He said they sometimes acidify the must, but they work hard to make the grapes come to the sorting mat with the correct acidity by “managing the amount of hydric stress through irrigation.” Interesting. He also said that they don’t filter. I mentioned the four filters. He qualified by saying that the pores were wide gauge. Manuel said that the objective was to make wines that aged well but could also be drunk young.
After lunch, Miguel took us to see the famous swimming pool on the edge of a cliff and talked about how quality control was essential for Crasto, otherwise a single slip up could destroy what had taken them years to build. I was surprised to note how a structure that appeared to me so solid could appear to them so vulnerable. Miguel said that their fundamental objective is to produce the best Touriga Nacional in the world.
As we were leaving, Miguel gave us some books, including one about the Douro Boys that shows how competent they are at putting out the word. We left with the warm wind of hospitality blowing in our sails. As for the wines, my palate has changed, and perhaps I am now too hopelessly in the quirky, artisanal camp. While these wines may no longer be what I am most interested in, I admire the competence and consistency with which the Roquettes have built their business.
The drive to Porto was uneventful, but the landscape was stark, like a lunar surface, barren and chalky, with scattered blocks of pale granite, as if quarried and randomly disposed by bored giants. That evening, we stayed in and ordered a cheese plate from room service. It was cold enough outside to chill a souvenir from Niepoort by leaving it out on the terrace for a few hours:
2008 Niepoort Redoma Branco Reserva 12.8%
Austere aromas of white flowers laced with anis. Aged in French oak, but doesn’t show it. Good body and freshness, good acid/sweet balance, very satisfying with cheese.
We spent Saturday, January 9, walking around Porto, known to the English as Oporto, because the Portuguese always put the article “o” before writing or saying the name of the city. Equivalent to someone hearing “She’s going to the Catskills” and thinking that the place is called Thecatskills. The district where the Douro flows into the Atlantic is full of beautiful old buildings, and my jaw was dropping right and left at the lovely ceramic and Art Deco façades. We crossed the bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia, where the Port warehouses are located and the old Port boats moored. In one of Porto’s main squares, I was surprised to see a large equestrian statue of Peter I, the mercurial Portuguese prince who rebelled in 1822 against his father, King John VI of Portugal, and declared Brazil’s independence from the mother country. Eight years later he abdicated in favor of his son, Peter II, and went back to Portugal to prevent the crown from leaving the family. He eventually became Peter IV of Portugal, king of a country against which he had rebelled, and from whom he had spirited away its most important colony. Stranger than fiction.
That evening we went to dinner at Shis, one of Porto’s top restaurants, beautifully positioned over a beach facing the Atlantic, yards from the water. The view would have been lovely if it wasn’t pitch black. The wine list, alas, was bipolar, as usual, featuring trendy and expensive Douros at one end and workhorse Alentejos at the other. There was only one Bairrada
, a 2003 Luis Pato Vinha Pan, and a handful of Dãos. From among the latter we chose a 2000 Touriga Nacional, inexpensive, that could only cost so little relative to its age because Dão is so direly unfashionable.
2008 Deu la Deu Alvarinho Vinho Verde Monção (by the glass)
Mineral and white flower aromas. Decent weight, but needs more acidity.
2008 Quinta da Bacalhoa Catarina Setúbal (by the glass)
Lovely white flower aroma. Better balance than preceding, pleasant light bitter finish.
2000 Quinta dos Carvalhais Touriga Nacional Dão 12.5%
Light ruby. Lovely mature cherry and leather aromas. No oak in sight. Excellent acid/sweet balance, good weight, but light on its feet, with supple tannins.
Sunday, January 10, our last day in Portugal, began with a visit to the Serralves Foundation, an important contemporary art center in a building designed by Portugal’s most famous architect, Alvaro Siza. Beautiful, spare and full of elegant angles, though I find the volumes less than ideal for displaying art (not enough reliance on the golden rule). On the same grounds there is a lovely, and completely empty, pink Art Deco mansion, where the original owner used to live, definitely worth a visit.
On the way to Lisbon, we stopped at the remarkable Alcobaça Monastery, where Peter I of Portugal is buried next to Inês de Castro, a Galician noblewoman with whom he had a storied and adulterous love affair that captures the Portuguese imagination to this day. In 1355, while Peter was the heir apparent, Afonso IV, his father and king of Portugal, had Inês assassinated because the prince’s scandalous liaison with a foreigner threatened to split the kingdom. Devastated, Peter never forgave his father or loved anyone else again. When he became king in 1357, it has become the stuff of legend that he propped Inês’s mummified corpse next to him so that the nobles assembled for the coronation could kiss the hand of the woman who should have been their queen. Peter then had her buried at Alcobaça and positioned his own tomb across from hers so that they would see each other the moment they rose on Judgment Day.
"I went on a rigorous diet that eliminated alcohol, fat and sugar. In two weeks, I lost 14 days." Tim Maia, Brazilian singer-songwriter.