Cortes de Cima

Wednesday, 7 April, 2010

Another long posting about another fabulous estate visit.  Get a drink now, but bring the bottle, not just the glass, back to the computer.

Back in March when I wrote about tasting the Cortes de Cima wines at Essência do Vinho, I mentioned I had had a conversation with Hamilton Reis, one of the winemakers, about some of the more technical aspects of their process, and hoped to visit and learn more.

Last week I redeemed that promise – in fact Hamilton’s first words to me as I was shown into the lab were “You were serious, you really have come to visit!”  Absolutely, and I would not have missed it for the world.

Cortes de Cima’s website is excellent and gives a great deal of background information – I am not going to recapitulate all that, please do look at their site, it’s a good one.  The bare bones of the story which you need to know here are that Dane Hans Jorgensen and his American wife Carrie settled in the Alentejo with the intention of making wine – their first vines were planted in 1991, their first vintage in their own name was 1996.  They also produce an award winning olive oil.  Previously, Hans had been involved in the production of various commodities in the far east – I remember palm oil and tea being mentioned.   As a winemaker, he is a self-taught.  This fascinates me, and as I was shown around I saw  again and again evidence of his very open minded and pragmatic approach.

While Hans is still very much at the helm, he has several right hands:  in the winery Hamilton Reis and Hugo Almeida and in the vineyards António Claudio.  Altogether they employ roughly 55 people year round in the winery and vineyard, and at harvest that can go as high as 150.

I should give you your bearings – in the plains of the Alentejo, about 80 miles east southeast of Lisbon as the crow flies and about 25 miles due south of Evora, near a village called Vidigueira, with a line of hills to the north and northwest.

The Vineyards and Olive Grove

The morning was spent clinging to the tail of a quad bike and António’s shoulder as he gave me the ride of my life through vineyards and past olive groves.

First stop, at the edge of a syrah vineyard.  We actually stopped 4 times along this row, as António pointed out the changes in terroir down that decline and up the far side.  Notice the vines – the grape clusters will form along those spurs which are trained about waist high – no bending over to harvest, oh joy!  The height above ground also mitigates the effects of heat radiation from the soil at night – so the grapes can cool a bit overnight.  If the grapes were too warm 24 hours a day they would not develop the desired acidity and flavour complexity.  Hopefully you can also see there are wires along the top of those posts and along the ground.  The foliage will be trained overhead and also caught under that wire on the ground, opening up and raising the leaf canopy.  This will protect the grapes from the sun but at the same time allow better airflow around the grapes, which in turn not only helps keep the grapes from getting over heated, but also minimises the risk of diseases such as mildew.  Notice also that the vines are spaced a good metre or more apart (versus Burgundy, where there would be another vine in that interval).  This decidedly not-traditional-Portuguese-or-European trellis system is one of several reasons their wines are classified as Regional Alentejo, not DOC.  In fact, they have made a conscious decision not to seek DOC status for their wines, even though some could qualify, because they don’t want to be restricted by the rules; they would rather have the freedom to do what they think best for creating their particular style of wine.

We stopped again about halfway down the decline, and Antonio pointed out the first change in terroir – to a slightly rockier soil – and there was also a change in the irrigation at that point;  then again at the bottom of the decline and again at the top of the far incline.  Grapes from this point to the midway point generally go into the premium wines, the next batch usually into the Cortes de Cima wine, and so on.  I am always fascinated how viticulteurs can spot these minute differences in terroir and interpret the effect to the quality of the grapes.  It also makes the logistics of harvest interesting to say the least, keeping the grapes from the different parcels segregated for pressing and winemaking separately.

Look!  Soil!  Big change from the schist of the Douro two weeks previously, you can actually recognise organic matter other than the vine itself.  The soil here is alluvial clay, on a limestone base, summers do get up and over about 35° C, and the average rainfall is a fairly meagre 450mm.  As Carrie and I were driving into the estate we passed an embankment which was a deep rusty red.  I speculated there was a lot of iron in the soil, she confirmed that and added that the area was volcanic, there is a major fault line through here, and they do feel tremors from time to time.  That photo is also a nice view of the root graft on a mature vine.

Another vineyard:

Cortes de Cima have experimented with a number of international and Portuguese varieties and in some cases have decided the varieties were not living up to their standards.  This is one such vineyard where the decision was taken to cut down the underperforming variety and re-graft with Touriga Nacional.  Notice the grafts are about knee high – you can see the white protective wrapping on the nearest two vines.

Finally, another vineyard, I think this was one of the white grapes, Verdelho.

You see there are two vines trained up either side of a post, and in the row behind you can see there is a space of about 3 metres between vine pairs – the wider spaces make ground maintenance between vines, under the wires, easier to manage mechanically.  The more weeding and ploughing they can manage mechanically, the fewer herbicides and sprays they need to use, the better.

In this and the prior photo you can see the irrigation tubes strung about knee high,   Where António had pointed out the changes in terroir, there were also changes in irrigation, with tubes that deliver different quantities of water.  Some of the irrigation is computer controlled and some manual; the system is so vast and complex, able to deliver different quantities of water at different rates in different vineyards, he said it took a year to completely comprehend it – he is now keeping records to help in future.

The vineyards at Cortes de Cima are mostly red grapes, they currently make only one white wine blend, Chaminé Branco, as an ongoing proposition.  Several years ago however, they purchased 30 hectares of land due west, just two kilometres from the Alentejo coast, which has been planted with several white varieties:  Sauvignon Blanc, Alvarinho, Verdelho and Semillon.  This year (2010) will be the first harvest to be made into a commercially available wine.  Don’t know if they will be developing a new blend, or going for single varietals – watch that space.

When we were talking about harvesting, António said as a rule the grapes for all of their wines are harvested entirely by hand, but occasionally if conditions are threatening and they haven’t the manpower to do it all by hand in time, they will use a mechanical harvester – but then only for the grapes destined for their entry level wine, the Chaminé.  You could tell he’s pretty reluctant about it – but occasionally it’s a necessary evil.  When they harvest the whites, it has to be done when the grapes are as cool as possible, which often means night harvesting.

One thing that impressed me, both in the vineyards and in the winemaking, was the ongoing triage for  quality.  While certain parcels usually deliver grapes of a quality for their premium aged wines, that is never taken for granted – during the harvest, during the wine making and even during the aging of the wines, the decisions are constantly re-evaluated.  Because they work in small batches, they can easily revise their plans for  the use of each batch between premium or entry level, blended or single varietal wines.

Finally, we visited the olive groves – something I hadn’t seen before, not on a formal, commercial scale.

Cortes de Cima have 50 hectares of Cobrançosa olives, a native Portuguese variety.  The olives are harvested early, whilst still mostly green – not more than 10% turning colour – in October or November (after the grapes are harvested, thankfully).  They spread nets on the ground under the trees and then use long vibrating wands to catch hold of the branches and shake the olives off and into the nets, which are then rolled up and the olives are pressed nearby on the same day.  The trees seem to be relatively low maintenance, António explained  there is a rotation of pruning part of the grove each year to maintain the open chalice shape of branches.  They have a video clip on YouTube that shows the harvest:

The Lab

After the tour of the vineyards and olive groves, I met Hamilton in the lab to begin our walkthrough of the winemaking.

What particularly caught my attention when we spoke in March was a mention of inducing the malo-lactic fermentation to run nearly concurrently with the alcoholic.  From my previous knowledge, particularly of Burgundian wine making, I was first of all startled to hear that the two could occur simultaneously, and then I was curious what difference that makes to the wine style.  Also, I was accustomed to hearing winemakers from several regions speak of standing back and letting the wine almost make itself, with little or no intervention on their part.  Whilst I know that isn’t strictly true, the way Hamilton spoke of controlling the wine making was very very different, hence my interest in following up to learn more.

Hamilton is a brilliant speaker – charismatic, articulate and passionate about every aspect of the work.  I cannot begin to reproduce half of what he explained to me, nor his style, so what follows is going to be discussion of a few particular aspects of the process that most intrigued me.  Do not despair, however – you will have your chance to learn more – as we were walking through the lab, winery and cellars Carrie was making some videos, so check out the Cortes de Cima YouTube channel for clips of Hamilton discussing the wine making process.

First and foremost, he said, you have to know what you want, so you can apply the proper process to ensure that result.  At Cortes de Cima the goal for all of their wines from the entry level Chaminé to their Reserva is a balance of three things:  full body, pure powerful expression of fruit, and a silky polish in the mouth.  The top wines – Incógnito, Petit Verdot, Touriga Nacional and Reserva – add to these qualities a greater complexity and concentration.

To ensure those results, one of the key things is monitoring every step of the process for every lot of wine in the lab.  There is a second room at the back right (photo below), and there is also a lab in the balcony of the winery where they move all this equipment during the harvest and fermentation period so they lose no time and stay intimately involved in every step as it occurs.

To give you a sense of scale, they make roughly 1,250,000 bottles of wine each year, a core offering of 10 wines (9 red) both blends and single varietals; on a quick count of my notes I come up with 11 different grape varieties, grown on 114 hectares of their own land and another 22 hectares which they lease (not yet counting the 30 hectares of white vineyards recently planted near the coast).  Bear in mind their top wines are barrel aged at least one year, bottled, then held for further aging in bottle at the winery before release.  For example the Reserva 2008, roughly 5,000 litres, was just bottled the day after my visit (April 2010), and the bottles will be held for release in 2011.  Cortes de Cima make a point of not releasing their wines till they feel the wine is ready for drinking, but of course the top wines have the capacity to age further.

So, back to the lab.  Of course I am familiar with every winemaker’s analysis of must and wine for sugar, pH, acidity, volatile and malic acids, and sulphur.  Most of the bits and pieces you see on that bench against the right wall are to test one or another of those components.  Each month they routinely test samples from each and every barrel and stainless steel tank (look again at the volumes quoted above and just try to imagine the sample numbers!).  Using these means, it took one person two weeks each month to conduct all tests for all tank and barrel samples.

But in the back room is another machine – a blue metal box that looks like a small old fashioned bank vault, with a wire lead to a laptop.  One drop of wine on a bit of blotting paper is popped into the vault, which then analyses it and the results come up on the computer.  Now all those samples can be fully tested in 3 days.  Cortes de Cima are the first in Portugal to use this, it’s called an Oenofoss.  Did I mention Hamilton’s background includes a degree in microbiology, as well as degrees in agronomy and oenology, or had you guessed that yet?

Fascinatingly, the Oenofoss had to be calibrated to their wines, a process that took six months – of testing by standard methods then re-testing in the Oenofoss and truing the results.  In effect, they had to explain to the machine what are the test results that were normal and desired for their particular wines.  Once that was accomplished, the accuracy (which they continue to cross check periodically) has been dead on.

Another test machine that both fascinated and repelled me – dim vague wretched memories of high school science classes – was what looked like a hotel mini bar with a glass front.  Instead of refrigerating your drinks, however, it incubates wine samples at a consistent 28°.  Why would you want to?  To monitor yeast levels, particularly brettanomyces.  This is a wild yeast that can create the more mature flavour notes of leather, smoke or spice.  But when it gets out of hand it can create dead-mousey, yoghurty or medicinal notes and ruin a wine – Cortes de Cima lost their 2002 Touriga Nacional to brett.  Again, they rigorously sample and test their wines for yeast levels not only during fermentation but also during the maturation process.  Hamilton showed me a one little petri dish with dots of yeast growing on the blotter.  If the level is too high – and their idea of too high is pretty low threshold – they will rack the wine out of that barrel and then destroy the barrel.  Usually that will save the wine (no hope for the barrel!), but if the brett levels are too high for racking they can filter – though they have rarely had to do that, they’ve nearly always caught it and racked before things had gone too far.

All of these tests are fundamentally to track the health of the wine during the making process – to ensure it is not unsafe or for that matter just plain lousy to drink.  Another set of tests is performed to ensure the quality of the finished wine, using a spectrophotometer to assess colour, tannins, polyphenols, etc., the same kinds of tests that are carried out by the regional certification board – in the Alentejo called the CVRA (counterpart to the Douro’s IVDP, see blog re my visit to the IVDP in November).

And then there’s the good old fashioned “just drink it” testing, to compare tasting notes and assess quality and consistency versus the established standards for the estate.  Which is where that table in the middle of the room becomes critical!  In fact you can just see three triangular beakers of wine lined up at the far end … but more about those later.  I had to wait till the end of the tour, so do you.

The Winery and Caves

From the lab to the winery.  We first visited what is nicknamed The Playground…

… and not just because Hamilton is there.  They actually have an entire mini winery which is used primarily for small batch experimentation.  There is a very cute little mini-press off stage left and another space where the samples can be aged (albeit in old Super Bock kegs) (yes, I was startled too).  Each of those cigarette tanks can hold 600 litres of wine – derived from about one tonne of grapes.  By working with mini-batches they can perform trials of various kinds – for example to trial different types of yeasts for the alcoholic fermentation or bacteria for the malo-lactic, or experiment with the timings of the inoculations.  They have vinified grapes from different parcels to prove (or disprove) their instinctual classifications – remember what António told me about grapes from one end of the row usually being segregated for the Reserva, and the mid section of the row going into the main wines?  They can also do a mini-vinification if they are in debate about the timing of the harvest – quick harvest half a tonne and start the vinification – within a day or two they will have the information they need to decide to go ahead with full harvest on those grapes or not.  Hamilton did say it’s as much work to vinify the experimental batches as the full batches, but… it’s worth it.

Then we began the walk through of the main winery:

Remember Hamilton said, first you have to know what you want?  He continued, saying that in order to get that, you have to pilot the fermentation to ensure it is progressing within the parameters which will deliver the results you want.

The grapes are de-stemmed, crushed, and enter a pipe which passes through a heat exchange – the grapes arrive at a temperature of around 30°C and are cooled to 10°C.  From the heat exchange (behind me) the grapes continue through that pipe overhead and into the desired tank (or the mirror image on the left side of the winery).

They then immediately inoculate with the selected yeast.  Because the grapes are cool the yeast will begin its work rather slowly – and because the grapes have been inoculated with a high concentration of the chosen yeast, it will rule the tank and knock out any wild yeasts.  The cool temperature and slow pace of fermentation are maintained for 4 days, by the end of which time the temperature will have risen to 18° or 20° and there should be about 3 or 4 degrees of alcohol.  They inoculate again with the selected bacteria to induce the malo-lactic fermentation – so from this point, the two fermentations are occurring simultaneously.

Why?  Bear in mind one of the goals for their wines is a big pure expression of fruit.  If they wait until the alcoholic fermentation is done, then the bugs (bacteria) for the malo-lactic are starting their work in an alcoholic haze, and therefore they work very slowly (from my limited personal experiences of trying to work under similar conditions this makes perfect sense to me).  For grapes harvested in August or September, the malo-lactic would not, in this scenario, finish until late December.  That is a very long stretch of time in which to potentially lose fruit character and develop off flavours.

If, instead, the malo-lactic is begun in a very low-alcohol environment then the bugs are not so stressed and can get off to a good healthy start and finish their work shortly after the alcoholic fermentation is complete, maybe 2 to 3 days later.  This results in better preservation of fruit flavours, far less time and opportunity to develop off flavours, and by the way, better colour stabilisation and a silkier mouth feel.

The thing is, this simultaneous fermentation depends on very careful piloting of the process which in turn requires constant analysis in the lab – hence the relocation to the winery during harvest.  If the two processes get out of synch, the results can be disastrous:  if the alcoholic fermentation should slow down and the malo-lactic finish first, the bugs will start eating up the sugar and turning it into vinegar, not alcohol the way the yeast would do.  If this occurs, it can be controlled by filtering or enzymes.

At any given time there will be 20 to 30 fermentations in process; and bear in mind too, that while the commercial production is in full swing, they are also devoting time and analysis to their experimental batches in the Playground mini-winery.  Think about the process and monitoring which Hamilton described, times that many batches simultaneously and the mind boggles – not only at the sheer logistics and record keeping and decision making, but the sheer responsibility.  Even with a team of five winemakers – Hans, Hamilton, Hugo and two assistant winemakers, Cristina Ferrão and Helena Sardinha – it’s a lot.

We then walked and talked through the entire winemaking, aging, bottling, storage, labelling and shipping process.  One thing I noticed again and again, with both António and Hamilton, was how often they commented on the experimentation and innovations at Cortes de Cima.  They both pointed out small (and large!) tweaks that made big differences in the quality of the wine or in easing or improving processes, most of which could be traced back to “Senhor Hans”.

One of the more major process tweaks which was designed by Hans has to do with the extraction process.  Typically, red wine is pumped over – meaning, some wine is removed from the tank and then sprayed over the top of the cap as a way of re-combining wine and cap (the sludge of skins, pips, and pulp that rises to the top) and thereby extracting more colour, tannin and flavour elements from the cap material.

As Hans saw it, this had a major drawback in that only a small amount of the liquid drawn from one point in the tank was passed back over the cap at any given time.  He wanted a more thorough recombination of the two.  If you go back to the photo of the winery, on the upper level you can see on the near right or at the far end of the left side what looks like a metal table perched on top of the vats.  That is actually a big inverted pyramid of a funnel, designed by Hans.  All of the wine is drained from the tank and transferred to that giant funnel – which takes about an hour.  As the wine is removed, the cap falls gently to the bottom of the tank.  The wine is then released from that funnel back into the tank on top of the cap, and the cap will then rise once more to the top of the tank.  100% recombination (properly called rack and return) of all liquid and solid material accomplished.

If you look at the tanks on the left, they appear to be wearing belts of bubble wrap.  Remember I said the grapes are cooled down to 10°C before they go into the tanks?  Think about any tin can of cold liquid set out in a warm room – the liquid warms up, throwing off cold from the tin.  That bubble wrap is another of Hans’s ideas.  This insulates the vats a bit to prevent a too-rapid increase of temperature (remember they want to control the fermentation and keep it cool for the first few days with only a gradual rise in temperature), but also the energy created is captured and transferred to photo-voltaic panels for generation of electricity.

Departing from winemaking matters for a moment – I was very impressed by the consciousness of environmental and energy issues, and all the ways in which these were being addressed.  The solar panels generate enough power to meet all the hot-water needs at the winery, as well as contributing to the national grid, and they have applied to generate more.  In the winery is a metal box on the wall which looks like nothing special, but Hamilton explained it captures ozone from the air as well as generating ozone, all of which is then released into hot water – making an excellent cleaning agent.  The ozone is highly reactive with organic matter, so they can very effectively wash all their equipment without harsh sodas or detergents.  In the water, the ozone will naturally degrade to O2, so ultimately the effluent contains neither cleaning agents nor ozone.  All the waste water from the winery passes through a reed field for natural biological purification.  The Cortes de Cima blog has an entry which describes all their environment efforts in the vineyards, winery and throughout the production chain, with a great deal of technical detail, called How Green is Our Winery?

cc barrelAnother tweak to make life easier.

Most wineries with more barrels than space use these metal racks to stack the barrels.  The tweak is – can you see the bit of pipe soldered into the middle of each stanchion, to make the rack taller?  Those five or six inches make life much easier when Hamilton and the other winemakers have to get at that bung to sample or stir up the wine in the barrel.  Elsewhere there was one rack in use that had not yet been modified, and he showed us – he can get his hand in to open the bung, but getting in any sort of pipette or other tool would be really really awkward.

We were discussing the fact the barrels are only used for three years.  What you do with all the old barrels?  Brutal answer:  flowerpots.  As the barrels age they lose the flavour enhancement qualities for which you want them in the first place, the pores of the wood block  up so you don’t have that minute exchange of oxygen which is also an important component of the aging process, and brettanomyces spores can get into the grain of the oak and proliferate.  Better another plot of petunias than ruined wine.

cc nasaIn the cellar with these barrels Hamilton drew my attention to another nondescript metal box on a wall and went into raptures again.

You may think rocket science and winemaking have nothing in common, but they can do:  that box.  It is an air purification device designed by NASA for use in the space capsules and shuttles.  Air circulates through that box, past UV lamps that will kill off any bacteria that make the mistake of trying to live in that room.  I’m beginning to feel sorry for the brettanomyces spore that makes the mistake of coming within miles of Cortes de Cima.

And Back To The Lab Tasting Room

Remember those three beakers of wine, back in the very first photo of the lab?  From left to right, Petit Verdot, Touriga Nacional and Reserva, all 2008.  All three are made in small quantities (1,000 litres 2,500 and 5,000 litres respectively), and had not yet been bottled – though the decision was taken to bottle all three in the week or so after my visit.

And I got to taste them!  First the Petit Verdot:  Hamilton said this is a grape he loves to use to boost and enhance blends, but too much can sometimes overwhelm and unbalance a blend, making a slightly peppery quality.  Intrinsically, the grape has a wonderful red fruit character and good acidity.  This will be their first release of a pure Petit Verdot wine.  It was bottled the week after my visit, and Hamilton is thinking they will hold it about a year before release, but as with all their top wines, they monitor and taste and give themselves the luxury of doing what seems best for the wine, rather than rigidly working to production timetables and cost controls.  If they feel the wine is not yet ready to drink, they will not release it, but continue to hold the bottles in their own cellars until ready.

As we tasted the Touriga Nacional we got into a lively discussion with Hugo, about the differences in Touriga Nacional in the Douro and the Alentejo.  Heat and rainfall are comparable in the Cima Corgo and more extreme in the Douro Superior, but altitude is of course generally lower in the Alentejo (I think Cortes de Cima is around 65 metres) and the soil is different, clay on limestone versus the very acidic schist of the Douro.  Winemaking in the Douro is generally more traditional, with possibly greater extraction by treading, and the fermentation is often in open lagares.  Hamilton commented it is such a complete grape – not just fruit, but earth, mineral, floral, and good acidity.  For me, some Douro wines can have a slightly tannic attack on the palate to start, and you often have to be patient, allowing the flavours to develop whether by aging in bottle or allowing the wine to open up in the glass, or in your mouth.  The Douro Tourigas I recall most vividly definitely had tannins and mineral flavours uppermost, followed by the fruit and other flavours, and of course a terrific (in a good way) acidity.  In contrast, I think Cortes de Cima’s Touriga Nacional is very well balanced – flavours, tannins, acidity – from the very first impression in the mouth, and the fruit is definitely the first and most vivid flavour character, with the floral and mineral qualities developing in the mouth.  This wine was also bottled the week after my visit, and they will hold it in bottle at least two years, maybe as much as three, before release.

The Reserva is a blend of Aragonez, Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Touriga Nacional, which was bottled the next day after my visit (so, 8th April 2010), and will be held a year or year and a half before release.  Hamilton was very very pleased with it, it was his favourite of the three.  I enjoyed all three, would not turn down any of it, but my favourite was the Touriga Nacional, I do love the non-fruit elements to the flavour, the earthiness and occasional whiff of floral.

And finally, don’t just take my word how good the wines are:

This is a small tasting room and shop which is lined on all four walls with various certificates and awards, and one of three trophy cases is visible in this photo.  The domain also has another large tasting room which is used for special events such as dinners and concerts.

The wines, vineyards, winery, people and hospitality are all amazing.

Once again, do look at their website for more information – visits can be arranged, and they have a free Adega Club through which you can access special events, discounts and a newsletter.  The website also has information about availability of their wines worldwide, a blog, and links to their Facebook and YouTube pages, as well as Twitter.