It is late in the month of May: a time when reticent hawthorn and cherry blossom populate north European hedgerows and occasional late frosts continue to threaten fragile flora... farther south, beyond the arid breadth of Spain, Portugal's mighty River Douro has already grown accustomed to its seasonally precocious suit of caterpillared emerald and parched ochre, while basking in a familiar warmth benignly wrested from distant Iberian plains.
Looking directly upstream, beneath flotillas of crisply defined white cumulus, theatrically set against a deep cobalt sky; the highest point of Quinta de S. José offers a superlative vantage point to view this stunning passage of the high Douro. The river has mutated to a late afternoon indigo and distantly emerges from a comma-like bend skirting James Symington's Vila Velha on the southern bank, before meeting historic Quinta de Roriz and gazing in awe at Romaneira's flawless heights. Momentarily straightening its ocean-bound course, the Douro flows past the refined riverside enclave of schist-clad Quinta de S. José. Gazing at this majestic landscape of giant patamares, regimented terraces and round shouldered umber muscularity, fleeting moments of breathtaking beauty glide beneath one's eyes; transforming, transcending, flattening and lending rich definition; all at once saturated colour makes way for a flurry of meteorological mood-swings and a panoply of mesmerizing light unfolds.
At river level the neatly proportioned S. José is impressive; a compact stepped grouping of architect designed schist buildings ascending the steep south-bank hillside; designed and built to provide the highest standard of accommodation, they offer a veritable hamlet of vinous hospitality for those fortunate to know this majestic corner of the Douro valley. This modest estate of 20 hectares faces the towering might of Romaneira with equanimity and respect; like David before Goliath, S. José dares to stake a modern claim in this renowned corner of the Douro winemaking firmament, a stake credibly underpinned by a fine pedigree of vinous tradition within the distinguished family of Brito e Cunha.
'Quinta de S. José offers a superlative vantage point to view this stunning passage of the high Douro'
Father and son Ruy and João Brito e Cunha have Port wine cascading through their family tree, maternally and paternally; on his mother's side, Ruy descends from Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira's only son. The crinolined Grande Dame of the 19th century Douro, Dona Antonia changed the face of the region's winemaking forever: with immense foresight, great business acumen and benevolent philanthropy, she shaped the Douro's rugged and remote landscape, leaving an indelible Port wine mark. Paternally, Ruy's late father (after whom he was named) was a great winemaking technician with a long history of service; firstly at Ramos Pinto and Romariz, followed by thirty years as a director of The Royal Oporto Wine Company and latterly, as consultant for Taylor's. Small wonder his grandson João, of the current Brito e Cunha generation, should choose to pursue a similar career, albeit with a more contemporary emphasis on Douro table wine. As a setting sun sits low on the western horizon, I look downstream from the very summit of S. José toward the broad expanse of silvered river vanishing into a hazy middle distance, abruptly slipping behind the ribbed back of François Lurton's Quinta Beira Douro, far below my elevated perch. Across stream and slightly down river a giant twin gabled granite adega sits four square and permanent; its angular outline gently diffused by soft evening light and backlit by a fading bleached sun. Beyond this stern ridge top edifice descends the secreted Roncão valley, a lost world of ancient stone ‘mortuaries', the venerable terraced vineyards so named as the final resting place for thousands of 19th century phyloxerra withered vines.
'all at once, saturated colour makes way for a flurry of meteorological mood-swings and a panoply of mesmerizing light unfolds'
The Brito e Cunha's could not have picked a finer location in the Douro for their delightful wine tourism estate and in the increasingly rarefied atmosphere of international D.O.C. ascendancy, their respective wines, S. José and matched red and white pairing of Ázeo, have drawn critical acclaim within the international press. João Brito e Cunha has made a giant leap, not only of faith in this select slice of noble terroir, but in his ability as a winemaker. His self-confidant approach, strongly bolstered by father Ruy, has paid off with a string of well-crafted, complex wines. The most recent vintages of S. José and Ázeo have clearly demonstrated thoroughbred potential. Only time will tell, but the 2005 S. José red and 2007 Ázeo white offer definitive proof of true Douro quality. João makes wine with a clear regional identity; each limited production bottle carries the stamp of a winemaker with authority and integrity, wine made without compromise. During a winter tasting of more than two dozen Douro fine wines at Michelin starred Auberge Basque, the great French sommelier Samuel Ingelaere (ex Marc Veyrat) described what he considered to be the finest white wine in a select Douro group, it was Ázeo 2007; "For me this wine has fresh acidity, it has lime and white peach and puts me in mind of a fine Chevergny from the Loire... there is contrast between the classical, very fresh expression of the lime and the maturity of the fruit... it is the contrast which defines this particular wine." After this auspicious introduction to Brito e Cunha's wines, I was keen to learn more of his background and meet father and son together at their remotely situated quinta.
My first encounter with Ruy Brito e Cunha was in the depths of winter at the family's elegant seaside apartment in Foz, on the Atlantic fringes of Porto. By complete contrast, our second meeting was in the high Douro on a hot and very still early June day, perhaps 150 kms inland and far from the ocean breeze, comfortably seated on the stone terrace of Quinta de S. José. Sitting beside his son João and beneath the welcome shade of an umbrella, Ruy calmly explains how his passion for the Douro and fine wine has brought him full circle.
Ruy de Brito e CunhaFrom early beginnings as an enthusiastic aficionado, through a successful career in marketing and PR within the textile industry, to being directly involved with winemaking on his own estate and ultimately continuing a great family tradition... An energetic sixty-seven year old, Ruy Brito e Cunha is a tall and elegant man disporting a tanned complexion and slightly quizzical expression with greying hair and high well defined cheekbones. His speaking voice is well modulated with an excellent command of English; he can be forthright in his opinions and has strong views about the Douro's future and what might be achieved. Born in Vila Nova da Gaia during 1941, the Second World War was at its height, with the U.S.A. yet to be drawn into a conflict from which Portugal remained a neutral non-combatant. As a young child Ruy moved across the river to Porto where he began his education and during the late nineteen fifties served in the Portuguese air force, during which time he was posted to Africa.
The Great Vesuvio
"Both sides of my family are connected with Port wine, my father was a fantastic technician and a director of Real Companha Velha for thirty years, he was very open-minded and worked in many areas of wine including Cognac, Champagne, Vinho Verde and of course Port wine, he was an amazing man and I miss him a lot..." Maternally, Ruy is one of the fourth generation descendents from the only son of legendary Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, the indomitable crinoline clad lady whose epic nineteenth century achievements helped transform the Douro almost single-handedly; building, innovating and planting wherever the unforgiving landscape would permit, or sometimes, where it would not. She had a social conscience and cared for her workers, something quite unheard of at a time when working conditions in the Douro valley were extremely harsh and accommodation primitive.
"my father was an amazing man... I miss him a lot"
Dona Antonia constructed many renowned quintas, the greatest is undisputedly Quinta do Vesuvio in the high Douro valley, a property which holds a special place in Brito e Cunha's affections. He remembers; "my father was in charge of all Real Companha production at harvest time, our Douro home during the vintage was Quinta do Corval in Pinhão, hard by the river, but every Easter holiday we would stay at Vesuvio - all the family together. We took a whole railway carriage from Porto and even transported our upright piano! It is something I will never forget. We were nine brothers and sisters, together with my parents, our friends and staff, perhaps 20 - 25 in number. It was quite common for families to do this and at Easter the weather was not too hot, but by summertime the temperatures could easily exceed 45 degrees" This must have been an idyllic time to be in the Douro valley, long before the damming of the river and hydro-electricity schemes, when the true character of this mighty river was laid bare, bolder strewn and commanding respect from those who chose to navigate its course.
After his return from military service in Africa, Ruy began work for a Portuguese department dealing with the production of all Vinho Verde wines. "I had taken several short courses in marketing and was given the task of creating a department for promotion and public relations. I stayed for five years and was answerable directly to the president of the company. There were perhaps a hundred people in the organization, including technical staff, it was extremely interesting work and we were responsible for starting the exportation of Vinho Verde to the UK."
"we took a whole railway carriage from Porto and even transported our upright piano... it is something I will never forget"
A Change of Direction: Though wine remained Brito e Cunha's great passion he decided to pursue a marketing career in the textile industry, one that would ultimately last for eighteen years. Working for the giant British company Coats, whose head office was in Glasgow, Ruy remained firmly rooted on his own native soil and continued to evolve his experience of fine wine and Port wine culture. "Though my wine activity during this time was as an amateur, I tried to be a well-informed ‘amateur' and refine my knowledge." Coming from a great Port wine heritage, Brito e Cunha knew something of the politics and difficulties facing the Port wine trade. After leaving Coats in 1987, he was offered a position as head of marketing and PR with the Port Wine Institute. Ruy takes up the story... " I was in charge of marketing Port wine all over the world, I imagine my open-minded approach might have been important in securing this position...
For a very long time there was a big problem between the companies in Gaia and Douro producers. The two had been on a permanent collision course with different ideas and objectives. There seemed no chance of reaching a unified purpose - indeed, up until very recently, inter-professional co-operation had seldom succeeded. There was grape production on one side and commercial trade on the other... and never the twain shall meet." Brito e Cunha understood both sides and this was very important; "So many people who live in Porto did not know the Douro valley, they knew how the Gaia companies worked but not the Douro farmers. In the past I think Douro was one of the few wine regions to depend almost entirely upon small producers; the big wine companies in Gaia had so little Douro land and they needed the co-operation of small producers to succeed commercially." After three years at the IVDP Ruy felt he had reached the limit with his own improvements in their marketing strategy - he had revolutionized the way Port wines were promoted by dividing them into generic headings, i.e. Tawny Ports, White Ports, LBV's etc... before his time the marketing strategy had been unclear and hard for neophyte customers to understand. The Brito e Cunha ‘system' still pertains today, even after very nearly twenty years. "I introduced these small details in an effort to improve marketing... I also instigated the Port wine delegation to Japan in 1988."
"so many people who live in Porto did not know the Douro valley, they knew how the Gaia companies worked, but not the Douro farmers"
Ruy Brito e Cunha's next post came with the giant multinational United Distillers and through this association and his contacts with Pernod Ricard, helped his son João visit the New World vineyards during the nineteen nineties, as he too began to pursue a career in wine. While at United Distillers, Brito e Cunha was a director of the trade association for the Bourse Palace in Porto and of a new company established to promote the Douro valley, involving the banking community and Port wine companies.