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Domingos and Tiago Alves de Sousa: 'a perfect picture of Douro harmony'

 

On the dilapidated veranda of a granite outpost high in Quinta da Gaivosa's beautiful terraced vineyards, father and son winemakers Domingos and Tiago Alves de Sousa stand comfortably together, presenting a perfect picture of Douro harmony and united family pride. Their natural modesty belies the great achievement of creating a stunning portfolio of modern Douro wines, encompassing Quinta da Gaivosa, Reserva Pessoal, Vinha de Lordelo, Vale da Raposa and the fast-forward cult cuvée, Abandonado.

 

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Alves de Sousa: 'united family pride'
History and tradition underpin their modern winemaking company: Alves de Sousa is founded upon a long Port wine heritage and as with so many in the Douro region, this family firm has a great history of growing and vinifyng grapes for major Port wine marques. In 1991 the company changed direction and Domingos Alves de Sousa blazed his own dynamic table wine trail. This particular period is viewed as the true dawn of modern Douro table wines, a time when Matéus Rose was effectively the only game in town, an era periodically enlivened with cameo appearances by legendary warhorse Barca Velha, though before the early 1980's there were no single Quinta table wine producers in the Douro. Portugal's fine wine identity used only to hinge upon fortified bottles and not a whisper was heard in the adegas of dry wines, red or white.

 

Three or four individual producers might legitimately claim to be the original table winemaking pioneers, those responsible for transforming a world of vinous mediocrity into the glorious realm of single Quinta dry table wines we know today. Altering forever the jaded timeworn perception of velvet smoking jackets and ‘Pass the Port': Miguel Champalimaud of Quinta do Cotto, Dirk Niepoort of Niepoort Vinhos, João Nicolau de Almeida of Ramos Pinto and Domingos Alves de Sousa, all key figures at the forefront of a Portuguese regeneration spanning two intensely experimental decades. Not unlike the long sinuous roots of ancient vines, the Alves de Sousa's hearts and souls are buried deep in the schistous hillside that rises high above the family's Quinta in the Baixa Corgo, secreted within a verdant and steeply folded valley at Pousada da Cumieira, close by Santa Marta de Peneguião. Gaivosa is a bountiful estate of terraced vineyards, fruit trees and copious wildlife, a place sheltered by the Serra do Marão mountains and just fifteen minutes from the Douro capital of Régua. Alves de Sousa now own six estates: in addition to Gaivosa, the original family property Quinta da Alveleira and Quintas das Caldas, Estação, Vale da Raposa and the newly acquired Quinta da Oliveirinha in the Cima Corgo opposite Quinta do Seixo

 

Domingos Alves de Sousa - The Pioneer
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'furrowed eyebrows and an imperturbable broom-like moustache'
Domingos Alves de Sousa resembles a pioneer from the old west: disporting intensely furrowed eyebrows and an imperturbable broom-like moustache, his modest stature and old-world charm, fail to dilute the ‘High Noon' impression of a man from an earlier and more rugged time, a John Ford era of percussion caps, buffalo and whisky shots, when tannins were tough and destemming a distant dream. During my first visit to the Douro valley I met a host of leading winemakers and quickly gained the fanciful impression that viticultural success might be strongly linked to a propensity for facial hair. Indeed, I continue to meet men who could easily have stepped from the pages of Portugal's sepia tinted past and at one local café, ‘Mr Moustache', an annual competition is held to compare the gravitational merits of a droopy ‘Fu Manchu' to the erect and neatly trimmed ‘Handlebar'. Wonderfully, the Douro is that sort of place, but the new generation of vignerons are quite different...

 

 

'Domingos Alves de Sousa... the 'High Noon' impression of a man from an earlier and more rugged time'

 

Domingos Alves de Sousa is ambitious but his demeanour calm and understated: in conversation, his sincerity shines through, together with an uncompromising approach to quality and integrity within a stable of very fine wines. His 21st century application of selectively declaring table wine vintages, in the fashion of Port wine, serves the consumer well. If grapes from individual parcels are not good enough... the wine will not be made in that particular year. The Alves de Sousa's are driven: driven to create wines of authenticity and typicity - liquid embodiment of a terroir, so special, you can taste the sunshine baked schist and vibrant DNA of indigenous grapes in each and every bottle - this is what Alves de Sousa does best.

 

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Domingos Alves de Sousa stands over the steeply terraced vineyard of Vinha de Lordelo

 

Domingos was born in 1949, at the family home of Quinta de Alveleira in the village of Medroes, the third generation of a family of winemakers.. His father Edmundo married at a late age, thus, "my father was really old enough to be my grandfather!" He proudly declares, "I really am from the Douro" and growing up with the culture of Douro Port wine all around him, was naturally expected to take on the running of the family estate. Domingos had other ideas and embarked upon a career of civil engineering, though starting his education in nearby Vila Real, he moved to central Portugal's famous seat of learning at Coimbra, to study for his degree. "I rebelled against my parents at the time and elected to pursue a career outside of wine... I felt a little pressure and decided to follow another course. When I was twenty my father suddenly became ill and I was compelled to help run the Quinta while continuing my degree, this extended for a period of five years, from nineteen sixty nine to the mid seventies, during this time I grew to love wine - it was my heritage and in my blood", it was the start of a new era at Alves de Sousa.

 

"I really am from the Douro..."

A New Era
d__t_mono_6_300As a result of Portuguese inheritance law, the vineyards of Alves de Sousa were divided equally between Domingos and his sister. Another consequence of this sad ‘division' meant the great family home of Quinta das Caldas, downstream of Régua, became neglected and fell into a state of disrepair - an all too common consequence of splitting family estates. At the time of settling his father's will, Domingos proclaimed "I want to keep Gaivosa", a sure sign of his affection for a vineyard planted by his father and grandfather before him. Gaivosa meant so much to Domingos and offered a tangible link to the young man's heritage, "I wanted to return to my roots" he says. Domingos began his new life as a vigneron farming twenty hectares of vines: he restored the Quinta buildings and adega with the help of EU subsidies, private finance and sheer hard work. "At this early stage I was interested in making table wine and began to study the subject at Vila Real, as there were no other table wine producers in the Douro I had to travel to learn more. I visited Bordeaux with a small group of Portuguese wine professionals, one of whom was an agricultural engineer, later I returned with the young oenologist Anselmo Mendes." The benefits of this early research and exploration soon became apparent, "I subsequently produced our first white wine from Gaivosa's 1991 vintage and in 1992, two red table wines. We based our Douro vinification on the Bordeaux approach and at this time made just six barrels from our first harvest at Gaivosa."

 

 

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Tiago and Domingos with winemaker Anselmo Mendes (right)
With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, Domingos Alves de Sousa launched his embryonic wines at a local winefair for Spanish and Portuguese wines. "We had no wine professionals to help us - not even a copywriter for our first ever brochure..." He need not have worried, those early wines were very well received and before long Alves de Sousa began exporting to a receptive international market - one that recognised the quality and welcomed something new from the world's oldest demarcated wine region. Domingos Alves de Sousa has become a familiar and welcome face of Douro wine, at wine events and dinners worldwide and his courteous, understated approach to marketing enhanced the perception of his family firm. I first met Domingos in such a situation: we were seated together at a table with Dirk Niepoort in the D.O.C. restaurant. After our initial introduction, he inclined towards me, as if about to share a valuable secret - and, referring to our illustrious dining companion, in a hushed and distinctly gravelly tone, disarmingly ventured, "you know, I am not a Douro Boy". His charm and demeanour lend a great deal to Douro winemaking. Of his commitment to standards in winemaking, he says, "My face is part of the identity of our business- our wines are a personal expression and interpretation of the terroir - they must have integrity and step by step we increase their quality and continue to build our image."

 

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Tiago and Domingos: a shared ambition to make great wine

 

"our wines are a personal expression and interpretation of the terroir"

Together with his ever-supportive wife Lucilia, Domingos runs the family firm with the help of their four children. The eldest, daughter Patricia, is a pharmacist, Andrea a graphic designer, Tiago the winemaker and the youngest, twenty four year old João, yet another Alves de Sousa with artistic inclinations. He works closely with Andrea as a graphic design professional and together they create the many labels for a portfolio of perhaps twenty Alves de Sousa wines - from entry level through to premium.

 

Tiago Alves de Sousa - The Revolutionary
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Tiago 'the benign revolutionary'
If Domingos Alves de Sousa resembles a pioneer of the old west, his son Tiago, evokes the dark latin looks of a benign revolutionary. Quite appropriately in fact: since joining the family firm in 2002, Tiago has revolutionized classification and selection of vineyard parcels at Quinta da Gaivosa, raising standards and lending sharp definition to the company's premium wines. His dedication and direct influence have undeniably made a difference, a refreshing train of original and invigorating thought, coming at a time when typicity of terroir really counts in the campaign to win hearts and minds of wine lovers the world over. By expounding the virtues of indigenous Douro varietals, Tiago defines the difference between home grown Portuguese product and the rather ordinary generic tide of Cabernet, Syrah and Pinot clichés, unsurprisingly pouring forth from other European countries onto the shelves of timidly unadventurous merchants and supermarkets. The Douro valley is different from many ‘old world' regions and has much to offer, the firm of Alves de Sousa eloquently express this in their many and varied bottles.

 

Tiago Alves de Sousa is on the cusp of winemaking greatness: at 29 years of age he has the potential to ride the current wave of winemaking momentum generated by Domingos and his peers; he could help to shape a bold new identity for a region steeped in tradition, yet fettered by misconceptions and uncertainty. Born in 1979 in Oporto, at the age of seven Tiago moved with his parents to the Douro valley and was educated in Vila Real, he says, "My father had given up his career as a civil engineer and moved back to the country to be close to the vineyards. I feel much more Douro than Oporto, I spent my formative years here and plan to keep it that way. Among my siblings, I am the one who was inclined to work on the land and with the vines, I saw winemaking as a potential career from a very early age. As a boy I grew up around winemaking, I witnessed the treading in the lagares and occasionally took part - of course, this was long before we began table wine production - I just grew into the world of wine." Though he did not taste any wine before 14 or 15 years of age - he loved to taste the pre-fermented juice during harvest time. As with his mother Lucilia, who studied economics, Tiago has a great ability with figures but he decided to take a degree in agronomy rather than attempting to emulate five of his aunts, all of whom teach mathematics!

 

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Tiago tastes some newly pressed juice in the Gaivosa winery

 

Vila Real has a wonderful and well-respected wine faculty and although Tiago studied for a while in Italy, coincidentally at the same college winemaker Sandra Tavares da Silva of Wine & Soul completed her Masters in oenology, he concluded his degree within a short radius of his Portuguese family home. Speaking of his studies, "The oenology and viticulture at Vila Real University are very good, I have always felt close to the vineyards and so I really wanted to be part of the whole wine making process, from the vineyard through to the assemblage - therefore, I studied agronomy rather than oenology"

 

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