Quinta do Crasto is one of the most beautiful properties in the Douro, perched on a steeply sloped promontory sticking out from the right bank of the Douro, in the heart of the Cima Corgo.
We parked our rental car in Pinhão and caught the train to Ferrão. It’s a 7 minute ride along the bank of the river; by car, it’s a tricky 25 minute journey through some scary roads that go up and down the hills and through the middle of Covas de Douro. At Pinhão station, one of the famous tile graphics shows Crasto as it used to be in the 19th Century (it’s labelled a Quinta at Ferrão), and later that day we were to ascend the vineyards on the hill behind, which have been developed by Crasto, to catch pretty much the same view.
The vineyards here are pretty special. As you look down at the property, towards the river, the steeply sloped terraces to the left flank of the Quinta are a special old block called Vinha Maria Theresa. It’s 4.7 hectares, and by later afternoon it’s in shade. There are 49 different varieties here, and they are harvested in three pickings. They know how many because they have done a research project in which each vine (28 000 of them) is geotagged, and then DNA is taken to identify them. This research project has thrown up a couple of previously unknown varieties. In good years, Maria Theresa is bottled separately, as is the 1.9 hectare old vine Vinha da Ponte block just up the hill.
Crasto has been an important player in the table wine revolution. David Baverstock, ex-pat Australian winemaker, was involved at the beginning (1994 was the first vintage of the table wine era here), and he played an important but often forgotten role in the beginnings of the modern table wine scene. He brought in fellow Aussie Dominic Morris as consultant, and then Dominic hired Susana Esteban to work alongside him. The current winemaker is Manuel Lobos, who’s been here for seven years. He was previously at Quinta do Côtto, one of the even earlier pioneers of Douro table wines.
Crasto has 90 hectares at the Quinta, and also 114 hectares at Quinta da Cabrera in the Douro Superior, a project started in 2002, with the first vines planted in 2004. This runs for 2.5 km along the left bank of the Douro from Castelo Melhor. To keep the vines watered at Cabrera it’s necessary to pump 1 million litres a day from the river, which is distributed via 17 km of drip lines.
We took a ride to the top of the property, passing through the older plantings of Touriga Nacional (from the 1970s; the old vineyards were field blends and had very little of this star variety). Then we saw where new plantings of whites were going in, at the top of the hill where it’s much cooler.
Crasto wines have been known for their ripeness and reliance on oak in the past, but there are some signs that this is changing, at least for some of the wines. Lobo is a talented, thoughtful winemaker. ‘It’s very easy to have a wine in the Douro with high alcohol, lots of colour and also rusticity,’ he says. ‘We try to understand balance and preserve freshness.’ He recognises the excesses of former times. ‘I think in the past Douro wines had too much extraction. Crasto wines are big with oak, but one of my concerns is to have a wine of freshness from the entry level to the top wine.’ He adds, ‘In the Douro we have so many things to discover still.’
The Crasto Superior wines are impressive, with lots of focus on fruit and with plenty of freshness. Lobo uses acacia heads on the barrels for the whites, to tighten the wines up a bit and give less obvious oak character. He also uses the oxoline system, which allows battonage without opening the barrel simply by rolling it to suspend the lees. The reds have a lovely floral perfume and the oak is very much in the background.
Of the estate wines, I find the Reserva Old Vines still a little too oaky and ripe, although newer vintages seem more focused than older. The star of the tasting, though, was the Maria Theresa 2007, which shows just what a top old vineyard can achieve. It’s rich, but it’s fresh and elegant. The Ports are also good here, and this is an increasing emphasis of Crasto, as with some of the other Douro boys who made their reputation first with table wines.