An exciting rebirth: Casa da Passarella, the Dão

I first came across Casa da Passarella at Lisbon wine fair Encontro com o Vinho e Sabores in 2012 – a find of the fair. Last month presented a chance to visit. It’s quite a special place, with a great back-story too. No wonder the wines have been such a sell out success.

Its flagship wines, Villa Oliveira, are named after the man who founded the estate almost 150 years ago. Portugal-born Amand d’Oliveira made his fortune Brazil.

Returning to his homeland he built the house (pictured) on the grand scale of Brazilian houses. And his vision was similarly grand when it came to planting vines – 200 hectares of them, of which 40 hectares still exist. These century old vines include Baga (which used to be much planted in the Dao), also Pinot Noir.

Its birth may have been illustrious but, when current owner Ricardo Cabral acquired it in 2007, the winery was in ruins. Though he had been living in Switzerland and had no connection with wine, Cabral had a connection with the estate. His grandfather had worked there during happier years, when this imposing, exotic estate seemingly exerted a magical influence over young Cabral. At any rate, it must have been one of the Euro-millionaire’s first purchases following his sizeable lottery win in 2006.

Cabral’s first priority was to rebuild the winery, in which he invested €3m, and the vineyard. Next there are plans to renovate the estate’s houses. As you can see from the pictures, no expense has been spared in the sympathetic (and very aesthetic) renovation of the winery. No wonder former Vines & Wines’ consultant winemaker Paulo Nunes was tempted to take on a full-time position here in 2009, having consulted since 2006.

Nunes tells me “I came here because I believe in this terroir. It’s easy to make a good wine here – you just have to respect the terroir and you have a good wine.”  The Douro-born winemaker adds, “the perfect wine doesn’t exist of course, but if it’s possible, it’s in the Dão, because of the good acidity and fine, elegant tannins – they are very different from others.”

And even within the Dão, Nunes sees advantages where the Serra d’Estrela’s higher altitude (Passarella’s vineyard range between 400-600m) results in longer hang times – perhaps 20 days’ difference (great for tannin ripeness) – with more acidity and freshness. The mountain range (Portugal’s highest) is also a barrier to the extremes of Spain’s pronounced continental climate. Even so, the diurnal is very high, with very fresh nights in summer – perhaps dropping from a daytime peak of 30 degrees down to 10-12 degrees. No tee-shirts at night here according to Douro winemakers Jorge Moreira, Francisco Olazabal and Jorge Serôdio Borges who also make wine in the Serra d’Estrela. Click here for my recent report on their Dão MOB joint venture project.

Nunes (pictured) has a broad range of varieties (if 80% red) to draw upon, notably the old vines – a field blend of around 25 different grapes, including the Pinot Noir. The Pinot was planted by a French jewish winemaker from Burgundy, who took refuge at Passarella during World War Two. To repay the favour, he made the wines and planted the Pinot.

Younger block plantings include Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Jaen, Alfrocheiro, Encruzado, Malvasia Fina, Cerceal, a little Uva Cao (which some people say is the same as Cerceal but Nunes doesn’t believe it). Nunes is about to plant another 2ha of “ancient” Dão grapes, including Baga, Alvareo, Rufete, Negra Amore, Tinta Cao, Moreto, Tinta Penerha/Rufete.

Here are my notes on the wines.

Casa da Passarella A Descoberta 2012

This unoaked blend of Encruzado (mostly) Malvasia Fina and Verdelho is pale, smoky, indeed very flinty and mineral on the nose. The Encruzado brings the (acid) spine, which is well fleshed out by the Verdelho’s green tropical fruits. Good.

Casa da Passarella O Oenologo Encruzado 2012

Though 50% barrel-fermented and aged in new French oak (600l barrels), the oak is worn lightly on a fresh, bright, citrine, nose and palate, stony with minerals and a touch saline on the finish. Good. 13%

Casa da Passarella Villa Oliveira 2011

Old vine Encruzado (c. 40 years old), which has been micro-selected from a field blend. It spent half the ferment on skins before being pressed into 600l barrels, where it was aged (and underwent a partial malo) for 12 months with no temperature control. It’s a powerful, complex, really interesting wine – assertive on nose and palate. It has a resinous (very Dão) edge, sweet oak characters (nougat), nutty and savoury lees characters which compliment its soft, limpid, mineral palate. Very good. 13%

Casa da Passarella O Brazileiro Rosado 2012

A well made rose. This dry blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz shows good fruit with a savoury edge.   13.5%

Somontes Colheita 2010

Somontes is a traditional brand of the estate and the wines so-labelled are made in a more traditonal style. It has a floral, fresh nose with wild berry fruits which bring vivacity to the palate. There’s a woodsmoke, sous bois quality which I often find in the region’s wines – a nice signature note. Tannins have a pomegranate pithy freshness/directness. Good. 14% 

Somontes Touriga Nacional 2007

Nunes calls this wine “our little Burgundy.” True it’s not a big, bold over-extracted style of Touriga (phew!) Rather, it plays to the variety’s red cherry and berry fruit. There’s a hint of eucalypt and spicy, earthy, savoury firmish tannins which, combined with its fresh acidity bode well for cellaring.

Casa da Passarella A Descoberta 2010

For this label, the tannins are less rustic, the fruit dial turned up. Nunes plays with the different expositions/parcels – “if there’s more freshness, it’s good for Somontes, if it’s a warmer parcel it’s better for Passarella.” The fruit (fruits of the forest) is undoubtedly smoother, still vibrant though, more sustained (concentrated) too. The tannins are fine, friendlier if you like. The finish a touch saline, which underscores its freshness. 13.5%

Casa da Passarella A Descoberta Vinhas Velhas 2009

This field blend comes from vines around 80 years old and includes Pinot Noir. Yields are very low (up to 2ha produce 2000 bottles). It’s a weighty, concentrated wine with a charge of sweet fruit – framboise, earthier raspberry, wild black berries and currant too. Its perfume makes for an intensely scented palate too. Very good. 14% 

Casa da Passarella Villa Oliveira Touriga Nacional 2009

This single varietal wine is a micro-selection from old (field blend) vines. Fruit is de-stemmed and foot trodden in lagares (pictured) for 10 days, then naturally fermented and aged in older French oak barrels (600l). The resulting wine is intensely perfumed too, with violet lift to its creamy swathes of sweet red and black berry fruit and pippier, vivacious red and black currant fruits. Tannins are ripe but present. The finish has attractive sous bois and savoury (yesterday’s fire) woodsmoke notes. Very good. 13.5%

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