The Douro Boys – 2007 table wines & port report

In the first week of September, I visited the Douro Boys, the quality focused individuals behind Quintas do Vallado, do Crasto, do Vale Dona Maria, do Vale Meao and Niepoort. As I mentioned in my blog, though one wag queried “Boys,” I think it remains an apt epithet because the Douro often conjures up visions of port and cigars, pipes and slippers. The Boys exemplify all that is cutting edge and dynamic about the Douro. They have the youthful spirit and adventure that marks out my kind of winemaker. Always pushing the boundaries and let’s face it, the region is relatively young when it comes to table wines.

I’ve given a short introduction about each estate before setting out my tasting notes, but you’ll find a dossier with detailed information about each estate and the history, climate and geography of the Douro region on the Douro Boys website here. And you’ll find more on artist and food & wine writer David Eley’s website here. Incidentally, David is currently “updating” Joseph James Forrester’s 19-century map of the Douro Valley for which Forrester was made a Baron of Portugal – I suspect Mr Eley would not decline the honour should it be offered!

The focus of the trip was threefold. First the official release of the 2007 vintage table wines in Quinta do Vallado’s new cellar room pictured above. Second, to put these wines in perspective, we visited each producer for a vertical tasting, so a great chance to see how those boundaries are being pushed in the glass, with some changes in philosophy, fruit source, oak etc. Finally, we tasted a range of 2007 vintage ports three ways, a thought-provoking experience (see part 3 below).

And in case you’re wondering about the “we”, my journo peers for this press trip included Edwin Soon (Singapore), Rebecca Leung (Hongkong – www.wineisbeautiful.com), Tomoko Ebisawa (Japan – www.vinoheque.co.jp), Fredric Koeppel (USA – www.biggerthanyourhead.net) and Stephan Reinhardt (Germany – www.weinwisser.com).

Part 1 – The launch of Douro Boys 2008 white wines & 2007 red wines, 2 September

The 2008 whites

Dirk Niepoort introduced the vintage, describing it as “unusual for its very fresh, high acidity but, we got the ripeness wanted.” I thought it a very exciting vintage.

Quinta do Vale Dona Maria VZ Branco – a smoky, spicy nose with a tight lemony palate, racy acidity and quite toasty oak to its mineral, almost salt lick finish. Lots of promise, very good in a Bordeaux’esque, tight, upright style.

Quinta do Crasto Branco – only the second vintage of Crasto’s white from block vineyards planted at 650m in the Douro Superior. At under £10 it does not have the complexity or structure of the Vale Dona Maria and is made for earlier drinking with its rounder (pear) fruit. An attractive nose shows lifted talc and floral notes that put me in mind of a Clare Valley Watervale Riesling from Australia. It has lipsmacking citrus acidity and a touch of salty green olive to the finish.

Niepoort Tiara – an exotic palate with ripe citrus and prickly pear with a stony/pebbly minerality, it is subtlely textured, round yet lacy, with well integrated, rolling acidity making for limpid and luminous finish. Very good.

Niepoort Redoma Branco – a salty, mineral nose, subtle and tight with some custard cream vanilla oak and smokiness to both nose and palate. In the mouth it is quite chiseled, textured and long with a sense of dry extract building in the mouth with slate and a green olive tang and edge to its the long finish. Very good.

Niepoort Reserva Redoma Branco – rich, ripe, textured, powerful wine, generous yet poised with steely grapefruit, citrus pith and a salty minerality. Super-long, limpid and textured with a reverberating finish – wow! Outstanding.

Quinta do Vallado Branco – a quite sweet, talc nose which follows through on a lemony, talc-edged ripe fruit palate with a touch of lemon oil; good balancing freshness.

Quinta do Vallado Moscatel Galego – rose petal nose, lifted and pretty with more than a hint of Johnson’s baby powder. Ditto on the palate which is dry and fresh if a little too perfumed/soapy for my palate.

Quinta do Vallado Branco Reserva – a blend of Rabigato (good acidity), Viosinho (fruit) and Verdelho (good structure for barrel ageing), it has a tight nose and palate with smoky, toasty oak with a mineral quality beneath and persistent acidity. Well done. Needs time.

The 2007 reds (with some 2008 from Crasto)

And this is a very exciting vintage for reds – lifted, floral, elegant, but with fabulous intensity and structure. Just like the vintage ports of this year in fact.

Quinta do Vale Meao Meandro – 30% Touriga Nacional, 30% Touriga Franca, 30% Tinta Roriz, 10% Tinta Barocca. Bright in colour with a freshness and vibrancy to its damson, plum and sweet raspberry fruit and fine grained tannins. Warm earth, orange peel and spice saturate the finish. Very good definition in this vintage.

Quinta do Vale Meao – 60% Touriga Nacional and more Touriga Franca than usual (it was outstanding in 2007 and accounts for the good attack and freshness of this vintage) plus Tinta Roriz. A much deeper colour and palate – one you could cut with a knife, solid stuff! Big, textured tannins. Again, great freshness, with a floral petal character and bass notes of charry toast on finish – the middle is yet to come up, so needs time. Very promising.

Lemos & Van Zeller Van Zeller Tinto – this wine comes from younger vineyards (c. 25 years old). It shows good freshness, slightly creamy damson, raspberry and plum on the nose and palate with a salt lick, mineral. Nice persistence and length; well done.

Casa de Casal de Loivos – a cool plum/damson nose with dust, again fresher, tighter than usual, quite an inky floral note – peonies. Firmer than usual in the mouth with a tight mineral finish though with some of the earthy, heady raspberry and mocha notes I associate with this wine too.

Quinta do Vale Dona Maria – toasty oak, with red and black cherry fruit, good definition, freshness and minerality.

Quinta do Vale Dona Maria CV- Curriculam Vitae – from an older, north facing parcel of vines with more Touriga Nacional opposite Quinta do Vale Dona Maria this is very tight indeed with some cool tannic grip. It shows a mineral, floral nose, has fabulous concentration and freshness; beautifully structured with a super-long, saturated finish – a lithe long distance runner. Excellent.

Flor de Crasto 2008 – deep in colour with a floral, slightly peppery, lifted nose, the palate shows dark chocolate, good freshness, present tannins, syrah-like pepperiness; good freshness/refinement for the junior wine.

Crasto Douro 2008 – unoaked, quite a reduced nose, this is more peppery and drier than Flor de Crasto with spicy lift, dark chocolate and firm tannins giving more oomph. Nonetheless it is fresh and direct. Always very good value for money.

Quinta do Crasto Reserva Vinhas Velhas – made from old vines averaging 70 years old (the wine chosen for the Crasto vertical) with sweet oak on the nose and a plumper, more complex palate, it shows lots of liquorice and darkly concentrated coffee/mocha edged dark fruit. Well balanced and distinctly dry. Very good indeed.

Quinta do Crasto Vinha Maria Teresa – pure, tight knit with a seam of opulent and intense red/black berry and cassis fruit lurking beneath edged with sweet oak. Some creaminess on the mid-palate, though plenty of heft and sinew to the tannins. Needs time.

Quinta do Crasto Vinha de Ponte – a very different nose, quite exotic and spicy with eucalypt hints and, though you could chew through its muscular dark fruits and chocolate supported by sinewy tannins, its profile is nonetheless lifted. Very tight, concentrated finish, so looking a little a little one dimensional just now – needs time.

Niepoort Vertente – a deep vibrant purple, inky and floral – a grown up Vertente (the junior red) in 2007. Super floral (rock rose), dry, lifted (super-fly in a good way!) palate; lovely persistence with bright black and red cherry, raspberry and darker chocolate tones to the finish.

Niepoort Redoma Tinto – textured, layered, long and precise with that lovely persistence again giving fine definition to its rock rose and fruit. With a wild tang to its red and blackcurrant fruit, carraway and liquorice, this is a sensual, elegant wine with a fabulous core of minerality and ripe but assertive tannins. Terrific.

Niepoort Batuta – looking a little flat footed today… When I tasted it before bottling in June it was firm in structure and very mineral like the Redoma but much more expressive. Then, it showed lifted aniseed/liquorice on the nose, tight-knit salty mineral edged blackberry and currant fruit and very dark chocolate in the mouth and the finish seemed to build and heighten with lifted floral and incense notes.

Niepoort Charme – pale in hue and though the palate is initially toasty, it has fabulous intensity, length and persistence with delicious layers of red cherry, plum and more exotic chocolate orange/cherry chocolate truffle notes.

Vallado Douro – a nice, lifted, floral, peppery nose and palate with juicy red and black fruits and fresh acidity – very good starter for ten and good value too.

Quinta do Vallado Sousao – this is Vinho Verde’s Vinhao variety, deep in colour (it has red flesh) and high in acidity. It’s dry and tight – a little unforgiving to be honest – needs time and, I suspect, a heft of protein on the plate. Query if this variety works better as a blending component?

Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional – made from seven parcels of Touriga, it’s a little reduced on the nose but has good freshness on the palate with fleshy red and black cherry and the variety’s classic rock rose – elegant and restrained. Very good.

Quinta do Vallado Reserva – 75% from very old vineyards it has a deeper darker richer palate of chocolate edged red and black berry fruit, generous but well balanced.

Quinta do Vallado Adelaide – not bottled yet but the flagship, first made in 2005 and labeled “No Name” is now named after the Ferreira family’s great grandmother. She is the legendary Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira who founded and ran over 30 beautiful Douro estates in the 19th century including Douro Superior pioneer, Quinta do Vale Meao. This wine is made from the fruit of a single vineyard at 400m, home to the estate’s oldest fruit. Very tight and grippy beneath it’s oak veneer, so hard to get a handle on it at this stage – one to come back to once bottled.

The ports

Q Vale D Maria LBV 2005 – a tight concentration of crushed bilberry fruit, spicy and bright, very good.

Q do Crasto LBV 2005 – less concentrated, more forward style than the Q Vale D Maria with expressive milk-chocolate edged red berry and currant fruit. Good.

Q do Vale Meao Port 2007 – tight, floral and intense with dark coffee, orange peel, the estate’s exotic, generous character.

Q do Crasto Port 2007 – a deep colour and though a heft of fruit, dark chocolate and minerals behind, it’s very raw and brutish.

Niepoort Port 2007 – red flashes in the glass and a lifted fresh nose and palate of red and black fruits with eucalypt; as I remember writing in May at a previous tasting very complete already – an elegant delivery of power.

Part 2 Visiting the producers, the vertical tastings

Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, 2 September 2009

We pitched up at Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, located in the heart of the steeply terraced Torto Valley pictured, in the heat of the harvest, which had started the previous day.

Winemaker Sandra Tavares da Silva has always struck me as a gentle person but she revealed a distinctly ruthless streak when it came to sorting only the pick of the bunch into the winery. As she explained, with 60 year old plus mixed vineyards planted to over 40 varieties, selection is critical because said varieties ripen at different times. You need to separate out the green and overripe. Fellow journo Fredric has posted some great shots of the process here.

Owner and some time Sean Connery impersonator Cristiano van Zeller (ask him about his fan club in Japan) showed us around the pocket-sized winery. All wines and ports are robotically foot-trodden in granite lagares, wines for around 2 days, ports for 6-8 days. It’s a very gentle process and, because the lagares are shallow, it’s easier to monitor extraction of colour, fruit and tannin. The wines complete their fermentation in an array of stainless steel tanks which allows for vinification by parcel, giving lots of blending options.

Once Sandra had finished sorting the grapes we “worked” our way through a most impressive vertical of Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, wine made exclusively from the estate’s fruit. Perched up high on a terrace overlooking the vineyards, I’m very sure the pickers below cursed us under their breath! I lasted 10 minutes harvesting at Niepoort in 2007, not just about the heat of the sun, but also trying to keep my balance on the steep and slippy schistous (and a not dissimilar word came out of my mouth then) terraces. And once again I connected with the schist, this time in the wine with its pronounced minerality.

Having bought Quinta do Vale Dona Maria in 1996, Cristiano reckons that they are now really starting to grasp the site’s expression. With Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, Cristiano says he’s aiming for the freshness of the 2002 with the intensity of 2003.

2001 – a very good year, this shows a garnet core and ruby rim with ripe red berry fruits, some eucalyptus and a cool minerality. The palate is
finely balanced with beautiful clarity and concentration to its red fruits. Elegant and long, with fine grained tannins. Excellent.

2002 – a trickier vintage and, while enjoyable, elegant drinking now, lacks the precision, concentration and purity of the 2001. It shows fleshier plum, black cherry and red berry fruit, eucalyptus hints and a medium licking stone, mineral finish.

2003 – deeper, darker, more opaque and dense in colour and flavour. A generous, very rich palate shows sweeter raspberry fruit with more evident toasty oak with mocha. Sandra explained that they used Seguin Moreau for the first time in this vintage and haven’t stuck with it, preferring Francois Freres and Taransaud. Nonetheless, there is good underlying structure and minerality. It closes down a bit on finish, a callow youth, it needs time.

2004 – lovely freshness and purity to the nose and palate, with lifted, spicy exotic orange peel as it opens up. Complex, tight and structured it shows bright, small red berry/currant fruit and bilberry, that seam of minerality and a firm backbone of ripe tannin. A long, tight finish suggests a long life ahead. Terrific.

2005 – I remember tasting the Douro Boys 2005 release at more or less this time two years previously and being struck by the beauty and balance of the wines from the off. And this line up reinforced my impression. Though I suspect the wine may not last quite as long as the exceptional 2001 and 2004 vintages, it has plenty to offer. It shows creamy but fresh red berry and cherry fruits with crushed raspberry that build in the mouth, supported by fine grained tannins and a subtle firm backbone of tannin. Long, elegant, persistent finish with a smoky, cool, underlying minerality. Super-seductive.

2006 – a tricky vintage and though persistent, fresh and perfumed with sweet fleshy red and black cherry and mineral extract to finish, it lacks a bit of oomph compared with the others. Like the 2002, for early drinking pleasure.

2007 – on the red/paler side, bright, clear, a little toasty still but with an elegant, balanced, fresh and mineral quality to its wild red cherry fruit. Builds intensity in the mouth, delivering a lovely saturation of flavour to its long finish. Close in spirit to the 2005.

2008 – (barrel sample) – a deeper colour, with a blacker heart. Still sappy with exuberant primary fruits – super succulent damson and black cherry underscored by minerality. Really good concentration of flavour supported by powdery tannins. Lots of potential – will spend at least another 5 months in barrel and I reckon will have the long distance legs of the 2001 and 2004.

Cristiano was at pains to emphasise that he makes wines for food – “wine cannot be understood without people and food, so you shouldn’t overpower the food, that’s part of the deal.” Over lunch we enjoyed:

Quinta do Vale Dona Maria Rose 2007 – at 14.2% it’s not shy, but it is dry! My kind of rose, with good mouthfeel and a freshness and minerality to its delicate cranberry and strawberry fruit. Unoaked, a long ferment enhances texture and complexity.

Quinta do Vale Dona Maria Sazedinho Reserve Porto Lote No. 06 – Cristiano was at pains to point out that this ruby crusted style from the 2006 vintage is unfiltered unlike most big volume brands. It shows lovely lifted dark berry fruit with a coffee edged finish. Structured with good fruit concentration/ definition and very well integrated spirit (some brandy is added before fermentation).

Quinta do Vale Meao, 3rd September

Majesterial in scale and grandeur, at 40,000 hectares, the Douro is the world’s largest mountain vineyard, encompassing from west to east Baixo (lower) Corgo, Cima (upper) Corgo and the Douro Superior, near the Spanish border. You can take a train from Porto from one end of the Douro region to the other. Aside from navigating the valley by boat, it’s the best way to see the valley and the hard architecture of its multi-faceted ampitheatre-like vineyards, with granite outcrops in and amongst. Vertiginous terraces strive to contain its precious schist soils, not to mention its agile workforce of pickers.

On day two, 3 September, we piled onto the train from our Regua base at Quinta do Vallado to Pocinho. At the end of the line, in the warmer, drier and less mountainous Douro Superior, you are a stone’s throw from Quinta do Vale Meao which Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira bought in 1877. Today the quinta is owned by her great great grandson Francisco Javier de Olazabal, former president of A.A. Ferreira who bought his grapes (which used to go into Ferreira’s iconic Barca Velha) until he decided to go it alone with his son, winemaker here and at Vallado, Francisco (Xito).

Unusually, the vines, though 50 years old are block planted to five varieties (Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cao). On relatively flat land near the river at around 150m above sea level, those nearest the river (pictured) benefit from schist and alluvial soils and its tempering effect. Nearer the winery, sunburn is an issue with significant losses this year – Xito is experimenting with shades for the vines. Thirteen hectares of new vineyard were planted last March on granite slopes (granite give wines a lower pH), with outcrops of schist (schist lends more body to wine). At 350m, the site is cooler so, when the vines come on stream, it will be interesting to see how the fruit impacts on the house style.

Touriga Nacional (the biggest percentage at 40% of the mature plantings) fares well at Meao because of its resistance to hydric stress, but Vito has also planted Tinta Francisca, an old, abandoned variety to see how it performs. He explains 5 varieties were chosen for planting 50 years ago but “that was a temporary measure and we must now move on to other varieties.” He may be in his 70s, but Vito is most definitely a Douro Boy, ever experimenting and a mean mover on the dance floor I might add!

Vito’s son Xito, the winemaker, presided over a vertical of the flagship wine in the tasting room with its pretty view of the river. He explained that Meao changed barriques, using Taransaud since 2005 for its relative neutrality and good match with Touriga Nacional. Save the first vintage 1999 (some of which was unoaked) and 2005 (c. 90% new oak), Meao typically see c. 70% new oak, the balance being 2 years old.

Q do Vale Meao 1999 – the maiden release made at Quinta do Vallado (owned by Xito’s cousins), since Ferreira still had use of the winery at Meao. Quite plummy, bright ruby, good colour with some viscosity. It has Meao’s exotic spicy orange peel nose with liquorice emerging over the tasting, also showing woodsmoke plum, damson and dried fruit on the palate. The tannins are quite firm and it has a cool mineral quality to the well balanced finish – not bad for a first attempt!

Q do Vale Meao 2000 – a darker hue from a low yielding year (300g/vine for Touriga Nacional and Tinta Franca because of rain during flowering). It has a sweeter, jammier nose and palate, that liquorice quality, slightly angular acidity beneath and a mineral finish. Though I thought this a wine of two parts, others found it to have nervosity rather than angularity.

Q do Vale Meao 2001 – deep plum with a dusty nose and a hint of green peppercorn that follows through on its rich and ripe palate with plums, damsons, liquorice and chocolate. A powerful wine, very persistent, mineral and long, a hint of greenness in the background.

Q do Vale Meao 2002 – a difficult vintage when they had to pick quickly because it rained constantly from 10 September. It shows a dusty nose with mocha, aniseed and damsons. Chocolatey palate with chunky tannins – a bit short and stubby compared with the others but very drinkable now.

Q do Vale Meao 2003 – the first 15 days of August were very hot and this wine has a higher proportion of Tinta Roriz than usual because it was lower in sugar content than the Touriga Nacional and Tinta Franca. A dusty nose, firm tannins here support spicy liquorice and chocolate edged blackberry, plum and damson fruit. Though it’s darker and more generous in girth than the other wines, it sports an attractive juiciness so though forward, has the power and balance to go the distance.

Q do Vale Meao 2004 – picked at the end of September like the 2001 and 2007, it shows an enticing floral, orange peel character, giving lift to its succulent red and black and plum fruit, some rich chocolate notes and fine support from sinewy tannins. Concentrated, poised and balanced, with a lovely cool mineral quality, this was my wine of the flight with tons of potential, one to stash away for a bit.

Q do Vale Meao 2005 – a very dry year (just 100mm of rain) but not very warm which made for particularly intense Touriga Nacional which thrives in dry years. It’s quite different, more elegant in its delivery than 2004, deeply coloured and glossy with black and red cherry, cherrystone, blueberry fruit and violets to its nose and succulent palate – very Touriga Nacional. Quite sinewy tannins, it’s dry, long, tight and powerful. Really good balance and eminently broachable now.

Q do Vale Meao 2006 – a very hot end of August meant they had to pick very quickly and make a draconian selection for both cuvees – a year in which they sold lots of wine in bulk. This is quite forward with a pretty red cherry nose with flowers that follow through on the palate. The tannins are a touch firm/dry and it lacks the power of its predecessors, tailing off a bit.

Q do Vale Meao 2007 – a cooler year and, as in 2008, this has more Touriga Franca (70%) and Tinta Roriz than usual since these like a long growing season. Once past the veneer of toast comes there is an ample concentration of small berry/currant red and black fruits with bitter chocolate and a chiseled mineral quality, the impression of solidity reinforced by firm supporting tannins. Tight and fresh, this is a powerhouse. Impressive and extremely youthful – do not touch for a least a couple of years!

Quinta do Vallado, 4 September

We stayed at Vallado in Regua, just into the Cima Corgo region, for a couple of nights. I’ve stayed there before and it’s always very comfortable, with only 5 rooms, homely almost! Quite different from the much swankier Aquapura and actually, I prefer it!

The estate has belonged to the Ferreira family (of Dona Antonia fame) for six generations and, since 1990, like Quinta Vale do Meao, Vallado has cut loose its ties with the Ferreira port house brand owned by Sogrape to make table wines, also tawny port.

As part of this transformation the vineyards (70ha) were restructured in 2002 save for 17ha of very old (70-90 year old), terraced vineyards, perched at the top of the estate. It has a wonderful panaroma of Regua, its steep, dense mixed plantings dotted with white grapes in and amongst the red varieties.

Francisco Ferreira manages the estate with his cousin Joao Ferreira Alvares Riberiro and their cousin Xito of Meao makes the wines. This year, said wines will be made in the new winery which opened just in time to receive the 2009 harvest (pictured a shrink wrapped fermentation vat the day before – even Joao who always looked remarkably tanned and relaxed had a pallor of nerves about him! Also new is the purchase of 50ha in the Douro Superior, currently a hive of activity with new vineyards left, right and centre. Vallado expects to plant in 2011, all being well.

The old vine plantings in Cima Corgo impart great structure to the reserva wine, the focus of our vertical. The maiden vintage made in 1999 has long been sold out. It is typically aged for around 18 months in 70% new French oak, 30% 1yo using barrels from different coopers. Around 25% of Touriga Nacional from younger, block planted vineyards is now included in the reserva.

Reserva 2000 – a hot year, this includes 100% old vineyard material.
Deep and opaque in colour – plum – with a narrow rim. Good freshness to the nose, a little balsamic, with red cherry, damson and mineral notes that follow through on the palate with liquorice notes. A little four square.

Reserva 2003 – a hot, dry year and from this vintage, Sousao and Touriga Nacional from younger plantings reached sufficient maturity to be included in the blend, bringing more fruit and elegance says Francisco. It shows bright ripe plum/blood plum with liquorice, orange peel and chocolate backed by firm, sinewy tannins. A little dry on the finish but with the concentration and freshness to age and mellow a tad. Good.

Reserva 2004 – a fresh, mineral nose with lifted balsamic and aniseed notes. The palate is also lively with bright red cherry and darker bitter Green and Blacks chocolate, liquorice/aniseed notes. Dusty mineral and some green notes to the finish which, though juicy, has firm tannins. A little tough at the moment.

Reserva 2005 – it all seems to come together in this more forward but elegant vintage, inky bright, with liquorice and dark chocolate to its fleshy damson and red cherry fruit supported by dusty tannins; elegant, persistent finish with a mineral undertow. Very good.

Reserva 2006 – a fresh picked red berry nose and palate, with strawberries and raspberries palate, quite floral, mineral and pretty wine if, in common with other 2002s, a tad dilute – milk chocolate not dark chocolate – in Bordeaux they’d call it “lunchtime claret.” Very pleasant, fresh drinking now.

Reserva 2007 – a fantastic year, not too hot, not too cold, with water in the soil so great for balance and, conversely with Meao, it has more Touriga Nacional. Sports a very floral, mineral nose with an attractive youthful sappiness – a lovely sapid wine with a fleshy elegant mid-palate, black cherries, violets, damson and dark chocolate with a tight, mineral finish – lots of potential and attractive now.

NB there was no Reserva in 2002 because it was not a good year. With rain followed by lower temperatures and cloud in September.

Francisco attributes the increasing fleshiness of the wine to knowing the vineyards and the market better – we don’t extract so much and I think since 2005, the tannin management goes up a notch. The 2007 is particularly impressive for its relative delicacy. Looking ahead, the new winery is double the capacity of the old which he believes will pay dividends in terms of being able to vinify smaller parcels and assess each in detail to optimise the blend. Also, if it rains, Vallado now have the capacity to pull all the fruit in.

Quinta do Crasto

Crasto enjoys a particularly spectacular location in the Cima Corgo, perched atop a steeply sided ridge jutting out into the river. As if its stunning location, wines and port are not enough, an inviting infinity pool is bound to seduce, especially in the heat and dust of September in the Douro.

Owned by the Roquette family, who have made wine and port independently under their own label since 1994, the estate has some very old, low yielding vineyards, two of which, in top vintages, find their way into single vineyard wines labeled Vinha da Ponte and Vinha Maria Teresa. Younger vineyards are block planted hence the estate’s single varietal wines.

The Roquettes have spread their wings and also own:

  • Quinta da Cabreira, a 120-hectare estate in the Upper Douro Valley fruit from which, since 2007, is now going into the Crasto Red. The oldest vines are 9 years old and the majority is planted to Touriga Nacional.
  • A 100ha estate in the Douro Superior, the source of their white wine first released last year and the new baby to the range, Flor do Crasto. Miguel Roquette is very excited by the potential of this steep, elevated (600m) vineyard.

They have also just released their first olive oil – round, fruity and rich it’s very good.

Over lunch we enjoyed:

Crasto Red 2007 – unoaked, good value for money wines, mostly from Cabriera it shows this vintage’s hallmark floral (violet) notes and well-defined red and black cherry fruits. Medium light – Miguel says it’s perfect with Indian foods and I can well imagine it is with its fruit, silky palate, spice and lift.

Quinta do Crasto Tinta Roriz 2003 – I’m sure I’ve said it already but I’m definitely a fan of blends over single varietal wines but this impressed – only produced in 97, 99 and 2003 so far (because it’s sensitive to oidium and in hot weather drops its leaves). Tinta Roriz is Spain’s Tempranillo and Tomas Roquette says he’s gunning for a wine in style of leading modernist Rioja estate Roda’s Cirsion (a favourite of mine in fact). And this is very good with lush waves of dark, spicy (cinnamon) berry fruit, plums and blackberry and svelte tannins. Lush but enough definition and juice to saturate the palate and take you back for another glass.

Quinta do Crasto Vinha da Ponte 2004 – a beautiful perfumed nose with orange peel leads onto a palate with lovely purity, vinosity and finesse, showing juicy, succulent plums, blackberry and damson with dark spice and sweet cinnamon, dried herbs and sage. Lots to savour here over a long finish; power and finesse with fine grained tannins. Impressive.

Quinta do Crasto LBV 1995 (Half bottle, bottled in 1999) – an unfiltered port bottled under proper cork (not the “T” closure) and made for ageing as this demonstrates. Pale garnet with the profile of developed vintage port without the oomph/tannin structure – sweet dried spices, café crème and red fruit jam and a minerality to the finish. Very enjoyable/digestible. Point well made.

And then on to the vertical of the Vinhas Velhas Reserva which Tomas believes is a great and great value for money ambassador for the Douro’s unique heritage of old vine fruit. It was first made in 1994.

Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2000 – quite pale, developed dried fruits and spice with a liquorice nose, red jammy fruits, still quite fresh/acid, though on the palate the fruit is drying out a bit.

Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2001 – plummy colour, bright, spicy, liquorice nose and, from this much more powerful vintage, still has plenty of go. It’s quite floral, with tight berry fruit and sandalwood; good power, fine, sinewy tannins, lovely spice and freshness to its finish. Very good.

Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2002 – bright red, pale, nice bright colour, mouthwatering acidity, very elegant, with a nice intensity of dried cherry, not a long distance runner but very good and food friendly now.

Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2003 – bright red fruits, nice lift though in the mouth this is more generous and warmer with a sweeter, darker spectrum of flavours: blackberry & cherry, red cherry and plum. Good balancing freshness – still going strong.

Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2004 – a powerful nose, with liquorice and spice – Tomas believes it’s one of the best reservas produced – it shows off the complexity of fruit, oak and vineyard very well – super-spicy with fabulous balance and a mineral-laden, long and persistent fine well supported by ripe but present tannins. A long life ahead of this wine. Top notch.

Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2005 – deep in colour and, though there’s some floral notes, it’s quite dark in flavour with black berry and cherry, baked cherry and grainy, sinewy tannins making for a tight finish with mineral heft and an edge of eucalyptus. Needs time.

Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2006 – good colour, overt fruit, floral with a lovely balance, elegance and bright almost crunchy red fruits. Very pretty, a testament to skilful extraction in a difficult vintage

Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2007 – this has a high proportion of Touriga Nacional and is deep in colour, very floral with flamboyant yet elegant black cherry, fine tannins and spice. Long, elegant wine – another great example of the vintage.

Niepoort, 3rd September

Niepoort’s impressive schist clad winery, completed in 2007, has the look of a fortress from the river, capped with a columned temple to grapes, the reception area pictured. As we arrived, super pristine, succulent and healthy grapes were being sorted before disappearing down the chute into the gravity fed winery.

I feel like I’m disappearing down a chute whenever I visit Niepoort – never quite sure where you’ll end up or what you’ll try and sure enough, winemaker Luis Seabra kicked off with a barrel tasting of Pinot Noir, followed by some fermenting Sauvignon Blanc! And our final night was spent in the very traditional, somewhat spooky, lodge in Gaia where Dirk dug out his first wine, a Vinho Verde (of course!?!) and the wine that signaled the dawn of a new winemaking era in the Douro, Robustus 1990.

Though Niepoort port wine lodge was established in 1842, until 1987, when Dirk joined his father in the business, as a port shipper, Niepoort owned no vineyards. Dirk is a passionate believer in the importance of old mixed vineyard blends and bought and restored old vineyards at Quinta da Napoles in Cima Corgo and, the following year, Quinta do Carril. In 2003, he bought the Pisca vineyard, which has formed the backbone of Niepoort vintage port for decades and, in 2007, it’s the source of an exciting single vineyard vintage port – see my report here.

After our port 3 ways challenge (see part 3 below) it was onward upward – well sideways actually – first, a classic aperitif wine with a twist – a Palomino with flor but without fortification, followed by a vertical of Redoma Tinto.

Navazos-Niepoort Vino Blanco 2008, Spain – a collaboration between Dirk and Equipo Navazos, this is made from the sherry grape Palomino Fino and, like sherry, barrel fermented under flor but unlike sherry, it’s not fortified. A nose of briney, fresh cut apples, textured and nutty in the mouth yet fresh and intense with a saltiness. I thought it was produced more oxidatively, earning a frown from Dirk who pointed out the flor imparts the nuttiness and creates a reductive environment – certainly makes sense of the freshness, stand corrected! 12.5%

Redoma 1999 – lifted damson and sweet plum nose, a little toast and tar on the palate with still bright damson fruit/blood plum, really good freshness and persistence with a wild quality to the fruit (so not feral/savoury). Very good. 14%

Redoma 2000 – it has the tar-edged damsons and shows a little more development in favour and angularity of structure than the 99. 13.5%

Redoma 2001 – oooh, this builds in the mouth – another excellent 2001, a cracking Douro vintage, this has a mineral and eucalypt nose – tight, fresh, with a lovely saturation of plum fruit in the mouth supported by textured, grainy tannins. Very mineral, long and persistent.

Redoma 2002 – redder in hue, with a fresh nose and expressive palate showing chocolate, tar, game and earthiness to its plum and damson fruit – much more evolved than the 2001, without the length and oomph so very 2002, it’s ready to go now and v pleasant if underwhelming after the 2001. Context is everything…

Redoma 2003 – the heat and dryness of the vintage is reflected in a tarrier, caramelised edge to a nonetheless succulent core of blood plum, black and baked cherry. Good fruit power here, plenty to enjoy now and for some time. 13.5%

Redoma 2004 – with 2001, a favourite vintage and this is tight, well-structured and fresh, with that exciting, sensual, kick back your chair and sigh saturation of the palate – juicy plums, blood plum, seamless tannins. Long and very good indeed. 14%

Redoma 2005 (750ml bottle) – quite tight still with a lovely balance and vibrancy to the fruit, showing bright and succulent plum and black and red cherry with a mineral undertow. No pimply teenager, it has great fruit purity – youthful but elegant.

Redoma 2005 (magnum) – more time travel, this magnum of Redoma was decanted 2 days previously. Spicier and more berry than cherry, it’s succulent, persistent and mineral, has built in the mouth and, all in all shows more character and expression than the regular-sized bottle opened today – excellent.

Redoma 2006 – this is lifted, with a lovely intensity of sweet red cherry with chocolate; vinous in texture it shows great freshness and persistence with an underlying minerality. A really lovely wine.

Redoma 2007 – inky, grippy and floral nose, dry and elegant on the palate, fabulous persistence, it tastes quite different from its predecessors – if the 2006 is lifted, this one flies! Terrific – exudes elegance.

And now for something different again – wines tasted at Niepoort, Napoles and then in the Niepoort lodge at Gaia the following day.

Niepoort Batuta 2001 (Jeroboam) – opened that day a lifted, floral nose but blimey, this is still very tight with a big frame of sinewy tannins and chiseled mineral finish. Patience, I’m told, is a virtue & I’m very sure that patience will be its own reward here…

Niepoort vintage port 1970 – intense, fine palate with sweet plum, a fine conserve, with menthol, buttermint notes; still plenty of fruit, thrust and vigor. Very good.

Quinta do Noval Nacional 1996 – concentrated long and intense, this is
very youthful, shiny and bright – tightly furled blackcurrant fruit and firm, ripe tannins assure it of a very long future.

Niepoort Redoma Branco 1996 (magnum) – first released in 1995, it could be a fine Burgundy with its flinty nose, minerals, subtle toast and nuts animated by rolling, stony acidity. I asked Dirk about changes since he’s been making Redoma Branco. The answer – he uses less Gouveio, less oak, bottling a little earlier and, the conditions of winemaking are much improved with better temperature control, gentler handling etc.

Niepoort Redoma Branco 1996 (750ml bottle) – a deeper yellow, looks and tastes more evolved as it should, more autolytic and savoury and a touch richer/sweeter on the palate though the acidity is still good.

Dirk’s Vinho Verde 1987 – a sweetie, this is Dirk’s first wine made with mostly Loureiro grapes from his parents’ vineyard in Vinho Verde. It’s quite Riesling-like with its petrolly nose and palate, but in the mouth, it has very lifted peppermint and camomile with some spicy orange peel. Very well balanced.

Quinta do Passadouro 1994 (magnum) – made by Niepoort, this is very mineral, with sweet but fresh red fruits, especially cherry, spice, liquorice and chocolate truffle; fine grained tannins. Very expressive and drinking beautifully now though plenty of go yet.

Quinta do Crasto Maria Teresa 2003 – deep inky black and dark in tone with chocolate and liquorice to its tight, closed palate, terse with minerals. As it opens up, its firm backbone of sinewy tannins reveals a modicum of flesh, with red and black cherry fruit. Eucalyptus, dried sage emerge on the finish. A big wine, tons of potential – one to keep.

Niepoort Robusto 1990 – I also tasted this is June during a quick visit to Porto and, both times, its blown me away with its resemblance to a top Hermitage or Cornas – Chave, Clape…and tonight, it also made me think of Burgundy. Not bad given it was Dirk’s first red wine and he’s had no formal winemaking training. Ruby red, holding its colour well, this has great vitality, dimension and lift with a vivid spectrum of flavours and textures: wild and savoury with a bloody tang, an underlying core of vibrant small red/black berry fruit and violet top notes. A gung ho, life-loving personality, with plenty of get up and go!

Niepoort Robusto 2005 – hard to believe from its delicacy of colour and fine intensity of flavour, but this spent 4 years in wood. It makes sense when you learn that the barrels are 100% old wood and they are 1000 litres in size. More importantly, the fruit is high in tannin and acid, so with the structure to maintain its integrity over time. It’s amazingly precise and fresh with bright red cherry and bilberry supported by tight, sinewy but ripe tannins; lovely clarity of flavour underscored by minerals. It seems to have outgrown its name – Elegantia or better still Intenso seem more fitting. That said, given the longevity and get up and go of the 1990, if its about longevity and core structure, Robusto hits the nail on the head!

Niepoort Vintage Port 1966 – spicy and intense with plum and red fruits, redcurrant jelly with liquorice hints and a mineral undertow; well structured with firm ripe tannins. Builds in the mouth and over the course of evening, showing more liquorice/spice, fruit depth and texture/grip. Plenty of life and vigour; intense.

Niepoort Garrafeira Vintage Port 1966, bottled 1985 – unlike classic vintage port which is aged for up to 2 years in wood before bottling, Niepoort’s Garrafeira is aged for decades in 7-11 litre “demijons.” It makes for a style with the guts of vintage port but a flavour spectrum more aligned with a tawny port. This is paler, with orange peel and more evident spirit on nose and palate. It’s very spicy in the mouth, again, liquorice really coming to the fore with with buttery, nutty notes to its damson fruit

Part 3, “Time is on my side” – a 3 way tasting of 2007 ports, 3 September

Our tasting at Niepoort first focused on another subject dear to Dirk’s heart and one that is vexing him and others (see Johnny Churchill’s comments here), namely writers rating vintage port without giving it an opportunity to evolve. As Dirk puts “it’s port not whisky, it’s alive!”

So, with two hours on the clock, Dirk set us journos the challenge of tasting 60 hours’ worth of 2007 Vintage Port – see what I mean about disappearing down the chute? To explain, we tasted 15 different ports from the recently released 2007 vintage. Each had been decanted either one or two days in advance and another sample opened (but not decanted) on the day of the tasting. The identity of the quinta or shipper was revealed, but not the time of opening.

The outcome – an overwhelming preference (shared by my peers) for the ports that had been opened two days beforehand. Below are my preferences and you’ll see that 12 out of 15 times I preferred the port decanted 2 days ahead (on 3 occasions, jointly with port decanted 1 day ahead, twice with a port opened that day).

Churchills - Opened, not decanted, 12 hours previously
Croft – Preferred decanted 1 day previously
Dow - Preferred decanted 2 days previously
Fonseca – Preferred decanted 2 days previously
Graham – Preferred decanted 2 days previously
Niepoort – Preferred decanted 2 days previously
Niepoort Pisca – Preferred decanted 2 days previously
Quinta da Romaneira - Preferred decanted 2 days previously
Quinta do Crasto – Preferred decanted 2 days previously or opened on the day
Quinta do Noval - Preferred decanted 1 or 2 days previously
Quinta do Vale Meão – Preferred decanted 2 days previously
Quinta do Vesuvio – Preferred decanted 2 days previously
Quinta do Vale Dona Maria – Preferred decanted 1 day previously
Taylors – Preferred decanted 2 days previously or opened on the day
Warre - Preferred decanted 2 days previously

Interestingly, in my report on 2007 vintage ports tasted on two separate occasions in London, you’ll see that I thought that the first tasting showed the wines to much better advantage because the ports were kept cooler. It really paid off for the 2007s, an elegant, lifted vintage. It’s a difficult art tasting and assessing wine, far from perfect because one’s taking a snapshot of a mutable, living thing.

In Dirk’s opinion, at the very least, samples should be tasted in the morning then in the afternoon to gain a better insight into the quality and future of a vintage port – “it takes time to express itself and first impressions change.” American port specialist Roy Hersh wins lots of brownie points for tasting a bottle on a dozen different occasions before rating it. You can find his port and madeira dedicated website here – a fantastic source of Douro news too. And here are some tips on where to eat and stay in Porto and the Douro:

Porto

Accomodation – the Pestana Carlton Hotel, right on the river.

Eating out –

Restaurant Bull & Bear
Degusto

The Douro

Accomodation 

Vallado
Vintage House
Quinta da Romaneira
Aquapura Douro Valley

Tried, tested and recommended December 2009:

Casa das Pipas
Quinta de S Jose

Where to eat

I’ve always eaten at private estates, but if there was a restaurant on everyone’s lips it’s DOC, right on the banks of the Douro – apparently one of the best chefs in Portugal (tried, tested and recommended, December 2009 – great views, great food!).