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.
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.