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The Douro wine revolution
Part 7: Quinta do Vale Dona Maria

Lemos & van Zeller Lda, Quinta do Vale D. Maria, 5130 Ervedosa do Douro
Tel: 254 732 375 Fax: 234 731 591

The view from Quinta do Vale D. Maria

Cristiano van Zeller was previously owner of Quinta do Noval, but sold up to AXA in 1993. Since then he’s seems to have been pretty busy, and his list of current projects makes exhausting reading. His own property is Quinta do Vale D. Maria, an attractive 19 ha property in the Rio Torto valley, with 10 ha of vines, most of which are 50 years old. The vineyard has a south/southwest exposure, and has mixed plantings of some 28 different varieties.

The estate has been in his wife’s (Joana Lemos) family for 150 years, but between 1973 and 1996 it was leased to Graham’s Port. Joana and Cristiano took it back in September 1996, and purchased it from the family. By this time, the vineyard had been neglected for a while. Because it’s difficult to replant the dead vines in the middle of the rows, there are quite a few gaps, giving the vineyard a slightly backward, rustic look.

Other Van Zeller involvements include a joint venture with José Maria da Fonseca, called José Maria da Fonseca & Van Zeller. This venture owns two Quintas in the Alto Douro, Vale da Minha (5 ha) and de Mós (10 ha), and are producing a table wine (called Domini), and LBV and vintage Ports. Van Zeller is also responsible for the commercial side of things at Quinta do Vallado, is in charge at table-wine-producing Quinta da Portela, and helps his winemaker, Sandra Tavares, sell the wines from her family’s Estremadura estate Quinta de Chocopalha. Sandra, married to Dirk Niepoort’s winemaker Jorge Serôdio Borges, is in full control of the winemaking here, with some input in the final blending from Cristiano and Francisco Olazábal (winemaker at Vallado and do Meão). She kindly spent some time talking me through the winemaking process and showing barrel samples. 

The old vines

Smart lagares in the winery

1 ha of vines are picked each day, which works out at about 3.5 tonnes. Everything is foot-trodden in the modern-looking lagares (which have temperature control), and the table wines have 2 days of cold maceration before fermentation. Some are fermented in the lagares, but normally go to vats after a couple of days. All the ports are fermented and foot trodden in lagares. The amount of stem contact varies depending on how ripe they are, and is typically 10-15% for ports, and 5-10% for table wines.

There’s been an increased shift towards table wines here with the 2000 vintage. Whereas in previous years the balance was 70% Port, 30% table wine, from now on it will be 40% Port, 60% table wine. 80% new oak is used here, almost all of which is French (there’s just the odd experimental American oak barrel). 

 2001 was a tricky vintage in the Douro. Normally, as harvest time approaches the potential alcohol increases by 1% a week, but in 2001 the unusual conditions meant that it zoomed up by 2.5% in the same period. Alcohol levels in these wines are quite high (14.8-15%), and it was necessary to add some acid. 

Barrel 1 Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2001, north-facing parcel, new Demptos barrel. Fresh, bright spicy nose with quite elegant herby fruit. Some spicy oak evident, good acid and good concentration. Medium bodied.

Barrel 2 Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2001, south-facing parcel. Very concentrated purple with lots of ripe herbal fruit and spicy oak. This is richer, with firm, spicy tannins: a lot bigger.

Barrel 3 Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2001, from vines near the river. Opaque purple/black colour. Rich, concentrated sweet fruit on the nose with a lovely herbal spiciness. A big, concentrated wine with lots of spicy new oak. Lovely.

Barrel 4 Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2001, a south-facing/north-facing blend, Cadus barrel. Focused bright spicy nose. Lovely balance: bright fruit and good acidity, with dusty, spicy tannins. Very attractive.

Barrel 5 Same as 4, but this time the barrel is new American oak. What a difference! The nose is much more forward, and at a superficial level is extremely bright, sweet and attractive. The palate is very spicy, rounded and sweet, but the imprint of the oak barrel masks a lot of the character of the wine. Sandra says that for many American journalists this is their favourite barrel, but I think it’s a rather ugly, forward caricature of a wine that lacks any class or elegance on the palate. But the nose is highly seductive even at this early stage. I’m not suggesting that American oak is never appropriate, but for fine wines like these I suspect it’s a bit of a disaster.

Barrel 6 Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2001, south-facing parcel, Cadus barrel. Deep herby, spicy nose with some chocolatey fruit. Quite soft and lush on the palate with some tannins hiding underneath.

Barrel 7 Quinta da Portela 2001. Portela is an estate in the Alto (upper) Douro, which is a hotter region with less than 200 mm of rainfall each year. This wine, a blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao, shows rich, liquoricey fruit. It’s very ripe and full with spicy tannins and a chocolatey, roast coffee edge. Attractive in a different style.

Barrel 8 Casal de Loivos 2001. Casal de Loivos is located high above Pinhão at an elevation of 400 m. Owned by the Sampayo family, as well as a tourist lodge it has 2 ha of vines. The wines are made at Quinta do Vale D. Maria with some help from Telmo Rodriquez, and the first vintage was 1999. This is a rich, spicy herbal wine showing lots of red berry fruits. Quite big but nicely balanced. Sells for €10 at the house.

Later on I tasted the first two vintages of Casal de Loivos, together with a couple of vintage ports.

Casal de Loivos 1999
The first vintage, this is a bit of a disappointment. Apparently it was a difficult vintage and a lot of the grapes were in poor condition. Slightly muted nose. Medium bodied palate shows berry fruits with a spicy edge. Not bad, but not compelling. Very good

Casal de Loivos 2000
Attractive nose shows tight berry fruit with a smoky, spicy edge. Lovely herbal complexity. The palate displays chunky herbal berry fruit with plenty of complexity, some tannin and good acidity. Very good/excellent

Quinta do Vale D. Maria Vintage Port 2000
Sweet, rich nose is a tiny bit closed but displays a spicy edge. The palate shows great concentration of sweet spicy fruit. Lots happening here. Very good/excellent

Van Zeller/José Maria da Fonseca Vintage Port 2000
First vintage. Bright, herby forward nose is quite expressive. Nice balance and good structure on the palate: this is quite open already. Very good/excellent