Masters of Portuguese Wine
These six influential characters are reshaping the Portuguese wine scene into something modern, dynamic and quality focused.
These are people who enjoy wine and want to communicate that enjoyment—they’re not white-coated scientists devoid of humor.
Yet by definition, wine masters are masters of their craft and masters of the terroir, history and grapes with which they work. They influence the way others in a wine region think and the direction in which the region evolves. They do this through the wines they produce and the advice they give to others.
Especially exciting about these people is that they are making wines at all price points. While they may make limited quantities of top-flight wines, they also have the skill to craft wines for everyday enjoyment.
Portugal’s wine scene is developing fast. Every year, new producers appear, symbols of dynamism and innovation. But throughout all the country’s many wine regions, these wine masters are the catalysts for change.
Here are the six people, from south to north, who are the shaping the future of Portugal’s wines.
Luis Duarte, The Estate Master
Find a top wine in the Alentejo with the word herdade as part of its name, and the likelihood is that Luis Duarte will be behind it.
An herdade is an estate. In the Alentejo, it is often a vast estate with cork trees and forests as well as vines. And increasingly, these herdades are the origins of the best Alentejo wines.
“I am in the business of bringing out the best in estate wines,” says Duarte. “I believe that the Alentejo can make the best wines in Portugal and I want to prove it.”
Born in Angola and brought up in the Douro, the 46-year-old Duarte now calls Alentejo home.
“My first job was at Herdade do Esporão,” says Duarte. “I arrived there and was told to create a winery in three months for 15 million bottles.”
While he’s a consultant—he calls himself “somebody who works with friends”—he’s one who exudes relaxation even at harvest time.
“I have a great team,” he says over a succession of tapas, even as he fields a text message from his contact at a winery.
With seven wineries as clients, plus his own wines, he has plenty of “projects.” A new endeavor for the American market is Vera Vinho Verde, which has taken him back to his origins in the north of Portugal.
“My wine style is for elegance,” he says. “I don’t want to know about phenolic ripeness. I just avoid green tannins and then use less extraction, less working of the wine. I don’t want to make a wine that is so expressive that it is good for nobody.”
He starts a project and helps out his friends. Needing to understand people is an important part of how he works. To make great wine “I have to live the project,” he says. “But I am not Jesus, I don’t have miracles. I am just a winemaker.”
Luis Duarte 2010 Rubrica (Alentejano); $25, 94 points . Laurel Importers. Editors’ Choice.
Herdade de São Miguel 2010 Private Collection (Alentejano); $50, 93 points. Saraiva Enterprises.
Herdade Grande 2009 Gerações Colheita Seleccionada (Alentejano); $58, 92 points. M Imports LLC.
João Portugal Ramos Mastering Brands
First consultant, now wine producer of over 8 million bottles a year, João Portugal Ramos has been an immense influence in the 20-year-old renaissance of Alentejo. He’s merged the traditions of a volume-producing region with a strongly branded future.
An agronomist by training, his career as consultant lasted 10 years, until 1997 when he built his own winery.
“As a consultant you need to have a balancing act between what you have learned and can teach and what has existed for centuries. It’s a question of what you can improve, not what you can change,” says Ramos. “Imagine—I was the first to introduce temperature control. Before that everybody just had to use too much sulfur.”
Until the late 1990s, says Ramos, “the big problem of Portuguese wines had been that big companies bought wine, not grapes.”
That changed when cooperatives started marketing their own wine rather than selling it in bulk. As an agronomist, he wanted control over his own grape supply. Today, he buys from nearly 300 parcels, but claims to know them all.
We’re talking on a roof terrace, the hum of the harvest reaching up to us from the winery below. Doesn’t he need to watch?
“I have a good team. I don’t need to be there all the time,” he says. Now 60 years old, he’s proud that his daughter Filipa has joined him at what has just been renamed João Portugal Ramos Family Estates.
His understanding of the importance of brands led him to the American market and his importer, Winebow.
“They pushed me into branding and into Vinho Verde,” he says. “I wasn’t aware when I started how strong my name was, because of my consultancy.”
His brands, Marquès de Borba, Ramos, Vila Santa and Loios, are recognizable and made in volume, signs of a new Portugal.
J. Portugal Ramos 2012 Ramos Reserva (Alentejano); $15, 90 points. Winebow. Best Buy.
J. Portugal Ramos 2011 Vila Santa Aragonez (Alentejano); $20, 90 points. Winebow. Editors’ Choice.
J. Portugal Ramos 2012 Loios Tinto (Alentejano); $10, 87 points. Winebow. Best Buy.
Álvaro de Castro, Master of Granite
When I arrive at Álvaro de Castro’s winery, the only people around are working the bottling line. It’s the first day of the harvest, and everybody else is in the vineyard.
One bumpy ride aboard an ancient Jeep later, and there is de Castro, straw hat on his head, riding a bike around the vines. Before he can get off the bike, he laughs—he often laughs—and then launches into a paean of praise for old vines.
“I think preserving old vines is so important because sometimes we find something that was forgotten but makes really good wine,” de Castro says. “I found a vine with no name the other day—that really excites me.”
The eastern Dão, under the heavy frown of the Estrela Mountains, is a land of strange granite boulders strewn about at random in the fields. This is an ancient region that is only now finding its identity, capable of producing structured, complex wines.
Before the Portuguese Revolution in 1974, all grapes in the Dão had to be taken to the cooperatives. The quality consequences were dire. Yet de Castro loves the potential of this harsh, mountainous region.
“We can make the most fantastic wines,” he says. “My wine is dry, full-bodied but not too much. I want it very balanced, everything that you will like in a wine. That’s what people want, and my region really can follow this mood.”
I ask de Castro how his example of making top quality wines influences other growers in the Dão: “We are all individuals here, we work for ourselves,” he says. “But people do come to me. The last guy who came here wanted to be so radical. He was French. I told him be calm and take your time.”
That’s just what de Castro’s impressive wines need: time.
Álvaro Castro 2008 Pape (Dão); $65, 95 points. Laurel Importers. Cellar Selection.
Álvaro Castro 2008 Quinta da Pellada (Dão); $65, 93 points. Laurel Importers. Cellar Selection.
Álvaro Castro 2009 Quinta da Pellada Branco (Dão); $72, 93 points. Laurel Importers.
Jorge Moreira, Master of Scale
Tiny wineries, medium-size wineries, large wineries: 42-year-old Jorge Moreira seems to be able to handle them all by applying the same philosophy to all three.
“I make 40 different wines,” he says. “But it’s not me, it’s the grapes. I translate the grapes into wines.”
In the just-finished tasting room at Quinta de la Rosa in the Douro Valley, the quinta’s buildings seem to hang like the prow of a ship over the still waters of the Douro River. Quinta de la Rosa, where he has been winemaker since 2002, is the medium-size winery in Moreira’s portfolio. The smallest is his own Poeira project, while the largest is Real Companhia Velha, a multimillion-bottle company, the oldest in the Douro. He has been chief winemaker there since 2011.
As we taste the wines of Quinta de la Rosa, Poeira and yet another project—a joint venture with the Bergqvist family of Quinta de la Rosa—he explains that he wants to deliver the ripeness and power of the Douro while retaining freshness, structure and balance.
“You can make wines bigger and fatter by adding chemicals,” he says. “But you don’t need them. I wait until the grapes say, ‘Pick me.’ ”
“The way I make wine it is impossible to be a consultant, you have to follow every stage of the process,” he says, so Moreira works only in the Douro.
When he started working at Real Companhia, they wanted him to concentrate just on making a top wine to compete with the best.
“I said no, I have to manage everything,” says Moreira.
In the short time he has been at the helm, he has taken this big company away from winemaking by the book—“they had records and facts for everything and followed them every year, I don’t work like that”—and toward crafting wines that show individual character.
Says Moreira, “My passion is to make wine that people want to buy and drink.”
Poeira 2010 Douro Vinum Wine Importing and Distribution; $40, 94 points. Cellar Selection.
Quinta de la Rosa 2010 La Rosa Reserva (Douro); $50, 94 points. Winesellers Ltd. Cellar Selection.
Real Companhia Velha 2011 Quinta das Carvalhas Vintage Port; $50, 93 points. Admiral Imports.
Xito Olazabal, Mastering History
Xito Olazabal, 44, is the great great grandson of Doña Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, the 19th-century matriarch of the Douro who founded so many great quintas (estates), like Vesúvio, Vallado, Seixo and Vargellas.
Today, the family still controls the last of the quintas that Doña Antonia created, Quinta do Vale do Meão. Set high up river, on the way to Spain, it still feels remote, a complete world apart.
Xito and his father Vito (both officially named Francisco) have painstakingly rebuilt this estate into one of the showpieces of the Douro. Meanwhile, Vallado, way downriver, also remains in the family, and Xito makes the wine there along with his cousins, the current owners.
There may be plenty of history and there may be lagares for fermenting the new wine, but both Vale Meão and Vallado have brand new wineries and, in Xito, an outlook that blends modernity with a great respect for tradition.
At the vast 700-acre Vale Meão estate we ascend to the chapel that stands on an outcrop above the house to get a better perspective on the vineyards spread out below.
“When Doña Antonia planted the estate in the 19th century, she broke with local tradition and planted grape varieties in blocks,” he says. “It has allowed us to make great use of the terroir. I always want to make a wine that can point to the terroir.”
The Meão estate produces two wines, just like a Bordeaux chateau. There is the first wine, Quinta do Vale Meão, and the second wine, Meandro do Vale Meão.
With its hot summer climate, it would be easy to make huge, powerful wines, but Xito is having none of it.
“I don’t think very ripe wines are any good,” he says. “We were making bigger wines, while now we look for finesse and elegance. I am very proud that people can recognize the character of Vale Meão in our wines.”
Quinta do Vale Meão 2009 Douro; $75, 95 points. Deutsch Family Wine and Spirits. Cellar Selection.
Quinta do Vallado 2010 Reserva Field Blend (Douro); $60, 93 points. Quintessential Wines. Cellar Selection.
Quinta do Vale Meão 2009 Meandro do Vale Meão (Douro); $24, 91 points. Deutsch Family Wine and Spirits.
Anselmo Mendes, Master of Cool
“The image of Vinho Verde is a wine that is just a drink with some sweetness and a little gas,” says Anselmo Mendes, as we sit in O Gaveto, one of the best fish restaurants near Oporto.
“That for me is a tragedy. This is a region of great white wines, the sort of wines I make and others are increasingly making.”
The cool northern end of Portugal is home to Mendes, where his family has vines in the Alvarinho region just south of the Spanish border. Now 51, he has been working in Vinho Verde, the rugged, mountainous green wine region all his life.
He currently works for three Vinho Verde producers and produces his own wines. These are wines of terroir, based around the three great grapes of the region: Alvarinho, Loureiro and Avesso.
His wines combine the freshness of cool climate wines and the richness and complexity of this granite land. He is not afraid of using wood with his own Muros de Melgaço Alvarinho, although he says, “When I first made this wine, my father was shocked.”
Oak is also a factor in Curtimenta, a wine made with a long maceration and aged in neutral wood barrels, and in the Loureiro-based wines of his client Quinta do Ameal.
A believer in Vinho Verde as a wine capable of aging, he shows me a 2009 Alvarinho that is on its way to becoming like a very mineral Riesling.
Mendes and a few others are where Vinho Verde is going—because it is a region able to do more than light, sweet wines. Mendes is showing that it has the potential to be a major white-wine region. These highly rated wines hold out the promise of a great future.
Anselmo Mendes 2012 Muros Antigos Escolha (Vinho Verde); $14, 91 points. Aidil Wines. Best Buy.
Anselmo Mendes 2012 Muros Antigos Alvarinho (Vinho Verde); $16, 90 points. Aidil Wines.
Quinta do Ameal 2011 Loureiro (Vinho Verde); $15, 90 points. Oz Wine Company. Best Buy.