A trip to the far reaches of the Douro to visit the producers of The Society's Exhibition Douro.
Society buyer Joanna Locke MW with Xito and Luisa Olazabal in front of Quinta do Vale Meão
The first edition of our Exhibition Douro wine comes from one of the Douro's great family-owned estates, its history inextricably linked with the fortunes of Portuguese wine itself. Its current custodians, brother and sister Francisco (Xito) and Luisa Olazabal are direct descendants of the estate's founder, the legendary Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira and it was they who welcomed buyer Joanna Locke and me to the property in December.
The obvious question is why choose Vale Meão to be the suppliers of our first Exhibition Douro wine? I have to confess that the name was not one I was familiar with ( Meão is pronounced, by the way, like the noise a cat makes!) and I wondered why we'd opted for a property in the Upper Douro rather than in the main stretch of the valley, where many of the famous port quintas are situated. Those of you who know your port and the history of the Douro will already be a couple of steps ahead of me!
Vale Meão was the ambitious project of Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, it took eight years to complete from 1877 – 1895
Before we'd even arrived at the property, I'd heard about its history from sixth-generation Luisa Olazabal on the long drive up from the airport in Porto. It's an incredible story. Luisa's great-great-great-grandmother, Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira bought Vale Meão as virgin land in 1877 with the vision of creating a model vineyard. It was a highly ambitious project, which would take hundreds of workers eight years to complete.
But not for nothing is Dona Antónia remembered as the grande dame of 19th-century Douro. A landowner and businesswoman of drive and passion, she was instrumental in the development of the port industry. She became the richest woman in Portugal, but she was also a philanthropist, caring deeply about the fortunes of her workers and she was clearly a woman of enormous energy, stamina and vision. Quinta do Vale Meão, was to be her last, but most significant project.
It's a good three-hour drive from Porto to Foz Côa and the quinta, even on the swanky new motorways that seem to have proliferated since my last visit here twenty or so years ago. The same journey would have taken Dona Antónia 12 days by ox-cart across rugged tracks and steep forest roads, at the mercy of bandits. The estate's 300 hectares were leased to local crop-growers until the arrival of the railway in 1887 reduced the journey time to five hours. Bringing the railway up this far was another of Dona Antónia's achievements. Then, work on what would become Quinta do Vale Meão could begin in earnest.
Xito explains that the building of the cellars by Dona Antónia was so solid and well executed that when it was renovated 105 years later, none of the original structure needed re-doing
Success and succession
It was Luisa's father Francisco (Vito) who took over the management of the estate in the 1970s. He had fallen in love with the place from an early age having spent summers there as a boy and he determined to acquire the shares of the many descendants who had become co-owners of the property over the years. This he finally did in 1994, setting up a separate company with his three children, Francisco (Xito), a trained oenologist, Luisa, experienced in wine marketing and international commerce and Jaime, who works in banking.
For many years the estate was run by descendants of the family, often with resident estate managers taking care of the day-to-day running of the business. Families would spend holidays at the quinta, but there was never anyone living permanently at the house. The region is incredibly hot in summer and Luisa said that facilities were quite basic in the old days. In the estate's early days it was impossible to get workers to come here, and the original workforce was recruited from Galicia, across the border with Spain.
Even in the 1950s persuading cellar workers to come here was an issue as Xito explains in this short video telling us also about the difficulties of keeping things cool in the days before air-conditioning.
A magical spot
After a long journey, Joanna, Luisa and I arrive at the tiny settlement of Pocinho, we make our way down a narrow cobbled street past the railway station – the last stop on the line from Porto. The motorway continues across the border and into Spain, but an off-shoot, originally destined to go further comes to an abrupt halt almost at the quinta's gates. 'It's as if the transport network was built for us,' Luisa jokes. But you can't help but feel the remoteness of the spot and imagine how it must have felt for Luisa's ancestors.
The estate was originally known as Monte de Meão, the 'mountain' that rises up in the middle (meão) of a vast meander in the river Douro created by the unusual twists of rock formed by the Vilariça geological fault that runs through the property. When Dona Antónia's scouts earmarked this area for development it was the relatively gentle slopes that could be more easily cultivated that were the main appeal. But the considerable experience gained from growing grapes throughout the valley must have made them aware of the rich variety of soils here too.
The estate lies in a huge meander of the Douro; seen here from the opposite bank
Since 1971 the quinta has been replanting vineyards in single-variety blocks (in the past, mixed field blends were preferred), taking advantage of the rich patchwork of schist, granite and alluvial gravel soils that make up the estate; a rich mix compared with the predominantly schistous soils that predominate in the Douro. This, Xito would later explain to us, was how they managed to get the element of complexity into their wines.
When we get to the quinta we meet Xito and swap car for the trusty Land Rover. He is anxious for us to drive to the top of the 'monte' to get an idea of the lie of the land and the December light is fading fast.
A rich biodiversity
As we take the rough and steep track up behind the quinta, Xito excitedly points out wild juniper, holm oak, cork oak, myriad species of birds and plenty of evidence of wild boar activity! I hadn't expected such a richness of vegetation in an area that gets so hot in summer. Xito explained the importance of this habitat for keeping vines and soils healthy and that it was also important to have other crops, such as orange groves and olive trees, not just grapes. The quinta grows much of its own food too; hunting and fishing would have been important to supplement the diet in the past.
We inspect a new vineyard planted five years ago on a small island of schist in a sea of granite at 300m above sea level. Cut into the rock on what used to be summer pasture for sheep, this is one of the highest vineyards and it's difficult to see how they got vehicles up here, let alone constructed the terraces. Xito explains that they have planted the six hectares with lots of different grapes to see how they will react. It's a reminder that despite the region's long history of growing grapes for port, the table-wine industry is still in its relative infancy. Schist soils, he says are easier for grapes than granite as they hold the water better – essential, as there is very little rain here in summer, and irrigation is an option Xito prefers to avoid.
View from the new vineyard as the sun quickly sets
With the sinking of the sun, things start to get distinctly chilly and it's hard to imagine in December what this place must be like in the summer.
Birthplace of Portugal's most iconic wine
Driving back down to the quinta for a tour of the winery, Xito pointed out the part of the vineyard known as Barca Velha and the little winery of the same name. The word 'iconic' is much abused, but not in the case of this wine. For decades, this was Portugal's only true and internationally recognised fine wine but few were aware that both the fruit and the name originated in Quinta do Vale Meão. In the past, it was handled by A.A. Ferreira S. A., the company set up by Dona Antónia's descendants and of which Francisco senior (Vito) was president until 1998.
Looking down on the Barca Velha vineyard and winery named after the old barge which ferried locals across at the narrowest part of the Douro
It was Xito's grandfather (on his mother's side) who travelled to Bordeaux in the 1950s on behalf of the company. Here he met the renowned professor Emile Peynaud who was to have a great influence on the style of wine made. Xito Olazabal describes his grandfather as a 'crazy, passionate guy.' When he visited the châteaux in Bordeaux he asked where the lagares were, asking how the grapes were trodden! When he was told that fermentation took place in vats he was determined to replicate this back home. He was impressed by the quality of the Bordeaux wines and determined to make wines in a similar mould. 'He would ship ice up from Porto in great big blocks wrapped in straw to try to keep the wine cool,' Xito told me.
Today the Barca Velha name is commercialised by SOGRAPE (who acquired AA Ferreira in 1987) and the fruit no longer comes from the Vale Meão vineyards. Incidentally, Barca Velha simply means 'old barge' and was just the name given to one of the vineyards close to a narrow part of the Douro river where locals crossed on a barge, pulling themselves along with an overhead rope. A winery on the site also carries the name and today, after refurbishment, and the installation of temperature control, it is used for the storage of the Quinta do Vale Meão ports.
Vale Meão has some of the largest traditional lagares in Portugal
Back to the lagares
Next we're taken for a tour of the Adega dos Novos winery – the one originally built by Dona Antónia and now beautifully refurbished and restored. The winery houses the biggest traditional stone lagares in the Douro and they're hugely impressive. The lagares took four years to build an estimated 6,000 trips by ox-cart were needed to haul the massive granite blocks along the 60km route from the quarry. So magnificent and structurally sound was the whole building that when it came to refurbishing it 105 years later none of the major structures needed replacing.
Differences in making port and table wine
Though Xito's grandfather preferred to make the famous Barca Velha wine in barrel, emulating the French, today the family is convinced that combining ancient and modern techniques – foot-treading in lagares, followed by temperature-controlled fermentation – gives the best results. 'We food tread grapes for both table wine and port for three to four hours, ' Xito says, 'the main difference between port and table wine though is that the table wine is racked off straight away and the fruit gets a cold maceration before fermentation in stainless steel; controlling the temperature is essential to retain the freshness in the wine. Port, by contrast, starts its fermentation in the lagares.'
Touriga nacional, an 'old, new' grape variety
Xito is quite a talker and when he gets onto the subject of touriga nacional, he becomes even more animated. Like Johann Krige of Kanonkop, producer of our Exhibition Pinotage, he is a committed champion of a true-blue local grape that has not always been given a fair deal. The family's belief in touriga nacional is evidenced by the fact that it accounts for 40% of the Meão vineyards (compared to around.7% in the Douro as a whole).
Touriga nacional was championed by the Portuguese authorities as a grape that could become a signature variety for Portugal. As with many state-instigated initiatives, there's been the inevitable backlash, but Xito points out, with the same degree of frustration as Krige's on the subject of pinotage, this is because people are judging the grape on plantings made in the wrong place or on young vines.
'Do you realise that the average of touriga nacional in the Douro is just four years old?! In 2006 the grape accounted for less than 1% of total plantings in the Douro and because the grape is mostly found in mixed vineyards it is very difficult to find a block that is more than 30 years old.' Because the grape is not as productive as some it hasn't survived in some of the more challenging sites. The older vines are only found in the more fertile areas such as Pinhão or Torto, 'there's more water here and it's easier to grow, but the grape doesn't do so well in these terroirs.' Because in the past quantity was an important consideration for growers, touriga vines haven't survived in the sites where it could really flourish.
Luckily for Vale Meão, another ancestor with foresight saw the potential of the grape, evidenced by some hand-planted blocks that are over 70 years old. 'Now that people can appreciate the quality that old vines bring, they're starting to get excited about the variety again,' Xito laughs.
This is why Xito calls the grape a 'new old variety'. Although it's a traditional and time-honoured variety of the region, they are now only really starting to understand it. This is also the rationale behind planting other old traditional and more obscure varieties in search of more potential to unlock.
Now drink it all in!
The story of Dona Antónia's remarkable life and the history of the quinta is the stuff of soap-operas – indeed, it was the subject of a long-running one here in Portugal, Luisa tells me. The story is also being retold by Luisa's father, Francisco Javier de Olazabal, in a book that is soon to be published. I have seen the publisher's proof copy and it's a fascinating read.
Meanwhile, members may wish to drink in the Exhibition!
The Society's Exhibition Douro (at the special introductory price of £11.95 instead of £13.50) – a pretty reasonable price for so much history, not to mention quality, complexity and sheer taste. And our most eloquent response to the question 'Why Quinta do Vale Meão?'