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Singular Success from a Duo of Portuguese Regions
By Rebecca Murphy
Jul 20, 2021
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The invitation read, “2 Regions 2 Estates 1 Winemaker 2021.”  I was intrigued.  The regions were in Portugal: the Douro and Vinho Verde, two regions both beautiful in very different ways.  Two regions with very different, but delicious wine styles.  Who is this one winemaker who gets to work with the wines from these two great wine regions?  Invitation accepted.

The invitation came from the Esporao Group, which made its name in the Alentejo region.  In 2008, they expanded their reach by purchasing Quinta dos Murças from the great-grandchildren of Manuel Pinto de Azevedo.  In 1943, Pinto had acquired the estate created in the 1800s and brought in the best winemaking technology of the time.  The most important investment he made was creating the Douro’s first vertically planted vineyard in 1947.

The next estate added to their portfolio was Quinta do Ameal, founded in 1710 in the Lima Valley of the Vinho Verde region.  In 2019 they purchased the estate from Pedro Araújo who had devoted his winegrowing efforts to the indigenous grape Loureiro.     
So, the two regions are the Douro Valley and Vinho Verde.  The two estates are Quinta dos Murças  and Quinta do Ameal.  The winemaker is José Luis Moreira da Silva, whose title is Director and Lead Winemaker for Quinta dos Murças and Quinta do Ameal.  Mr. da Silva is from the Douro, and well prepared for making wine with an undergraduate degree in microbiology from Universidade Católica Portuguesa in 2002 and a master’s degree in oenology from Escola Superior de Biotecnologia–UCP, Porto in 2004.

Also called "Ze Luis," da Silva must have great stores of energy to manage the one-and-a-half-hour commute from his home to Quinta do Ameal, then another two hours to Quinta dos Murças.  Fortunately, he had the time to conduct the virtual seminar and tasting of four wines, two each from the two estates.  He was an enthusiastic and engaging host who clearly has great respect and affection for the wines he makes.  We tasted the white wines from Vinho Verde, then dry red wines from the Douro.  
Vinho Verde is the largest wine region in Portugal.  Its northern border is the Minho River dividing Vinho Verde from the Rias Baixas region of Spain.  Its southern border is the Douro River.  On the western side is a long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, which has a major effect on the region’s weather conditions.  Vinho Verde means “green wine,” and green also describes the region.  It is divided into nine subregions.  Further from the coast there is a more continental climate, with more variations between day and nighttime temperatures than the coastal regions, which allows for different styles of wines.  da Silva said, “I think the region has naturally the best conditions to produce high quality white wines.  I’m really convinced of that.  The soil is mainly granite, some places with shist, but it’s mainly granite, which reinforces the impression of acidity and freshness.”  

He explained that “the Lima River flows though the Lima subregion where there is both Atlantic and continental climate influence.  Ameal is located about 30 Km from the ocean where the precipitation and humidity are higher, but far enough away to allow fruit maturity and concentration due to higher temperatures and a bigger gap between the day and nighttime temperatures.  These are the perfect conditions to produce the Loureiro grape variety and why the grape is so adapted to the region.  It is mainly planted here, in its birthplace.”

Quinta do Ameal is in the center of the region, very close to Ponte de Lime, one of the oldest villages in Portugal.  The estate has around about 74 acres, half planted with vineyards, with the other half being a large forest.  da Silva said, “it is very important to promote biodiversity to balance the general location for the benefit of the vineyard, the productive area.”

The soil is mainly granite, but it has different textures, which will influence the richness of the soil.  Above the river it is less rich, so the vineyards are not so vigorous and yields are lower, with more concentrated grapes.  Near the river it is the opposite.  The soil texture is more fine, with some clay with more water retention in the soil, so the vineyards are more vigorous, yields are higher, resulting in grapes that are more aromatic, with more acidity and freshness, but less concentration.   These conditions are thought to explain why Ameal is so well suited to the Loureiro grape variety.  “It is very intense, and aromatic, dominated by citrus notes,” said da Silva.  “When it is more mature you can find some white flower notes.  On the palate it is all about the acidity and freshness.  It’s a very tense and vibrant variety, and for me, one of the most important characteristics of this variety, which is something that is not so common for Vinho Verde, is the aging potential.  These days with older vintages you can see that is incredible the way Loureiro can age.  It can age for at least 15 years.  I believe it is something very special.”  

In the 1990s, the former owner Pedro Araújo set the standard for Loureiro wines.  He tried different approaches, including adding barrels for fermentation, creating a reserve wine, as well as late harvest and a sparkling wines.  “He was always looking for different expression of the variety to show the capacity of the grape to produce these kinds of wines,” said da Silva, “and, of course, the idea is to continue this legacy to continue to push the limits of the variety.”  The ongoing intention is to continue trying different methods, and to better understand  the soil and other the differences in the estate to have the ability to produce these different styles.

“These days we have four different wines in our portfolio.  The idea behind all our wines is to show the potential of the variety, but mainly the capacity for bottle aging.  It is something for us that is really important because it’s an identity, a characteristic of a variety,” he said.  

Quinta dos Murças is in the Douro, a very old wine region, considered to be the first demarcated wine region in the world.  As previously mentioned, the Douro River forms the southern border of Vinho Verde, but the two regions could not be more different.  The climate is continental, with higher temperatures and lower precipitation than Vinho Verde.  The soils are really poor, mostly shist with some points of granite but mainly shist.  It has big, steep mountains with the river below.  Portugal has the second most indigenous grape varieties of any country in the world, and they are concentrated in this area.  Traditionally the vineyards are planted with field blends, with all the varieties (mostly red) intermixed in the vineyard plots.  The Douro is divided into three subregions, Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior.  In Cima Corgo the main estates are on the right bank of the Douro River with the vineyards facing south, enhancing sun exposure to promote ripeness.  But closer to Spain, the estates are mostly located on the left bank, with the vines facing north to protect them from the sun and promote freshness.

After Esporao bought the estate, they were puzzled by inexplicable differences they found in wines from various plots, so they hired a French group that helped them to identify the “units of terroir of Murças.”  They have 19 acres of vineyards in their 383 acres of land.  They identified eight different units based on soil differences, altitude and position.  They used this information to create a portfolio that maximizes and expresses this diversity.  

They moved to organic practices and have had organic certification since 2000.  da Silva said, “It is a difficult step to take.  Working organically is more expensive, and yields are lower, but at the end the grapes are better, and we believe we will have grapes that will better express the origin and the differences we have in the soil.  The idea is to intervene as little as possible in all the process.  In the winery the techniques we use are really traditional with the idea to look for the expression of the site of origin and interfere as little as possible.”

Among their resources is the first vertical vineyard planted in the Douro, back in 1947.  Most vineyards in the Douro are terraced, so vertical planting is very unusual, but da Silva is quite happy with it.  “The main difference when you compare the vertical profile to the terraces is the density of planting.  In this system we have twice the vines per hectare.  In a poor soil, having more plants is more competition, lessening vine vigor and reducing crop yields.  So, we are often producing just one or two bunches per vine.  This way the grapes are much more concentrated and more linked to the soil, because when you have more competition, the roots need to go deeper and that’s better for site expression.  Also, when vines are oriented north to south, the bunches are more exposed to the sun.  This is particularly important at Murças, because the vines are located in the border of Baixo Corgo, a fresher area of the Douro, so it is good there to maximize ripeness and concentration.  There is greater aeration through the vines, which decreases humidity and reduces the pressure of fungal diseases.”

Expanding on the differences between vertical and terraced planting, da Silva noted that, “One of the reasons you don’t see more of this system is that people say that vineyards arrayed in this way are harder to work, which is true.  They also say erosion is a problem, but that notion is completely wrong.  Having more plants per hectare and a natural, organically grown crop in the soil, you retain the soil during the winter and that is not what is happening in the terraces, where in the first rain you have significant erosion into the river.  That’s where you have the problems.”

“Being in a fresh area of the Douro, of course, the elegance is always present, because you have more humidity, the temperatures are not so high, and you have more water availability.  Also, we have five water springs, which is very important because it will increase this water availability and of course will increase and maintain the acidity of the grapes.”

The Douro vineyards were certified organic in 2020.  They do not have organic certification in Vinho Verde because it is so wet.  “We are conducting trials there, because we are not sure that organic is the best answer to all the issues we have, because the ecological impact of being organic can sometimes be higher in certain sites than integrated production, for example.  Best practices are more important to me than being able to publicize organic certification.  We continually reconsider what we should do in the vineyards, thinking three times before doing anything.  Is it necessary, do you really need to do it?”

The presentation portrayed two unique estates in two very different regions, creating quintessential Portuguese wines under the direction of a knowledgeable and skilled winemaker.  I will be serving and enjoying more of these wines.  You should, too.          

Reviews of four of the wines from Portugal that Rebecca tasted are in the July 20, 2021 issue of WineReviewOnline.com:   Reviews

Read more by Rebecca:   Rebecca Murphy
Connect with her on Twitter at  @RebeccaOnWine