This will be long… get something to drink now, for preference Ramos Pinto’s 10 year old tawny Quinta de Ervamoira so you will be able to taste what I will be talking about.
Thursday morning I made a rather epic journey to Pocinho from Regua – the winter rains have damaged the railway line, so at Tua the train ground to a halt and we took a bus to Pocinho. More about that later. This article will focus on Ramos Pinto’s Quinta de Ervamoira, and I will post another shortly about the Muxagat vineyards and winery, as well as the trip up and back.
At Pocinho, I was met by Mateus Nicolau de Almeida. For 24 hours he and his wife Teresa Ameztoy showed me the Vale de Foz Côa, and explained much to me about the terroirs and vineyards of the area and the wines they each make.
The Douro Superior
Before I describe all that, first, I think you need to understand a little Douro Superior viticultural history and geography, so you can really appreciate what they are doing. I’m not knocking the hard work involved in being a viticulteur and wine maker in say, Burgundy or Bordeaux, where the vineyards as vineyards have existed for a few lifetimes if not centuries, but to understand the Douro Superior especially, you have to understand that these vineyards, the physical cleared spaces, plants, posts and all, have only been created by this generation or the prior, in most cases.
Behold, at long last, I have cobbled together a map of the Douro:
It’s 128 km or 80 miles in a straight line from the coast to Foz Côa, and another 20 km or so to the border with Spain. The deep green along the river up to and around Regua, for example, is 50 – 200 metres elevation (165 to 670 feet aprox), the next lighter shade – along the Douro beyond Pinhão and in fingers along the tributary rivers and in the Vale de Côa – is between 200 to 500 metres (670 to 1,670 feet), and the next palest shade – most of the area away from the Douro river especially to the south – is 500 to 1000 metres (1,670 to 3,340 feet). The Serra do Marão range runs roughly north/south just west of Regua – you can see a couple patches of lightest colour (over 1000 metres) left of and above the word Iberian.
17th and 18th century port wines drew their grapes from the Douro only as far as Regua, more or less (and I do know I am glossing over a lot of history and factual detail in that statement, but I’m trying to keep this pithy). This was force of sheer geography – travel from Porto over the Serra do Marão was difficult, to put it mildly. The river was really the most direct means of transport, and was used to bring the wine from the vineyards down to Porto and Gaia, but steep rapids and flooding made it difficult and unreliable.
Most of the oldest quintas are therefore late 18th and 19th century creations, clustered in the Cima Corgo, between Regua and Pinhão. One significant exception is the Quinta de Roriz, just beyond Pinhão – roughly where the “A” is in the word “Peninsula” on the map above – which was founded in the early 18th century. Tellingly, the quinta seems to have begun life as a shooting estate, and the vineyards came shortly after. At the very end of the 18th century a major rapids upriver from Tua (at a point roughly half way between 1 & 2 on the map above) was cleared allowing marginally less risky travel further up river. Quinta de Vargellas and Quinta do Vesuvio (numbers 1 & 2 respectively) were established in the early 19th century, and Quinta do Vale do Meão tucked into the meander of the river at 3 was founded near the end of 19th century. Most of the 20th century was sufficiently challenging to the port trade that it seems not much more expansion was undertaken until the 70s or so.
Bear in mind also: up until that point – mid-late 20th century – vineyards were planted in terraces; the labour logistics and costs of creating these terraces slowed development in the 20th century. Also, most vineyards were planted with a mix of a dozen or more varieties as a way of hedging production bets, given the harsh weather and soils of the Douro.
The Creation of Quinta de Ervamoira
Which brings me to the real subject of this entry: Ramos Pinto’s Quinta de Ervamoira. I knew some of the story from reading, of course, but learned more from Mateus and Teresa. Mateus’ father, João Nicolau de Almeida, and late grand-uncle, José Ramos Pinto Rosas, were passionately determined to try to solve some of the production challenges in the Douro: mechanisation and optimal selection of grape varieties.
In the 70’s, João’s research on grape varieties resulted in a selection of 5 varieties best suited for production of port and still wines in the Douro: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. Notice the intention to further explore the production of still wines – it was João’s father who created Barca Velha, the first great non-fortified wine produced in the region, at Quinta do Vale do Meão.
At the same time, José was looking for a parcel of land to develop a quinta where they could address issues of mechanisation – mechanisation in this case referring primarily to the preparation of the vineyard sites. Soil in the Douro, especially at the western end, ain’t soil as you and I know it in our gardens – it’s solid rock, usually schist, and the upper layer of “soil” is simply rather more finely broken up schist. Like this:
That photo was taken at Monte Xisto (Schist Mountain), which is where Mateus grows most of the grapes for his Mux wines. That ledge is about as tall as I am, so you are looking at about 6 to 8 inches of more finely broken rock “soil” atop five feet of solid rock.
To create a vineyard in the Douro you have to first sculpt the raw hillside – traditionally into the stone-walled terraces called socalcos. The land had to be broken up, literally, with sledge hammers, crowbars or dynamite, to create something like soil, and then sculpted into the terraces for planting. The retaining walls were, as much as anything, somewhere to put away the slabs of stone that were being dislodged. In the 20th century the cost of the labour to create those walls (and therefore to create new vineyards) was untenable. Instead, at Quinta do Bom Retiro (opposite Pinhão, 4 on the map above) in the 60’s, Ramos Pinto pioneered patamares, terraces that were sculpted by bulldozer with angled faces called taludes, in lieu of stone walls. (You can read more about terraces and viticulture with lots of photos in the first article about my visit to Pinhão in early October.) The other problem with terraces is the yields – so little actual planting space is created in a given hectare of land, and some of the preferred grape varieties are inherently low-producing – that it becomes nearly uneconomic.
To address these issues, José studied military topographical maps of the Douro Superior and located a valley where the land was not quite as steeply angled as elsewhere. That valley is now Quinta de Ervamoira. Some of the land was in use for farming cereals, but much of it was wild. At the museum at the quinta there are two wonderful panoramic photos taken before and after the vineyards were created. The land was mechanically cleared and prepared for planting , but instead of sculpting it into terraces, it was shaped into smooth expanses, if still at rather steep angles, and planted in vinhas ao alto – vineyards planted vertically up (not across) the hills. Like this:
I made Mateus stop the car so I could take this photo, just after we entered Ervamoira. It is truly breathtaking – not only because the land is so incredibly beautiful but because it is so different a landscape from the Cima Corgo – more open, and whilst hardly “flat” in the sense of horizontal, it is flat in the sense of smooth, versus the jagged terraced lands elsewhere. The angles are in fact incredibly steep, as will be better seen shortly. Mateus and Teresa were both telling me how incredibly crazy are the men who drive the tractors in these vineyards – Mateus shook his head and said he wouldn’t even try it, it’s just too mad.
When José and João presented their research findings and plans at the University of Trás-os-Montes in 1981 it created an uproar in the viticultural community, as flying in the face of hundreds of years of tradition. Still, they were granted World Bank funding and began to create Ervamoira. So, in the 70’s and 80’s the Ramos Pinto families were breaking ground – literally in the landscape to create vinhas ao alto, the first trial at Quinta do Bom Retiro and then all of Quinta de Ervamoira, and figuratively with their viticultural research into preferred grape varieties, and the planting of the vineyards at Ervamoira in single-grape blocks.
The Threat To and Salvation Of Quinta de Ervamoira
Meanwhile… rumble of distant thunder… in the 60’s and 70’s the government and EDP, the electrical company, built three dams on the Douro. This made the Douro more navigable and created a way to mitigate flooding down river, with luckily fairly little loss of good viticultural land and little impact on the ecological balance of the area.
But in the 80’s EDP proposed another dam which would effectively have turned the Vale de Côa into a small lake – with potentially disastrous environmental impact and submerging hundreds of hectares of good land – including the Quinta de Ervamoira.
Protests were raised, but work was begun. In this case, the famously slow Portuguese bureaucracy worked in favour of those protesting the dam. Mateus said his father was appearing on TV pleading with the authorities, begging support from the public, describing the potential impact on the environment generally, but also the destruction of years of viticultural research and investment at Ervamoira. The authorities were inexorable, and work proceeded albeit slowly. João said nothing could save them now, but a miracle.
Thursday morning, Mateus took me first to an old schist quarry on a high bluff – Ervamoira and the Côa river are to the right from here, with the Douro to the left – if you look in the centre of the photo, where the near hill is dropping out of sight you can just see a line of concrete pillars along the crest of that hill – that was the beginning of the dam. In this photo you can’t really appreciate the sheer drop and depth of the valley between that pile of schist in the foreground and the far hillside, but trust me – it’s deep and broad, and it’s stunning.
A few weeks after one of João’s impassioned pleas on TV, the miracle occurred: archeologists discovered Paleolithic drawings engraved and etched on stones in the Côa river valley. The discovery of open-air paintings led to significant revisions of thinking about the lifestyle of Paleolithic man in 26,000 BC – it implied not all men were cave-men. It took some years of lobbying by the international scientific community before the Portuguese government and EDP finally capitulated in 1996 and cancelled the dam project, saving both the drawings and Quinta de Ervamoira. João was teasingly accused of going out every night to make a few more etchings to help his case, but the drawings are in fact all genuinely Paleolithic, and the area is now fully protected and designated as a Unesco Heritage of Mankind site. Archeological work continues, and has uncovered traces of Roman settlements, a basilica, and a medieval fortress.
A Visit to a Quarry and a Quinta
Now… recharge your glass and read on about my visit! As mentioned, Mateus took me first to an old abandoned schist quarry.
In the foreground is a pile of the blue schist which is typical of the Douro Superior – you don’t find it down river – and which was used for beautiful posts in the vinyards. In the background you can just see the Côa river in the fold of the mountains.
Part of the quarry now filled with rainwater. Mateus said to him it is like a cathedral, he loves this quarry and this whole area – and that was evident in every word he spoke, throughout my visit. The region has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, there is a quality I can’t really explain, an instinctual response to the magnificence and peace of the landscape. I do think there are places on earth that are intrinsically sacred, nothing to do with mankind or organised religion, and the Vale de Côa feels like one.
From the quarry we met Teresa and went on to Quinta de Ervamoira. Teresa is a winemaker from Rioja, and is João Nicolau de Almeida’s assistant in the Douro, focussed on the making of the Ramos Pinto table wines. A cousin of Mateus’ works with João in Gaia on making the port wines.
As we drove into the Quinta de Ervamoira, we stopped to look more closely at one of the vineyards. This give you a better sense of the angle of the vinyards (that’s Mateus). Notice the wide spacing to allow the tractors to pass between rows of vines (more on the tractors to come!).
If you are wondering about the little white wrappers on each vine they are protection for grafts made last year.
Twenty years ago this vinyard was planted with a number of French and Italian grape varieties, to trial their performance in the Douro. The conclusion was that they did not produce quality grapes in this environment, and so the vines were cut down and Viosinho grafted into the rootstock last spring. They will be able to harvest and make wines from the grapes this year – it is the age and establishment of the foot and root system of the vine that determines quality. This photo was taken at around 200 meters elevation – in Ervamoira 150 hectares of vines are planted between roughly 100 and 250 metres.
In the vineyard photo above you can see a small building with a red tiled roof – the museum.
The lower level is a museum, explaining the concept and development of Quinta de Ervamoira, the viticultural environment, and of course the discovery of the Paleolithic engravings and the archeological work in the area. There is also a room displaying a range of bottles from the entire history of the Casa Ramos Pinto, including trial bottles of single grape table wines made in the early days of Ervamoira. You can also see some of the artworks which have been used in Ramos Pinto’s advertisements and labels.
Finally, there is the tasting room. I’m kicking myself I didn’t take a photo of it, not only is it a wonderful space, but the presentation of the wines for tasting was meticulous. I did not take notes, but from memory we tasted:
Duas Quintas Branco 2009, not yet bottled
Duas Quintas Tinto (can’t recall vintage, desculpe, I think 2008)
Collection 2007 (tinto)
Duas Quintas Reserva Tinto 2007
20 Years Tawny Quinta do Bom Retiro
Porto LBV 2004
Porto Vintage 2003 (decanted)
We were discussing tasting notes, and Teresa said she prepares all the technical information for the documents posted on the website, and João writes the poetic tasting notes. Here are excerpts from just one example – these solidly informative but marvellously evocative notes are from the technical sheet on the Ramos Pinto website for the Ramos Pinto Collection 2007 wine:
This wine was made from grapes from the Quinta do Bom Retiro and the Quinta de Ervamoira estates. It is a bold, seductive wine that reveals balsamic aromas and engages us with its velvety sensations. It is a delight!
This wine combines the romantic spirit of old Bom Retiro wines and the solid maturity of the Quinta de Ervamoira estate. …
… On the palate it is voluptuous and full of finesse, boasting a velvety structure and good acidity. Collection 2007 is an elegant, flavoursome wine, a different wine that expresses the greatness of the Douro.
From the tasting room we went outside to a protected stone terrace for a glass of Dry White port, served with a mild waxy semi-hard cheese (I think a sheep cheese which is typical of the region), cubes of cured pork, olives and what I think were tiny figs with an almond in the centre.
Next, upstairs to an elegantly austere dining room for lunch. The first course was a thin fritatta filled with very fine spears of wild asparagus which grows at Ervamoira, accompanied by a Duas Quintas Reserva Branco which has only recently been launched. The main course was steak, and I first chose to drink the Collection 2007 and then tried it with a glass of the Duas Quintas Reserva Tinto. Both wines were excellent partners, but interestingly it seemed the meat enhanced the Collection wine, whereas the Reserva enhanced the meat. Fascinating. We finished with a lovely almond custard studded with coarsely ground almonds, served in a large wide bubble shaped wine glass, and accompanied by port, I think the 20 year old, but I honestly cannot recall very clearly, I was too thoroughly blissed out at that point. In fact I still am.
After lunch, out into the refreshing and reviving cool clean air and off to visit Mateus’ winery in Foz Côa, where he makes his Muxagat wines. But the next posting will tell about Mateus’ own wines and vineyards.