Wednesday 28 February 2018

The Douro Boys Part 2 – A Lunch at Quinta do Vallado

Producer: Quinta do Vallado

“Have you tried this before?” asks João, our host at Quinta do Vallado. “It’s alheira, a very traditional type of Portuguese food created by Jewish communities that fled central Europe into the Douro Superior. The main diet in northern Portugal is chorizo, made with pork, but of course the Jewish community could not eat pork, so they made a smaller, thinner sausage out of bread and game meats – usually birds like partridge.” The texture is dense and the flavour mildly spicy. It goes down a treat with the refreshing white wine João has laid out for us, along with a huge basket of bread and olive oil made from trees growing on the property itself. The olive oil produced in the Douro, João explains, is naturally flavourful and low in acidity, making it suitable for bread but wasted when used as salad dressing. For lunch we have been seated at the outdoor patio, where a canopy of leaves creates dappled shadows over our table and provides welcome shade from the sun’s radiance.

Our host’s full name is João Roquette Alvares Ribeiro, which is an important distinction because his father, who co-owns Quinta do Vallado, is João Ferreira Alvares Ribeiro. Multiple surnames and given names are common in Portugal, just like how the wines are a combination of many different grape varieties. Both sides of João’s family are deeply rooted in the Douro wine industry, and after completing his marketing studies in London he joined Quinta do Vallado as the Export Manager. “It’s almost a perfect connection,” he muses, “because marketing is basically sales, and there aren’t many things that are nicer to sell than wine, because you visit nice places and good restaurants and meet nice people.” Glancing at the stunning view of the Douro Valley behind him, I could hardly disagree.

Our long, leisurely lunch provided an enriching glimpse into Portuguese history. The main course was gratinated bacalhau, the dried and salted cod that is so ubiquitous in Portugal and immediately recognisable by its strong odour. It brings back memories of childhood, walking into Chinese sundry shops and taking in the vast array of smallgoods and dried seafood on offer. Perhaps because of that I did not find the smell as repellent as it must seem to others. I did not understand why all the codfish in Portugal was salted, until João explained that bacalhau comes from 250km north of Portugal. This is a delicacy discovered by early Portuguese sailors and the only fish imported in large quantities, as the Portuguese coastline otherwise provides a generous variety of seafood. The chef at Quinta do Vallado prepared this dish with deft hand, able to capture the firmness and sweetness of the fish while holding back its more pungent flavours.

As we ate, João went into greater detail about the history of the Douro Boys. Most of the Douro Boys had been producing wines for one of the port houses, as the laws did not permit wines to be bottled and aged in the Douro region. This regulation was relaxed in 1986 and freed the producers to market wines under their own label. “All of the five Douro Boys had their own connections to the different port houses,” explained Joao. “In our case the Ferreira family sold the port house in 1987 to Sogrape, but Vallado stayed in my branch of the family. It is the same for Crasto, coming from the Constantino port house.  Quinta Vale Meão was also part of the Ferreira family, and stayed in my cousin’s branch of the family. Quinta Vale Dona Maria is owned by the Van Zeller family, which are in their sixteenth generation as winemakers and linked to Quinta do Noval. When the law changed, we had much more flexibility to do whatever we wanted, whereas before we had to make only sweet fortified wines.”

The main markets for Quinta do Vallado are the US, Macao, Brazil and UK, but I was surprised to hear that Angola was also in the top 5. The reason became clearer when João explained that Angola was once a Portuguese colony, and Portuguese wines still account for the majority of the wines drunk there. Due to the falling value of the kwanza and the collapse of the oil industry, exports to Angola have been unstable and there have been occasions in the past when shipments were disrupted due to closed borders. Through the Douro Boys association, Quinta do Vallado has managed to generate interest in the Douro region, and has even been featured at Robert Parker’s Matter of Taste events. Since the group was formed, all its members have seen increases in vineyard size and production (an increase of 119% and 400% respectively from 2002-2010). Quinta do Vallado also has a leg up in the accommodation game, boasting 13 spacious rooms which range from around EUR90/night in the low season to around EUR200/night for the largest suite in the peak season. Tourism in the Douro Valley is still in its infancy but all the rooms at the quinta were fully booked on the day we visited.

During my visit to the Douro, I was amazed to taste wines that were decades old and still showed plenty of vitality. This applied not only to the top range but even to wines that cost less than 10 euros. João attributes this to the low yielding vineyards making the wines more concentrated. Describing the evolution of winemaking in the Douro, João explained, “Traditionally, we focused on the concentration of sugar and alcohol – that’s how port wines came about. Nowadays because we are not looking at ports, sugar does not help us and alcohol does not help us. In the beginning of dry red wines we made wines with no sugar but with very high alcohol – this was thirty years ago when there was a perception that big wines need to be alcoholic. Nowadays we know that a good wine does not need to be high alcohol. So we’re not looking at concentration of sugar and alcohol, so… what is left? Concentration of acidity – acidity allows us to have a lot of fruit and concentration of tannin, but with freshness, with minerality, and also acidity is the key for aging in a wine.”

If the past thirty years in the Douro heralded a change in style, then the next decade brings new challenges in the form of climate change and increasing tourism numbers. Last year was the earliest vintage in the Douro due to the heat, which had some producers scrambling to bring in their grapes. Its mountainous beauty is not the easiest to navigate but there are few places in the world which reward you so richly in scenery, food and wine.

Tasting notes (Quinta do Vallado is distributed in Singapore by Alentasia):

Quinta do Vallado Prima 2015 – Made from early-picked Moscatel grapes, this wine has the aromatic musk and floral notes associated with that variety, but a pleasant bitterness on the palate. Historically used for the production of white port due to the larger amount of juice produced by the grape (meaning that less brandy was needed during fortification), this wine shows that it is also capable of producing a crisp, lovely aperitif.

Quinta do Vallado Reserva Field Blend Douro Red 2015 – Combining the best of the old and new, this dry wine uses traditional port varieties from ancient vineyards between 80 and 150 years old. The grapes were partly crushed by foot and the remainder fermented in stainless steel vats. This wine shows masses of dark fruit supported by firm tannins and tingling acidity. Certainly Old World in style with an herbal edge to the fruit rather than sweet jamminess. Very complete and will reward aging. A great testament to the quality of new-wave Douro wines.

Quinta do Vallado Sousão 2014 – In blends, Sousão contributes acidity, so it was a treat to be able to taste this variety on its own. “We make Touriga Nacional because it’s a wine we think that everyone will love, we make Sousão because we know it is a wine not everyone will love,” quipped João. “It is a wine for big, intense foods.” The wine opens with sweet vanilla and toast notes, but is quickly supplanted by sour cherry and raspberry fruit. It is a bit more angular than the Reserva Field Blend, showing its own distinctive personality.

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