“I think it will be a great surprise to everyone.” Surprise! My ears grow a little, trying to hear better in the happy murmur. The table is U-shaped and we sit a bit away on one of the flanks. The room is white, almost minimalistic, a lot of stone and just a little fabric. The voices bounce like ping-pong balls.
We eat and drink a tasty lunch at Hotel Douro Scala’s restaurant in Cidadelhe. Each dish accompanied by wines from Miguel Champalimaud’s vineyards; Paco de Teixeiró in Vinho Verdhe and Quinta do Côtto, the latter right next doors.
Mafalda Bahia Machado, winemaker at Quinta do Côtto since two years, gives the cryptic answer to our question how she has influenced the vintages she has had responsibility for. With an education in viticulture and oenology from the University of Porto Mafalda belongs to the growing group of young, well-educated female winemakers. Her internships include producers from all over the world; Australia, New Zealand, California and at home in the Douro at Niepoort. Our curiosity about the content of the surprise grows, but no, she does not want to define it.
Quinta do Côtto has already a reputation for surprises. The estate was early to make non-fortified Douro wines and among the first to bottle and sell the wine themselves. Lately, the cork deicision is the most discussed. The sensational news were spread via Reuters in 2006 and were even reported in the Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet; “Skruvkork nyhet för vintillverkare” (“Screwcap, novelty for winemaker”).
A daring decision of a Portuguese producer. As on request, this decision stirred up deep emotions in the cork industry. Mafalda emphasises that the reason was problems with corked wine, as about every tenth bottle was influenced by TCA, and she asks us to note the more exclusive design of Quinta do Côtto’s screwcaps. It is a bit different to mimic an ordinary cork closure.
The surprise, what is it about? We try some more questions. Well, it is something about putting a personal imprint in the wine. To put her personality into it. Our follow-up question is of course; “So what is your personality?” The answer comes as one of many warm, pearly laughters.
So we coax a little more. Well, she thinks there are too many powerful, overoaked wines made in Douro. Too much tannin, too much alcohol, to much of much. Well then, the opposite?
Elegance proves to be Mafalda’s keywords. Aha, the winemaker’s personality. Elegance. Was that why she laught so lovely?
But what is then an elegant wine? Now the answer comes quickly; structure, good acidity, velvet tannins and lower alcohol. She stresses the last, “the company also likes to produce low alcohol wines”. And of course, pleasant fragrances and good flavour in your mouth. A long time after you drank it.
We touch the subject again when we talk about assemblage. “Each winemaker who has been here, has given a little bit of themselves. But you cannot run away completely from what Côtto is and what people are used to, what they like. You cannot change the brand, but for each year we can change some small things. And of course we try every year to make it a little bit better, but in small changes.”
Here, in Baixa Corgo, the coolest, most western part of the Douro valley, the conditions for producing the elegant wine Mafalda strives for are better than in the inner, warmer parts. There, the wines more easily get more power and can be a bit jammy.
The disadvantage of Baixa Corgo is more rain, about 600 mm per year compared with 300-400 in Cima Corgo, a more damp climat and thus bigger problems with fungus attacks. To spray is currently necessary explains Mafalda. However, there are plans to convert to organic production, but not yet.
“You must always think of the environment, but I think quality should be the first thing,” comments Mafalda. “We really want to grow as green as we can right now. But it takes some years to change completely, but we will definitely go that way.”
Mafalda stresses many thimes how happy she is to be able to work with the quinta’s own grapes. Otherwise it is not uncommon to rely more or less on purchased grapes. Most vineyards are very small and the owners sell their grapes to the wine producers. It is an advantage to control the full process, from vine to wine. Not least when the grapes from the same variety can differ significantly depending on which plot they come from.
Douro’s winding valleys put their mark on the hillside vineyard plots. Even if schist is the dominating type of soil, the inclination and sun exposure can vary completely between plots located just 100 meters apart. “We know our different plots and separate them in the winery based on our knowledge and what we want to do with the grapes,” says Mafalda.
We stand at the edge of the vineyard, just beside the grand main building, a part of the total 70 hectars belonging to the estate. The sun is warm, there is just a light breeze. Behind us some noise from a tractor.
We started to admire the view. And then the house. A fancy one from the 18th century, today summer house for the Champalimaud family. The terrace is framed by beautiful, smooth granite blocks. The front yard too. Turns out to be remains from the quinta’s lagares. No foot trodden grapes any more. Insted small basket presses, pressing so smoothly and carefully. Mafalda tells us that no port has been produced since 2005.
Now we admire the vines. Ha, we wine tourists, we admire and gape at so much. Easily entertained we can say. Provided that the visit takes place under professional guidance, of course.
So we wonder how we can recognise the big star, Touriga Nacional, among the multitude of varieties proudly presented by the Douro. The answer brings out some laugher again.
“Simple. It is the one that is the least organised. Touriga Nacional looks like it has hair everywhere! It is so disorganised and the canopy opens a lot. Usually they say that the winemaker loves it, but the viticulturist hates it. It is so difficult to maintain a straight canopy.”
Now we look more critically on the rows in front of us. Oh yes, they look rather bushy even if it is early in the season. The young branches seem to go their own way, they sprawl in all directions.
“Wine made only of Touriga Nacional can be kind of boring,” says Mafalda. “Cause it smell all the same. When you on the other hand mix several grapes it gives you the complexity and greatness of Douro. For example Touriga Franca, I love Touriga Franca for its balance and good acidity. The mix of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and all the other ones is incredible.”
There is a plot on the quinta with 100 year old vines, a mix of many different varieties. These grapes are used to make the premium wine, Côtto Grande Escolha, only produced the best years.
In the winery, the assemblage, i.e. the blending to create the final wines, is always a meticulous process where every barrel and tank are tasted. If the wine doesn’t comply with the high standards, it will be sold in bulk.
The Portuguese oak is another new surprise to us. We noted the lovely touch of herbiness, some small green notes, when we tasted the wines for lunch. Thought they came from some of the grapes. We have learnt that both Touriga Franca and Tinta Amarela can give a bit herbiness. But the reply was that just those notes could be drived from the barrells.
Mafalda likes the Portuguese oak, consider it to give a fine balance to the wine and also to respect the fruitiness. The barrels often get better with usage and give fine, round tannins. And yes, it can give some green, herby notes, but she also argues that the cooler climat in Baixa Corgo can contribute to these.
Quinto do Côtto also uses American and French oak. For the barrel interested, it can be mentioned that all barrels are of 300 liters size and are used in about Three years before they are sold. The purchase price is about 1000 Euro and the selling price is about 50. No wonder it really affects the wine price. Côtto Grande Escolha gets 14 months in new barrels. Thereafter they are used during two years for Quinta do Côtto, which gets 9 months maturation in barrel.
If we liked Quinta do Côtto? Oh yes, in that area there were no surprises. As good as expected, if not even better. Just to bad that these beautiful wines not seem to be available at home in Sweden.
However, first to be tasted are the Minho classed wines from Champalimaud’s Quinta Paço de Teixeiró. 10 ha of vineyards, located about 50 km from Quinta do Côtto, in the Serra do Marão mountains, overlooking the Douro. The grapes are grown on south-facing schistous slopes at about 600 meters altitude in a little cooler climat.
White, rosé and sparkling are represented in the portfolio, even if the rosé wine is made at Quinta do Côtto. Mafalda explains that the brand Teixeiró stands for a light and fresh style, where the alcohol deliberately is hold on a lower level. The 2012 we taste count 12% for the white and 12,5% for the rosé.
Teixeiró Branca 2012. White made of about 50/50 Avesso and Loureiro, just raised in stainless steel. A small part went through the malolactic fermentation, “to remove some green notes from the wine”. Fresh, young with nice nose; citrus, some floral notes and minerality. Light, but with a mouthfilling roundness, balanced acidity, light tropical fruitiness and fine minerality. Good length. A simple fresh breeze, chilling on warm days.
Teixeiró Rosé 2012. Touriga Franca, just over 50%, and Tinta Roriz. Shy, young nose. Light, fresh with a fruity character dominated by strawberries and traces of minerality. Easy accessed not least thanks to a nice, very slight fruity sweetness. Good length with mild strawberry notes. One size up compared to its blonde sister. Freshness as the common denominator.
Then the wines from Quinta do Côtto:
In the first glass Quinta do Côtto 2011. About 25% Touriga Nacional, 20% Tinta Roriz and a good part Touriga Franca and Sousão. 9 months on old barrels, 2nd and 3rd fill, previously used for Côtto Grande Escolha. Dark opaque red. Pronounced, developed aromas of dark berries, mature blue plums, prunes and blackberries. Light spiciness from dry herbes and some grains from the pepper mill. Oak. On the palate, fullbodied with fresh acidity and matching velvetsoft tannins. Well integrated oak. Very good length with dark berries, spiciness and oak. Tight, balanced with elegant vibes. Really beautiful, affordable, feminine wine backed by well balanced power.
The premium wine Côtto Grande Escolha, or translated “excellent choice”, is also from the 2011 vintage. A “field blend”, old vines of different varieties that have seen a century pass by. Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz dominate. Unlike the rest of the quinta, all work is done manually as it is impossible to use tractors in the old vineyard. Matures in new barrels, 50% Portuguese oak, 30% French and 20% American, for 14 months.
Purple opaque colour. Big, developed nose of dark berries, blackberries, pepper, herbs and some discrete floral notes. Fullbodied, exquisitely balanced with fresh acidity and velvetsmooth but marked tannins. Beautiful texture, tight and concentrated. Dark berries, plums, morello cherries, herbiness, fine integrated oak. Delicous, very good length. Power dressed in an exquisite costume. An excellent wine.
We visited Quinta do Côtto in May 2014. This post was originally posted in Swedish on my blog Ljuva Druvor.