Quinta do Ameal vertical – 2003 to 2019, oaked, unoaked
During the last 20 years, new Portuguese classics have been forged. These 21st century wines bear little relation to the past, but point to the rosiest of futures. Quinta do Ameal Loureiro and Quinta do Ameal Loureiro Escolha from Vinho Verde’s Lima sub-region are stellar examples. This was a deeply impressive vertical. Now under the ownership of Esporão, the commitment to excellence and innovation looks set to continue.
At the bleeding edge
When Pedro Araújo first produced Quinta do Ameal Loureiro in 1999, no-one had as much as grazed the quality potential of Loureiro. I first visited in 2004; Ameal’s tender green shoots already impressed.
Still, even today, compared with Alvarinho from neighbouring Monção e Melgaço, there are relatively few exalted players. Within Lima, Quinta do Ameal and Aphros have pushed the boundaries furthest, showcasing Loureiro’s versatility across a range of premium styles. At the ‘bleeding edge’ of cutting edge, those were hard yards, I’m sure. Especially given the generic image of Vinho Verde, which has only recently started to change.
It is surely no coincidence that Lima’s young guns – Marcio Lopes (Pequenos Rebentos) and Nuno Aguiar de Morais Vaz (Portugal Boutique Winery) – learned their craft with Anselmo Mendes. Although best known for Alvarinho, Mendes makes age-worthy Loureiro under his eponymous label. And he was Ameal’s consultant until last year, when José Luis Moreira da Silva took the helm.
The change in winemaker reflects a change of ownership. The Roquette family of Esporão acquired Quinta do Ameal in September 2019, having distributed Ameal in Brazil for some years. Moreira da Silva also makes the wines at the family’s first northern outpost, Quinta dos Murças in the Douro.
When I wrote up Quinta do Ameal (and the 95-point-scoring Quinta do Ameal Escolha 2015) for a Decanter Premium Regional Profile of Vinho Verde last year, I asked João Roquette about the acquisition. He explained that, having met Araújo at Ameal, he “soon challenged Pedro for a partnership which, 10 years later, resulted in Esporão buying Ameal.”
The attraction? First, “its high quality and uniqueness.” Quite rightly, Roquette identified Ameal as one of a handful of Vinho Verde producers who have shown its world class credentials. Second, the opportunity to pursue Pedro’s vision “and take Ameal to the next cycle of development, bringing more resources and innovation to the project.”
Moreira da Silva explained that, between July 2019 and April 2020, Araújo worked as a consultant, ensuring the transition and construction of the Quinta do Ameal wine strategy for the coming years. Mendes remained as Ameal’s consultant during this transition period. Picking up the baton, Moreira da Silva’s philosophy is, he says, “to interfere as little as possible with the process and uncover the real identity of each vineyard, grape variety and origin.” To that end, the new regime has been ‘parcellating’ the vineyard and introducing bigger format oak, including foudres, and concrete eggs into the winemaking process. A new winery is in the works.
Describing Ameal’s terroir as “magic” for Loureiro, Moreira da Silva contrasts it with the Douro, where he is used to working with many varieties. He observes “when you find a variety you feel is completely adapted to a place, like [Pinot Noir or Chardonnay] in Burgundy, the soil, the climate everything about the location makes it special.”
During the one-to-one tasting, we picked up on my observation about Loureiro’s relative variability compared with Alvarinho’s consistency. The winemaker agreed about it being a productive grape, but is convinced it has at least as much to give as Alvarinho. It is just “not as easy going as Alvarinho,” he says.
Fourteen of Quinta do Ameal’s 30 hectares are planted to vines, with four different clones of Loureiro. With in-built diversity, each plot is polyclonal. Esporão is planting another five hectares (and grubbing up two rows of Arinto).
Incidentally, I was surprised to learn that the vineyards are now younger than the label. Moreira da Silva reported that flavescence dorée – a destructive phytoplasma disease – became an issue across the Lima sub-region and in 2014, Araújo started re-planting everything again. The oldest vineyard is now thirteen years old. Insecticides are used to protect against it (by killing the vector).
What makes Ameal magic for this variety? Loureiro can be all talc aromatics, sometimes even soapy. It can be vapid, lacking intensity, resulting in simple, short wines. How come Ameal’s wines are so long-lived?
The pioneers tend to be located in the heart of Lima, in the Ponte de Lima district, where the Atlantic’s influence is tempered. Quinta do Ameal is located 30km from the Atlantic Ocean, to the east of Ponte de Lima. Whilst the average annual rainfall in Ponte de Lima is 1,397 mm (55 inches), at Ameal, it is 1,300 mm (51.18 in), with an average temperature of 14.9 C .
For Moreira da Silva, Ameal’s location is at the perfect bite point. You can feel the Atlantic influence, he says, in the acidity of the wines. But because Ponte de Lima is already continental (resulting in warmer days and colder nights), you have balance, because you attain full maturation and ripeness. It also helps that Ameal is located on the Lima river’s sunnier south-facing right bank.
The property extends from the riverfront, very gently sloping upwards, rising from 12 to 53 metres above sea level. Not high at all, yet the predominantly deep, granitic soil varies from top to bottom.
Following detailed soil mapping, Ameal has divided the estate into six plots, based on two different soil types, with transitional soils in between, says Moreira da Silva.
In general, nearer the river, the soil texture is much finer and, with more clay and humidity, water retention and fertility is higher. The resulting wines are emphatic fresh, with exuberant aromatics. Ameal Solo Único (launched in 2011), comes from Vinha do Marjão. It is not next to the river, but with water-retentive clay, the acidity is more present, says the winemaker.
Just 30 metres higher, the soil is much different, with sandy loam pockets, bigger grain and rockier soils. You don’t see any clay, adds Moreira da Silva. Correspondingly less fertile, vines on these soils are more stressed. Naturally, the vines produce lower yields and the wines are higher in concentration, with more body and structure. The highest, easternmost part of the vineyard – Vinha das Marinhas – produces Quinta do Ameal Escolha (first released in 2000).
Araújo was always at pains to highlight the rigorous canopy management throughout the year, with shoot pruning, vine training, mechanized trimming and leaf-stripping to reduce yields, maximise exposure and increase Loureiro’s potential.
Grapes are hand harvested.
For the classic (unoaked) cuvée of Quinta do Ameal, whole bunches are pneumatically pressed. After cold settling of the must for 24 hours, it is fermented at a controlled temperature (10 – 15ºC) for 12 to 15 days. The wine is aged on fine lees for 6 months in stainless steel vats at a controlled temperature.
For Escolha, whole bunches are pneumatically pressed and, after cold settling of the must for 48 hours, it is fermented and aged in French oak barrels on fine lees for approximately 6 months. In 2019, Moreira da Silva introduced 500l barrels (previously, the wine aged in hogsheads). He is planning to age future vintages in very old foudres for a lengthy period.
Incidentally, during the tasting, the winemaker remarked that the introduction of concrete eggs has changed Solo’s mouthfeel. Because the lees are in suspension all the time, it is less crisp.
From the off, Quinta do Ameal has been imported into the UK by Raymond Reynolds. The leading Portuguese specialist has recently updated its website, with more information and a new blog/news and events page here.
A quick surf of the ‘net only revealed UK retail stockists for the 2018 vintage of the classic (unoaked), although Roberts & Speight may still have some 2017 – worth asking.
I did not find any stockists for the Escolha. However, Quinta do Ameal Escolha 2015 is included in Bar Douro Wine Club’s mixed case of six, which is curated by me.
Quinta do Ameal Loureiro 2019
Vintage report: Autumn and winter were extremely rainy, as was the beginning of spring, followed by a dry period, which helped the berries develop well. Despite the initial pressure, there were no major phytosanitary problems this year, and the grapes reached the winery in good condition and with the ideal ripeness.
The 20th release is pale with green glints, with a crisp nose and palate, the freshness apparent from the get go. Classic green notes of laurel leaf, conifer and blackcurrant bud follow through on a gently leesy palate, cut with lime and grapefruit acidity. For Moreira da Silva, the batonnage helps to balance the acidity; it’s well done. Not over-played. There is a light, attractive (not bitter or coarse) touch of chalky, phenolic texture, which brings tension and interest to the finish. The winemaker attributes this to the short maceration on stems during the whole bunch pressing. As it opens up in the glass, pronounced saline, touch briny, notes build, together with orange pith. Still with the leafiness/conifer notes. On day two, the acidity is more assertive, highlighting this Loureiro’s structure and ageing potential. 11%, TA 7.4 g/l, pH 3.02, RS < 1.5g/l
Quinta do Ameal Escolha Loureiro 2019
Tasting note: Bottled in November, this Loureiro had not yet been labelled; it will be released in a couple of months. As you would expect from the wood and time on lees, the Escolha has more mouthfeel, yet still plenty of detail, with subtle green notes of celery salt, laurel and succulent cedar. Lively lemon and lime fruits jangle but, with greater intensity, more body and mouthfeel, the delivery is slower. And longer. Hints of pink grapefruit and orange peel emerge with time in glass. On day two, sweet tangerine joins the jangly lemon and lime, pink grapefruit and orange peel. Which makes it sound uber-citrussy and rather noisy! But this remains a subtle, elegant expression of Loureiro, with cool mineral and saline/brine undertones and musky scents of rose petal and talc, which follow through on the long, finely honed, retro-nasal finish. Based on this vintage, going bigger format with the oak seems like a good direction. 11.5% TA 7.3, pH 3.03
Quinta do Ameal Loureiro 2018
Vintage report: Winter presented low rainfall, except for the month of March. Hot and dry spring and summer.
Tasting note: Relatively forward on the nose, with mandarin and orange peel upfront, the green notes – grassy, rather than leafy – following through later. In a hot, dry year, you notice the significantly lower acidity, especially in this line up. Those light phenolics, that chalkiness, brings a welcome ‘al dente’ tension. Opening up, it reveals lemon and lime Starburst/Opal Fruits notes, with a flurry of savoury lees on day two. Lacks the finesse and harmony of the other vintages. 12% TA, 5.9, pH 3.13 £16.99 at Roberts & Speight, £18.50 at The Good Wine Shop, £21 at Harvey Nichols
Quinta do Ameal Escolha Loureiro 2017
Vintage report: Winter in the Vinho Verde region was cold and much drier than normal. Budburst occurred early, which led the harvests to begin earlier than usual as well. The summer was hot and dry, and this year had one of the lowest incidences of pest and disease.
Tasting note: Showing some tertiary interest on the nose, with a touch of sou’wester – oilskin/lanolin – as well as oak, saltiness and a lick of tinned peach. Plenty of leesy/batonnage mouthfeel on the palate (a little occluding and overspun now, but perhaps it will settle with time?) Flavours of cedar oak, with salty green olive and grassy, laurel and conifer green notes mingle around a core of tinned peach fruit. Lovely freshness, pulls the flavours through on a creamy, saline finish. 11.6% TA 7.2, pH 3.04
Quinta do Ameal Loureiro 2011
Vintage report: 2011 October, November and December were rainy and warmer than usual. Spring and summer were hot and dry. For Moreira da Silva, 2011 was one of the best vintages ever, even in Vinho Verde, with a long growing cycle and late harvest.
Tasting note: Beautifully on song after 10 years, both cuvées really impressed me with their freshness, definition and balance. They are in a terrific drinking window. The classic, unoaked Loureiro might fool you. The nose is rich, with embedded spices, really cedary – sappy cedar – which might suggest it was oaked. Together with Ameal’s signature saltiness, they follow through on the persistent palate, with its delicious rolling acidity – dynamic, integrated, not lean or linear. Lemon and lime and conifer notes jangle. There are riper suggestions of lemon and lime Starburst, pink grapefruit and orange peel (oil aromatics) and pith. Pillowy lees. Very complete. Lovely. And on day two, it really comes into its own, zesty, with pithy lime and orange peel and pith to the nose. Rolling ripe grapefruit acidity carries a long, saline finish. Incredibly long – peels clear, like a bell. Wow. 11.2%, TA 6.2, pH 3.2
Quinta do Ameal Escolha Loureiro 2011
Tasting note: As you would expect given time in wood, a deeper yellow hue (similar to the classic from 2003), with more body and spicy orange peel accents thanks to Vinha das Marinhas. But it tapers pithily into the finish. Opening up, it reveals more complexity, with a touch of oilskin, hint of mint and vegetal spicy notes of bay leaf and conifer. Waxy, pithy and succulent, the powerful palate still has a primary (fruit), youthful quality. Pulpy grapefruit and cedar-edged apple and pear is cut with lime. Tapers beautifully on the finish, with an undertow of slate. Going strong, with great presence. 11.1%, TA 6.8, pH 3.11
Quinta do Ameal Loureiro 2003
Vintage report: The months of January, February and March were colder and drier than usual. In April and May, there was also less rain than normal. June was a rainy month with above-average temperatures. August and September were hot and dry.
Tasting note: Both 2003s are deeply impressive when you consider the vintage. Once again, the classic shines! It is a gleaming, yellow hue. Sweet mandarin to nose and attack is well met – balanced – by pithy citrus and cedar spice. Lovely energy and tension. Wow, wow sappy acidity makes for an effortless, salt ‘n spice licked delivery, with suggestions of rosewater and cinnamon. Long, really lingering. On day two, those exotic aromatics are amplified, putting me in mind of a fine, mature Gewürztraminer from Alsace. Because of the rose petal scent and spice, but also because of the roundness, with seamless ripe lime and mandarin acidity. Deeply impressive at 17 plus years old. 11.09% pH 3.61
Quinta do Ameal Escolha Loureiro 2003
Tasting note: Antique gold, with a complex, spicy, herbal nose, with buttermint and honey and herbs lozenge, pear skin/cedar and orange peel with a touch of mold/pencillin. Again, something of an Alsace Gewürztraminer here, with rose water and cinnamon and hints of banana bread. Creamier, more textural through the finish than Ameal classic, yet not as seamless or long, with a little fragmentation to the finish. On day two, it is firmly in the tertiary zone (as you would expect), but holds the line better. I’d say drink up though, whilst the classic should keep a few years yet. 11.6%, TA 6.3, pH 3.54