As the train from Porto approaches Régua passengers have a breathtaking view of a classic Douro quinta stretching along the opposite bank: a centuries-old granite and white-washed house, hectares of vineyards spread over an undulating hillside crisscrossed by a few dirt roads and dotted with an outbuilding or two, an orange grove, and olive trees. It is a perfect and very appealing first impression of the Douro wine growing region.
Miguel Braga, together with his family, are carrying on the winemaking tradition begun by his father Mário. Mário Braga grew up in Gaia, and with many friends in Port-making families learned to love the wines and dreamed of owning Douro vineyards and making Port himself some day. In 1972 he purchased Quinta do Mourão together with 4 other properties and began making wines which he sold to the Port shippers. In his turn, Miguel grew up spending his summer holidays in the Douro and has worked every harvest since he was 12.
When Mário passed away in 1999, the family decided to create Mário Braga Herdeiros (literally, the Heirs of Mário Braga) and begin making wine in their own name. A new winery was built and by 2005 Miguel decided to leave his work as an economist and devote himself full time to the wine making enterprise.
The Quintas behind Quinta do Mourão
The firm’s flagship Quinta do Mourão stands on the south bank of the Douro just west of Régua as already described, and is marked on John James Forrester’s famous 19th century map of the Douro. When the property was acquired the house was a roofless wreck, and they began the work of restoring the house and outbuildings. The chapel at the west end of the building is dated to the 16th century, and it is presumed the main house was built around the same time. Now, the house is a comfortable and unpretentious home, where Miguel’s family spend their holidays as well as the harvest period. As we were walking from the house to the new winery I commented on the rather elegant but uninhabited chicken coop, and Miguel laughingly explained they had planned to remove it, but when they consulted old photos of the property, the chicken coop was the one part of the structure that seemed to have survived the centuries wholly intact and unchanged, so they decided to keep it!
Miguel’s father made wines in the old adegga under the house, but in 2002 Miguel had a new modern winery built into the hillside east of the house. When it was done, he was not very happy with the look of the cement building and asked a friend who was an architect to suggest a solution to make the building blend in a bit more with the landscape. Inspiration struck when the friend saw a pile of wooden posts intended for the construction of a new trellis in one of the vineyards. The adega is now covered in a trellis of split wooden posts, which make a fascinating contrast of colour and texture to the schist running along the base of the winery, and causes the whole building to disappear into the surrounding landscape when viewed from a distance.
The family own four other quintas acquired at the same time as Quinta do Mourão. Also on the south bank of the Douro a little further west is Quinta das Barrojas, which has just one half hectare of vines but also boasts 3,000 cherry trees. Further east and situated on the north bank on either side of the São Leonardo da Galafura viewpoint and facing south over the river are three more: Quinta da Marialva, Quinta da Poisa and Quinta da Costa de Cima. Quinta da Poisa is on the hillside facing towards São Leonardo, overlooking the village of Covelinhas, with good eastern and southern exposure. A little further upriver, east of São Leonardo is Quinta da Costa, which covers roughly the upper half of the hill facing full south over the Douro, as well as extending over and down the back of the hill north and west towards the River Ceira (which would be to the left of the view photographed). When Mário Braga acquired the properties these two quintas were managed by brothers, who would routinely meet at São Leonardo, as being the half-way point between them. Today, the quintas are managed by the sons of those two caseiros. It was because of this tradition that the name of São Leonardo was adopted for the Ports produced by the family.
One more quinta on the higher table land above the north bank, called Quinta do Sol, has been acquired more recently and 15 hectares were planted two years ago, but are not yet mature enough to contribute to the wines; Miguel will wait till the 4th or possibly 5th year to vinify the grapes from this quinta.
All picking is done by hand, into small crates which come into the receiving area behind the winery and are emptied one by one onto the sorting table for scrutiny and triage. From there, they pass through a de-stemmer and into one of 5 stainless steel lagares (large open fermentation tanks) on the top level of the winery, which are fitted with computer controlled water-filled cooling panels on the sides. All their wines, both Port and table wines, are treaded by foot in the lagares, at least one pass, to begin the fermentation and extraction process. Lots for finishing as dry table wines will pass into stainless steel tanks to complete their fermentation. Port wines will remain in the lagar and continue to be treaded as needed until ready for fortification, when the aguardente will be added to the lagar. As a rule, they aim for greater extraction from wines intended for Vintage or LBV styles, and a bit less extraction when the wine is intended to be aged for tawny. The finished port is drained off into a cuba (stainless steel tank), and the cap remaining in the lagar is shovelled into the press by hand.
Every year, during the maturation studies Miguel and the enologist Luis Rodrigues decide how each vineyard parcel will be vinified – as Port or DOC. Just as you can appreciate the structure and balance of a finished wine, they judge the structure of the flavour of the ripening grapes as the basis for their decision how to vinify each parcel: grapes with inherently balanced and clear structure make the most long-lived wines.
Wines are aged in cask and bottle in both the old and new adegas and in “Port Knox” as Miguel laughingly refers to an old armazem built into the hill west of the house. Here are the immense old balseiros used to age the blended tawnies, including one cask of the very first Port made by his father in 1972, which is still used in the blend of the S. Leonardo 30 Year Old Tawny Port.
The table wines are bottled by a mobile bottling-line-in-the-back-of-a-truck which visits when needed, but the Ports are bottled by hand.
Quinta do Mourão Wines
“Tawnies are my babies, I grew up with tawnies.” Though the family make some excellent table wines, Miguel’s own heart is definitely with the tawnies – you can hear the heightened passion when he speaks of the tawnies versus his discussion of any other wine style. He went on to say he likes all his wines old, including table wines, and added that Douro wines need time to show their best.
The family’s table wines, under the name Rio Bom, are all reds. In selected years they make the Rio Bom Colheita, a blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, aged 9 months in wood. The Rio Bom Colheita 2011 has just been approved by the IVDP and will be available soon, and the Rio Bom Reserva 2005 currently in the market is a similar blend aged 17 months in wood. In 2003 they made a 100% Touriga Franca which was aged 24 months in wood, in barrels specially made to have the least toasting possible. Also worth looking for is the Rio Bom Grand Reserva 2004, a cuvée created as a tribute to Mário Braga five years after his death, which is a blend of five grape varieties, drawn from all five quintas, and bottled after 5 years, of which 13 months were spent in old french oak barrels.
Their Port wines go by the name S. Leonardo and include Vintage and indication of age Tawnies: 10, 20, 30 and 40 Years Old. They also make Ruby and Tawny Ports as well as a 10 Year Old Tawny and 30 Year Old Tawny for the California based importer Schlossadler under the brand name Unreported.
Whilst visiting, Miguel gave me tastings from the casks in Port Knox which are the basis for each the 10, 20 and 30 Year Old Tawnies. All of them were satisfyingly complex, with excellent, balanced acidity, and each of them tasting far more mature than their indicated age (as indeed they all were). It was very hard not ask for seconds! For fuller tasting notes, look at the FTLOP Tasting Note Database for S. Leonardo – plenty of notes from members, and for those of you who are paid subscribers, Roy also has an extensive range of notes on these Tawnies, particularly the 30 and 40 Year Olds, with consistently high scores. His most recent comment on the S. Leonardo 30 Year Old Tawny concludes “I’ve yet to find a better bottling of 30 year Old Tawny than this” and in this year’s For The Love of Port Awards he recognised the S. Leonardo as the Best 30 Year Old Tawny.
When we visited the adegga after lunch, the winery team were racking some ports from several tiny casks ranging from 30 to 75 litres each (the larger casks alongside are 600 litres, to give you some bearings). Miguel told me that some time ago they were clearing out the house cellar next to the chapel and discovered these small casks. One of them contained a very old white port, and the others are very very old tawnies, around 100 years or more, incredibly concentrated and reduced from having aged in these small casks.
Miguel generously gave me a tasting of one of these ancient tawnies – try to imagine your wildest dream of a rich old tawny with an intriguing whiff of mint and lemon drop, concentrated down to something with a texture like maple syrup and blessed with an incredibly refreshing acidity. Miguel has just received approval from the IVDP to bottle a “Velhissimo” which will include some of the wine I tasted blended together with other old lots, and the wine should be available later this year, he was just taking his first orders when we spoke.
The other wine to be introduced for the first time this year is a 10 Year Old White Port. At Quinta da Poisa there is an old mixed vineyard which includes significant proportions of Códega, Malvasia and Serçial, from which they have been making white ports. I tasted the finished blend, which is to be bottled shortly – it had a lovely orange blossom honey and lemon nose, and a rich floral-citrus palate with wonderful clean acidity. Look for this one in the market later this year, too.
The wines from Miguel Braga Herdeiros are distributed in the USA and many northern European countries as well as Brazil.
The Vineyards and the 2014 Season So Far
Altogether, the family have about 90 hectares of vineyards, and the five original quintas are all around 150 metres of altitude on average, whilst Quinta do Sol is up at 480 metres, on the higher land north of the river. Quinta da Costa and Quinta da Poisa both still have extensive old mixed vineyard plantings, and the other quintas are mostly single varietal by now, having been gradually replanted since 1999.
With Quinta do Mourão situated on the river bank I asked if they have ever had trouble with flooding in the vineyards, and Miguel said no – but also pointed out that the vines are planted well back from the edge of the river, with a broad buffer zone of mixed planting, mostly trees, along the river. In the winter of 2012-2013 heavy rains caused some trouble, washing down and damaging some of the soil banked terraces, but fortunately this last winter 2013-14 there were no such problems.
Over the years he feels the weather has become more extreme – more rain and generally colder in the winters, and less rain with generally higher temperatures in summers. Miguel said in 2011 they recorded 30ºC on the 31st October and four days later on the 3rd November the temperature was down to 6ºC. The last couple years have been noticeably hotter, getting to 40-45ºC during the day, even here, in the Baixo Corgo.
Miguel said they had a good nascença (fruit set) in the vineyards but because the spring has been cold it is possible there will be a smaller harvest than usual. Unfortunately the cherry crop suffered from rain during the flowering and fruit set, so this year’s harvest for cherries was poor – something I have heard from both growers in the Douro and fruit sellers in Gaia.
So far none of the group’s quintas have had trouble with mildio. When we spoke, in late May, they had done just one treatment so far, but he said the greatest risk is always at the time the temperatures warm up after the ground has been damp, so they will continue to be vigilant. Though not organic, their viticultural practice is one of minimal chemical intervention.
The vines developed very quickly in early April, due to the combination of the rainy winter and a sudden spell of heat, then development slowed down again as temperatures dropped sharply. For a week from the 10th to 17th April the daytime high temperatures at Régua were in the upper 20’s C, even breaking 30ºC on the 17th before plunging again and holding near or below 20ºC for the rest of April, according to official records. The first half of May saw temperatures back to the upper 20’s and just breaking 30ºC for a few days through the 19th May, then plunging again to hold right around 20ºC until the the last two days of the month.
At Quinta do Mourão they had to do the ampara – the training of the young vines to grow up in between the trellis wires – twice in rapid succession, as there were a couple days with strong winds that displaced and broke many of the young vines.
Despite the unusually cool start to the growing season, Miguel and his team are looking forward to a good 2014 harvest at the usual time this September.