O is for off-piste: tasting across country & region with Conceito’s Rita Ferreira Marques
That Conceito’s Rita Ferreira Marques has the capacity to surprise was a known quantity. The twenty-nine year old is the subject of my forthcoming “Unusual Suspects” feature for wine-searcher.com’s new web magazine, which explores her precocious talent.
I was, however, unprepared for the discovery that her base, the Teja Valley, is reputedly the Douro’s coolest microclimate. Particularly surprising, because it’s in the easternmost Douro Superior which, rule of thumb, is the hottest, driest Douro sub-region.
Marques told me when it’s 40 degrees at Quinta do Vale Meão, one of the sub-region’s most famous estates, it’s 32 degrees in the Teja Valley. Away from the warming influence of the Douro river, the climate is more continental still, so there’s pronounced diurnal temperature variation. In winter, the temperature can drop to minus six degrees centigrade at night.
Arriving well behind schedule, Marques’ comments were borne out by the nip in the air as nightfall approached. We shot off for a quick visit of the aged, low, en-vaso-like trained vineyards, the first of which was acquired by her grandfather and his brother in the 1940s. Marques’ mother has since increased the holding to over 70 hectares.
Quinta da Veiga is the source of Conceito’s famous Bastardo single varietal red wine. It comes from a very small, old block. When I ask how come it was block planted (when old vines are traditionally a beggar’s muddle of varieties, cheek by jowl) she explains that, because it produces high sugar levels, Bastardo fetched good prices with the Port shippers. Now I get it!
Marques’ favourite vineyard for red wines is Quinta do Cabido, the oldest vineyard with the poorest soils. Quinta do Menir, which is higher with granite soils, is perfect for the white wines – she has even planted Gruner Veltliner there “for fun.” Marques’ other “fun” projects include a Marlborough Sauvignon and Alvarinho Vinho Verde. She’s nothing if not adventurous.
Which is good because, though her forebears sold off the grapes for Port, given their elevation (300-450m) and the Teja Valley’s relatively cool conditions, the vineyards don’t have an especially high grading within the Port wine classification system. Now that Marques is principally making (unfortified) wines, cool is all to the good. Save for grapes from the lower, more fertile Quinta do Chão-do-Pereiro which are still sold off for Port, the fruit is perfect for the elegance she seeks in the Conceito brand.
Marques made the first Conceito wine in 2004 and, the following year, built the winery at Quinta de Veiga. It was a pity there wasn’t the time or light to photograph the Quinta da Veiga sign, hand-daubed in red paint. Funny when Conceito’s labels are so beautifully designed. But there and again, Marques herself is under-stated and, hyper-focused on the family vineyards and her wines, I suspect that the outward appearance of the winery as opposed to what’s in it, is of little concern. And when it comes to what’s in the bottle, she certainly delivers.
Conceito Branco 2011 (barrel sample)
Tight, mineral and flinty, wth some reduction. Medium finish. Like the freshness.
Gruner Veltliner 2011 (barrel sample)
This is the first crop to be vinified (4 year old vines). Again very fresh (pH is just 2.9!), with good minerality and power for such young vines – Rita likes the micro-oxidation of the barrel and working the lees. Going forward she anticipates using the Gruner as a blending component.
Conceito Tinto 2010 (barrel sample)
Though everyone, she says, is talking down this vintage for her it’s perfect if you’re looking for balance and elegance. Very deep, inky hue with a markedly spicy nose and palate. In the mouth it’s spicy, with fleshy dark plum, smoky charcuterie (oak) and mineral nuances. Again, lovely freshness.
Conceito Tinto 2011 (barrel sample 1 – “Rita’s wine”)
Wow, very Dâo with its elegantly framed, floral aroma and palate and fluid seam of minerality. So bright and alive, yet very even and focused going through with wonderful levity and vivacity. Great energy and drive, just like its maker. Marques reckons it’s the best wine she has made. Can’t wait to see it in bottle.
Conceito Tinto 2011 (barrel sample 2 – “Luis’ wine”)
Marques’ partner Luis Antunes, a professor of science and wine writer, called the shots on this barrel, which was fermented with stems. It’s much firmer and spicier, with chiselled minerals and an edge of coal dust. Very good but very different. At least for now, I prefer the first wine, but it will be interesting to see how they develop, assuming they don’t end up together in a blend….
Conceito Alvarinho 2010 (Monçao e Melgaço, Vinho Verde)
Marques is by no means the first leading Portuguese winemaker to single out Alvarinho as the country’s best white grape. So impressed is she that, not only is she making this wine, she’s also planted a vineyard in Vinho Verde. Meantime, Conceito Alvarinho is sourced from a mature 50 year old vineyard in Monçao and made at Anslemo Mendes’ winery. Marques is looking for (and has found) clementine flavours. The wine, which is naturally fermented and sees lees contact, is weighty in the mouth with sweet citrus flavours – juicy pink grapefruit as well as clementine – and honeysuckle. Delicious.
Conceito Contraste Branco 2010 (Douro)
With the benefit of lees stirring, this has an attractive limpidity and texture, with a chalky, talcy character to its ripe grapefruit. Nice length. Very well done.
Conceito Branco 2010 (Douro)
Much to my delight, Marques has pulled back on the oak and this vintage is aged in 100% old oak, which pays dividends in terms of its purity, fluidity and translucency of minerality. It’s long, languid and limpid with hints of toast and marzipan. Lovely.
Conceito Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (Marlborough, New Zealand)
Marques worked a vintage at Villa Maria and sourced fruit from a friend, making the wine at Framingham (which is owned by Sogrape of Portugal). Aiming for a relatively full bodied style, this wine isn’t fermented at super cool temperatures and 10% is fermented in barrel. The fruit is ripe too – peachy, very juicy, with fresh pea pod notes and a hint of dried herbs. Very good in a rich style.
Conceito Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Marlborough, New Zealand)
A little reduced on the nose, this vintage made at Rockferry is more herbaceous and tangy with bright gooseberry and pink grapefruit. Lipsmacking and intense, which style I prefer.
Conceito Bastardo 2010 (VR Duriense)
Marques confides that she’s never felt that the Bastardo is a great wine. She says it’s always too warm to grow the variety – its sugars shoot up and it drops leaves, so it can be difficult to avoid green characters. Because it has very tight bunches, rot can be a problem too. She says you have to be in the vineyard to get it right and, even so, vintage variation is pronounced. Take the 2007 which Marques reckons was over ripe (though I liked it very much) and the 2008 which she says was under ripe (and which I found lean). In 2009, she reckons she’s got it right. Like the 2007, the 2009 puts me in mind of a Pinot Noir, with its fine red berry and pomegranate flavours. The 2010 is even better. Sappy and juicy with red cherry and that pithy pomegranate quality again. It keeps the sweetness in check and lends a subtly firm texture to the wine without in any way detracting from its levity. Lovely, long and pure.
Conceito Contraste Tinto 2009 (Douro)
Overall quite firm and fresh with a succulent mid-palate of black cherry and plum, supported by ripe but present tannins. A whisper of toffee on the finish expresses the warmth of this vintage. Good.
Conceito Tinto 2009 (Douro)
Rich, ripe, dark fruit is currently swathed in toasty oak – Marques says it needs a couple of years to integrate. Firm tannins lend grip and there’s a juicy quality through the mid-palate and finish as well as a warmer, sweeter hint of caramel. Yet to hit its stride. Promising.
Conceito Vin de Paille 2009
Made in tiny quantities, this Malvasia Fina is for drinking, not selling. Marques prefers to pick early and dry the grapes rather than harvest late because it preserves (and concentrates) the acidity. It shows rich but balanced caramelised orange fruit. What it lacks in complexity it more than makes up for in lusciousness. Naughty and nice!