Visiting Esporão in Alentejo & the Douro: Quinta de S. Jose, Quinta do Passadouro, Wine & Soul, Quinta do Noval, Quinta de Romaneira, Quinta do Portal, Quinta dos Murcas

In December, I completed the last leg of my quest to identify 50 Great Portuguese Wines. It’s been a marathon. All told, I spent six weeks in Portugal last year and tasted many hundreds of wines at home and abroad. Jaded? Not a bit – Portugal’s vinous offering is way too diverse and, as they say, variety is the spice of life. Overwhelmed? Just a little – who wouldn’t be, whittling down a list bulging with worthy candidates to a mere 50…

I’m under embargo not to reveal my 50 Great Portuguese Wines until they’ve been shown to the trade and press in London on 11 February, but I’ll be sure to post full details here as soon as. And if you’re in the trade, you’ll find details of the London and subsequent Manchester and Edinburgh tastings here. Meantime, below you’ll find highlights of my final visit to Portugal, with previous reports posted here (Northern Portugal), here (Adega do Cantor), here (the Douro Boys) and here (Southern Portugal).

Joao Brito e Cunha

Brito e Cunha picks me up at Pinhão train station. It’s already dark and pretty chilly, though he tells me it’s been unseasonably wet and warm as we wend our way to Quinta de S. José , the 25 hectare estate that he and his father, Ruy, bought in 1999. In a remote, unspoiled site in the upper Douro, it’s pitch black when we arrive, descending a steep, stony, way-marked track also used by walkers. I’m staying in one of the four schist constructed guest-houses overnight so, next morning, I can take in the quinta’s prime location, overlooking the Douro river and next door to Quinta do Roriz, with Quinta de Romaneira opposite.

Over dinner, I discover that the Brito e Cunhas (pictured) are descended from Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira. Ferreira, the Douro’s iron lady, survived early widowhood and a boating accident (in which famous cartographer Baron Forrester drowned), to build an unrivalled portfolio of quintas during the 18th century. Sadly for Brito e Cunha, the family sold Quinta do Vesuvio to the Symingtons in 1989, just a few years before he graduated in oenology.

But there’s an up side to most things in life and, for João, it’s meant that his journey to S. José has perhaps been more interesting than it might otherwise have been, entailing stints at Moet, Cockburns, Orlando Jacobs Creek and Lavradores de Feitoria.

He admits that his exposure to marketing at Orlando has proved useful now he’s making and selling his own wine. As for his time at Lavradores de Feitoria, an innovative collaboration of leading growers, it provided him with an invaluable insight into the Douro’s different growing regions. In particular, it was here that he overcame his scepticism about the potential of Douro white wine. Though he’d not initially wanted to make whites, he recalls “the freshness was amazing, even at 13.5% abv.” High malic and total acidity are key to this freshness and, whether the vines are old or new, the secret lies in elevated, granitic vineyards. For reds, his dad chips in, a new generation of winemakers has used new oak to tame the Douro’s once fearsome tannins – in Ruy’s day, he points out “you couldn’t drink the wines for years because the tannins were so aggressive.”

The next day, before we taste, Brito e Cunha gives me a quick overview of his growing portfolio, which is made from both estate fruit (labeled Quinta de S. José) and bought in fruit (labeled Ázeo). He made his first estate wine from existing old vines in 2000. In 2001 & 2002, he planted another 4.2 hectares at Quinta de S. José which is going into the new red label entry level estate wine; a further 4 hectares were planted in 2008. The first Ázeo wines were launched in 2003 (the red) and 2004 (the white). Brito e Cunha explains that Azeo is based on “knowing the places where I can get interesting grapes and terroirs,” so he can showcase the Douro’s diversity.

For both labels, his aim is to “try and do a big expression of terroir and the Douro, but in a modern (balanced) style.” And to be sure I’m not labouring under any misconceptions, Brito e Cunha adds “it’s not about making a sensational impression for journalists, but working with what nature gives us.” And picking up on his father’s comments about the Douro having made huge strides in table winemaking, he defines what he means by “modern.” First, it’s about hygiene – “you can’t say it’s a terroir wine if it’s oxidised or bretty.” Second, it’s about making gastronomic wines that won’t overwhelm the food with fruit and oak.

Azeo Branco 2008 – for both whites, grapes come from mostly granitic soils (he says schist only imparts minerality to reds, not whites) found at higher sites (c. 500m). Here, nights are cooler. This blend of Viosinho and Rabigato comes from 2 growers with vines around 14 year old. It sees 20% new wood and shows a smoky, mineral nose and palate with citrus and fresh cut apples. It’s a little textured and funky on the finish (owing to lees ageing and batonnage) but there’s good grapefruity acid drive for freshness and line. Brito e Cunha tells me that Viosinho is similar to Sauvignon Blanc in that it’s quite citric, floral and intense, while the Rabigato accounts for the mineral quality and freshness.

Azeo Branco Reserve 2008 – with older mixed vines (Brito e Cunha reckons about 60% Viosinho), this shows greater concentration and intensity. It spends several months in 50:50 new –v- 1 year old 400l Burgundy barrels. A lovely rich, smoky nose shows lifted lime blossom as it opens up. Long and mineral in the mouth, it’s rich in complexity rather than mouthfeel, with a very Graves-like citrus oil and smoky, flinty minerality, the latter of which Brito e Cunha attributes to variety, terroir and oak. Great structure and balance.

Quinta de S Jose Colheita 2007 – sporting a red label, this is the maiden entry level red made from young vines, with around 35-40% Touriga Franca, 30-35% Touriga Nacional, the balance Tinta Roriz. By birth(day) and design, it’s fruitier and fresher than the Reservas. But make no mistake, it’s not just a drink – it reflects the quinta’s identity and personality thanks to a hands off approach with oak. Only half of its sees wood (2 & 3 year old at that), the rest being tank fermented and aged. I really like this new generation of Douro entry level wines that don’t pad out or sweeten the fruit with oak (less classy oak at that given price point). This is very fresh and direct, with well-defined small red and black berry & currant fruit, wild bilberry too. Levity also comes courtesy of the Douro’s trademark violets and rock rose lift. A very mineral finish leaves you in no doubt of its regional affiliations.

Quinta de S Jose Reserva 2007 – made from 40-45 year old and younger vines, with lots of Touriga Nacional. Old vine fruit is fermented in lagares (for gentler extraction) while younger vine fruits is tank-fermented to maximise aroma and freshness. Though quite dark-fruited with a rub of dried herbs and chocolate on the finish, this has a lovely freshness. Still tight-knit, the finish is a little closed right now. Lots of lurking potential.

Azeo Reserva 2007 – this is the maiden reserva and, in 2007, Brito e Cunha saw an opportunity to make something special – it’s his most expensive red. Mostly Touriga Nacional, with 20% old vine material, the balance around 20 years old, it comes from very schistous soil. With only small quantities, it was foot trodden in a “lagaretta” (a small lagare) before transfer to barrel for the malolactic fermentation. It was then aged for 14 months in 70% new, 30% 2nd year old French barrels. A very deep, velvety, crimson/purple hue forecasts the depth and concentration to follow. This is a big wine which needs time, but like all Brito e Cunha’s wines, there’s good freshness to balance its sweet, toasty oak-edged crushed red cherry fruit, dried herbs and nice tension generated by its fruity mid-palate of fruit, lifted violets and underlying minerality. Impressive.

Quinta de S. Jose Reserva 2005 – with a few years under its belt the nose has just a hint of savoury meat pan juices as well as fresher eucalypt. In the mouth, there’s a pronounced minerality – a schisty, salt lick character to its well-defined, succulent red and black fruits. Fine tannins support a long, elegant finish. Very good.

Quinta de S. Jose Reserve 2004 – a powerful vintage produces a powerful, darker wine – much less expressive than the 2005, (for me, 2005s have always been very easy-going from the off), it’s tight-knit and positively sulky with an almost carbonic (not fizzy!) mineral character. Definitely one to decant if you broach it now.

Quinta do Passadouro

This historic 18th century estate in the Rio Pinhão Valley has probably seen more change in the last 20 years than the previous 200. The catalyst for change was Dieter Bohrmann, a Belgian-based businessman, who bought the 16ha estate in 1991.

Though Passadouro had a venerable reputation for port, Bohrmann was keen to explore its potential for red table wines. Initially, his vision was realised through Dirk Niepoort who bought the grapes, making port and wine under the Niepoort brand. But in 2003, Bohrmann went his own way, employing Niepoort’s talented former winemaker, Jorge Serôdio Borges, to make wine for him. Already familiar with Passadouro’s terroir, Borges, now a partner in the business, has helped drive Passadouro forward. The estate’s old vine fruit is now augmented with fruit from a new 20ha vineyard of south-facing 25-30 year old block planted vines at Quinta do Sibio in the Roncao Valley. In 2008, Passadouro released its first white, made from bought in grapes. On the port front, an LBV is the latest addition to the range.

I met up with Borges at the acclaimed D.O.C. Restaurant. On the banks of the Douro between Régua and Pinhão, it’s right opposite Quinta das Murcas, which I’m due to visit later in the week. It’s a fine spot, which the restaurant’s deck and contemporary glass-fronted design encourage you to enjoy to the full. And chef Rui Paula’s food impresses. As for the wines, the main tasting will be at Passadouro after lunch, but Borges has pulled out a couple of older vintages. First some whites, including Guru which he makes with his wife, Sandra Tavares da Silva under their Wine & Soul label.

Passadouro Branco 2008 – a flinty, stony, mineral nose and palate with floral, citrus and prickly pear notes. In the mouth it has a saline, limpid quality, with good freshness and persistence. Borges tells me “the minerality and freshness is what makes the wine alive, so the harvest date is very important.” This, the maiden vintage, certainly meets his aim of making “a very fresh, easy drinking but not too simple wine, that is a good expression of Douro varieties.” And it’s got more complexity than most at £12.99 – I reckon a great alternative for Sancerre or Pouilly Fume fans. As for the drinkability, Borges tells me a touch of oak influence (20% of the wine spends 1 month in barrel) ameliorates bitterness and acidity – important in the Douro where tannin extract is high. He adds another Douro challenge is the fact that, planted for port, the region’s white grapes are not so aromatic. He uses dry ice to prevent oxidation and maximise aroma.

Wine & Soul Guru 2008 – shows smoky oak on the nose and though very concentrated, the palate is much more subtle and complex with good freshness and lift, thanks to a saline edge and white pepper notes. A heft of white-Rhone-like fruit wears the new oak well, indeed, the oak grooms it into shape, lending poise. With plenty of depth and length and a mineral undertow to the finish, it’s an impactful wine though only 12.5% abv. Each year when I taste the Guru, it seems to “fly” a little more. I’m sure the vintage (2008 is great for whites) helps, but Borges explains that they’re also picking a little earlier, he laughs, “reducing our holiday time” and being more protective in their winemaking with lees ageing, which also acts as a buffer to the oak. He adds the 2004 at 13.5% is looking developed now while the 2005 at 13% is very fresh and complex.

Before we taste the reds, I ask Borges about any changes he’s made since he started making table wines. He confesses that, because the region’s winemakers come from a port background and “port is high in everything,” the emphasis has been on extracting as much colour, tannin and ripe fruit as possible, as soon as possible. For table wines, Borges has shifted his focus, working much more on balance. Extraction is now longer and gentler. Fermentation temperatures are better geared to maintaining fruit expression. Borges now racks more – 3-4 times – to soften tannins and avoid reduction. Though oak is necessary for ageing capacity, he has “mixed it up more,” to adapt cooper and toast according to wine style. He’s also using lees ageing and is experimenting with batonnage for a consultancy client.

Passadouro 2004 – a very youthful looking deep purple with a ripe cassis nose showing some smoky mineral notes behind. In the mouth, it’s quite glossy – some glycerol to the mouthfeel – with sweet black cherry and blackcurrant and savoury notes to the finish. Like all Passadouro’s reds, even the baby Passa, it was 100% foot-trodden in lagares. It then spent 18 months in barriques, 20% new.

Passadouro Reserva 2004 – I recall first tasting this wine a few years back and it bowled me over for its chiselled minerality. It’s still a real mouthful – you can almost chew through it, not because the tannins are dry (they’re ripe), but because it’s so densely concentrated. There’s a smoky minerality to the finish, again with a touch of glycerol/warmth.

After lunch, we hit the road, first visiting Wine & Soul (see the review below) before snaking around the Rio Pinhão Valley to Passadouro.

Quinta do Passadouro Passa 2007 – I showed this wine at a Portuguese Masterclass I presented last year at London International Wine Fair and it was very well received. The Douro has become associated with super-expensive, hugely structured wines but, as this young vine wine shows (like the Quinta de S Jose Colheita 2007 reviewed above), the Douro can deliver a great expression of the Douro without going at it hammer and tongs. This perfumed, elegant wine shows lots of rock rose and great freshness – very Touriga Franca, with a lovely definition of red and black fruits. Silky tannins complete the picture. 30-40% is aged in used oak barrels.

Quinta do Passadouro 2007 – though also elegant and perfumed (a fabulous trait of the 2007 vintage, both for wines and ports), there’s greater depth of fruit and tannin to this wine thanks to older vine fruit. More Touriga Nacional also contributes to a richer, fleshier mid-palate supported by a backbone of powdery tannins. Very good. 100% barrique aged, with 80% new wood.

Quinta do Passadouro Reserva Tinto 2007 – wow, this puts me in mind of the 2004 Reserva when I first tasted it, with its minerally, slatey edge to nose and palate. It has a similar density and dark concentration too with chunky cassis, sweet gingerbread and chocolate threaded with minerality. Terrific balance – Borges reckons it’s his best yet and I’m inclined to agree. One to cellar.

Quinta do Passadouro LBV 2004 – an ample, forward, unfiltered LBV this is long, chocolatey and smooth with good balance and spicy length.

Wine & Soul

Wine & Soul brings together two of the Douro’s great winemaking talents – Borges and his wife Sandra Tavares da Silva, who also makes wine at Quinta Vale D Maria/Van Zeller (see here for a report of my September Douro visit) and for her parents at Quinta de Chocapalha (see below).

As we drive to the winery, I ask Borges if it’s difficult working with his partner, not, I hasten to add, because da Silva strikes me as a difficult person – quite the opposite! It’s more that I’m curious about how they juggle the dynamics of being in a work and personal relationship. Borges smiles quietly to himself. With a glow of pride, he tells me that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts – they each bring different things to Wine & Soul. He’s convinced this is key to their rapid success.

Indeed, the couple only established the business in 2001 when they bought and restored an old port lodge in the Vale de Mendiz. Their first wine, Pintas red 2001, was made from bought in grapes.  In 2003, they acquired 2ha of very old mixed vines and made their first Pintas vintage port. The next year, they produced the maiden Guru (see review above) from a 46-year-old vineyard planted with indigenous varietals Gouveio, Viosinho, Rabigato and Códega do Larinho. In 2005, they started to make a “second” red wine, Character which, since 2007, has been 100% sourced from their own fruit.  The latest, exciting development concerns Quinta da Manuela, which once belonged to Borges’ grandfather. This 12 hectare prime old vineyard has now come into the Wine & Soul fold, having previously been the source of fruit for the Quinta da Manuela label, made by Borges’ sister, Margarida Serodio. She retains the Quinta do Fojo label and vineyard of that name.

In the compact cellar, bursting at the seams with barrels (pictured), we taste some 2009 barrel samples. Borges says it was a difficult year for Touriga Franca but very good for Touriga Nacional. Still, he’s a fan of his Touriga Franca which he says “has the complexity of Nacional but with better acidity, so it’s more complete.” He adds, Touriga Nacional is good for junior/more forward wines and, with judicious use, for reserve blends.

Guru 2009 (barrel sample) – plenty of flavour, with a good depth of fruit stone fruits, that saline edge. Good acidity, despite the warmth of this year. Promising.

Character 2009 (barrel sample) – a very deep colour, with oak to the fore of this young wine giving a chocolate/mocha nose. On the palate, it’s peppery and fresh with a dark core of fruit. Mint chocolate to the finish.

Manuela VV 2009 (barrel sample) – made from very, very old vines, this will be Wine & Soul’s new flagship red. Wow! I’m really excited by this loquacious wine which keeps unfolding in the mouth, telling its story. Borges tells me the vineyard produces a more feminine style than Pintas which he reflects in the winemaking with less maceration.

Pintas 2009 (barrel sample) – a big boned wine with solid tannins, dark flavours and chocolate, though good balancing freshness lends precision and there’s a lift of violets.

Pintas Character 2007 – this is quite compact on nose and palate – a big mouthful of wine wrapped around a mineral core with rock rose. Needs time. Promising.

Pintas 2007 – if Character was compact, this is very tightly coiled with tight compressed fruits, very small berry/currant, red and black. Plenty of character here nonetheless with mineral, sandalwood/spice, dried herbs/sage notes coming through together with chocolate on the finish.

Quinta de Chocapalha

Sandra Tavares da Silva’s parents Alice and Paulo acquired Chocapalha in 1987. It’s based in the region formerly known as Estremadura, now Lisboa. I visited in 2007 and it’s quite different from the Douro, much lusher, with plenty of citrus and palm trees in evidence. Until only recently, Lisboa was pretty much dominated by co-operatives and the da Silvas sold their fruit to co-operatives until 2000. It was only then that they felt confident that improvements they’d made to their 40ha calcareous clay soiled vineyard would make wines of the desired quality. The wines are made by Sandra Tavares da Silva with Diogo Sepulvada (who has worked in California and Australia).

Quinta de Chocapalha Arinto 2008 – this first release is a great example of the Arinto grape which I tend to think of as Portugal’s Riesling. And here, it’s appropriately packaged in a flute bottle. Good drive and persistence on the palate with bright citrus, especially lime and lime flower to nose and palate. It’s dry with an attractive tang to the finish and hails from the oldest, north-facing vineyards. 12.5%. Very good.

Quinta de Chocapalha Branco 2008 – a blend of Arinto, Viosinho and Vital, it’s saline and fresh on the nose, a bit rounder than I expected in the mouth with a leesy character, though it tightens up on the finish. Well made.

Quinta de Chocapalha Reserva Branca 2008 – a blend of barrel fermented Chardonnay and tank fermented Vionsinho. Good fruit depth and very chardy in character with a ripe citrus and stone fruit nose and palate. The Viosinho brings freshness/line with a saline edge to the finish. Good.

Quinta de Chocapalha Tinto 2006 – a blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouschet, Castelao and a little Syrah. Shows an attractive red fruit nose with an edge of tobacco. With ripe tannins, it’s well done.

Quinta de Chocapalha Tinto 2007 – a warmer vintages shows rounder, fleshier fruit with an attractive peppery quality. Well balanced – very good.

Quinta de Chocapalha Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 – I like Chocapalha’s Cabernet which, to my mind, is Italianate in style with pronounced parma violets and a freshness to its quite fleshy, aromatic black and blue fruits. There’s sinewy tannins behind. Well made.

Quinta de Chocapalha Reserva 2006 – the best grapes – here a blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Syrah – are fermented in robotic lagares. Quite dark fruits with a hint of chicory/tobacco – that 2006 note. Good freshness with present but ripe tannins and a touch of coffee.

Quinta de Chocapalha Reserva 2007 – a warmer year and it’s a bit gummier – a quality I associate with Portuguese Syrah – with bigger tannins. Needs time.

Quinta do Noval

I’ve wistfully driven past Quinta do Noval’s pergola-shaded driveway many times during the heat of the day. Ironically this, my first visit, is in the dead of winter. Still, there’s respite of a different kind to be had. I arrive to find Christian Seely and his wife, Corinne, a French oenologist, toasting themselves by a log fire – great!

Pinhão-based Noval is but one of several high-flying estates owned by AXA Millésimes, itself owned by insurance giant AXA. Others include Châteaux Pichon-Longueville, Pibran, Suduiraut and Petit-Village (Bordeaux), Domaine de l’Arlot (Burgundy), Mas Belles Eaux (the Languedoc) and Disznókó (Hungary). Seely, an englishman, is AXA Millésimes MD and, as captain of AXA’s wine industry, you might expect him to exude professional detachment over passion. Not so, especially when it comes to Noval, the first of the estates he managed and, one senses, his first love. As we chat over dinner, Seely tells me that, having started at Noval in 1993 following AXA’s acquisition, it was initially a wrench to take on managing AXA’s other estates in 2001, because he knew it would take him away from the Douro. Still, though he lives in Paris, Seely has put his own stake in the ground. He’s a partner in Quinta da Romaneira, about which more later.

The next morning, we rattle around the rough tracked vineyards in an old jeep, surveying the turf (pictured). I hadn’t really appreciated before the extent to which, under AXA, Noval has been so innovative in its choice of grapes (its Roncao Valley plantings, due east of Noval, include Syrah, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot and, for a time, Cabernet Sauvignon). Nor did I realise how much relatively young material goes into its ports. Since the AXA acquisition, some 60ha of the 145ha property have been replanted and Seely is adamant that old vines do not necessarily the best wines make. He has found that, after five years, grapes make the premium wine grade and, from 8 years onwards, are vintage port quality.

After a quick stop at the new table wine cellar (completed in 2004), it’s back to the house for a tasting before lunch.

The wines

Quinta do Noval Cedro do Noval 2004 – this is Noval’s second wine and, in this vintage was made from 40% Touriga Nacional, 40% Tinta Roriz and 20% Touriga Franca. A quiet, brooding nose (served a little cool), but there’s more action on the palate, which has good oomph. It shows a nice depth of liquorice-edged black and red fruits with subtle savoury, chocolate and mocha hints on the finish. Ripe but firm tannins lend good support and it has a balancing cool minerality and persistence. Good.

Quinta do Noval Cedro do Noval 2005 – a sea change here, with 45% Syrah (ye gods!) 35% Touriga Franca, 10% Touriga Nacional and 10% Tinta Cao. Because of the Syrah, it’s classified VR Duriense, not DOC Douro. A warmer, more expressive nose with eucalypt and, sure enough, the palate is rounder and fleshier, though there are some firm tannins behind. Well made and friendly – very 2005.

Quinta do Noval Cedro do Noval 2006 – 35% Syrah, 30% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Cao. This is a step up and in a tricky vintage (partly because there was no top wine in this vintage so the 06 Cedro benefits from “declassified” fruit). A complex nose and palate is shot through with minerals. There’s a lovely very cherry fleshy and succulent Touriga quality. It’s not the biggest wine in the world but there’s lots of well-defined, fresh and persistent fruit wed to that translucent mineral quality which makes for elegant drinking here and now.

Quinta do Noval Cedro do Noval 2007 – 30% of each of Touriga Nacional, Syrah and Tinta Franca with 10% Tinta Roriz. A very classy wine, with lifted orange blossom and peel to its well-defined red and black fruits and a chiselled minerality. Good length and, though drinking now, there’s some subtle power in reserve which should see this develop over the next 5 years or so.

Quinta do Noval Touriga Nacional 2004 – this wine gives a window on the orange blossom – it shows almost ridiculously pretty orange blossom with Touriga’s more typical rock rose perfume seamlessly wed to intense not dense red cherry, berry and currant fruit. Like the Cedro 06 and 07, it’s quite fine boned, pale and interesting with its wash of minerals, even a hint of dusty schist. Linear, long and fresh with firm but ripe tannins, it’s a very unusual wine (in a good way).

Quinta do Noval Labrador 2007 – this is a first on many fronts – a 100% Syrah from this historic estate, a critter label (pictured) but relax, it’s terrific. As Seely pointed out when we surveyed the Roncao Valley plantings, while the Cabernet “stood out like a vulgar tourist,” (it’s been head grafted to Touriga Franca save for a row or two), Syrah’s wildness is innately well-suited to the Douro. And this has that wild Douro nose, a schistous minerality and sinewy tannins. Again, its finely framed and subtly powerful with a lick of toast and meaty black pepper to its juicy core of ripe plum, blood plum and black cherry fruit.

Quinta do Noval 2004 – 70% Touriga Nacional, 20% Tinta Cao, 10% Touriga Franca. It’s not the first wine Antonio Agrellos has made at Noval, but it’s the first he felt was worthy of labeling Noval. Agrellos, who joined us, studied in Bordeaux but is quick to assert that he’s not after a Bordelais style of wine. Rather, he wants to “express the Douro’s terroir in the way we have with vintage port.” There’s plenty of power here – very 2004, with quite firm tannins boldly fleshed out with black fruits. Balanced and fresh, it’s still very young.

Quinta do Noval 2005 – 50% Touriga Franca, 40% Touriga Nacional, 10% Tinta Cao. A powerful wine with good depth and expression of dark fruits – cherry and berry. Slightly dry, powdery tannins suggest it would benefit from a bit more time in bottle but it’s very good with balanced freshness and a cool minerality on the long finish.

Quinta do Noval 2007 – 50% Touriga Nacional, 40% Tinta Franca, 10% Tinta Cao. This really flies, with ripe but really juicy dark berry fruit and succulent black cherry. I observe you don’t notice the oak, which is pretty much true of the range, prompting Seely to assert “you don’t need make up in the Douro – oak is used for that, but it’s not necessary nor is it a positive.”  Fine, powdery tannins carry a very long, persistent finish, with hints of violet and rock rose. Terrific.

The ports

Quinta do Noval Silval 2007 – drier nose than the Romaneira (see below) with good depth of fruit and grip on the palate, which shows attractive spice and gingerbread notes. Well-integrated spirit.

Quinta do Noval 2007 – a lovely lifted nose, a very 2007 nose (see my notes on 2007 ports here) shows violets and rock rose. There’s a lovely tight good core of ripe fruit, fresh with very good balance.

Quinta do Noval 2003 – very spicy with a generous girth of dark fruit and lifted violet notes. Powerful ripe tannins add good support.

Quinta do Noval Nacional 2003 – very tight, chiselled palate with concentrated black fruits. Wonderful balance and integration of spirit – quite vinous.

Quinta do Noval Colheita 1995 – youthful with nuts, caramel and, though delicious now, I was spoiled by the previous night’s Colheita – the 64, below.

Quinta do Noval Colheita 1964 – bottled this year, the 64 has a lovely freshness and youthful hue (red tinge). This is gorgeous, with nuts, sweet waxy nuts – almond rather than walnut – really good  fruit still, (sweet, delicate plum), orange peel and liquorice. Has a wonderful vibrancy.

Quinta do Noval Nacional 1966 – wow, great vigor, life, layer and intensity! It’s very bad I know, but we had this over dinner on the first night and I just enjoyed lingering over it without trying to describe it. Not to mention it’s my birth year, so more than a little comfort and pleasure to be taken in said vigor…Some way from plateau-ing yet.

Noval 1962 Crusted Port – bottled in 1964, a great Nacional year, this has a tawny hue and, in the mouth is quite round with a glycerol character, with a rather short, quite oxidative tawny-like finish. Interesting and, to be fair, I don’t expect anyone intended this to be around after 40 years.

Quinta da Romaneira

This is an ambitious project – as much I could tell when I stayed on the opposite bank of the Douro at Quinta de S. Jose. Ruy Brito e Cunha told me that Romaneira has 2 kilometres of river frontage onto the Douro – one of the biggest, if not the biggest. That morning, before tasting at Noval, Seely and I had swung by the winery and vineyards (Seely pictured at Romaneira). The winery is as compact as the vineyard is expansive. Romaneira comprises over 400 hectares of which 76ha are planted to red grapes (all A grade Douro schist terraces) and 5ha, at altitude, to whites grapes. Steeply raked, the vineyards range in altitude from 150 to 450m.

The first wines, which hail from the 2004 vintage, were made from the quinta’s existing vines – 30ha of red grapes and the 5ha of white. Moving forward, Seely tells me “we’ve been pretty free with the bulldozer,” so production is set to rise sharply – 81ha have been replanted, 40 in the last two years. Romaneira has two ranges – the R de Romaneira label designates entry level wines.

Quinta de Romaneira R de Romaneira Vinho Tinto 2005 – around 90% Tinta Roriz with a bit of Touriga Franca. Generous ripe raspberry fruit, a touch earthy, with a salt-lick mineral core. Well-balanced. Good. Softer/rounder in style than Noval.

Quinta de Romaneira R de Romaneira Vinho Tinto 2007 – c 80% Touriga Franca, 20% Tinta Roriz – some nice lift here – very 2007, with its elegant fresh, floral nose and palate. An attractive cool minerality. As at Noval, Seely is restrained with oak and this is aged in 3 year old barrels.

Quinta de Romaneira Vinho Tinto 2004 – there’s a Douro wildness to the nose and the palate is also very typical with dark brambly fruits, chocolate and a vein of cool schist. Firm, textured but ripe supporting tannins lend a sturdiness. Well done.

Quinta de Romaneira Vinho Tinto 2005 – paler, crimson, a little opaque, with a jammier nose and palate – suave and rounder in the mouth with confit of fruits of the forest. Less defined and just lacks a bit of oomph.

Quinta de Romaneira Vinho Tinto 2007 – Back on track with a lifted nose of rock rose and finer frame. There’s a nice freshness and minerality to nose and palate which shows slightly earthy but well-defined raspberry fruit.

Quinta de Romaneira Port 2007 – very upfront fruit on nose and palate, this is a sweet, open knit style with rich, ripe raspberry liqueur.

Finally, for those with very deep pockets and a love of privacy, Romaneira has a luxury hotel overlooking the river. Perched up the hill, its restaurant, Redondo, is open to hotel guests and visitors by appointment. The menu was created by Philippe Conticini, (ex- Petrossian, Paris) and Miguel Castro e Silva, a renowned Portuguese chef.

Quinta do Portal

I’m picked up from Noval by Quinta do Portal’s winemaker Paulo Coutinho and, with the estate’s viticulturist, Miguel Sousa at the wheel, we go up hill, down dale Douro style (4 wheel drive good, especially after the heavy rains which have damaged new plantings and terraces). It’s a great way to tour Portal’s Pinhao Valley vineyards and appreciate the different aspects and elevations of Quinta da Abelheira, Quinta do Confradeiro, Quinta das Manuelas, Quinta dos Muros and Quinta do Portal. We complete the tour before dark. Just as well too because, though I’m staying overnight at their guesthouse, Casa das Pipas (pictured and highly recommended), most of their vineyards are at 500-550m and it’s a pea souper the next day!

Portal is a more sizeable operation than I’d appreciated. Today, annual production stands at 1 million litres. David Baverstock of Esporão, who shares the same UK distributor, has joined us. Esporão is probably Alentejo’s biggest estate, but even his jaw drops at the Ferrari-style 0-60 acceleration – from 4ha in 1994, when Portal launched their own label, to 84ha today! Interestingly, the latest plantings major on white varieties (especially Viosinho and Gouveio, which don’t age so fast in bottle) – there’s growing demand for dry whites and Portal also specialise in excellent fortified Moscatels. As for reds, Bordeaux consultant Pascal Chatonnet advised at the outset and encouraged the use of new oak barriques. The house style is modern, rich and ripe. Owners, the Mansilha Branco family, have just invested in a new cellar and vistors’ centre, which is linked to the winery by a tunnel. Pedro Mansilha Branco shows me around the impressive new facilities before we taste at the cellar door and restaurant. Here are the highlights.

Quinta do Portal Portal Branco 2008 – a fruity nose and palate shows pear and melon fruit. Quite straight-forward but well balanced and very drinkable.

Quinta do Portal Rose 2008 – 50% saignee and 50% direct press, picked early for more elegance. Well made, with good freshness and definition of ripe cranberry and red cherry fruits. Just a little creamy from the lees, but not at the expense of losing definition and freshness. Very well made.

Quinta do Portal Colheita 2007 – you can taste 2007’s mild summer in this wine’s freshness, persistence and length. It shows plum and ripe berry fruit supported by ripe tannins with an overlay of savoury, toasty oak.

Quinta do Portal Reserva 2007 – bigger, riper style, with a girth of dark fruits, a bit jammy but there’s underlying freshness for balance. The oak is quite present at the moment.

Quinta do Portal Grande Reserva 2006 – a tricky year but this is well done with very brambly dark fruits, toast and smoke. There’s freshness and bigger, bonier tannins. A little woody/savoury on the finish.

Quinta do Portal Auru 2007 – this, the flagship wine, is a deep, opaque colour, quite toasty now on the nose. In the mouth there’s good Touriga Nacional typicity without riching out and some underlying freshness helps the balance act. It’s impressive, though lacks a bit of finesse for £60.

Quinta do Portal Touriga Nacional 2003 – very perfumed – almost lavender – on the nose. In the mouth it’s rich and ripe with plenty of girth to its liquorice-edged black berry and cherry fruit. With a firm backbone of tannin, it’s a wine hedonists will enjoy now, but it’ll reward ageing too for those who prefer some tertiary development.

Quinta do Portal Roriz 2000 (magnum) – rich and savoury with woodsmoke-edged sweet dark berry fruits and a touch of tar. Well balanced, with good length. Drinking well now and for another 5 or so before plateau-ing.

Quinta do Portal Moscatel Reserva 2000 – a spicy nose with hints of caramel and orange. The palate has a lovely fresh grapiness complexed with spicy orange fruit and pith and barley sugar. Well integrated spirit makes for a fresh and quite delicate style of fortified.

Quinta do Portal Late Harvest 2007 – a lovely fresh, pure nose shows well defined peach, hints of pineapple and honey. The palate is honeyed, with great purity of pineapple and fruit salad, well balanced by fresh citrussy acidity. Toothsome but not oversweet. The Moscatel and Rabigato concentrated on the vine, with some Rabigato succumbing to noble rot.  The Viosinho was made vin de paille style. This is an impressive maiden vintage – great balance and purity.

Quinta do Portal LBV 2005 – an unfiltered LBV, deep coloured, with a peppery palate with lush cassis and dark chocolate with plenty of ripe tannin backbone. Very sound.

Quinta do Portal Vintage 2007 – a forward style with an attractive melange of violets, chocolate, gingerbread spice and lush dark fruit. Good balance too.

Quinta dos Murcas

My next visit explains Mr Baverstock’s presence in the Douro. Back in 2008, I was updating Hugh Johnson Pocket Wine entries and we’d liaised about Esporão’s purchase of Quinta dos Murcas.  David was clearly very excited about it, describing it as “an excellent estate in the Cima Corgo, near Crasto [where he kicked off their table wine project] with a long Douro history.”

As we zig zag along the narrow entrance road – Baverstock, the only driver I’ve known to use his horn at the Douro’s many blind corners (I’m grateful!), tells me it has 160 hectares, of which 60ha (and growing under the new regime) are planted to vine. Steep terraces and a fair bit of vinhas ao alto (vertical row) plantings sit between 50-450m, so there’s plenty of scope for blending or, Baverstock mulls, perhaps making single parcel wines. The estate had previously produced wine under its own name but, in the last few years, grapes were sold to the Symingtons, for whom Baverstock first worked when he arrived in the Douro.

Though it’s hardly convenient making wine in the Alentejo and the Douro, Baverstock is like a kid with a new toy. He’s a projects man and, until we met this time, I’d not fully appreciated his pioneering role crafting some of the Douro’s first modern table wines at Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta do Fojo and Quinta do Crasto. So it’s fun for him to be back some 15 years later to start at the very beginning with Murcas, renovating both vineyards and cellars. And he’s clear about the style he wants to pursue – “classic, elegant – not another big, sweet Douro red.”

When we’d exchanged emails in 2008, Baverstock told me he’d been parachuted in at harvest and made a vintage to get a feel for the quality. Describing it as “outstanding” he reckoned they’d launch the first 2008 wines sometime towards the end of 2009. Progress hasn’t been that fast but I did have a chance to taste the 08s. The Reserve, made mostly from old vines with a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon (!), has an almost gravelly, mineral quality. Elegant, with well-defined red and black fruits I can see why Baverstock is excited by the potential here. Next up I taste a sample from the top 15 (100% new French oak) barrels from 2008 – all the fruit came from the old vines at the bottom of the vineyard (a warmer micro-climate). It’s very deep in colour, almost jet black, with cassis and wilder black fruits. But it’s really floral and elegant too, with good balancing freshness (2008 was a mild but dry year). Again, a clear sign post of Murcas’ potential for terroir-driven, elegant wines, despite the “vulgar tourist!”

Herdade de Esporão

Esporão is owned by Lisbon financier, Dr Jose Roquette (brother of Quinta do Crasto’s Jorge – Baverstock’s former boss). Roquette bought the property in 1973 on the very eve of the revolution that ended António Salazar’s dictatorship. The timing wasn’t great because Roquette was forced to flee to Brazil. Meantime, the estate was nationalised and all grapes had to be sent to the local Reguengos Wine Co-operative. When it was safe to return in 1987, Roquette started renovating the estate and, in 1992, Baverstock arrived. With the benefit of Aussie know-how (stainless steel tanks, temperature-control equipment, cellar hygiene, American, latterly French oak), Baverstock has forged the estate’s reputation for making wine in a New World way using Old World grapes.

After meandering around the Douro, it’s a relief to hit the relatively “straight as the crow flies” motorway, direction south, Alentejo. Some hours later, we arrive in Reguengos de Monsaraz where I’m staying overnight before a bright and early start for a vineyard tour at Esporão – great, because though I visited in 2004, we just tasted. Vines seem to stretch as far as the eye can see. In truth, not hard because, when we start out, it’s another misty start to the day.

The pruners and pruning machine (both pictured) are out in force. With 454ha at the Herdade (80ha of which have been tended organically since planting in 1988) and another 155ha nearby, viticulturist Pedro Nogueira tells me the process takes 4 months, even with 120 people on the case! Like the winery, the vineyards are immaculate and it’s not difficult to see why, from top to bottom, Esporão’s range is consistently very good. The volume makes for consistently good value too.

After my visit to Alentejo in October (see my report here), when the weather was unusually hot, I’m not surprised when Nogueira tells me that his biggest issue is high sugars. A broad spread of varieties helps with balance. For example, Petit Verdot and Alvarinho, two relative newcomers to the region, bring higher acidity levels. Drip irrigation, controlled by soil probes, is critical, not to increase quantity, but to ensure that the grapes continue to photosynthesise, even if it’s hot. (If they stop, sugars continue to rise and acidity respires/reduces, but the physiological and flavour ripeness are impaired). For more vigorous varieties like Petit Verdot and Touriga Nacional, it’s particularly important to irrigate judiciously. Here the strategy is to stress the vines to reduce yields. It ensures that the vine can ripen its (lesser) load. Training the vines high (pictured with Nogueira) and spreading the canopy with more wires is also key to physiological and flavour ripeness. Nogueira trains the canopy to 1.1 high by 1.5m in width which, he tells me, makes for “a perfect solar panel.”

When we join Baverstock back at the winery, he tells me “there’s a good rapport with the vineyards since the last 4-5 years.” It’s meant he’s much more confident now about channeling the fruit once it hits the winery. Grapes for the top garrafeira, private selection and lately the single varietal wines are handpicked and come from the estate’s schistous parcels (pictured). After sorting over the selection table, they are fermented in small batches in shallow fermenters before being basket pressed and completing their fermentation in barrel. Other fruit is mostly machine-picked and fermented in bigger batches. The winery works on a gravity-fed design for minimal handling.

Monte Velho 2008 – this is Portugal’s biggest-selling brand and it’s well done. There’s a nutty, creamy edge (thanks to the lees) to its ripe, honeyed fruit, balanced by a floral/citric edge – Baverstock observes it’s crisper than usual in 2008, a good vintage. It’s made from estate fruit and bought in fruit (Esporão buys in fruit for this thirsty brand from another 600ha – some 8-10 growers who conform to their vineyard management philosophy).

Monte Velho 2009 – tank sample – from a warmer, very low yielding vintage (which produced only 600,000l –v- the usual million litres of juice), this is a deeper hue, with bouncy, exotic fruit.

Verdelho 2008 – good typicity – quite Aussie (like Baverstock) with its sweet and sour tropical green banana and mango fruit. Good.

Duas Castas 2009 – a blend of Verdelho and Viosinho (the mix changes depending on the year) – the Viosinho and stoney vineyards bring a mineral/flinty note to this fresh, citrus wine, good persistence too. Very good.

Esporão Branco Reserva 2008 – a toasty, spicy nose and palate with ripe citrus behind. Good depth, complexity and balance for a wine made in this volume (200,000 litres), which explains why it’s such great value. It’s a wine which is consistently bright fruited too in a region better known for fast-ageing, oxidative styles. Fortunately, other southern producers are now getting to grips with this and overall quality is on the up.

Esporão Private Selection Branco 2008 – I’d not tried this unusual blend of 90% Semillon, Marsanne and Viognier before. Lees aged with batonnage for 6 months in new French oak it’s a weighty, textured wine. Like the Reserva, sweeter honey and Marsanne’s cinder toffee notes are balanced by Semillon’s more restrained stony, waxy lemon character. Impressive.

Monte Velho Red 2008 – sappy blackberry and juicy plum with just a hint of chocolate on the finish. Well done – we agree it’s very Dolcetto/Barbera in its freshness and exuberance. Baverstock says he uses lots of micro oxygenation to bring it on.

Quatro Castas 2008 – a blend of Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Petit Verdot and Alfrocheiro – some youthful banana (fermentation character) on the nose, also chocolate, but in the mouth there’s good freshness with vivid black cherry and berry fruit. It spends 6 months in French and US oak. Well made.

Esporão Reserva 2007 – I’ve always thought both Reservas great value for money and, especially in the mild 2007 vintage, this is a cracker. Quite tight- Cabernet brings structure – it’s very juicy, with bright fruit, polite Cabernet blackcurrant bit also wilder bilberry with a nice lick of vanilla. Very good.

Aragones 2007 – from this vintage, Baverstock has upped quality a notch. This shows creamy raspberry and blackberry fruit with a kid glove leather character (other people say violets) that puts me in mind of Rioja and/or US oak – this wine is aged in 50:50 French and US oak. Sinewy tannins lend gravitas and support.

Touriga Nacional 2007 – made from vines planted in 1988, this is deep purple and surprisingly (delightfully so) fresh and elegant on the palate. Great typicity too with its fleshy palate of black cherry and lifted violets and silky tannins. It spends 12 months in French oak, which buffs up the fruit nicely, keeping it pure and focused. Very good indeed.

Private Selection 2005 – this predominantly Syrah and Alicante Bouschet blend with Aragones has an intense nose and palate.  It shows a nice purity of sweet bilberry, plum and blackberry fruit. Very direct, with good balancing freshness and ripe, seductive tannins. Aged 12 months in French oak.

Private Selection 2007 – I’m a big fan of the mild 2007 vintage in Alentejo and this is a terrific 07 – elegant and powerful, from its lifted nose, to its fleshy red and black berry mid-palate and its tight tippy toes. Beautifully balanced. Gorgeous.

Torre do Esporão 2007 – this is a different kettle of fish, more an out and out charmer with swathes of dense, ripe cassis and blackberry fruit and creamy tannins. A big wine, but more approachable than the 2004 maiden vintage if my memory serves me well.

After the tasting, there’s time for an excellent lunch at Esporão’s restaurant before heading for Lisbon airport. Moves are afoot here to up the stakes with the already very good menu by hiring an in-house chef (at the moment, the restaurant team is contracted in). It’s part of a general trend to ramp up wine tourism in Portugal. If you want to find out more, check out The Wine & Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal, written by husband and wife team Charles Metcalfe and Kathryn McWhirter – click here to find out more.

Sarah Ahmed
The Wine Detective
18 January 2010

(Based on travels 7-11 December 2009)

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