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.
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.
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.