Terroir hunter (Dao, Portugal – Day One)

The Dao and Bairrada geographical regions are part of the same political region in Portugal known as Beiras. I don’t recommend mentioning that with them, as the two regions couldn’t be more different from each other in a great many ways. Firstly the Dao region is more continental in climate than the Bairrada which is closer to the Atlantic Coast, and thus has more temperature variations between day and night time. Secondly the Dao region is higher in altitude sitting at over 250 m above sea level, whereas the Bairrada isn’t much more than 100m. Thirdly the region works with very different grape varieties; the Dao is much more known for red wines whereas Bairrada produces sparkling wine in high volumes, with red and white wines occupying a smaller piece of the pie. The wine styles are quite different, with the maritime wines of Bairrada being more linear, fresh and crisp and the wines of Dao being fuller and more robust. The final difference is in the landscape itself, as the Dao is much more wild and rugged, reminding me of the Grampians in Victoria where I come from. The Dao is a valley formed over time like a big bowl, and in this protected climate the touriga nacional grape is the undisputed king.
The Intrepid Wino in a medieval lagare in the Dao, Portugal

My first day was spent entirely with winemaker Antonio Narciso, who consults his expertise to as many as six estates in the Dao region. This means he has a lot of ground to cover, particularly during the harvest period as he is constantly checking vineyards and supervising the harvests before getting stuck into the winemaking in each facility. In some cases he works in partnership with owners purely in an advisory support role, and in some cases he handles the winemaking completely with the agreement and understanding of the owners. Over an exhausting 12 hour day we visited six of the estates he works with, and also managed to find time to enjoy a great regional style lunch and an even more amazing dinner with the owners of two estates respectively. An extremely humble man, Antonio knows every inch of the Dao and most of its producers – not only the ones he works with – and will continue to be a driving force in the region. I greatly admire his philosophies of expressions of terroir and variety, and minimal intervention traditional winemaking. He is honest enough to say when he disagrees with a philosophy, but respectful enough not to unnecessarily cause friction. In his opinion one variety that shows immense potential in the Dao is syrah, but there are few who agree with him, myself included.

After a long day, Antonio Narciso on the left and the owner of Quinta da Fata on the right

The first estate was also the one that Antonio had kindly arranged for me to stay at for two nights; Quinta da Fata. It is an estate with centuries of tradition who make their wines essentially the same way they always have, only using technology when it doesn’t get in the way of the expression of the place. Like all of the wineries I visited, they only work with the four classic red varieties of the Dao (touriga nacional, tinta roriz, alfrocheiro and jaen), and the major white variety (encruzado). The vines in most cases are many decades old, perfectly in harmony with the very dry granitic sand soils. They only source fruit from their own seven hectare property, and all the fruit is handled in their traditional cellars which are currently undergoing a little maintenance before the harvest begins. I didn’t end up tasting the wines until the end of the day, but I was glad that I did because in my opinion they were the best of the lot, perfectly blending the traditional with the approachable. One of the recurring themes across the day (and in fact through most of my time so far in Portugal), one of the defining characteristics of the winemaking is the use of old stone or cement lagares, which tend to be quite shallow and broad. With so much granite in the soils of the Dao it makes sense that the lagares are made from the same material, and they can be surprisingly beautiful when the sun hits them and they sparkle. Which probably sounds a bit weird, but anyway. Click here to read my notes from the tasting.

A granite lagare with an old basket press inside at Quinta da Fata

Off we went around the corner to the second estate of the day, Barao de Nelas. It was here that I discovered probably the most historic winery that isn’t really used any more, with amazing lagares and the original tree trunk used as a lever to press the grapes. They have completely modernised in a new winery that uses conical stainless steel fermentation tanks instead of lagares. The family that own the seven-hectare estate are the Barahona Paes de Brito family, who aren’t based in the Dao and thus leave Antonio to handle the running of the estate in their absence. The vineyards are planted to the traditional varieties, and since 1991 they have been regenerating some of the older parcels that aren’t producing enough fruit and are more susceptible to disease. Since last year a new disease has been found in the Dao, known as black rot which gives the leaves that reddish colour. The old winery feels very medieval and could easily be used as a banquet hall in Macbeth or some other Shakespearean play. My notes from the tasting can be seen here.

Almost like something out of Lord of the Rings

The third estate is owned by a Portuguese and French husband and wife team, who have a vineyard looking a little more healthy than the previous one. The Fonte de Goncalvinho estate is a little further away from Nelas higher up in altitude, where the scenery is a lot more wild and rugged. They run their vineyard in a very minimal way, and produce their wines similarly. The philosophies aren’t any more unique than others in Dao, but they do have a more modern approach to their branding. Once again they have all of the traditional Dao varieties planted, and like the others they both blend varieties and make some single varietal wines. Some of their wines are new, and the branding has been entirely reworked. The family who own the winery are lovely, and it was really nice enjoying lunch with them, although the service in the restaurant was appalling. As was the fact that the cheese was served almost frozen. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

These leaves almost look like they have been painted lime green

Estate number four was Quinta das Marias owned by Swiss-born Peter Viktor Eckerz. Peter engaged Antonio back in 1997 when he was working for the cooperative as the winemaker in his early 20s, to effectively work with him as he was still the CEO of a financial institution. This was one of the estates Antonio works with in a support role, as Peter has very clear ideas about the kind of wine he wants to make and how to do it. It is Peter’s intention to make iconic Portuguese wines and receive attention and accolades they deserve. As such he makes the wines in a certain style that appeal to wine critics and wine competitions, which is a blend of both traditional Portuguese (use of indigenous Dao varieties, fermentation and maceration in lagares), and more modern international techniques (more new smaller French oak barriques). On the estate there is an abandoned olive oil making facility that dates back many hundreds of years. The wines that I appreciated from Peter’s range were certainly more traditional, but with most being from the 2010 vintage they were a little young and yet to open up. Click here to read my notes from the tasting.

The old abandoned olive oil press at Quinta das Marias

The fifth estate was Casa Aranda, but was really not worth talking about as the vineyards are not in a great condition and the wines are made in a very international fruit and oak-driven style. Click here to read my notes on the tasting. The sixth estate offered a lot more interest, not only for the very traditional and high quality wines they make, not only for the amazing history on the estate, but also for the very lovely owner Raquel. The Quinta Mendes Pereira winery is beautifully simple and is ideal for extracting the unique terroir of the estate. They use a combination of granite lagares and also cement vats for the fermentations, and age the wines in large oak vats. The vineyards are naturally planted to the Dao varieties and a range of wines are made to express the terroir. An interesting component to the terroir is the many centuries of history you can see on the site. Firstly there is an ancient Druid circle and a Celtic tomb in a small forest. Then there are the remains of a Roman road and also a Roman fountain. A more recent historical site is a medieval chateau where it is believed a queen may have lived out her life after her husband died and his son succeeded him. All of these archaeological specimens and the spirits on the estate add something to the wine in my opinion. Raquel spends part of her life in Brazil where she grew up and some of her family still live, and naturally this is their biggest market. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

The old Druid haunt

Click here to see more photos from my first day in the Dao region of Portugal. My second day was a lot more relaxing, with visits to Quinta de Lemos and Quinta da Pellada.

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2 Comments

Filed under Winery Visits

2 responses to “Terroir hunter (Dao, Portugal – Day One)

  1. Dear James, thank you for your visit and your comment. It was good and certainly interesting meeting you and I wish you an eventful continuation of your trip.Good luck Peter Eckert, Quinta das Marias

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  2. Hi Peter, many thanks again for so generously welcoming me and offering your time. I really learnt a lot from Antonio and yourself and want to do everything I can to help the wine industry in Portugal in the future. I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to read my comments and respond to them.Best regards, James.

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