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First taste: Quinta do Monte Xisto Oriente 2018 & Quinta do Monte Xisto 2018

João Nicolau de Almeida junior, pictured in 2019 at Quinta de Monte Xisto – an old wheat threshing floor made of xisto – schist – of course!  Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Evidently, Quinta do Monte Xisto in the Douro Superior is a precocious site.  Planted between 2005 and 2006, the eponymous red – first made in 2011 – enjoys a reputation for elegance and finesse.  New cuvée,  Oriente, cements it. 

It’s hardly surprising, given the vineyard was planted by the Nicolau de Almeida family.  They have serious form. The late Fernando Nicolau de Almeida created Casa Ferreirinha Barca Velha.

His son João spearheaded Ramos Pinto’s Douro wines (Duas Quintas), helping to establish modern vineyards planted with wine, not Port in mind (Quinta de Ervamoira and Quinta do Bons Ares).

João’s sons Mateus and João are acclaimed winemakers in their own right.

The trio planted Quinta do Monte Xisto and make the wines in consultation.  When I last visited in June 2019, João junior had left his position at Quinta do Pessegueiro so he could focus more squarely on Quinta de Monte Xisto.  “You need to be here on the vineyard – to plant yourself!”  

It all began in 1993, when João senior stumbled across the site whilst visiting the area to inspect some machinery for Mateus.  It was a ‘wow’ moment, he told me.  The hilly outcrop commands spectacular views over the Douro river.   But it was the hard blue schist soil profile – “only rock, the best” – that persuaded him to invest, said João (adding it was an arduous job to rip it and prepare it for planting).

But even before he got to that stage, there was another labour of love to be undertaken.  The land was owned by multiple smallholders (as is common).  Slowly, João stitched together the different parcels which form the forty hectare estate.

João Nicolau de Almeida presents Quinta de Monte Xisto at a Bar Douro In Conversation dinner, 2018; photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Apart from having the best soil, there was another motivation.  Whilst the family had pioneered blending grapes from higher and lower vineyards for balance at Barca Velha and Duas Quintas, here was a single site that could do the job.  Or as João senior eloquently put it, “all the keys are here – it’s like a piano, you don’t need to go anywhere else.” 

Because the eastern-most section of the Douro river flows from south to north, not east to west, Quinta de Monte Xisto benefits from a combination of (cooler, less exposed) north and warmer south-facing slopes.  Rising from 220 to 320m, elevation is another cooler/warmer variable.  It’s a windy site.

In 2005, João senior charged his sons with planting the vineyard.  It is hard to believe of the twinkly-eyed winemaker but, Bordeaux-trained with a rigorous scientific grounding, he told me he was “furious” when he discovered that they were cultivating the virgin site organically and planned to farm it using biodynamic principles.  Why ditch two generations of experience, he fumed.

But his sons quickly won him around and, said João, “it was fantastic for me.  I suddenly discovered another world much closer to the vineyard and nature.  It was a return to the past, but with scientific knowledge.” 

No synthetic chemicals have ever been used.  Even during the nursery stages when, recalls João junior, they themselves irrigated the vines with buckets of water from a truck until a river water pump was installed in the second year.

The grape varieties were selected for elegance and structure and, bar one (mixed) field blend parcel, block planted to Touriga Nacional (“the princess of the Douro”), Touriga Francesa (which is even better adpated than Touriga Nacional to hot conditions), Tinto Cão, Tinta da Barca, Tinta Francisca, Sousão (a splash for “for life and energy to the blend”) and Tinta Roriz, with Rabigato white (quotes from João senior).

In the interests of biodiversity, the family decided to plant only a quarter of the estate (10ha) to vineyard.  And to plant olive trees and almonds.

As for the winemaking, the idea is to produce a wine that has early drinkability, but can age longterm.  It needs to be balanced, said João, “so we give priority to the fruit and the tannins are there, but not intrusive for good follow through –  no hook, no slice” (says the keen golfer).

montedoxisto

When I first visited the property in 2012, Mateus (pictured right with his sister Mafalda, who is also involved in the family business) explained the preference for Austrian oak.  It’s to “respect more the essence of the wine…not mask the character of the grapes.” The family also use big formats “to get more bright and dynamic wines.” 

Here is their report on the 2018 vintage:  In March, the rain came hard continuing more moderate in April and May, intensifying again in June, which allowed to restore the water levels in the soil. July and August saw a usual increase in temperatures, followed by a fresh beginning of September. It was a very balanced year, allowing a good development of the vineyard. The harvest started on September 7th.

Nicolau de Almeida Quinta de Monte Xisto Oriente 2018 (Douro Superior DOC)

From two small east-facing plots at 200-300m, one planted to Tinto Cão (60% of the blend), the other to Tinta Francisca.  The aim is for a fresh, light, spicy wine.  Ding dong!  A red, relatively pale hue compared with Monte Xisto.  It reveals sage and oregano to the nose, with firm red fruits and hints of orange peel, garrigue, esteva, graphite, clove and nutmeg.  Immersive going through, the tannins fan out on the finish, forming a classic Tinto Cão spicy underlay.  With lovely freshness and a gentle sweetness to the fruit, this elegant, spicy, red-fruited wine showed well over three days. The wine was naturally fermented in concrete vats and aged for 18 months in 600 litre barrels. Just 1,042 bottles were produced. 13.5%

Nicolau de Almeida Quinta de Monte Xisto 2018 (Douro Superior DOC)

A blend of Touriga Nacional (55%), Touriga Francesa (35%) and Sousão (5%), it is a deeper crimson hue and riper, fuller than Oriente, but elegant and juicy just the same, with great finesse to the tannins.  Especially on day two, Touriga Nacional’s classic inky violet florals and bergamot sing.  In the mouth, fine-grained, papery almost, tannins lead the saturating fruit by the hand, lending a sense of poise and purpose.  Gently, they taper the juicy expressive sweet plum, raspberry, wild strawberry, black currant and berry and spicier, pithier pomegranate.  Notes of orange peel, pepper, sandalwood, tobacco and signature esteva (a touch resinous and menthol) bring complexity, lift and layer.  Lovely.   Foot-trodden in lagares, where it naturally fermented for 6 days.  Aged for 18 months in 600 litre barrels. 7,000 bottles were produced. 13.5% 

 

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