My thoughts fly away when I try to listen to what the assisting winemaker Pedro Guedes has to tell. About an imaginary triangel between USA, Portugal and France. Knowledge from the famous producer of sparkling wine in Napa Valley, Schramsberg, in combination with unique grapes and terroir in the highest part of the Douro valley, to make a product with French roots, in a traditionel manner just as in Champagne. Vértice – where three sides come together?
We stand in a large building, in what at the outside mostly resembles an old factory. Despite the heat outside it is chilly. And a bit hard to hear. Glass clinking, machines making noise, people talking. The bottling line makes the most of the noise and the sound flies between stainless steel tanks, hard concrete walls and the tin roof high above us. Caves Transmontana’s employees are putting the base wine in bottles. The wine that in a traditional way will ferment a second time in bottle to become the festive, effervescent bubbly beverage, Vinho Espumante do Douro D.O.C.
Pedro starts to tell the saga of how it came about that an American started production of sparkling wine high up in the Douro valley. In the little village Alijó where we are today. It does not take long before the winemaker Celso Pereira joins us and continues to take us through the fascinating story.
My own thoughts have got caught on the saga hook in the noise; “What’s the story behind the wine? Tell it! People love a good story.” Who said so? Probably not a single one, rather my own condensation. Marketing? Yes of course. However, this is also a story about love, friendship and enthusiasm. The criteria for a good story are surely met in this case, considering the nearly implausible coincidences, leading to the start of the project Caves Transmontanas and the brand Vértice, even if the story today have reached the considerable age of more than 30 years.
It starts as a love story. Once upon a time, in the beginning of the 80ies, there was a Portuguese man, working in the port wine industry, who went to a party. There he meets the daughter of an American engineer. The engineer is on a temporary visit to Porto to work with maintenance of one of the many bridges. The daughter has come along. Love blossoms. They get married and will share their time between Portugal and the US.
The love story’s Portuguese man, João Rui Carvalho Maia, was growing grapes in Douro and wanted to develop his knowledge. He goes to Napa Valley, California, and gets a temporary job at Schramsberg. When it is time for salary he does not want to get paid. He was there to learn, he explained. The owner, Jack Davies, was mightily surprised and interested. João and Jack became friends and some years later Jack went on holiday and paid João a visit in Portugal. Well, even if it was vacation, he noticed the potential for wine production in Portugal. And not any wine, but the speciality of Schramsberg. Sparkling wine.
Why in Alijó? Our own journey to come here was long, on winding narrow roads, and it feels a bit like the end of the world. The answer is careful investigations led by Schramsberg’s team with Jack Davies and his winemaker at the forefront. The choice was between Bairrada, with tradition to make sparkling wine, the damp Minho, which gave almost unripe grapes with high acidity, and so the homeland of João, the Douro.
Cima Corgo, furtherst into the Douro valley, won the game. Vineyards at high altitude, around 600 meters, attracted the interest. Additionally, there is granite soil around Alijó, unlike the rest of Douro where schist is found almost everywhere. Granite is good for sparkling, thinks Celso. In Alijó the wish list was fulfilled. The conditions were the right ones.
Four years of studies to select grape varieties followed. Indigenous grapes should be used, that decision was already made. The world was already at that time full of sparkling made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Douro, on the other hand, was full of alternatives. 35 varieties was sifted down to a preferred choice of four.
1988 was Jack Davies ready to hit the start button and Caves Transmontanas was established. The next year Celso Pereira joins as winemaker. He then knows the project very well, as his previous position was at the local cooperative Caves Riba-Tua e Pinhão, which had been involved in prestudies and microvinifications together with Schramsberg’s team since 1984.
Today Caves Transmontanas is an acknowledged producer. The wines are known to be among the best from Portugal when it comes to sparkling. And, the company stands on their own Portuguese legs, accomplished after Jack Davies passed away in 1998 and the family four years later sold its shares to a group of investors. “But,” underlines Pedro, “we still have contact with the American winemaker and work with development of our products.”
Dedication and interest drives for both of them curiosity and deepened studies in the area of oenology. Even in this place, almost at the end of the world, the level of education is high and the urge for research is unleashed. Experiments are frequent. One example is the use of barrels, a relatively new practice. French oak. No new barrels, but well used. It is the very small dose of oxygen, provided by the barrels to the base wine, that is sought, not any oak flavours. And, indeed, there have been some trials with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. However, focus on the traditional grape varieties is still the main strategy.
Have you heard of Gouveio, Viosinho and Rabigato? These are the three green grape varieties selected already 25 years ago. High level of acidity and neutral in flavour, to allow the aromas and complexity from the second fermentation to flourish. “You can’t make sparkling from aromatic grapes, as Muscadel or Sauvignon Blanc,” explains Celso. “Okey, of course you can. But it will be a completely different kind of sparkling compared to what we want to make.”
The black Touriga Franca was also included in the original selection. Simply because there was plenty of it. A necessity in order to get enough grape material when production started. Today declining. Admittedly Touriga Franca gives nice flavours of wild strawberries after the first fermentation, but it is not the optimal choice when it comes to improving the base wine during maturation. Today the total share of Touriga Franca is not more than 20-30%, compared to approximately 75% at the start. Beside these four main varieties, is Malvasia Fina, among others, used.
“What are the greatest challenges to make a good sparkling wine?” we ask. Celso thinks a moment, then comes a two-tier response; “First, to make the quality, each year, very, very similar, regardless of what happened during the harvest. Second, try to improve the quality each year.” The following discussion shows that is a complex matter.
For example, to each year choose the best Gouveio for the two premium wines. Which of the growers’ grapes are the best this year? Which of their plots? It is about understanding what happens during vinification, especially when new approaches are taken to improve the quality. What does barrel maturation imply for Rabigato? For Gouveio? And not least, how to make the blend.
“The art of blending, I think, is one of the most difficult in the wine business. You have some barrels of Gouveio and some of Rabigato. You make small blends and try to build something and go all the way to the top. And this is very, very, very difficult.”
Ultimately it is about the grapes. “If you don’t have grapes, you cannot make good wine,” Celso says. “In my opinion, making wonderful wine, interesting wine, or a wine of personality, that means grapes. Second grapes. And third grapes. If you don’t have grapes, none, not even the best in the world, can come here and make better wine than myself or you.”
“The challenge is the grapes. To understand. To go to the growers, to taste the grapes.” Celso explains that the grower, he maybe has four hectars, but all grapes have not the same profile. He has to make the choices and divide the grapes before harvest. “And you taste the grapes. Okey, let’s keep these to one tank and the other to another. Do you understand? That is to make wine. To go to the land and understand what is happening. Wine is not made in the lab with analyses. To select and make the best choices before and during the harvest, that is 80% of the job to make a good wine.”
But Caves Transmontanas does not own any vineyards. How is the grape material secured? The answer is short and all about business: “contracts”.
It turns out that Jack Davies tied the growers to the project from the very start. He provided vine cuttings. And he provided contracts, that included instructions for how to take care of the vines, cutting and pruning. Control. The same contracts are still valid today, 25 years later. And the same growers, all but one.
“The good thing is that you get grapes from different places. Different Gouveio, different Viosinho, different Rabigato. On the other hand, you have much more to control.”
Vinification in short. Early harvest, in the end of August/start of September, to get grapes with high level of acidity. Harvest by hand in early morning, small cases of 20 kg. As soon as the grapes arrives to the winery they are put in the fridge for 12 hours to cool them to eight degrees. Gentle pressing in a pneumatic press, where each variety is treated differently based on the size of the berries. Separate vinification of grapes and plots based on the decisions made before harvest. When the base wine is ready, blending and then the traditional method where the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. Then maturation in bottle on the lees, different length of time for the four different cuvées.
So what is the result, what do we experience in the glass? Common for the four tasted wine is a distinctive style. An impression and feeling difficult to capture in words.
Vértice Rosé 2011.
Mostly Touriga Franca (75-80%), one year on the lees and 10 gr dosage. Degorged July 2013.
Salmon pink in colour. Medium nose, fresh dominated by wild strawberries. Light, with nice fresh acidity, dry impression and a bit larger size of the bubbles. Fruity of red berries, loads of wild strawberries, spiced by a touch of smokiness. Good length.
The wild strawberry wine. Simple, refreshing. A picture of an arbor pops up in the headd and synthesises the impression.
Vértice Cuvée Reserva Bruto 2010.
A blend of Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Viosinho, Rabigato and a little dash of Touriga Franca. Two years on the lees, 6 gr dosage. Degorged June 2013.
Yellow with copper nuances. Big, fruity nose with elements of bread. Light, with fresh acidity and nice mousse. Fruity, green apples, a bit smokiness and minerality, some complexity. Good, palate filling fruity length.
A small jump up in quality compared to the rosé. Good everyday bubbles or something for the student reception.
Vértice Millésime 2009.
A cuvée of the best grapes from the preferred varieties; Gouveio, Viosinho, Rabigato. A part of the base wine matured in old barrels. 3 gr dosage. Degorged September 2013.
Beautiful yellow hue. On the nose pronounced aromas of bread, a bit smokiness and mature fruitiness. Medium bodied, dry fresh acidity and lovely mousse. Complex flavours with apples, bread, minerality and a touch of oak. Delicious aftertaste.
Very good. Rich, mellow feeling, lovely complexity. French style in Portuguese dress.
Vértice Gouveio Bruto 2006.
All Gouveio, six years on the lees, no dosage. Degorged September 2013.
Beautiful yellow hue. Pronounced bready aromas, brioche. Medium bodied, dry with medium plus acidity and light mousse. On the palate mature fruit dominated by more than overripe apples. A tough of minerality and smokiness. Good length.
Oh yes, the qualities are there, mature and interesting, however not a perfect match to our personal preferences.
Vértice Millésime 2009 becomes our outstanding favourit. Full of character, a strong contender to good crémant and basic champagne. We buy a bottle to enjoy later that evening. Would have loved to put some in the baggage, but the weight stops us. Perhaps this might show up in Sweden? Local grape varieties evoke interest among wine enthusiasts and variation is always nice.
Finally we can note that the time of degorgement is clearly stated on the back label of all Caves Transmontanas’ wines. In this matter, they are ahead of most of their French models.
Note. Vértice is Portuguese for vertex, a concept someone more well-versed in the mysteries of mathematics can explain better. Googleography says a special kind of point that refers to the intersections of a geometric figure. The imaginary triangle of Portugal, USA, Frankrike? Or the intersection of the best? We visited Caves Transmontanas in May 2014.