terça-feira, 16 de junho de 2020

From the Douro region, a testimony by Mateus Nicolau de Almeida

from Ervedosa do Douro: on the background, Pinhão, the geographical center of the Douro wine region.      PtoPwine archive
   
    The testimony of Mateus Nicolau de Almeida, wine producer in the Douro and the fifth generation of the Nicolau de Almeida family to produce wine in the Douro. A text that helps us understand the region, its long history and the specifics of the Douro terroir, the history of winemaking in the Douro and of Port wine, the climate and the recent new approaches to viticulture... A text that accompanied the exhibition "Douro, an Alchemy between Air, Land and River", that took place in "La Cité du Vin", in Bordeaux, between October 2018 and January 2019:
   "There are at least three distinct "Douros" with different climates. These are Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. These three sub regions each have different climates. Baixo Corgo is the closest to the Atlantic, and oceanic influences make themselves known in temperature and rainfall, despite being shielded by the Marão mountais. It has a Mediterranean and Atlantic climate with lots of rain and moderate temperatures compared with the rest of the region. As we travel up the river to the east we come to the Cima Corgo with a truly Mediterranean climate, where temperatures increase and rainfall is reduced. Next comes Douro superior, a Mediterranean-continental climate influenced by Spain's Meseta Central and experiencing temperature variations of nearly 50ºC: between two or three degrees below zero in winter and 50ºC in summer. Rainfall is significantly lower - less than half than in Baixo Corgo, for example. These characteristics create different regions, wines and even populations and cultures. All of this falls under the single designation of origin that is Douro. I have therefore produced wines made in the same way in each of the three subregions.

    The soil is made up of schist (with some granite mixed in), but the main difference between these three regions is without a doubt, the climate. It is incredible how much the climate changes in such a short time frame over such a short distance. This is a characteristic of the Portuguese regions: its temperature, climate and soils change very quickly, creating different types of wine, traditions and cultures. For example, in the Alto Douro, almond and olive trees are still cultivated alongside the vines, and Baixo Corgo is still planted with vineyards that owe their existence to the Cistercian monks.

    During that era the entire region was controlled by these monks from Burgundy summoned by King Afonso I, meaning that the creation of this wine region is inextricably linked with the foudation of Portugal. The Douro had strong links with Burgundy, and although there had been vineyards in roman times (representing Douro's first major winemaking revolution two thousand years ago), it was the Cistercian monks who developed their knowledge further. You might say that the region was to a certain extent controlled by Cistercian monks, particularly in Baixo Corgo near Lamego, although there was a Cistercian monastery - the Convento de Santa Maria de Aguiar - in Douro Superior. They almost seem to have delineated the region at the time.

    However, their stronghold was without a doubt Baixo Corgo, with the monasteries of Santa Maria de Salzedas, São João de Tarouca and São Pedro das Águias. This means that a thousand years ago, very good wines were already being produced in Cambres across from Régua, which of course altered local traditions.

    When Douro wine began being appreciated by northern European countries, primarily England bur also Germany, Norway, Belgium and France among others, numerous merchants came to Porto interested in the wine trade, and rapid growth up to the 1940's made us UK main wine supplier.

    The revival of dry wine production in the Douro, which experienced a great upsurge in the 1990's, prompted numerous producers to make their own wine rather than just selling their grapes. In addition, there were merchants based in Porto who had come to live in the Douro, as was the case for me.

    My work in the Douro is a form of deconstruction, or a quest for the Douro's own particular terroir which is made up of three factors: climate, the biggest external factor, covers a large (hence the three subregions), within which I make a wine produced the same way in each subregion. For soil, if I focus in further, I work only with the Alto Douro subregion: the same climate and the same grape variety, Rabigato, in various schist soils. These are more similar to each other, but there are small changes such as a stream that passed by a plot of land thousand of years ago meaning that it is deeper than a more stony plot on the slope, or another with a more blue, grey ot brown shade, or a vein of quartz through the middle of the schist. All of this is within the schist itself. I never work with granite because I want to work on the basis of the Douro, which is schist.

    In the mid-19th century, two important things, happened at once: the expulsion of the monastic orders who had knowledge and expertise in agriculture and winegrowing (including treatises which simply disappeared overnight), and the industrial revolution, which was later and less forceful here in Portugal. These two factors relegated 1000 years of agriculture and working mehods, which were forgotten to a certain extent. In some ways there seems to have been a sort of tabula rasa with the majority of previous knowledge being "forgotten", starting again with a very recent form of knowledge that was not so land-based. The industrial revolution speed everything up (work in both the vineyard and winery) without leaving time to feel things or stop and think. The winemaking mehods I am experimenting with are ancestral methods.

    And now we have the third point: after the climate and soil, come the humans, the producer, the person. People can have an enormous impact on wine: winemaking methods, the winemaking stages, grape varieties. It is important to remember that it is humans who created the grape varieties. I think that the Douro has the greatest concentration of different grape varieties being cultivated anywhere in Europe: there are over a hundred different varieties being used here. For example, old vineyards are a mixture of different varieties, a very Portuguese method of cultivation unique to the Douro, creating numerours different wines. This is humans at work.

from Quinta da Costa de Baixo: on the background, on the other side of the river Douro, the mouth of the river Tedo and Quinta do Tedo, and furher on the background, the Quinta de Nápoles (Niepoort).             PtoPwine archive

   
    In terms of the human impression of my work, I make different experimental wines: I turn my winery into a laboratory and start to see what I can change, winemaking techniques I can use, what type of wine that will produce, what wine will speak to people, what kind of information it will convey, and if this information will be as precise as it can be. Here in the Douro Superior, this is an area which allows the kind of work that I do as it has less of winemaking tradition and thus the tradition carries less weight, horizons are broader, we can look for new things, and the landscape also changes, creating new perspectives. In fact, this is an area that is in itself a little like a laboratory. As it was for my father and grandgather. And I would say, that makes it a more profitable region.

    The harvest is something very special, but financially not the best deal, so I ask myself why we make wine in the Douro? Why do so many people come to the Douro to invest here, knowing that these are investments made for future generations? This particular piece of land in climate and geographical terms (mountais and valleys) with its rocks is not soil - we have to make our own soils by breaking up the stones to create soil and plant vines to live there. What I mean to say is that there are plenty of easier places, aren't there?

    However beyond the telluric apeal of the entire Douro valley, we have the very special product that is wine. The vintage attracts people and almost leaves them in a trance. The wine harvest is not the same as harvesting olives or wheat, I don't know why! It is chaotic, as if Bacchus - god or madness - is possessing people, leaving them completely euphoric. This does not happen in other types of cultivation. Wine growing prompts very strong sentiments, whether picking or crushing the grapes. We drink wine and we work hard. It is non-stop work for 2, 3, 4 or 5 weeks, when people forget the world around them and are lost in an erotic stupor. It is the culmination of a year's work. This is a huge job that has to be completed at a specific time, or all the effort will be wasted. And will be lost. It is the moment when everything is fermenting, sparkling. Suddenly the wine start to swell, these masses which appear simply dead. There is the tragic moment when grapes are picked: tacking them away from their mother, placing them in the press, fiting on the top and suddenly a volcano explodes - fermentation. All of these vapours create intoxication and sensuality. And there we have Bacchus! No one is left unmoved. Here in the Douro we use a special method of vinification in the press, a sort of stone tank where the grapes are harvested during daytime and trampled day and night.

    This is a very unique step in the grape transformation process. The majority of the grapes that allow Port wines to be produced, in particular fine "vintages" grow in the Cima Corgo and Baixo Corgo regions but not realy in the Douro Superior. In order to make robust Port wines that last for years in the bottle, you need a powerfull setting able to extract all of the grape's components. As ripening conditions are very good in the Douro, this enables excellent extraction.

    Extraction undertaken by humans in a virtually military operation, rows of people with their arms linked, march silently over the grapes. A single man at the front sets the rythm using words that sometimes seem almost initiatory. This is one of the greatest moments of the harvest; treading in the evening when the cicadas fall silent and the women stop singing, speaking or laughing to support the harshness of the heat and the work. It is a unique moment which gives the region a new aura.

    Douro wine and Port wine are identical, with the same base and the same origins. Port wine started at we now call Douro wine - a dry wine but one with a higher alcohol content than other dry wines. It had aroud 15 - 16%, so could handle this natural alcohol. It was the wine of Citercian monks: white, claret or straw. The wines also began to become reds in the late 19th century, intense red wines. Before this period there was no interest in very dark wines. Mediterranean residents always preferred lighter or even white wines and have never appreciated very intense wines. Like the Romans, they liked more refined wines. Intense wines emerged to satisfy the taste of northern European costumers. This is the point at which we started using the word tinto to describe wine, which was previously red or white. The word red was also used in other languages, rouge, red, rosso. Tinto is only used in Portuguese and Spanish. Port wine was one of these - and we started to call it Port wine - as it was shiped form the city of Oporto. Consumers, in particular the English, wanted not only more intense but ones with a higher alcohol content. When we realized that some grapes made wines with lots of natural sugar that was not entirely fermented and that this style was popular, we started producing this type of wine. In fact, this means that Port wine is a type of wine from the Douro region. Behind it all they are the same thing, the same region. If the "Douro" appellation contained three appellations such as Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior, there would be consensus, as it refers to differences to climate and soil. However, the difference between the wines is just historic casuality. In a way I regret that Douro wine, which has a long tradition, cannot use the name "port". Douro wine can benefit from the "port brand", which has a strong international reputation. Both are fundamentaly the same, just one is dry and the other not. Dry means without sugar or any added spirit. Dry wines are still being made, but have fallen out of favor over the past 200 years. They were only revitalized and began to be appreciated again more recently, in the late 20th century. It should be noted that a dry wine is much more delicate because it is not protected by the alcohol content. Alcohol was primarily used to protect port wine. Spirit was added to stop it turning into vinegar when on board during the journey. The dry wines instead stayed here and were never shiped away, but rather destined for us to drink. That is why we in the Douro still call dry wine "drinking wine". Dry wines also had another, rather funny name - they were know as virgin or pure wine because they had not been spoiled with spirit.

    I do not know what climate change will do. The only thing I'am sure about is that the seasons used to be more reliable. Now we have lost our rythm. We can have warm, dry winters, and the summers are sometimes too hot. I have been making wine for around fifteen years with no established history, and I can say that the past three years have been very difficult. And if you are not sure if it is going to rain you start thinking differently about fertilisation, irrigation and soil tilling. We live in uncertain times, something which is partly interesting because it forces us to think about how we do things, and in my case I have started to think about organic and biodynamic ways of producing vines and wines. 

    Biodynamic agriculture is well developed in Europe but has not yet begun in Portugal. Although you might view the Douro as being a biodýnamic region, it has something else important, namely, biodiversity and polyculture. I think we need to pay attention to the future, as vine monocultures are progressing, and that is dangerous. Mono cultures are always dangerous. I am increasingly working with polycultures: almonds, figs, olive trees and junipers that produce the berries for the spirit.

    I have developed organic agriculture as it is performed  elsewhere, although I know that no two areas are identical and not everything that is done in one location should be applied to another, even if staying within the Douro.
    We have to open our minds and look at what we have in our region, not copy but rather look into the terroir to find our solutions: work on treating vines with plant macerations, thinking about the surronding area and how to plant vines. There are some things that are done as part of biodynamic winegrowing which require reflection and understanding of the site. Today's high-speed world is not well suited to this kind of winemaking. However, I would say that it is inescapable, even compulsory. People are starting to realize that the insecticides and herbicides we put in our land are poisons. For example, an organic vine has no furher needs once in the winery, whereas a treated vine undergoes a chaotic fermentation process that is neither linear nor easy.

    It is important that this reagion develops in this direction, the clearest path stretching ahead of us.".

Foz Côa, 8 August 2018.

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