Friday, November 28, 2008

A Reportage on Douro wines (2): Quinta do Crasto - Quinta do Infantado - Niepoort

It's day 2 of my travel around the Douro wine region and the day started rather early, since I had to reach Quinta do Crasto on the right bank of the Douro river and I had a vague idea of how long it would take from Regua.

Actually, Quinta do Crasto is visible a few kilometres from Regua from the road running on the left bank of the river, a fantastic Quinta dominating the panorama over the Douro Valley, but this does not mean that it only takes minutes from regua, because there is no direct road on the right bank.

Finally the road proved to be much longer than expected, with a long detour that takes largely more than one hour on a winding road. However, the panorama of the hills was so beautiful that it simply looked like the perfect introduction to what would be a very stimulating day.

Quinta do Crasto is a very elegant quinta owned by the Roquette family who occasionally also lives in a beautiful historical house dominating the Douro Valley.

The Quinta started to self-marketing his wines rather recently, in 1994, but the investments of Jorge Roquette since the 1980's in the vyneyards and in the cellar produced important results. The wines that are produced with the 130 hectares of Quinta do Crasto have acquired great reputation and are largely praised.

While most of the red wines (vinhos de mesa) come from the vineyards around the quinta, the grapes for the port wines come from another property more eastern in the Douro Valley. The vineyards include both very old vines (some 90 years old) planted with a large number of grape varieties altogether (like in the rest of Douro) and an important part of vines planted in the 1980's (Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão and Touriga Francesa) where grape varieties are separated and which allow also for separated vinification.

Manuel Lobo, enologist of the Quinta for the red wines (Tomas Roquette is responsible for port wines) was my guide through the vineyards and the cellar. The main body of the cellar also includes the old granite lagares used for the maceration of the grapes for port wines and occupies a re-organised old fabric that keeps beautiful old azulejos (the typical Portuguese ceramic tilework that you find often in Portuguese old houses).

I had the opportunity to taste some of the wines of Quinta do Crasto:

  • Crasto 2007. this wine comes from the newly planted vineyards and includes several grape varieties. It is a wine which shows a good freshness on the palate combined with a good tannic presence and some black fruit flavor. About 500.000 bottles produced annually.
  • Quinta do Crasto Reserve Old Vines 2006. It is a wine produced from the oldest vineyards of the Quinta, including a large number of grape varieties (>25). After fermentation it ages for 18 months in French oak barrels of 225lt. It reveals some intense black fruit flavour combined with tobacco, while on the palate it shows already some soft and round tannins and a good structure and long persistence. About 80.000 bottles produced annually.
  • Xisto 2005. This wine is the result of a joint venture between Roquette and Jean-Michel Cazes of Chateau Lynch-Bages. It has a clear dominance of Touriga Nacional with part of Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz and comes from 25 years old vines. The wine is dominated by some red fruit, but the taste appears to be rather closed at the moment.
  • Quinta do Crasto Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) 2002. I appreciated very much this LBV that has a very good elegance and persistence. A very well made port.

Quinta do Infantado

My second visit of the day was a few kilometres away from Quinta do Crasto, in the direction of Pinhao. Coming from Quinta do Crasto, one notes clearly the difference in style.

First of all I had some difficulties in finding my way to the Quinta do Infantado ( tel. +351-254 738 020), since no clear signs indicate it and it is not located on the main road, but finally I reached my destination through a narrow steep road.

When coming there, the order, perfect organisation and sense of grandeur of Quinta do Crasto was a striking contrast with the slight decadence of Quinta do Infantado, which gives a sense of being in the good old times of wine growing and not in the sometimes too perfect and aseptyc world of modern winemaking.

A group of "pisadores" (foot threaders) worked with continuity and relax in a room including five lagares filled with fermenting grapes. I felt reassured by such a timeless image.

After having spent some time walking around I found my way to the offices area, where an immense room overlook the valley in front. There I met Joao Roseira, and it would be a very rewarding visit also due to the personality of Joao, an open and passionate person who enjoys living in the Douro but also recognises the difficulty of wine growing there and who would share openly his views on this world.

Quinta do Infantado has been owned by the Roseira family for more than a century and is mostly focusing on port wines, with a very large of port wines of great character. They first started bottling and seling their port in the estate in 1979, mostly due to the organisation of port market until the '80s, characterised by the monopoly of the shippers of the city of Gaia that maintain the exclusive right of export until 1986. They only produce port and red wines using the grapes of their 46 hectares and based largely traditional techniques such as foot threading, long maceration and ageing in large oak barrel and "toneis" (smaller wooden barrels).

Joao stressed that a key aspect of the philosophy of the quinta is to leave the greapes for port wine to ferment longer so that there is less residual sugar and more natural alcohol, which is then leaving a less part for wine brandy added. As I experienced in the tasting of the whole range of port wines, the results are some very enjoyable port, easier to drink and with a sense of freshness that is sometimes lacking in other ports, but at the same time rich in fruits and complexity.

  • White port. The quinta produces a single dry white port, coming for four grape varieties. I enjoyed very much this dryier version of white port.
  • Ruby port. The first port of the brand is a very good introduction to the philosophy of the Quinta. Only 15% of brandy added during fermentation and a port that can be drunk like a red wine. Very pleasant and very far from a standard ruby.
  • Reserva. This port is made from a single undeclared vintage which results in a very good, balanced and rich wine that anticipates the vintage
  • Tawny 10 anos (ten years). A spectacular example of aged tawny. An amber colour introduces to expressive flavors of flowers, nuts and black fruits. The taste is dominated by an impressive elegance and a long finish.
  • Vintage 2003. It is always difficult to evaluate a new vintage, because of usual strong tannic character and deep fruit expression of new vintages. The 2003 vintage of Quinta do Infantado surprised me for its readiness in the immediate while keeping the capacity for long ageing. A great achievement.
  • Quinta do Infantado 2006. This is the only dry red produced by the Quinta. Most of the wine after foot threading and maceration is aged in stainless steel and part of it in toneis of second and third passage. The result is a pleasant wine with moderate complexity.


After lunch, the moment came to take the direction of Quinta de Napoles (photo taken from the Niepoort website), tha main headquarters of Niepoort property in the Douro. Quinta de Napoles is located on Rio Tedo, a tributary of Douro river, and has recently been entirely re-built in order to better suit the expansion of the production of Niepoort of red and white wines in the Douro. I was welcome at my arrival by Dirk van der Niepoort, who is unanimously considered as the major actor in the new wave of Douro wines and has largely contributed to the increasing visibility of Portuguese wines all around the world.

Dirk comes from a dinasty of one of the most famous port wine shippers, Niepoort, a family of Dutch origin that has since 1842 been producing outstanding port. However, he is the first in the family who has really started to produce wines, when he acquired in 1987 Quinta de napoles and the Quinta do Carril in the Douro Valley and started producing red and white wines.

Dirk guided me through the impressive new quinta, magnificently overlooking the Rio Tedo, organised in different floors according to the phase of production and with a sober modern concrete walls and a number of beutifully coloured rooms where the wines are resting in the barrels.

Dirk is a real pleasure to talk with, his knowledge about wines is so comprehensive that during the discussion we move from the discussion on his projects and on his view on Douro wines to a view on Italian wines and anecdotes on his meeting with Italian producers (extremely funny was when I compared him to the Italian innovative producer Josko Gravner and Dirk told me that when he first wanted to visit him Josko refused the meeting but Dirk went anyway and they enjoyed very much each other even if disagreeing on a lot of points).

What is so enjoying about this man is his permanent research and passion for experimenting. During the visit to the installations of the quinta we tasted to a large number of barrels when the wine was in the fermentation phase and we tried both the major wines of the Quinta (Batuta, Redoma..) and some experiments that Dirk is running and that most likely will not be bottled and enjoy the lucky persons coming to the quinta. I have to say that among those to-be wines I found an enormous potential coming not only from the most renown ones but also from the "experiments", some of which I hope to be able to taste in the future.

Dirk is not only a great winemaker, as I had the opportunity to discover later at night in the large dinner room of the quinta, but also an excellent cook, since he perfectly managed a large size fish that he served to a small group of friends for a celebration of the end of the harvest. Sitting besides me at dinner was a young Douro winemaker, Jorge Moreira, who is running "Poeira" (very enjoyable his Poeira red with deep black fruits, spicey and a good long finish) and is enologist at Quinta de la Rosa. The dinner was particularly pleasant as Dirk kept bringing wines in decanters and the step by step discovery stimulated a discussion on various wine areas (a non exaustive list of wines opened includes an opening Batart-Montrachet of Mounier, a great Rioja of 1966, a classic Gruaud-Larose of 1979, a Vosne-Romanee of La Romanee Conti, a Madeira of 1876).

A great ending of a very instructive day.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Wine Spectator releases a report on Tuscan wines: this is not a serious magazine!!

I always find interesting to check what the reports of various wine magazines and guides are saying on Italian wines, first of all in order to check if (not so often) I find some wine journalists with a taste that is similar to mine, and second to see which are the next overpriced and unaccessible wines (usually those getting >95 points from US guides/magazines).

But the recent reading of a report on Tuscany published by Wine Spectator on October 31, 2008 is going too far and shows how it is becoming not a matter of taste but more a question of lack of sense of ethics in part of the world of wine. Wine Spectator is trying to establish itself as a reference globally and the arrogance of its journalists is growing at a similar pace.

Since I believe it is important to bring concrete examples I would like to quote the score received by Gianfranco Soldera for his Brunello di Montalcino Case Basse Riserva 2000 in the report I just mentioned. I am sure most of the readers will not believe my words and will look for the report to see with their eyes that the brunello Riserva 2000 of Gianfranco Soldera received 68 points out of 100! Yes, the worst of all scores published in the report. The second worst was ... Brunello Case Basse Soldera Riserva 2001 with 78 points! (to be noted that other US wine sites, like Parker and IWC, both gave a 96 point score to this wine)

Since I tried the Riserva 2000 with some friends during a Superbrunello tasting last summer that you can trace here, and Soldera Riserva 2000 overshadowed largely all other brunello present (Poggio all'Oro 1990, Valdicava 1999, Cerretalto Casanova di neri 1999) I can reasonably affirm that James Suckling (the author of the tastings and of the report) has most likely expressed a judgement on Gianfranco Soldera as a man, and not on his wines, otherwise I would have no doubt saying that he is not suited to be a wine journalist but he would better look for another job. But if the judgement concerns a man and not his wines, as it clearly seems, then he is not suited to be a journalist neither, since his readers are asking him to judge wines and not to express his disagreement with a man though the pages of a magazine that does not come for free.

Either way, such a judgement is a shame for wine journalism and strongly undermines the reputation of Wine Spectator. I believe the wine public deserves much better than this.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Reportage on Douro wines (1st part - Introduction+Quinta Vale Dona Maria)

During the last harvest I took the opportunity of a visit to the Douro region to explore the area that has been promoting during the last years a new image of Portuguese wines in the world: the valley of the Douro river.

The Douro valley is of course not new to wine, as it has been producing and exporting for centuries that magnificent example of fortified wine that is the Port wine. All grapes used for producing port come from the Douro valley, and in particular from an intricated system of terraced vineyards that is a pleasure for the view but of course a challenge for the wine growers.

But this year I was coming there not for tasting port wine, even if I actually tasted some of them that I will report here, but mainly for visiting wineries that are producing some of the most interesting "Vinhos de mesa" (literally "table wines", even if this simply serves to reflect the difference with port wines since these wines fall under the denomination "Douro").

This area has been in fact leading the renewal of interest for Portuguese wines in the world market and its wines have been largely rewarded by the main wine guides and critics notably in the US. This "new wave" of Douro wines is largely due to the capacity of a number of growers, first of all Dirk van Der Niepoort (Niepoort family has already been producing outstanding port wines for centuries), to start on the one side to invest strongly also on dry red wines and not only on port wines and to experiment winemaking techniques, and on the other side to spend more energy on the promotional side of Portuguese wine, notably abroad (I remember that I get the best overview on Portuguese wines during an excellent Wine fair organised in New York by ViniPortugal some 2 years ago).

The result of this intense work has been in fact extremely rewarding since the interest for Portuguese wines in the biggest export markets, US and UK, has been growing in such a way that the key wines of some leading Douro wineries, such as Niepoort, Quinta do Vale Meao, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale Dona Maria... are now quickly sold out.

But the best way to discover this world is not in a wine fair but there, in the Douro valley, notably during the harvesting period, when the colour of the valley changes during the day with the inclination of the sun, and the rare roads of the area are filled with small trucks charged with people or grapes.

The Geography of the Douro

First of all, when coming to the Douro area, one should be aware of the peculiar geography of the place. The wine area, which starts from Regua (Peso da Regua), some 100 km from the sea coast and the key city of Oporto, is dominated by the Douro river, about 200 mt large there. The river is literally dominated by lusciurious hills entirely planted with terraced vineyards. Only part of the left bank, between Regua and Lamego, has space enough for a solitary road, while on the right side of the river the road is dominating the river and is following the up and down of the hills. The only possibility to cross the river is either at Regua or at Lamego some 20 km north. Reaching the "upper Douro" valley (Douro Superior) requires a large detour even if the panorama is splendid.

But a good way to visit the river is the train, which is following the right bank and takes you all along the river and let you discover this great scenery without being obliged to drive up and down. I would suggest to try a bit of both, but when visiting the wineries you should either have a car or arranging for a pick up at the train station.

In any case, the first element to take into consideration when coming there is understanding that the distance on paper and in reality are rather different. Better to coordinate the visits to the wineries fairly well on the basis of a detailed map.

Of course...this is not what I did...but I enjoyed my mistake.

When planning my visit I decided to visit the wineries that have been at the forefront of this "new wave", since I wanted first of all to understand how this movement was born, under which conditions, constraints and opportunities. I had to leave for a next occasion the visit to less known wineries, knowing that I want to explore also that side of the Douro world.

Quinta Vale Dona Maria

On October 8th, I was heading towards Quinta Vale Dona Maria, the first winery on my list, one of the five members of the so-called "Douro Boys", a group of some of the highly acclaimed wineries that has joined efforts in successfully promoting Douro wines. In fact, the Douro boy of this Quinta (Quinta= farm in Portuguese, but often refers to a countryside mansion) is in part a woman, Sandra Tavares da Silva, the enologist who is following the Quinta owned by Cristiano Van Zeller, helped by a newly arrived young enologist, Joana Pinhão, who has been my perfect guide during the visit.

Quinta Vale Dona Maria is located on the valley of the Douro tributary Rio Torto a few km from the Douro river, on the left bank, just after Lamego in direction north. My meeting was in the morning and I was admiring on my way from Regua the morning scenery of the Douro with the water condensation creating an even more heavenly panorama and sensation.

The steep road for the winery allowed me to admire the careful planting of the vineyards to reach even the more remote areas and profit from every single piece of land.

The Quinta is a rather recent acquisition by Cristiano van Zeller in 1996, even if belonging to his family's wife for several centuries. This is a common aspect of the Douro, where large part of the land has not changed ownership and where several families are linked with parental links to the very popular (an almost mythical) Dona Antonia, a woman who in the XIX century owned immense properties and was of key importance for saving the industry of wine in the Douro at the moment of the Phylloxera invasion.

Cristiano Van Zeller has turned the quinta in a few years into producing two of the most appreciated wines of the Douro: "Quinta do vale Dona Maria" and, more recently, "Curriculum Vitae (C.V.)". The quinta covers about 21 hectares, planted with old and new vines, with south-south-west exposure. As it is the case in all the douro, old vines are planted with dozens of different grape varieties, in a way that makes impossible separating them (Joana told me that they have counted more than 40 varieties in old vines there). Single grape wines are in fact a recent experiment for wineries, and only based on new vines.

In addition to the two wines described above, the Quinta produces also a number of Port wines (Vintage, LBV and Reserve) and under the brand "Van Zeller" (V.Z.) a white wine and a red wine that form the basic line.

I have only tried in this occasion the two wines of the basic line, and I appreciated the good acidity and freshness of the V.Z. white and the easiness and freshness of the V.Z. red.

The two upper line reds, Quinta vale Dona Maria and C.V. , after foot treading spend a few days fermentation in the lagares (the open stone or concrete tanks traditionally used for the fermentation of grapes for port wine), then are moved for further fermentation in steel tanks. They then age for 18 months in French oak barrels with light toasting. I appreciated the organisation of the winery, where all is arranged on a vertical basis partly due to space constraints but also to facilitate the different phases of the production.

The Quinta, in addition to the winery, has also developed a rural tourism area with a small swimming pool dominating the valley. A good place for relaxing and also learning about the life of wine growers.