Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Boston Wine Expo: Quinta Vale D. Maria, Port & The Douro

"Of all the places where men have planted vineyards the upper Douro is the most improbable."
--Hugh Johnson

At the recent Boston Wine Expo, they offered 35 Seminars, mostly about wine but also a few dealing with topics like whiskey and olive oil. The Seminars are an excellent way to get a more directed wine education at the Expo, and you usually get to taste some compelling wines. This year, as a media guest, I attended one of the seminars, The Wines of the Douro Valley: From Dream to Reality: An Adventure in the Oldest Demarcated Region of the World.

The description of this seminar stated: "Since 1780, the family has been intimately entwined in the region's wine trade. When Cristiano Van Zeller left Quinta do Noval at the end of 1993 it was to pursue his passion for innovation and the development of independent producers in the Douro valley. His goal was to diminish the region's dependence on the production of port, while showing the true potential and diversity of this incredible land. In 1996 he acquired the ancient Quinta Vale D. Maria and immediately went to work restoring this venerable estate. Within two years the estate was receiving critical acclaim for their Douro Red Wine. As of 2006, he took over the reins of the centuries old family business, Van Zeller & Co. Please join Cristiano in tasting through the last decade of Red wines and Ports from Quinta Vale D. Maria along with the rare opportunity to experience two tawny ports bottled 100 years apart: 1970 versus 1870. When did you drink your last 1870?"

You don't often get a chance to taste a Port from 1870 and as a Cavaleiro in the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, I felt it was my duty to investigate and taste. When I entered the room for the seminar, there was a strong and alluring aroma from the intensity of the Tawny Ports. It made you want to start drinking right away, but I had restraint.

The speaker for the seminar was Cristiano Van Zeller, the Chairman of the Federation of Douro Farmers and the Owner of Quinta Vale D. Maria, and he was accompanied by his daughter, Francisca. Christiano was an excellent presenter, knowledgeable, humorous and personable.

The Van Zeller family can trace its history in the wine trade back to 1620, and in 1780 they became officially established as a Port Wine shipper. Cristiano is a 14th generation Van Zeller and he began his wine career working at the family Port company, Quinta do Noval. In 1993, the family sold the Port company and Cristiano moved onto some independent projects. The family of Cristiano's wife, Joana Lemos, had owned a Port estate for about 150 years and in 1996, Cristiano and Joana purchased the estate, Quinta Vale D. Maria, from her family. They had to rebuild the estate, which had fallen into a state of disrepair.

Cristiano began his presentation with some basic information about the Douro region, which he states is a "special place" in northeast Portugal. The Douro is protected from the sea and possesses lots of biodiversity. Grape growing began in the western section, the Baixo Corgo, first and then proceeded east, to the Cima Corgo and finally the Douro Superior. The Douro Superior, which is located near the Spanish border, is tougher to reach as the river isn't as easily navigable and less than 20% of the vineyards in the Douro are located in this region. The Douro region has harsh winters (though not as harsh as Boston) and hot summers. The soil is mainly schist, a slate-like metamorphic rock, that is rich in nutrients and possesses good water retention abilities. 2011 is supposed to have been the greatest vintage in the 21st century.

Quinta Vale D. Maria, which began with about 19 hectares, now encompasses approximately 31 hectares of vineyards, having purchased a few additional vineyards since 1996. In 2003, they bought the CV-Curriculum Vitae vineyard, which includes 6 hectares of vines (with an average age of 80 years) and olive trees, and grow about 20 different grape varieties. In 2004, as a gift to his Francisca for her 18th birthday, they purchased the Vinha da Francisca, about five hectares of 10 year old vines, growing five grapes, Touriga Nacional, Touriga France, Tinta Francisca, Sousao and Rufete. Finally, they acquired the Vinha do Rio, a vineyard that is the closest and lowest to the River Torto that runs through the estate. It encompasses only 2 hectares, growing about 20 grapes with an average age of 100 years.

They engage in organic viticulture, use horse plows and hand harvest all of their grapes. Grape selection is very important to them and they use a second selection on the selecting table. All of their red grapes are first foot-trodden in lagares, and for some the treading is then carried on by robots for another four hours. For their Ports and Single Quinta Douro DOC red wines, full fermentation occurs in the lagares. These wines are true labors of love. They still purchase some grapes though they make a number of single vineyard wines too.

Personally, Cristiano loves the diversity of wine, stating he would "hate to drink the same wine all the time" and that even the "same pleasure all the time gets routine." That is certainly a sentiment I fully support and have often encouraged people to be adventurous, expand their palate and taste all of the vast diversity in the wine industry. Cristiano also mentioned that he is under "no pressure to conform to public trends/tastes." He just tries to produce the best wines he can each year. To Cristiano, "Greatness of wine is how it is perceived at the moment and how it makes you feel." That is probably one of the best definitions of "greatness" in wine I've seen.

We began our tasting with four vintages of the Quinta Vale d. Maria Douro Red, a wine made from a field blend of 40 indigenous grapes, vines averaging about 60 years. Cristiano seeks a balance for the grapes, which is a challenge as each year the grapes are different. This wine is usually aged for 20-22 months in 65%-75% new French oak. The wine has an excellent aging potential, at least twenty years, and it could age longer but they don't have sufficient experience with a longer period. The wine sells for about $70 retail, and is locally distributed by M.S. Walker.

The four vintages we tasted included 2006, 2009, 2011, & 2013, and Cristiano commented that 2006 & 2013 were cooler years. As a general observation, all of these wines, including the oldest, seemed relatively fresh, with lots of life in them. They were all complex and intriguing, with notes of black cherry, blackberry, ripe plum, a hint of eucalyptus, and a strong, spicy backbone. The tannins were restrained though the 2009 and 2013 were more muscular wines. All of these wines would probably be best paired with food, especially beef, wild boar, game meats or other hearty dishes. The 2006 was the clear winner of the four, being more elegant and throughly impressive, the type of "wow" wine which will make you savor each compelling sip.

We then moved onto four Vintage Ports, from 2003, 2007, 2009, & 2014. These Ports are made from a field blend of more than 25 indigenous grapes, from vines aged 25-60 years old. The wines are aged in ancient (more than 100 years old) oak and chestnut wood Port casks, as well as small stainless steel vats, for about 18 months. You should decant these Ports for at least a day before, though the older the vintage, the less you need to decant. Cristiano stated that the 2003 & 2007 vintages should age the longest.

All four of these Ports were excellent, delicious and complex. They too possessed a nice freshness to them, with plenty of primary fruit flavors, both red and black fruits, from cherry to plum. The colors of these ports was rich and dark, each with alluring aromas which will seduce you into sampling them. The 2014 and 2007 were the more powerful of the four, though certainly not overwhelming so, and they also seemed less sweet than the other two vintages. Each vintage had its own unique character so it was fascinating to compare the different vintages. My favorite of the group was the 2007, which was so complex and well balanced, and each sip brought something new to my palate. However, you wouldn't go wrong with any of these Ports.

Finally, we tasted Ports from 1970 and 1870, though neither of these was ever registered as a single vintage wines and will never be sold as such. These are Colheitas, made in a single year and aged for at least seven years in the barrel, though they can often spend much longer in the barrel. Cristiano noted that you should chill old Ports like a white wine. Interestingly, the darker colored of these two Ports was the older, the 1870. Though Ports lose their color over time, there comes a point when that changes, and they actually get darker.

The 1970 Port still had a freshness to it, and was full bodied, with a mild sweetness, plenty of complexity and a lengthy finish. There were interesting flavors of caramel, dried fruit and cedar, with mild herbal accents. As for the 1870 Port, it had a bit of a musty aroma that began to dissipate with time. It was more savory than sweet, still with plenty of complexity and a lingering finish. There were more dried fruit and spice flavors, with notes of herbs, caramel and salted nuts. A fascinating Port which is still very much alive despite it being nearly 150 years old. It was a true pleasure to get to taste this Port and mere words cannot do justice to it.

Let me end on a note of beauty. Francisca wants to be a writer, mentioning that "Port is the greatest poetry in wine." Certainly an intriguing thought. She also put together a compelling short video about the winery, Quinta Vale D. Maria - Unique Vines and Music, which you should watch above. The video shows the fine beauty of the estate as well as Francisca's poetic language. There is nothing more for me to say.

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