The jeep bounces back and forth on its way down the steep and tiny gravel road. Breathtakingly fast, at that is what it feels like. In reality, probably not more than 5 km per hour. It is hot, a bit crowded in the backseat and even more cosy on the benches in the back. But when spirits are on top, who cares?
“Is it ok back there?” someone shouts. The reply back is unanimous. “Yep, very good.” Everyone talking, laughing. The stomach experiences something like a rollercoaster. “Anyone got some pain in the butt?” Hysterical laughters. This was not what we expected when we came; it is so much better. To experience the Douro valley really close up. This is fun. Just cannot stop laughing.
In the front seat, with a steady hand on the wheel, a real charmer. It is not the first time he drives down this winding road.
The view from up there is stunningly beautiful, over the vineyards, through the valley with the meandering Douro River. On top of the hill, the little white chapel we just visited. Dona Antónias beautiful chapel, the very first building our host renovated after being the sole owner of the estate.
Earlier that afternoon we were welcomed to Douro Superior and Quinta do Vale Meão by Francisco Javier de Olazabal’s daughter, Luisa Olazabal. The estate with the cat associating name is with its 220 hectars of vineyards impressingly large. So is also the winery building, made of huge granite blocks, transported here from far away.
Quinta do Vale Meão delivered for many years high quality grapes to the Port house Ferreira in Vila Nova de Gaia. The quinta is also known for being the origin of the red wine Barca Vehla. An iconic wine, the very first to put Portugal on the map of non-fortified fine wines. It was created by Fransisco’s father in law in the beginning of the 50ies, but the history starts much earlier.
The year was 1877, when Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira bought the land from the municipality Vila Nova de Foz Cõa. Dona Antónia was already the biggest land owner in Douro and deeply engaged in the wine industry. At this location, she saw an opportunity to build a model vineyard from the start. She chose it even though the area, at that time, was outside the demarcated region for growing grapes to make port wine (apparently was this not a practical problem, as grapes in reality already were used for port). However, the land remained untouched for the ten long years. Why? A simple answer, she waited patiently for better communications.
Douro Superior was at that time the most remote area of Portugal. It was an adventure to travel from Porto. The most comfortable and secure choice was with boat up the Douro River. But torrents and strong current made it a twelve day trip. To attempt travelling by horse was not recommended. The area was frequently ravaged by bandits.
When the new railway reached Douro Superior, the civilisation came along. Twelve days by boat was replaced by a five hour trip by train. Perhaps Dona Antónia was involved in the railway too. Pocinho train station is suspiciously close to the quinta and Dona Antónia was an influential and uncompromising lady.
It took eight years, from 1887 to 1895, to establish the estate. Vineyards were planted on the previously uncultivated and bushy land. Roads were built. And so was winery, houses and chapel. Two chapels to be correct. One beside the manor and then a one more, i.e. the one we just visited. Although Dona Antónia thought the last one was completely unnecessary. One chapel was quite enough. Hence the inscription on the chapel’s stone plate; a pedido de, on request of, Antonio J Claro da Fonseca, her steward.
Four generations later, the ownership of Quinta do Vale Meão is spread among some 30 relatives. Sadly, it seems like none of the relatives has the right feeling for the estate. No one visits it regularly, no one cares. Nobody, but one single person, our driver, Francisco Javier de Olazabal. Here is a heat that beats for Quinta do Vale Meão.
Since childhood, Fransisco has loved to come to the quinta. Since the 70ies he was also the one responsible for managing the estate, then as a part of his work within the family company, the Port house Ferreira. Slowly but surely Fransisco increases his shareholding, through heritage and through purchase. In 1994 his childhood dream comes true. Quinta do Vale Meão belongs to him.
The first years Fransisco continues to work for Ferreira, now owned by Sogrape, and also to sell the grapes from the estate to them. Then he makes the decision, to step of the management position with Ferreira and instead put all his energy into Vale Vale Meão.
“I was 60 years old in 1998 and wanted to do something for myself instead of working for others, to invest all my energy here,” explains Francisco. “I knew the grapes had great potential. Ferreira made good wine from my grapes.”
“My son, Francisco, who has an education in winemaking, did not want to do anything but working with wine. My own career was in the wine industry. Together we became a strong team.”
In 1999 the first vintage from Quinta do Vale Meão was launched. The success came quickly. Hard work paid off. The grapes are however not used for Barca Velha anymore. The best are instead put into the estate’s new prestige wine, a wine that proudly carries the name Quinta do Vale Meão.
A “second wine” is also produced. Very well known in Sweden. Meandro took the Swedes by storm and sold well.
In years with good conditions, there are also limited releases, almost experimental series, of single variety wines under the label Monte Meão. And, what else to expect, there is a port made in the very best years, Quinta do Vale Meão Vintage Port.
Today is the family owned company chaired by Francisco Javier de Olazabal. His son, who also carries the name Fransisco, is responsible for the winemaking and his daughter Luisa works with marketing and sales.
The large winery in granite was built on Dona Antónia’s time. “Our lagares were then big as swimming pools,” says Luisa Olazabal. “During Ferreira’s time they were not used and when we took over, they were full of all kind of things.”
“My brother Francisco thought it was a good idea to start using them again. So when we renovated the winery, we also renovated our lagares and decreased the size to half the original. We could use the remaining granite when we extended the facility. And the smaller lagares suit us much better. The grapes are always vinified separately lot by lot.”
In the 70ies there was a large replanting of the vineyards. Some plots had been flooded when a dam, Valeira, was built in the Douro River. The quinta was compensated by the government and the money was invested in the replanting. An outcome is the single variety vineyards, i.e. only one grape variety per plot. Elsewhere in Douro, it is not unusual with old plots where different varieties are planted together in the same field.
“In the 70ies there was not that much knowledge about the different grape varieties,” explains Luisa. “But an uncle on my mother’s side was doing a study and he recommended my father to plant Touriga Nacional. That is a variety we believe much in, with low yield and high quality grapes.”
A large part of the estate’s vines is thus Touriga Nacional, almost 45 procent. Also Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz are well represented with about 20 and 25 procent respectively. There are other traditional varieties too, but just by some percent each: Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Sousão as well as some ”other”. Well, Portugal is known for its hundreds of indigenous grape varieties.
We have finished the tour of the winery when Luisa asks if we would a like a short excursion; “Wouldn’t you like to go up to the chapel and see the view over the quinta?” Of course we want. Luisa goes to get drivers and we meet her charming father.
“You know, I love Sweden,” explains Fransisco Javier de Olazabal directly when we meet. “When I was little I read the book about Nils Holgersson’s wonderful trip by Selma Lagerlöf. I’ll never forget it. I remember an island called Gotland, looks like the body of a butterfly.”
“I also remember that you had to know the name of the straits around Denmark to pass the test in geography.” And then he happily recits; “Kattegatt, Skagerack, Great Bält, Little Bält and Sund.”
Fransisco really knows how to seduce a wine lover. Charming engagement, immense knowledge and delicous wines. You fall head over heels. Has this man really reached 75?
We jump into the cars. Fransisco’s jeep and a black Volvo. Up along the steep, bumpy and worn, almost white gravel road. We park at the chapel, built by the founder of the quinta, Dona Antónia. The view is stunning. The Douro River winds through the valley, from east to west. Fransisco points toward the mountains at the end of the valley.
“There is a geological fault in this valley, it goes up north almost 100 km. Northern Portugal is very safe from a seismological point of view. Except for this area. It shakes sometimes. However, the most interesting is that this fault has given us three different types of soil.”
The quinta has not only the schist that almost totally dominates the Douro region, but also granite and an alluvial soil with lime and round pebbles. Fransisco compares the latter with the pebbly soils of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He emphasises the advantage of having the three different types of soil. By making a cuvée from these, the wine gets a greater complexity.
Douro meanders quietly through the valley. We stroll slowly through the woods and come to the edge of the quinta’s land. At this point the river makes an impressively big meander bend, a 180 degree turn, delimiting the land as if it was a peninsula. It is easy to understand why one of the wines got the name Meandro.
The border to Quinta do Vale Meão goes right here, in the middle of the hill. Fransisco points at the steep slope on the other side of the border; “You can easily understand why Dona Antónia didn’t want that land. It would be impossible to plant vines there, too steep and too stony.”
We stroll back, admire the view again and look at the cork oaks. The old ones, burnt by the last big forest fire 20 years ago, and the young ones. Side by side. It is hot, but soon we meet the jeep driving towards us. Fransisco, the considerate, had gone to fetch it and pick us up. We pack ourselves into the jeep and goes back to the winery again, down the winding road, with a lot of laughter and happy shouts. We will never forget this visit.
The tasting room is loaded with water bottles. Exactly what a thirsty wine lover needs after an adventurous jeep excursion. Exactly what is needed to clean the palate, because now it istime to taste the wines from Quinta do Vale Meão.
Tasting notes to follow in the next post…
We visited Quinta do Vale Meão in May 2014. This post was originally posted at my Swedish blog ”Ljuva Druvor”.