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
Back in 1981, when the Cape Winemakers’ Guild was first formed, the South African wine scene was very different to how it is today. One of the founder members of the CWG, Kevin Arnold of Waterford Estate, recalls how the organization began as a way for isolated winemakers in the Cape to share knowledge and taste more widely. The inaugural meeting consisted of just five winemakers tasting through all five Bordeaux first growths. Since then, the CWG has grown, the South African wine industry has matured, and it is now a multifaceted winemakers’ association. As well as the high profile auction of CWG wines held each year, there are monthly meetings where the members get together and taste and discuss. And there’s also a mentoring aspect where young winemakers are helped along their journey by more experienced colleagues.
Yesterday we met at Berry Brothers and Rudd to taste through a selection of the auction wines. The tasting was led by Miles Mossop, the chair of the CWG, with support from Kevin Arnold, Rianie Strydom, and Boela Gerber. Here’s a short film of the tasting, including interviews with the winemakers who explain how the CWG works, how they select the wines they enter, and what it means to them to be members of this organization.
On happiness. Some thoughts prompted by someone asking me how they could be happier, when they were feeling miserable.
Are you happy?
Happiness is something we all strive for.
But we don’t find it by looking for it. Happiness is rarely gained through its pursuit.
We can make choices, though, that make it more likely to happen. Just as we might prepare a flowerbed before sowing seeds, we can create the conditions in our lives that encourage happiness to grow. But just as with a seed, its growth is beyond our control.
One of the problems is that the map our culture gives us, showing the way to happiness, is flawed. We follow it as well as we can and then we are surprised when we end up in the wrong place. We question ourselves; we feel upset; but we never question the map.
Another metaphor. So often, our struggle to attain happiness resembles someone wrestling with the assembly of complex flat-pack furniture. Several hours of cursing and frustration precede the realization that they have the wrong set of instructions.
Often we think of happiness as being the result of arriving at a particular destination. The present is merely a journey taking us to these various destinations. But the journey is where most happiness is to be found: living in the present. Sometimes the destination doesn’t matter. True happiness is fuelled by the joy of simple things. As we engage fully in the present, and savour the immediate, happiness often follows.
To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, life moves pretty fast, and we need to take time to stop and look around, or we will miss out. We need to live in the present. This is reflected in the oft-expressed sentiment that we’d like time to stand still: we’d like to engage more fully with what is happening right now for us.
One factor that fuels happiness is a sense of gratitude, which leads to contentment. This sounds horridly trite and pious, I know, but if we are thankful for what we have, rather than focusing on what we think we lack, then we are in such a better place. Being content with our lot does not preclude healthy ambition and desire; it’s just such a more solid foundation to build on.
A further contributor is recognizing and moving with the seasons in our lives. Nothing is forever, and we cannot preserve the present, however hard we try. Things change. Knowing that our life is built of seasons – some longer, some shorter – is wise and healthy. It helps us to put everything in perspective. We need to learn to recognize the season we are in and to be prepared to move on as the seasons change, letting go of what we need to let go in order to grasp what comes next. Change is not to be feared, nor is it to be pursued for its own sake. But we need to welcome it as a friend at the right time.
We often say one thing but actually believe another. What we believe is best discerned not from our words, but our actions. Many people say that they don’t think money brings happiness, but then their behaviour suggests that this is exactly what they believe to be true: they spend their time and make choices to maximize income, even when it forces them to take a job that makes them miserable, or which leaves no room for leisure or family. A great example of this would be wealthy people who become tax exiles but end up not being free to live where they really want to. Of course, being poor doesn’t make you happy, and having financial worries can make you miserable. But many people strive for more money because they have upgraded their lifestyles, not because they haven’t got enough to live on.
This is a wine blog, so I should mention wine. Does wine make you happy? It’s hard to answer. If you were miserable and alone, then opening a bottle of wine might not be a great idea: you might end up dwelling in your misery. Good wine – wine that engages us and makes us think a bit – can certainly help us shed inhibitions and think more widely. Shared with friends, I think it complements the uplift we get from positive social situations. We are social beings, and a lot of the unhappiness in the world stems from loneliness and social isolation. If wine can help create positive social situations, then it can contribute to happiness. I find great joy in sharing bottles with friends, and they joy is greater is the wine is interesting enough for us to talk about it.
So, happiness. It comes along once in a while. It can be persuaded to visit. Sometimes it stays for a while. If we are grateful, wise, and live in the present, and understand the sorts of things we really need (rather than just think we do), it is more likely to be at home with us.