“We cannot finish a Douro wine tasting without Port.” Tiago says it very seriously. “Domingos would be very sad with everybody.”
The Alves de Sousa family has just made Douro wines for some 20 years, but Port since generations. Tiago is the fifth. Tradition, but also development.
He puts a bottle of shimmering golden white port on the table. There is an indication of age on the label: “10 year old white”, which means that the port has an average age of ten years. A relatively new classification for white port, Tiago points out to us. Then he tells the story about it.
“White port is our oldest tradition; it used to be our specialty, when we made port to sell to the classic port shippers. We produced white port in the classical style, dry or extra dry. So when we decided to make our own port, we wanted to do something completely different.”
The result was a white port, made the same way as the red. The grapes ferment with the skins, as these hold so much flavours and provide richness and body to the wine. Then, instead of adding spirit in the end of the fermentation, which you do to get a dry wine, the spirit is added just as for a ruby, more in the middle, which keeps the sweetness in the wine.
Additionally, only the very best grapes were selected for this 10 year old port. The vineyards used to make the red premium wines, Lordelo, Abandonado och Gaivosa, have both green and black grape varieties. The black grapes were harvested, but the green ones were left on the vines to ripen a bit longer. After vinification and then about ten years in barrel we have the result in front of us.
“We are trying to take white port to a completely new level,” says Tiago and adds proudly that it has attracted great interest around the world.
Quinta da Giavosa 10 year old White.
Golden yellow, light amber. Big, mature bouquet of oranges, floral notes, almond paste, a hint of bitter almond. Medium bodied, balanced sweetness and acidity. On the palate, da capo with the aromas from the nose; almond paste, parfumed notes, muscovado sugar in the middle, floral notes, mimosa and a touch of oak. Supreme length.
Without any significant experience of the category we think this Port is very good, in fact excellent. There is a freshness that moderates the sweetness, resulting in a perception of being less than the actual around 100 gr/litre. Not the slightest hot feeling from the alcohol (which we are a little sensitive to) and on top of that a delicous palette of aromas and flavours.
“Drink to blue cheese, for example Roquefort or Stilton,” Tiago tells us, “or to a fruit dessert, an apple pie or an apricot pie is really good to our white Port.”
Then a 20 year Tawny. Well, that is the average. This blend holds some really old wine.
Tiago likes to make Tawny. The freedom to blend and design the wine over time. And the unique fact that several generations contribute and work to shape the same wine. A Tawny is the result of three components; the vineyard, the winemaker and the cellarmaster. The Tawny we taste includes wine that Tiago’s father, Domingos, made 40 years ago. Fascinating!
Quinta da Gaivosa 20 year old Tawny. Tawny, with hues of dark orange ambers. Big nose dominated by brown sugar, christmas nuts, almond, dried figs and dates. Medium bodied with balanced sweetness. Complex, dried Christmas fruits and ditto spices. Very good length.
Once again, a fresh feeling when the acidity balance and downtune the sweetness. Once again well integrated alcohol. Delicious, very fine.
Time for the final with Vintage Port from the fabulous vintage 2011. Already proclaimed one of the best ever.
Alves de Sousa uses grapes partly from Gaivosa and partly from Quinta de Oliveirinha, another of the total six family properties. Oliveirinha is located in Cima Corgo, the heart of the Port vineyard area. It contributes with concentration and richness, while the cooler Gaivosa contributes with balance and freshness.
The grapes are foot trodden in lagares . “I’m always the first one to jump in,” laughs Tiago, “and the last one up.” Tiago reintroduced the use of lagares for the Vintage and LBV. Never for Douro wines, the extraction would be too big.
Alves de Sousa Vintage Port 2011. Purple-red-black, totally opaque. On the nose, full of character, powerful young aromas. Blackcurrant, blackberries, blueberries, prunes, chocolate, mint, eukalypthus and green herbs. Fullbodied with fresh acidity and fine marked tannins and attractive sweetness. Immensely concentrated, complex flavour palette. Very long complex fruity aftertaste spiced with cocoa.
An outstanding wine: seductive, exquisite, beautiful. We ask ourselves how to possibly keep it when it is so good right now? Because it is meant to be kept. A wine for the new generations, for our children and grandchildren if we should listen to what Tiago says. This 2011 Vintage Port will peak in 50 years.
The afternoon has turned into early eventing. The hours have passed quickly, all too quickly. It is time to go back to Porto. To our enthusiastic, positive and knowledgeable host we want to say so much, but overwhelmed as we are it becomes no more than a sincere:
Tiago’s goal is to bring out the expression of the nature. The place, the vineyard. In the wine, balance is vital. Never any overextraction or overconcentration. Only a very light filtration to keep all the nuances and give the best opportunities for continued development in bottle. Alves de Sousa’s wines can live and develop for a very long time.
In the previous post we walked to the old vineyard Lordelo while Dr. Tiago Alves de Sousa imparted his knowledge about the Douro, his family’s vineyards and their philosophy. Now it is time to taste their Douro wines in white and red. And of course, because Tiago’s enthusiastic engagement seems endless, continue to fill the goblet of knowledge.
The start is white with a newcomer. Berço means “cradle” and in this case the cradle is placed in the vineyard where Tiago’s father Domingos was born. This location gives the grapes Adesso and Arinto favourable cool conditions at an altitude of about 600 meters. The vintage we taste, the 2011, was the first one to be bottled.
The wine gives us a delightful creamy feeling. The creaminess is derived from fermentation and one years maturation on lightly toasted new French barrels and a gentle battonage. The barrels are stored at a cool location, there is no malolactic fermentation, wich preserves the freshness of the wine.
“We see the barrels as a tool to give the wine more complexity and texture,” explains Tiago. “We don’t want to mask the fruit and therefore we just use very lightly toasted barrels.”
Berço 2011. Light golden hue with large, developed aromas of dried herbs, pineapple and pears. Medium bodied, dry with nice relatively fresh acidity and an enjoyable creamy feeling. Attractive flavour palette with light notes of oak and exotic fruit. Nuanced fine length.
Elegant, fresh with enjoyable weight. Very good today, but it would be interesting to follow the development, likely to top after seven to ten years according to Tiago.
We continue in red and start with the wine that Tiago describes as an introduction to his family’s premium wines, a Reserva from Vale da Raposa, the vineyard next to Gaivosa. The vintage is the fabulous 2011. The wine has got eight months in French barrels. Two varieties play together, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão, approximately half of each, from about 25 year old vines.
“These are two grapes that I really love to work with,”says Tiago. Touriga Nacional is nowadays the flagship grape from Portugal and it is very expressive and very fragrant, floral. Tinta Cão is almost the opposite to Touriga Nacional. Its very nice natural acidity helps to balance all that richness that Touriga Nacional tends to provide.”
Vale da Raposa Reserva 2011. Red, medium intensity. Developed big nose, fruity of dark berries and nice notes of oak. Medium bodied, with good fresh acidity and matching well balanced tannins and beautiful fruitiness. Very good length. Elegant, tight with beginning complexity. Like a lot! A wine that, according to Tiago will develop well and give more complexity in eight to ten years time. After tasting, we nod approvingly to this statement.
Number two of the red is Quinta da Gaivosa. This is a so called field blend, that is grapes from an old vineyard coplanted with different varietals. In this case 20 different grapes from about 80 year old vines. We taste the vintage 2009, a real baby that has many good years ahead.
“Quinta da Gaivosa usually starts to show a little after ten years. It usually gets to its better when it is 20 years. We are drinking now wines from -95 and -97 and -99. 2000 is still very young.”
Quinta da Gaivosa 2009. Red, medium intensity. Young to developed nose. Flowers, red and blue berries, distinct notes of oak. Almost fullbodied with fresh acidity and matching powerful tannins. Concentrated flavours, well balanced, excellent length. A really beautiful baby. A complex, balanced baby. An excellent wine.
Pick 20 different grape varieties? We fly out to the vineyard in our minds, quickly approaching harvest time. Everything we have learnt about different varietals ripen with different pace and that it is so important to harvest at the right point of time: acidity, sugar, phenolic ripeness. How do they do it here?
The question bounces up: “How can you make the best decision about the picking date, when you have 20 different varieties in the vineyard?”
“Good question,” says the passionate viticulturist Tiago. “This is something I love with the old vineyards.”
“You have to go for an average ripening point. Of course that will be a mix. Some berries are a bit more ripe and they will provide you really smooth tannins that are going to get the wine a little more accessible, especially in the beginning. Some have less ripe tannins and higher acidity, a backbone for aging. You get a wine that can show well when it is still young and a wine that can age really well in bottle.”
“Winemakers all over the world are trying to find this combination and try to get it by picking grapes from different altitudes or picking grapes at different times. We have it naturally in our vineyards.”
“Additionally, wonderful things happen when you co-ferment the different varieties. A lot of interaction between the different varietals that never will happen afterwards.”
Time to taste 33 different varietals in the same bottle. Lordelo is the very densely planted, amphitheater-like vineyard we visited earlier that afternoon. 50 meters difference in altitude from the bottom to the top. Over 100 year old vines with extremely low yield: one bunch per vine, one single very tiny bunch with an average weight of 200 grams!!! Each grape with an exceptional concentration and balance.
“The first time we made an individual vinification of the grapes from Lordelo, I loved it from the beginning,” says Tiago. “The wine was so charming, so polished directly after the fermentation. It shouldn’t be like that at that point, normally the wines usually have edges and need to go to the barrel. Lordelo was already so pretty, but I put a little in barrel and it showed well, so the rest went there too.”
Vinha de Lordelo 2009. Red, relatively high intensity. Delicate, a bit shy nose; fruitiness and floral notes. Fullbodied with fresh acidity and marked fine-grained tannins. Concentration and balance: pepper, oak, prunes, a touch of chocolate. Beautiful, almost eternal length.
Wonderful of exceptional quality. The nose a bit shy right now, will open up. The complexity, the balance and the density between the aroma molecules. The length. A top grade on the edge of the notebook.
Lordelo, a wine to keep for many years, at least ten, but so delightful already now.
Last among the reds, a mighty deserted final. Just when we think that it can’t be so much better, then Tiago starts pouring the bottle with the clean white label. One word in black, as written with an old typewriter: Abandonado.
Abandonado was the name that the vineyard workers gave the old vineyard where the vines really had to fight for their lives. More than 20 different varieties, almost 440 meters altitude, the highest around Gaivosa, extremely steep and equally rocky. When it was planted over 80 years ago, it was impossible to get the vines into enough depth due to the rocks. The erosion has since then been devastating and half of the vines have died. It almost looked like an abandoned vineyard, abandonado in Portuguese.
Ten years ago the family thought about the vineyard, what to do with it. The location was wonderful, high altitude and good sun exposure. But the yield was ridiculously low. Was replanting an option?
“We had started to experiment with vinifications vineyard by vineyard, so we thought, let’s do it on this too. Just to even know what to plant next.”
“The result was overwhelming. It showed immediately such a strong character, such a strong personality. We really fell in love with this vineyard and decided to keep it actually just the way it was. And we started to do a wine from that vineyard that took the vineyard’s name, Abandonado.”
We taste the vintage 2009. Still young, but already so appealing. A wine to keep 10, 20 years.
Abandonado 2009. Red, relatively high intensity. Big developed and focussed nose, dark fruit, blueberries, some chocolate and spiciness from herbs and eucalyptus and an exquisite touch of green notes. Fullbodied with fresh acidity and velvetsoft marked tannins. Extremely concentrated, softly fruity with an eternally long, delicious fruity aftertaste. An exceptionally beautiful wine. Tight, elegant, lovely focussed. Another top grade lands in the notebook.
This wine shows two things that make Gaivosa special. From the place, a touch of the eucalyptus growing around the vineyard. From the vinification, an interesting note from a small share of barrels of Portuguese oak. Tiago argues that the Portuguese oak helps to give an aromatic freshness and brings out the herbal notes from the grapes.
To conclude the white and the red is easy: “Excellent, Dr. Tiago.”
What are the motivations for a winemaker to produce really good wine? In the case of Tiago, our suggestion is love, curiosity and scientific accuracy. Although he would probably laugh at this and directly introduce a correction. Because he laughs often, is intensely engaged, takes clear positions and owns a great wit in thought and speech.
The question is wrongly phrased, he would argue, winemaker is not the correct word. At least not in his case. Too narrow. It is all about the grapes, about the vineyard and the whole ecosystem around the place. And on top of that, the role of the winemaker is clearly overrated. That’s it. Period.
Tiago Alves de Sousa is winemaker at Alves de Sousa in Portuguese Douro. We meet him at Quinta da Gaivosa, one of the six family owned quintas. Gaivosa is located in the cooler western part of Douro, in the district Baixo Corgo. The new winery is still a construction site. But what does that matter? Tiago thinks that another winery visit, that would not be so interesting for us. Instead he tempts us with a unique vineyard and takes us for a walk in the lovely early summer heat. Of course, we don’t have any objections for that.
Later that afternoon we, and our palates, will be able to conclude that at Alves de Sousa, there you find excellent wines; wines that we sadly not can by at the monopoly back in Sweden. Neither the Douro wines, nor the Ports. No, we will have to go to Denmark or search net suppliers’ collections. Peculiar, not least as 75% of the production from the 143 hectars, spread among six quintas, is exported. 28 countries get a share of it, with Canada as the largest market.
The large export share is not that strange considering the big international attention. The winepress reports about Alves de Sousa with excellent reviews. For example, they won two gold medals in Decanter World Wine Awards earlier this year. In Portugal they were appointed Producer of the year both 1999 and 2006, additionally the first one that received the award twice. So why not in Sweden?
The Alves de Sousa family has been grape growers for many generations.Tiago’s father Domingos however began with an education to civil engineer, but later got the call and started his wine career in 1987. He established a key strategy for the company; to go from being a supplier to the port shippers to produce under the family brand. To develop Douro wines, white and red table wines, was also an important part of that strategy. We know by now that it has been successful.
Tiago joined the family business in 2003 and has since worked meticulously to explore the potential of the vineyards. As a winemaker he has experimented with small batches to identify the unique expression of the vineyards and each and every special plot. Explore and develop, with love, curiosity and scientific accuracy.
The love is in this case a love for his homelands, to Douro and the diversity the region proudly presents. Each vineyard, every little specific plot is unique. Inclination, sun exposure, variations in water supply and in the schistous soils’ microbiology. Tiago is also careful to point out that the wines are affected by the entire ecosystem around the vineyards, for example the eucalyptus that have been at Quinta da Gaivosa since long time. To preserve the natural vegetation around the vineyards is thus an important part when taking care of the land.
In addition to the diversity of micro climates, Douro has perhaps an even more famous diversity of indigenous grapes. A treasure in their own backyard.
“We know reasonable well about probably 20 indigenous grapes,” says Tiago Alves de Sousa, “but we have still 80 more to discover in the Douro valley. Why should we then plant international varieties? It would be crazy, even worse than crazy, when we have something so unique.”
Douro has also really old vineyards, where the plots are planted with different grape varieties. A result of older generations’ risk mitigation strategy. After Douro had been hit first by oidium and then by phylloxera in the middle and the end of the 19th century, the reasoning was like this; if you grow a lot of different varieties, hopefully some of them are more resistant to diseases than others and you would at least get something to harvest.
At Quinta da Gaivosa they put in a lot of loving care for a very steep, and about ten years ago almost abandoned vineyard, given the telling name Abandonado by the vineyard workers. A co-planting of about 20 different grape varieties, where the vines have reached an age of more than 80 years.
Here is also Lordelo, the destination for our afternoon walk. A very densely planted, amphitheater-like vineyard with beautiful dry walls of schist. 50 meters difference in altitude from the bottom to the top. More than 100 year old vines. More than 30 different varieties. With a yield so low, so low. One bunch per vine, a very tiny bunch, weighing in average 200 grams. Each grape with an exceptional concentration and balance Tiago tells us.
Yes, Tiagos engagement for the vineyards seems infinite. Not that surprising really. Viticulture was his major at university. The studies were long, first an exam in agricultural engineering in 2002, then the laborious path to a doctorate 2010. The dissertation is about water relations and irrigation in the vineyards, with an objective to present some good guidelines for practical use. The result of laborious writing, analyses and conclusions based on experiments in a not entirely unknown vineyard up in Douro Superior.
So there we have the basis for the scientific accuracy. To that, add a large dose of curiosity for the possibilities of his own beloved backyard.
“In the past when we did Quinta da Gaivosa, our best wine, we used to ferment the grapes from our best vineyards together. But I was so curious to know what each plot contributed with to the different things we find in Quinta da Gaivosa. So in 2003 we decided to start to do all these individual vinifications. To learn the expressions of each plot.”
Because it is the expression of the vineyard that is interesting. Tiago underlines that he thinks it is much more exciting to feel the vineyard in the wine than the winemaker.
“The good winemaker is the one that is a silent winemaker,” says Tiago. “You should feel the vineyard in the wine, not the winemaker. That is the role of the winemaker, to enhance the expression of the vineyard.”
Tiago means that the role of the winemaker often is overrated. Then he laughs and says something about hoping his father Domingos not heard that, so he won’t get the idea to lower his son’s salary. No, jokes aside. Tiago emphasises also that even a silent winemaker has to be a present winemaker. He cannot put too much time travelling the world, marketing the wines. For the best of the vines and the wines, he has to be at home, in the winery and in the vineyards.
After listening to Tiago during the afternoon, the last question is really not necessary. We posed it anyway. Alves de Sousa has a large portfolio of different wines, what is the idea behind? The answer confirms what we previously have heard:
“Douro is almost like a puzzle, a patchwork with all these different plots. I think the wonderful thing is really to showcase that. So that is why we have such an extensive line of wines. When you taste every single one you will be tasting the vineyard and you will taste something different. That’s why they exist basically. Because each one is almost like an individual.”
So he said. And what else can we say than a: “Meticulously , Dr. Tiago”.
To be continued, about Alves de Sousa’s Douro wines.
Note. We visited Alves de Sousa in May 2014. This post was originally posted at my Swedish blog “Ljuva Druvor”.