Mon 7 Sep 2009
The train ride from Pêso da Régua to Pocinho takes about an hour and a half. It’s a wildly picturesque route, with the tracks laid just at the edge of the Douro River and at the base of steep hillsides where terraced vineyards that seem impossible to cultivate alternate with massive granite outcroppings. Whoever conceived that grapes could be grown here? Yet the Douro is the earliest delimited wine region in Europe, its system of control and classification codified in 1756.
Pêso da Régua is the central town of Baixo Corgo, the lower part of the Douro growing region. The train lumbers east through Cima Corgo, the middle region, to Douro Superior, the driest, hottest and most sparsely populated area of the Douro. Rainfall is about 19.7 inches annually in Douro Superior, compared to 35.4 inches downriver in Baixo Corgo; the average annual temperature is 70 (degrees fahrenheit) compared to 64 further west.
Pocinho, about 20 kilometers from the Spanish border, is the end of the rail line. It’s about 10:40 a.m. when we jump off the steps of the railroad car, but the station clock unchangingly asserts that the time is 4:25. The heat is lavish, penetrating. The village is dusty, shuttered, ramshackle, like a set for the kind of Western movie that ends with everyone being sadder but no one being wiser.
High above, in the scrub-covered hills, however, lies an oasis, the Quinta do Vale Meão, founded in 1877 by Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, who, in the period of her greatest power, owned 30 properties in the Douro, making her the most important proprietor in the region. When Dona Antonia bought the property, the local saying was that she would better have bought land in Angola, because that African country was more accessible than Pocinho. “But then the railroad was built through, as she knew it would be,” says Quinta do Vale Meão’s present owner, Francisco Javier de Olazabal, the great-great-grandson of Dona Antonia. “That cut the travel from Porto to Pocinho from 12 days to five hours. Now it takes only four hours by train, so, you see, we improve by one hour each century.”
Francisco Javier de Olazabal is known as Vito, to distinguish him from his son, Francisco, the winemaker at Meão, who is called Xito; Xito’s cousin, Francisco Ferreira, also a descendant of Dona Antonia and the winemaker at Quinta do Vallado, is known as Chico. The close relationship between Vito, Xito and Chico merely touches the surface of the root structure of relatedness by family, marriage and quinta ownership that permeates the Douro and goes back generations. It is not uncommon in the Douro to be talking to a gentleman who happens to own this quinta and that quinta and used to own this other quinta — meaning an estate — but he sold it to his cousin, and then to talk to this gentleman’s wife and discover that she and her family own another quinta. A chart of the history of the families and quintas of the Douro would resembles a game of Chutes and Ladders.
Quinta do Vallado and Quinta do Vale Meão, along with Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vale D. Maria and Niepoort Vinhos, form the group rather exuberantly named Douro Boys, dedicated to advancing the quality and the image of the region, not only through port but through the increasingly important table wine segment, which, for these estates, dominates their production.
A bone-crunching ride in a battered pick-up truck takes us to a high point on the Vale Meão estate, 350 meters about the river, from which the view is stupendous. The hills recede from the Douro in its upper reaches (in Portugal) and the landscape broadens. “There are over 130 grape varieties in the Douro,” Vito tells us, “so there is always the potential for finding new things in what is already here. There is need to put much investigation into these grapes.” In other words, we don’t need cabernet and merlot, though, oddly, that night we taste fermenting pinot noir from the tank at Niepoort. The vineyards here, stretching down and around the hillsides, are planted to touriga nacional (50%), tinta roriz, known as tempranillo in Spain (30%), touriga francesa (15%), tinta amarela (5%), tinta barraca (5%) and tinta cao (5%). The vineyards are not planted as field blends, as used to be common in the Douro. “Everything is block planted,” says Vito, “because grapes are different and have different needs and act differently.” Eighty-one hectares, about 208 acres, are under vine at Meão, with 65 hectares in full production.
A few parcels are being picked in the noonday sun. Workers go through the rows, bending to their task, clippers in one hand, finding the cluster of grapes with the other and needing a third hand to push away the leaves and other stalks. They carry a pail for the bunches, and when the pail is filled, it is emptied into a plastic bin. Other workers collect the bins and load them onto the truck for transport to the winery and the sorting table. Pickers are paid 33 euros (about $52) for an eight-hour day, that is, two four-hour segments, beginning at 8 a.m., with a lunch break. The producer pays for the workers’ social security and insurance. Some work full-time at the estate, but most are seasonal workers who move from one region to another through a contractor.
For many years, Vito was president of the family company, Ferreira, but he resigned in 1998 to restore Quinta do Vale Meão. That task included a careful restoration of the 140-year-old winery, with its walls of double granite and its beautiful roof and ceiling of fine old chestnut beams. Though the winery is filled with modern steel tanks and a new office and laboratory, it retains the original rugged concrete legares, though somewhat smaller, and a sense of history compounded of the smell of oak and fermenting grapes and the record of a century and a half of vintages.
In the winery’s tasting room, we go through nine vintages of Quinta do Vale Meão Douro Red, 1999 to 2007. Here are brief notes on each wine:
>1999. “An experiment” — only 10 percent of the winery’s production in its first year — that turned out beautifully. Radiant, spicy, beguiling at first, then dense and chewy, a marriage of power and elegance; vibrant and resonant; black currant, plum and lilac, elements of moss and minerals slowly build, feels deeply attached to the earth; an ache of tannin at the back of the throat. Could age another five to seven years. Exceptional.