Climb every mountain, ford every stream a.k.a. a visit to Ramos Pinto’s Quinta de Ervamoira

Not that I twirled along the mountaintops, Julie Andrews style, but I don’t believe I’ve ever made such a dramatic entrance as my visit to Ramos Pinto’s Douro Superior outpost, Quinta de Ervamoira, earlier this year.

In the heart of the Douro Superior, it’s firmly off the beaten track, so we dust-trail-blazed our way there by Landrover, negotiating the winding, rock’n dust track (crash helmets handy), before (literally) making a splash, fording the River Côa (pictured).

Our driver exquisitely timed this last bit to coincide with the intense crescendo at the beginning of the Spring movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played at full blast – great fun!

There’s good reason for Ramos Pinto to celebrate the free flow of the River Côa.  Had the construction of the Côa dam gone ahead, Quinta de Ervamoira might have been lost and, with it, all Ramos Pintos’ cutting edge work at this pioneering vineyard.  It was the first Douro quinta to be block planted (i.e. with single varietal parcels) and vertically planted (a break from the tradition of contoured, horizontal terraces).  In many respects, Ervamoira marks the birth spot of a new viticultural era in the Douro.

More on why the construction of the dam was halted later but, first, a word on what motivated Ramos Pinto to invest in this remote part of the Douro, far away from Ramos Pinto’s original vineyards (Quinta do Bom Retiro and Quinta da Urtiga) in the Cima Corgo.

New beginnings

When José António Ramos Pinto Rosas (then Chairman of Casa Ramos Pinto) was searching for a new property in 1974, he had three criteria in mind.  First, he wanted virgin land because, says his nephew, João Nicolau de Almeida (Ramos Pinto’s current Head Winemaker and Vice Chair), he wanted somewhere “ideal for modern, well thought out wine growing making use of varietal and scientific knowledge.”

Second, because the Douro Superior is drier, it had to have water.  Using the River Côa as its source, sprinkler irrigation was “secretly” installed in 1979 and drip irrigation in 1990.  Apparently it was only in 1999, after a long battle, that the authorities accepted that irrigation could increase quality (as opposed to simply boost quantity).

Third, it had to be relatively flat to allow for mechanisation at a time when the lack of and high cost of labour was beginning to pinch.   Entirely vertically planted (which allows for 5000 vines/ha), operating costs at Ervamoira are one third of those at Bom Retiro (even though it’s lower density at 3000 vines/ha), because the latter is terraced, with two row patamares.

With the aid of military maps, Rosas discovered a property which met all three criteria in Quinta de Santa Maria in 1974.  Because Cockburn’s already produced a Port under this name, he re-christened it Quinta de Ervamoira, after Suzanne Chantal’s novel of that name (and a small white flower that grows in the Douro). Following the arrival of de Almeida, fresh from his studies in Bordeaux, a new chapter in Ramos Pinto’s history began – one in which Douro wine, as well as Port, would feature.

The top cinco

It wasn’t long before the pair had embarked upon a pilot project to identify the five best Douro red varieties for Port and Douro wine.  Because, he says, the results were so important, de Almeida and his uncle shared their “top cinco” with the University at Vila Real.  Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto C?o and Tinta Barroca have since formed the mainstay of modern block plantings. They also discovered that Viosinho, Rabigato and Arinto had the most superior quality potential for white wines.

According to de Almeida, knowledge about the region’s different varieties had been lost in the aftermath of two world wars.  He says his parents’ generation talked about vineyards, not varieties, so viticulture was separated from wine.  His generation, he says, are the first to make the link between viticulture and wine quality and he and his team continue to experiment, in the winery too.

New Douro wines

Returning to the 80s, with the “top cinco” in the bag, de Almeida started experimenting with Douro wines (pictured).  It’s no coincidence that his first release was from the 1990 vintage – it was the year in which Ramos Pinto was acquired by the Champagne house, Louis Roederer. Laughing at the memory, de Almeida recalls showing his experimental 1981 and 1985 vintages to Roederer’s President, Jean-Claude Rouzaud whose simple question – “what are you waiting for” – proved the catalyst. Ramos Pintos’ Duas Quintas label was duly born and, true to its name (which means two estates/vineyards), de Almeida successfully drew on his famous father Fernando Nicolau de Almeida’s philosophy for Barca Velha, blending wine from low (Ervamoira – 110-340m) and high (Quinta dos Bons Ares – 600m) vineyards for balance.  This remains the case – Ramos Pinto doesn’t buy in grapes, though production has mushroomed now 150ha are under vine.

Rock on

Since that first release of Duas Quintas in 1990, production has increased tenfold, to around 600,000 bottles and the brand is firmly established among the “New Douro” greats, so it’s incredible to think that Ervamoira almost disappeared under water, when it was proposed that the valley be flooded for a dam.

Despite a press and media assault, including a debate between de Almeida and the electricity company broadcast on national news, it seemed that the estate was doomed – as de Almeida puts it, “we needed a miracle.”  Fifteen days later, when hope was all but lost, the miracle materialised in the form of Palaeolithic rock etchings.

It was the first time open air (as opposed to cave) etchings had been discovered – “a world first, which changed the history of our pre-history,” beams de Almeida.  As a result of these findings, the Côa Valley was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status.  Ervamoira’s visitor centre plays host to a rock art museum as well as a tasting room and restaurant and the rock art is also displayed in the valley’s arrestingly designed Museu do Côa, perched high above Vila Nova de Foz Coa.

To find out more, click here for an in depth Wine & Spirits Mgazine video interview of de Almeida conducted by none other than Dirk Niepoort.

The wines (tasted March 2012)

Ramos Pinto Bon Ares 2011 (cask sample)

This single vineyard white varietal blend comprises 60% Portuguese grapes (Rabigato, Viosinho, Arinto) and 40% Sauvignon Blanc.  Located at 600m on granite soils, there’s no need to irrigate at Quinta dos Bons Ares (or acidify) – de Almeida says “there’s always a freshness, because of the wind.”   This bright white wine shows juicy, clean, crisp, green apple fruit with a touch of nettle.  Why Sauvignon?  de Almeida explains he knew the variety from his Bordeaux days “so I just had to do it!”

Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas 2011

This blend of Rabigato, Viosinho, Arinto sees 10% oak (French, German and Austrian).  It’s very complete, showing floral notes as well as peachy, yellow stone fruits underscored by Arinto mineral, citric acidity 13%

Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas White Reserva 2011 (cask sample)

Fruit for the Reserva comes from best parcels and this wine features a new cultivar which de Almeida and his team have been studying, Folgazao, as well as Rabigato, Viosinho and Arinto.  Apparently it’s a bit peppery – fresh, with nice structure, thin skins and a long vegetative cycle, so it doesn’t get too mature too soon.  De Almedia is also experimenting with different formats of oak (here he uses 3000l foudres – “we are working with oak for energy, not aromas” – as well as 225l barrels) and 8-9% of the wine is fermented in nomblot 600l concrete eggs.  It’s a lean, chalky, athletic wine, quite closed now though, as it opens up in the glass, I like its rolling, meandering complexity, limpidity and stony acidity.  Very promising.

Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas 2009

Though warm, the 2009 vintage has produced some really stand out wines from producers who, like Ramos Pinto, respect balance.  Here, the clue is in the name – Duas Quintas or, in english, two vineyards/estates.  Fruit from the classic schistous soils of Quinta de Ervamoira in the heart of the Douro Superior brings heft while grapes from the higher altitude (600m) granite soils of Quinta dos Bons Ares, lend elegance and freshness.  This is a ripe but juicy red blend of 40% Touriga Franca, 40% Tinta Roriz (a.k.a. Spain’s Tempranillo) and 20% Touriga Nacional.   Succulent damson and black plum fruit has a salty edge I associate with this region.  Plum skin tannins are fresh and pithy.  Approachable, but with plenty of interest – fruit, oak and mineral – balanced!  14% abv (This wine features in Oddbins’ September Portuguese promotion – read all about it here).

Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas Red 2010 (cask sample)

This blend additionally features dashes of Tinta Cao (which de Almeida’s assistant, describes as “the Pinot Noir of the Douro” on account of its freshness and acidity).  The 2010 boasts a super-floral, rock rose nose.  The wine seems “drier”, inkier and spicier than the 2009, with hints of tobacco.  Intriguingly different from the 09 (in a good way).

Ramos Pinto Bons Ares 2008

This single vineyard wine is a blend of 50% Touriga Nacional, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon (you can take the man out of Bordeaux…) and 10% Touriga Franca.  A firm, dry, sinewy style, earthy and spicy with inky dark fruits, tobacco hints and finely textured tannins – the Cabernet makes its mark!  Only sold in Portugal.

Ramos Pinto Collecion 2009

This wine is a blend of Douro Superior (Ervamoira & Bons Ares) and Cima Corgo (Bom Retiro) fruit, the latter of which accounts for the fact it’s partly a field blend (25%), with 50% Touriga Nacional and 25% Touriga Franca.  It’s a dense but mineral wine with powerful, velvety tannins and rich, concentrated fruit to match.  Ripe, earthy raspberry fruit contrasts with a seam of cool schistous/slatey (cool) minerality; a lift of violets to the long finish emphasises there’s plenty yet to come.  Very youthful; huge potential.

Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas Reserva 2008

This 100% Douro Superior blend features 70% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca and 5% Tinta Barocca.  Made from select parcels and ages for 18 months in 100% new oak (barriques and 6000l foudres, the latter used since 2004), the oak is still quite present on nose and palate, though the fruit is bright and juicy with black currant and berries, raspberry and plum.  Ample with a touch of (alcoholic) warmth and firm backbone of tannins, it’s one to stow away for the long haul – and age very well it will – click here for my notes on the 94 & 97 tasted earlier this year.  15% abv.

Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas Reserva 2009

In this ripe vintage, this wine features a higher percentage of the (elegant) Touriga Franca (40%) 50% Touriga Nacional and, for the first time, 10% Tinta da Barca. Very tightly structured, quite lean and mineral even with a spicy finish, this fair bristles with tightly coiled youthful potential.  One to review with a bit more age under its belt – I look forward!

Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas Reserva 2010 (cask sample)

This sample comes from concrete tanks without expoxy (which means it’s not so reductive – the wine breathes more). de Almeida explains he’s using them as part of his pursuit of balance/drinkability, which he vividly likens to an easy swing in tennis or golf – unforced, he adds, one which keeps its line.  This sample certainly has a freshness and line which delights de Almeida, especially because, he says 2010 was a heterogenous year (uneven ripening), which made for a difficult vintage “like hunting for grapes.”

Ramos Pinto Reserva Especial 2007

First made in 1995, the Especial is so-called because it’s 100% stems and 100% foot-trodden in lagares – in other words, made the old fashioned way and only made in special years (95, 99, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2008).  Sure enough, there’s a herbaceous note to the nose which translates into a very spicy, liquorice palate with sinewy fruit tannins (more energetic than oak’s flattering tannins) supporting a plummy, rich, earthy core of fruit.  Very good – wilder and more rugged, like the Douro’s landscape.

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