Roy’s Note: Wojciech Bonkowski hails from Warsaw, Poland and is the Editor in Chief of the Polish Wine Guide (www.polishwineguide.com) and also produces a blog under the same name. He combines his passion for wine writing with working as a researcher and book editor at the Chopin Institute in Warsaw. Additionally, Wojciech has an MA in Italian literature and PhD in musicology. I am very pleased that Mr. Bonkowski was willing to share this fine piece of writing with us at FTLOP!
Article and photos by Wojciech Bonkowski © October 2011
My love for port and dry Douro wine goes back to 2001, when I first met Cristiano van Zeller in London. His Quinta do Vale Dona Maria quickly became a reference wine for me, an esteem that continues to this day. Since 2003, VDM has been vinified by Cristiano in cooperation with young winemaker Sandra Tavares da Silva, arguably one of Portugal’s leading young oenologists. She is also responsible for the rise to excellence of her family’s estate of Quinta de Chocapalha whose wines, made on a different terroir in Estremadura, close to Lisbon, offer plenty of personality and excellent value for money.
Another really exciting development is Sandra’s career has been the establishment in 2001 of Wine & Soul, a mini-winery she runs with her husband Jorge Serôdio Borges, also a winemaker. The wine world is often considered a challenging business environment where it’s nearly impossible to break through without plenty of capital for investment and land surface to work with. It might be true in places like Bordeaux or Napa but Wine & Soul is solid proof that with dedication, talent and hard work, anyone can make it to the top. On a recent trip to the Douro, I was delighted to meet this star couple to discuss the past, present and future.
Jorge Borges actually comes from one of the Douro’s most important families that has owned a number of leading quintas (wine estates) and supplied major brands such as Churchill, Morgan and Niepoort. It has also been in the forefront of the dry Douro wine revolution: Jorge’s sister Maria Doroteia Serôdio Borges released the first Quinta do Fojo bottling in 1996 and quickly succeeded in making this one of the most spoken-about Portuguese table wines.
It was a delightful surprise, therefore, that when we met at the Douro DOC restaurant on the river forefront last April, Jorge produced two decanters with the 2000 Fojo and 2001 Quinta da Manuela. More than two great mature wines, these were monuments of Douro history: two labels that were instrumental in establishing the region's current fame as one of Europe's most exciting wines terroirs. Incidentally, these wines are no more: Doroteia has essentially discontinued Fojo as she dedicated herself to family life, and Manuela was in a dormant state since the mid-2000s.
I delighted in the supremely rich, ripe, honeyed, almost tawny port-like depth of fruit of the 2000 Fojo, and the crisper, meatier, spicier personality of the 2001 Manuela (tighter and less expressive initially but absolutely singing after 40 minutes in the glass) as we sampled the sophisticated recreation of traditional Douro cuisine as performed by Rui Paula, one of Portugal’s most celebrated chefs. (Apart from the DOC in Folgosa, he also runs DOP, another restaurant in Oporto).
We then travelled up the Douro with Sandra and Jorge to have a look at their vineyards. When they started from scratch in 2001, the couple had no plots of their own, and so production slowly developed from a few acres of leased old vineyards. Micro-vinifications were made in a rented barn that is the equivalent of the French wine garage. The first vintage produced 6K bottles of the Pintas red wine. It immediately became highly sought-after, with speculation propelling the price as high as 80€ per bottle on the local market due to low quantities. But critical acclaim took a bit longer to achieve, and it’s still pending as far as the vintage port, also produced in minuscule quantities, is concerned. Jorge says: “The critics have been generous about Pintas but when they talk about port, they usually focus on the big brands. I think we’re making a wine on the same level as a vintage port from Dow’s, Fonseca or Ferreira but it’s fairly difficult to get the message across. All the independent Portuguese-owned quintas have the same problem.”
Gradually the range was extended to the white oak-fermented Guru, sourced from fairly old vines higher up in the region, and Pintas Character, a sort of second vin made from barrels that aren’t up to scratch for Pintas, though it’s a wine many wineries would kill to have as their grand vin. (At 22€ it could well be the Douro’s biggest bargain).
To be absolutely honest I’ve long felt a bit conservative about Pintas. There was no denying its top quality but the initial vintages were not quite up there among the best, I felt. Made in a modern style with plenty of ripe fruit, for me it showed more oak than I’d like, and less minerality than superstars such as Vale Dona Maria or Vale Meão. It all changed for me in 2008. By no means a great vintage for the Douro, producing somewhat leaner, juicier wines than the likes of 2007 or 2005.
Pintas has suddenly jumped onto the podium, displaying plenty of that mineral sap and freshness that somehow eluded me in previous vintages. There is also visibly less oak, and the extraction is really very well-handled. I asked Jorge whether anything has changed in the winemaking: “No. But we’re fine-tuning our approach, and now have a broader vineyard base to choose from. So I guess the wine is a bit more complete than in the past.”
In what both agree is a “completely crazy life” (especially now that they have three children, their son aged 4 and twins, at one year old), Sandra continues to make wine at Vale Dona Maria and Chocapalha, while Jorge – whose earlier stint includes three years at Niepoort in 1999–2003 – is running Quinta do Passadouro, an estate beautifully located in the Pinhão river valley and owned by Dieter Bohrmann. Passadouro is yet another confirmation of Jorge’s talent: everything from the everyday inexpensive Passa to the Passadouro Reserva, without forgetting the vintage port, is impressive in quality and fairly priced.
But the focus remains on Pintas. 2009 is a year of major changes. After a decade Jorge was able to regain control of Quinta da Manuela. Lying not far from vineyards that are supplying Pintas, Manuela has the advantage of 100-year-old vineyards. As I sampled with Jorge through barrels of 2009 vintage wine in the small ‘garage’, ingredients for 2009 Pintas (including one aged in a staggeringly expensive €1100-apiece Taransaud barrel) showed ravishing power and poise.
But they were dwarfed by the 2009 Quinta da Manuela. Even at this infant stage the wine is one of the greatest I’ve ever sampled in the Douro. It has depth, minerality, texture, balance and fruit, but it also has more: an incredible silky elegance that the word ‘Burgundian’, however abused, does really sum up well. Manuela fruit will be blended into Pintas and Pintas Character but this old-vine batch will be bottled separately at the end of 2011.
A new classic is born. And Pintas establishes itself firmly among Portugal's very best wineries!