We arrived at Vale Dona Maria late afternoon in a torrential downpour. A rather sodden Cristiano Van Zeller walked over to us and greeted us warmly. It was nice to be back: this is the third time I’ve visited in four years. It’s a beautiful spot, and Cristiano purchased it from his wife’s family back in 1996 when it had just 10 hectares of old vines.
The first few wines weren’t made here; the 1999 was the first made at the property. Now the vineyard area has been extended, and Cristiano now has 50 hectares that are owned or leased long term, with 5 of those white. Quinta Vale Dona Maria itself has 28 hectares of vines. There are over 40 different varieties planted here.
Granite lagares full of fermenting red wine
There are changes afoot in the winery. Cristiano is in the process of expanding his lagares so that he can ferment all his premium reds this way. The lagar, a shallow-sided fermentation vessel, was designed to allow for foot treading to get rapid yet gentle extraction for Port wines. The advantage for fermenting table wines in them is the large surface to volume ratio, which means that there’s a more even and more rapid extraction from the skins. Granite is important, because of the friction (which helps extraction), and because it keeps an even temperature throughout. His lagares are fitted with cooling.
All the premium reds here go through lagares. The expanded capacity will mean that he can do the whole of fermentation for all these wines in lagar. He has conducted trials for a few years and the wines made from lagar are so much better, he’s convinced it’s the way to go.
A white wine started as a Port (foot treading with fermentation on skins) and then taken to barrel to ferment to dryness.
Increasingly, he’s taking a parcel approach. ‘I look at the Douro as Burgundy with little parcels,’ says Cristiano. ‘Each parcel makes wine with its own character. Identifying those parcels is the fun of what we do here.’ He also notes that he’s getting a higher price for the smaller volumes of parcel wine. ‘That’s why we have the Burgundian bottle: it’s more the idea of a domaine than a château. I get more fun out of it and I get more money out of it.’
How’s 2016? Cristiano describes it as ‘the most difficult vintage I’ve experienced in 35 years.’ Even though there have been worse vintages, at least it was clear they were bad early on. 2016 has had a confusing, complicated growing season. But some good wines will result. ‘I’m happy with it,’ he adds, although it’s 45% down in quantity.
The wines? I like them quite a bit. In the past there’s been a touch of over-ripeness and some generous oak regime that’s not my cup of tea, but the new releases show balance and a fair bit of elegance. The CV Branco in 2015 is a lovely wine, as is the Vinha de Martin 2015 from the quinta. They are potentially quite serious and will repay ageing. The Vale Dona Maria 2014 tinto is ready for bottling but not yet bottled, and this shows intensity and some tannic structure. It’s fresh and quite dense, and will be very good indeed. The 2014 Vinha da Francisca, from vines planted in 2014 with half Sousão is really good, with power and elegance, and nice freshness. Aromatic and vital, this is serious stuff. Vinho do Rio is more expensive, but it’s denser and riper, hence I prefer the Francisca. I also really liked the VZ Vintage Port 2014, which is vivid and powerful with great intensity.
Cristiano has been focusing on Douro table wines since he started here in 1996, and has been an important part of this transition movement. ‘If it weren’t for the Douro revolution with the pioneers of Douro wines, the region would be in huge trouble,’ he says.
We had dinner, accompanied with a magnum of the Quinta do Vale Dona Maria 2010. At age six, this wine is just hitting its stride. It was a lovely visit.
I was recently asked some questions (quite good ones) by someone researching a book. It took a while to answer, so I thought I’d share the responses here.
1) Tell me about your life before your wine blog. What was going on in your personal and professional life that led you to this project? Did you try other projects before this became a hit?
I was working as a science editor and I developed a wine habit. Then along came the internet: this would have been 1996/7, I guess. It was the done thing for people to start hobby sites on platforms like Geocities. So I did. I started a site called New World of Wine, and this then morphed into wine anorak. I registered the domain name in November 1999 and then started my hosted site shortly after. The blog aspect to the site began in 2001, and so in wine blogging terms it was the second, after Joe Dressner, as far as I know. At the time bulletin boards were very active, and hanging around bulletin boards was a really good intensive education in wine. So it has been this project pretty much from the beginning, and it has just kept growing.
2) The Internet is so noisy and crowded. What is special about you that resonates with people? If you had to describe that “it factor” in 1-2 sentences what would it be? Did you know this strength from the beginning or was it a process of discovery?
If I have some success, I reckon it’s because I have a distinctive voice. I’m aiming to write about the wines that I like, and I’m honest. I reckon the only people going on wine sites are those who are quite committed wine nuts, so I’m writing for people like, and fortunately there are enough of them to make it a success. Authenticity resonates with people. I’m me: some people like me, some don’t. I hope that there’s a real connection with the people who read my work. I know it sounds like false modesty, but I’m just a dude who drinks rather too much wine and likes to talk about it.
3) The thing I like about your site is that it is obviously an expression of your talent and passion for wine but it has also found a sizable audience. What steps did you take to build your audience? What advice would you give to somebody trying to have your level of success?
I haven’t really taken any special steps, other than posting daily and making an effort to provide unique, useful content with a bit of a personal twist. I was lucky in that I arrived on the scene when there were far fewer voices out there. This enabled me to develop and grow without a lot of competition. Also, I didn’t have to make a living out of this at first, so that took the pressure off a bit. If I were starting out now it would be much more difficult, but not impossible. I’m wary of offering advice when I had first-mover advantage, because if I did the same now as I did back in 1999, I’m not sure the results would be the same. I’d also say, be prepared to do something different. Everyone follows all the rules and ends up in the same competitive space. If you end up there, you are just one of a crowd. What can you do that is different, and still uniquely you? What are you going to be known for? Why would someone read what you write rather than the many existing voices?
4) Tell me about the reward of doing this work. It could be financial, a sense of achievement, making a difference, etc. What fuels your emotion behind what you do and keeps you going?
First and foremost, it’s satisfying. To have an audience and a platform is not something I take for granted. I know how fortunate I am. I also make a living from doing what I do, and I need to keep making a living, so this keeps me motivated. I have to pay my own way, and I work only in wine. Really, though, I just love wine and have an immense curiosity. If I lost this, then I’d have to find something else to do. For this sort of field – geeky wine talk – then that over-used term ‘passion’ counts for a very great deal. If you aren’t excited about something, then why would your readers be interested?
5) What one piece of advice would you give to a person who wants to be known for something on the web? What was the major lesson you have learned that could help others?
Perseverance. Lots of people have talent, and few convert that talent into something meaningful. So decide to do something, and persevere. If a project fails, don’t let it be from not having tried hard enough, and kept going long enough. Some projects will fail and you have to move on to something else. But there’s nothing sadder than seeing a media project die a slow death before its time.
Vale Meão is an important property in the Douro Superior. It traces its history as a Quinta back to the end of the late 19th century, when Dona Antónia Ferreira was the first to plant vineyards in this part of the Douro. It was a difficult time for the regional council, and to raise funds, the local council auctioned off some land here. She bought some 53 parcels of common land between 1877 and 1879, which she promptly leased until 1886. In all, these parcels totalled 300 hectares.
She began developing the quinta in 1887, and started planting the first grafted vines two years later (remember, phylloxera had recently hit the region). While the purchase price was relatively low, the cost of establishing vineyards here was high because it was so labour intensive, and this was such a remote region. The granite stones from which the winery and home are constructed were transported 50 km by ox cart, for example. But choosing to plant vines here proved to be a wise move, because it is a very interesting place for growing top quality wine grapes. In large part this is because the soils are mixed: unlike in the rest of the region, which is schist, there’s granite here, too, plus a few more alluvial sites.
The Barca Velha winery
Dona Antónia’s descendants carried on running the quinta, and the grapes were used mainly to make Ports for the family-owned house of Ferreira. The big exception was Barca Velha, which was the first serious table wine to come from the Douro, first made in 1952. This Ferreirra wine was made at Vale Meão, and the original Barca Velha winery is currently being renovated for Port production.
We met with Xito Olazabal, who’s the winemaker here and son of Vito Olazabal, who decided in 1999 to begin to make table wines and ports under the Vale Meão label, after the family sold the Ferreira Port house and took back their quinta. The results have been really impressive, with the Quinta Vale Meão wine truly one of the first growths of the region.
Harvest 2016 was underway (20% was in), and we looked at a range of wines from 2016, with some near to completing fermentation, and others just beginning. We tasted a Rufete, with lots of freshness, a Cornifesto, rustic and intense, a deep-coloured Tinto Cão, and two as yet unfermented juices from the lagar: Tourigas Franca and Nacional, both so different. We also tasted a partially fermented Baga, which was interesting, structured and so fresh.
When it came to a tasting of finished wines, vertical tastings of 2011-2014 of both the Vale Meão and the Meandro were really interesting. All the wines were really good, but 2014 is clearly a very good vintage. The 2014 Vale Meão in particular is a very serious wine. While the quinta wine is rightly expensive, Meandro is one of the best values in the wine world. It’s serious and age worthy, as a bottle of the 2002, a terrible vintage in the region, showed when it was served at lunch.
Also worth looking out for is the Monte Meão Baga, and the Monte Meão Touriga Nacional. These are both very serious wines with distinctive personalities, from granite terroirs on the property. There’s also a Monte Meão Tinta Roriz, from alluvial soils, which is rich, dense and very attractive.
Looking down on the Barca Velha winery from the chapel
I’m in the Douro. It’s 0720 and from where I’m sitting I have a view of the Douro river, looking out from my room at Quinta do Vallado’s new luxury hotel Casa do Rio. And it’s pouring with rain. Normally, rain at harvest time would be a disaster, but it has been really dry here, and as long as it’s just for a short while, and clears up, then the vines could do with a bit of a drink.
We’re in the Douro Superior, just 15 km from the Spanish border. There used to be very few vineyards in this part of the Douro. It was remote, and without irrigation it was very difficult to establish vines in this arid, hot part of the valley. The main crops were cereals, almonds and olives.
On the left bank of the river here, there has been a recent flurry of activity. Close to Castelo Melhor, where Casa de Rio is located, there are now quite a few vineyards: João Ramos’ Duorum, Crasto’s Douro Superior vineyards, JM Cazes has a place here, and Quinta da Leda is just a couple of kilometres away.
Rita and João
We visited with co-owner and ex-investment banker João Ferreira Álvares Ribeiro and his wife Rita. They are in love with this place, and it’s easy to see why. Walking through the vineyards in the evening as the light is just beginning to fade, it’s hard not to feel a sense of peace.
Vallado have established a vineyard of some 30 hectares here, but to do this, they had to negotiate with around 30 owners of small plots. João describes this as ‘complicated.’ He refers to these as ‘psychological negotiations,’ where there’s always one person who wants a bit more for their land, but if you offer it, all the other negotiations collapse. They are to plant another 10 hectares over the coming years. The vineyards here are farmed organically, which is quite rare for the Douro.
Casa do Rio is João’s second hotel project. The first was at Vallado itself, on the banks of the Corgo River as it meets the Douro. His initial vision was to start a small hotel there as part of a brand-building exercise: while Vallado had been in the family for 300 years, it had previously sold all its grapes to Ferreira, the Port house owned by the same family. When Ferreira was sold, then it was time to start thinking about establishing Vallado in its own right as a wine brand.
This went well, and then in 2012 they built a new building, which houses a 13 room luxury hotel. Casa do Rio was opened in 2014, and this has six rooms in the sympathetically designed main hotel building, plus a further two in renovated schist-walled buildings slightly below. There’s also an infinity pool, two small plunge pools, and a garden. All the rooms look out over the vineyards to the Douro.
Tourism in the Douro is really taking off, and since May they have had 100% occupancy. ‘This industry is very demanding,’ says João. ‘It’s a lot of details. There is a different problem every single day.’ One of the things they’ve got right here is the kitchen. Because of the locaton, pretty much all the guests dine here. João is pleased that for somewhere quite a long way from everywhere, they’ve managed to get a really good chef. ‘You need someone who understands cooking, works with good ingredients, and cooks with love.’
We had a range of Vallado wines with dinner. The Prima 2015 is a bright, dry refreshing Moscatel with lovely focus and purity. Two surprises were a pair from 2007: the regular white and the Moscatel. These would have been inexpensive unoaked wines, but they’ve aged really nicely. Then we had the relatively serious, textured Reserva Branco 2015, which is really good. On the red front, Sousão 2008 was in a very good place: focused, irony and grippy with nice black cherry fruit. João says that in the Douro wines, ‘we must fight the over-richness; we must look for some austerity.’ I agree. The 2012 Reserva Tinto is in a very good place, too, with some softness to the structure, and spice-framed black fruits.
Then it was time to finish with two rather nice aged tawnies: the 20 yo and 40 yo, both of which shone. Now I’ve finished my blog post, and it’s still tipping down. I hope we can get out OK on the unmade roads up the hill.
I caught up with Adi Badenhorst at Intrepid last week. He’s got some new wines out. Two in particular really appealed to me: a flor-aged Sauvignon Blanc called John Strikes Again from Under a Veil of Good Fortune, and a stunning Chenin Blanc called Dassiekop Steen.
Here’s the interview:
And notes on the wines:
Badenhorst John Strikes Again From Under a Veil of Good Fortune NV Swartland, South Africa
This is a bit crazy but wonderful. It’s a Sauvignon Blanc aged under a layer of flor. Wonderfully aromatic with fresh, salty green apple, cheese and nut flavours. It’s quite saline with lively herb and cheese notes on the finish. A beautiful, delicious wine. 94/100
Badenhorst Dassiekop Steen 2015 Swartland, South Africa
A single-vineyard Chenin Blanc. Old vines. Floral, exotic and spicy with fresh apple and citrus on the nose with hints of tangerine. Powerful and textured on the palate with herbs, cheese and straw complexity as well as some anise notes. Powerful and complex, this should age beautifully. 96/100
I love this wine so much. I had it with Doug Wregg at Terroirs. It’s Chenin Blanc at its best.
Thierry Germain Domaine des Roches Neuves Clos Romans Saumur 2012 Loire, France
Chenin Blanc on tufa (limestone). Very spicy, smoky and linear with a hint of hay and bright lemony acidity. Such precision here with amazing linear acidity. There’s some anise and apple character, too. Profound and very long. 95/100
Duncan Savage was until recently the winemaker at Cape Point. He made a great reputation there, coaxing profound, mineral, saline white wines with proper ageing potential from these interesting, exposed terroirs. A few years back he began his own project, Savage Wines, in tandem with his day job. Earlier this year, he decided to strike out alone, leaving Cape Point to focus solely on Savage Wines. Current production is 20 000 bottles of four wines, but Duncan is looking to grow this to 40 000 bottles of six wines within a year or two.
‘We need to scale up,’ he says. ‘We have kept it quite small initially. We’re focusing entirely on the parcels we’ve had from day 1: we are just trying to grow these up a bit. The idea is not to grow too much, though. The most important thing is that we maintain the style.’
He doesn’t want to compromise the wines he’s making, and vineyard sources for the right sort of grapes will be the limiting factor. One of the vineyards he sources from in Villiersdorp (Clairette Blanche, for the Savage White) has been ripped out by the owner, because they can get more money growing apples than these grapes. This is a big threat for many old vineyards in the Cape: the economics of low yielding vines don’t stack up for the growers. The latest releases are really lovely, especially the thrilling Follow The Line. I’ve also included notes here from the previous time I tasted the wines.
Savage White 2015 Western Cape, South Africa
Mostly Sauvignon with a bit of Clairette Blanche and some Chenin Blanc. Very focused, textural and fresh, but with some richness. Subtle toast, quince and ripe apple in the background. This is a wine that has some generosity and richness, but which stays fresh and focused with a nice bright finish. Give it a few years and it will be amazing, I reckon. 94/100
Savage Red 2014 Western Cape, South Africa
This is two thirds Syrah with the balance Grenache, Cinsault and Touriga Nacional. Sappy, lively, aromatic nose with black cherries and raspberries. There’s also a savoury stony spiciness. The palate is juicy and complex with sweet cherries and plums. Fruity and fresh with nice tannins and a slightly more savoury edge in this vintage. Needs time? 93/100
Savage Follow The Line 2015 Western Cape, South Africa
This is two-thirds Cinsualt with the balance Grenache and Syrah. Wonderful nose: fresh, sappy and mineral with red cherries, plums and wet rocks. The palate is so pure and fine with raspberry and cherry fruit details. Sanguine, sappy and textural, this is really Pinot-like. Brilliant stuff. 95/100
Savage White 2014 Western Cape, South Africa
27% Semillon and 73% Sauvignon. Wonderful aromas of fennel, pear and spice. Lovely concentration here with real spiciness and some detail. Real finesse with power and concentration, and mandarin and grapefruit notes. 95/100
Savage ‘The Girl Next Door’ Syrah 2014 Cape Peninsular, South Africa
This is from 0.4 hectares of Syrah in dandy gravel, from 8 year old vines. There’s a taut, reductive edge to the nose. Fresh, supple and juicy this has bright raspberry and cherry fruit, with lovely savoury, grippy structure. Wild, with a bit of reduction, but really serious with amazing potential for development. 96/100
Here’s a short video interview with Duncan, where I ask him about quitting the day job to go it alone, what happens next, and the stylistic choices he makes with his wines:
A real-time tasting note on this wine, which is in my glass now. It’s an older Alsace Riesling. From a very warm vintage, this is a dry-styled Riesling from Sipp-Mack. Sealed with a screw cap, this is fresher and brighter than I was expecting. It’s a really nice wine.
Sipp-Mack Riesling Tradition 2009 Alsace, France
13% alcohol. Aromatic and bright this has lovely flavours of smoked lemons, grapefruit, pear and ripe apple. It’s dry, juicy and focused with a hint of toast, but the dominant flavour is lively lemon fruit. There’s a crystalline quality to the fruit, and a bit of grip alongside the pretty grapefruit and apricot hints. There’s a lovely linear core to this wine, as well as a faint creamy hint. It repays attention. I’d never guess this as seven year old Alsace Riesling. A nice surprise. 91/100
I visited Folding Hill, in the Bendigo sub-region of Central Otago, back in January 2014. It’s the project of two medical folk, emergency doctor Tim Kerruish and his wife Nikki, a bio ethicist. The wines are really good. Here’s my review of a couple of recent releases.
Folding Hill Pinot Noir 2014 Bendigo, Central Otago, New Zealand
14.2% alcohol. Fresh and aromatic with lovely floral, slightly sappy cherry fruit on the nose. The palate is juicy and focused with a nice grainy savouriness and hints of pepper and warm herbs, as well as a bit of dusty dryness. Lovely balance here between the ripe fruit and the nice savoury dimension. Should age really nicely, even though it’s delicious now. 93/100
Folding Hill Pinot Noir Orchard Block 2013 Bendigo, Central Otago, New Zealand
14.2% alcohol. Destemmed, wild ferment, 20 months in barrel. Concentrated and dense with a cedary, spicy underpinning to the ripe cherry and blackberry fruit. Has freshness but also structure and some savoury oak influence. Grippy and detailed with firm tannins and a dusty, savoury edge to the fruit. Quite closed right now, but with lots of potential for the future. Give it a few years before popping the cork, and it will get a higher rating. 93/100
Tried these lovely, distinctive Champagnes yesterday at the Red Squirrel (UK importer) tasting. They are from a small grower from Cuchery in the Marne, Champagne A. Levasseur, which since 2003 has been run by David Levasseur (pictured above). This is Pinot Meunier country, and his main cuvée is largely based on Meunier.
Since David took over he’s grown the vineyard holdings to 4.2 hectares, spread over 18 plots in the villages of Cuchery, Châtillon-sur-Marne and Fleury-la-Rivière. He farms these plots sustainably, making use of data to time interventions, and he also uses organic fertlizers and allows grass to grow in some of the rows. The wines are distinctive and flavourful.
‘A’ stands for David’s grandfather, Albert, who set the house up in the 1940s.
Champagne A. Levasseur Rue de Sorbier Brut NV France
80% Pinot Meunier, 15% Pinot Noir, 5% Chardonnay. Dosage 9 g/litre. Made from vines planted in 1973. This wine is three years old. Very fresh, apply, textured and lively with some nuts and marzipan as well as the distinctive fruity characters that Meunier imparts. Flavourful and detailed with nice weight. 92/100
Champagne A. Levasseur Rue de Sorbier Brut Nature NV France
80% Pinot Meunier, 15% Pinot Noir, 5% Chardonnay. Same blend but no dosage, and this is four years old. Very fresh, lively and herby with tight lemon and apple fruit. So detailed with real finesse. Bright, pithy and complex. 92/100
Champagne A. Levasseur Blanc de Terroir Extra Brut NV France
Chardonnay from young vines (2003 and 2007 plantings). Complex, powerful, lively and pithy with concentrated citrus and pear fruit. Lovely flavours of nuts, spices and herbs. This has depth, freshness and vitality all at the same time. 94/100
Champagne A. Levasseur Noir de Terroir Extra Brut NV France
This is from the 2011 vintage, and it’s 100% Pinot Noir. Lovely ripe cherry and pear fruit with some fresh lemons. Detailed, pure and complex with intense flavours and lots going on. 93/100
Champagne A. Levasseur Extrait Gourmand Rosé Brut NV France
10 g/l dosage. Pale pink, this shows apples and pears with a bit of cherry fruit. Fresh and detailed with nice focus and a smooth mouthfeel. 91/100