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”.