In every sense, Francisco ‘Vito' Javier de Olazabal is a Douro Boy. At 69 years of age the oldest member of this winemaking group is possibly the youngest at heart. A born raconteur and eloquent conversationalist he is also a shrewd and successful businessman, whose deft touch with people and elegant turn of phrase denote a formidable intellect and rapier wit. Though masked by humility and occasional splashes of self-deprecation, his special qualities soon become apparent. An exceptional ambassador and dynamic publicist for his beloved Quinta do Vale Meão, Vito's high profile helps the whole New Douro movement internationally. Appearing regularly at promotional events, in the media and even on internet phenomenon YouTube, at three score years and ten, Vito still rocks and is every bit a renaissance man of the Douro Superieur.
...at 69 years of age Vito still rocksVito was Chairman of the A.A. Ferreira Port Wine Company, cutting a significant and influential figure in the world of fine wine. Disporting a perpetually inquisitive expression, his glowing golfer's countenance radiates over a smoothly domed pate, accentuated by frugal curtains of neatly trimmed dark Spanish hair, the ideal perch for an eclectic selection of dubious hats, occasionally favoured by this particularly courteous vigneron.
Whether in the company of grape pickers or international statesmen, he treats everyone with the greatest respect and equal regard, providing the perfect example of a Douro gentleman. He claims to be somewhat "laid back and more Portuguese than Spanish in temperament", but a lifetime of success suggests the contrary. He works hard and plays hard, especially on the dance floor where Vito's lightning moves would shame a youthful John Travolta, his jeep driving skills are equally beyond belief. On a recent expedition in his company, I was introduced to the handy thirty-point turn executed on an elevated track barely wide enough for our bulky four-wheel drive. For those of a nervous disposition, Vito's optimistic perception of space might not always coincide with that of his passenger, especially driving along the terrifying terraces of the high Douro vineyards. As my companion dextrously manoeuvred his vehicle backwards above a precipitous drop, I closed my eyes and contemplated how driving with Vito could easily bring me closer to God...
Distinguished antecedents... Vito Olazabal is the great-grandson of Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, queen of the 19th century Douro valley and original owner of Quinta do Vale Meão. As a result of successive inheritances, Vito spent thirty patient years acquiring small percentages of the incorporated Vale Meao estate from assorted relatives, eventually raising his share from a modest 6% up to 100% and outright possession by 1994. Long before in 1968, he married the graceful and elegant Zinha (Maria Luisa), daughter of Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, for 62 years head oenologist at Ferreira and co-creator of the famous Douro wine Barca Velha. Vito and Zinha have two sons and a daughter: the winemaker Francisco known as ‘Xito', Jaime a banker (named after his paternal grandfather) and daughter Luisa who is now an important part of the Vale Meão team, travelling worldwide and working hard to promote the family's wines. Descended from a long line of Port wine makers and educated in Porto, it was inevitable Vito would join the family firm of A.A. Ferreira, then run by his father Jaime Olazabal. Under Jaime's direction Ferreira was revolutionized, the commitment to bulk export sales was abandoned and a range of own brand label brands launched. This seminal decision grew the company's business exponentially, transforming a rather dormant family firm into a dynamic force, with Ferreira utltimately capturing over 20% of the domestic Port wine market. According to Vito, Olazabal senior was a true character and quite set in his ways "he despised flying and travelled the length and breadth of Europe by chauffeur driven Mercedes... together with a car boot full of odiferous salt-cod". Apparently, Jaime's chauffeur cared little for foreign food and persuaded his benevolent employer to fill the car with his favourite dried fish. Benefiting from many relatives living throughout Europe, the chauffeur would personally deliver gift parcels of Portugal's national dish, in the hope of pleasing the recipients and ensuring his own gastronomic satisfaction!
A different time: Vito relates, "in the nineteen fifties and sixties, giants like Allied Lyons and Seagrams were only just forming and it was still possible to find family run businesses like Clicquot in France, Jacobus Boelen in Holannd, Louis Golay in Switzerland, stowells in Britain and Henkell Sekt in Germany." He continues, "Otto Henkell and Adolf Von Ribbentrop, son of the notorious wartime German Foreign minister, were leaders of the company, the latter named for the reason you might imagine." Tongue-in-cheek, Vito chuckles... "although Godson of Adolf Hitler, he was actually a very charming man!!"
"I'm laid back and more Portuguese than Spanish in temperament"
one of those 'dubious' hatsGradually, one-by-one these old family firms sold out to the big conglomerates, principally to make money and thus the nature of the international wine business changed. "When my father died in 1982, I was elected by the family to become CEO of the company, this was the era when modern distribution arrived. We then moved our operation in France from Clicquot to Martell, which was still a family business - but eventually they too sold out to Seagrams and we subsequently changed to Mumm"
"By 1987 Ferreira was prosperous and we began acquiring our own vineyards in the Douro. Purchasing Quinta do Seixo, Quinta do Porto and a piece of barren land not far from Vale Meão at Quinta da Leda in the Douro Superieur". By building a new winery at Seixo, Ferreira gained greater control over production and the company continued to grow, becoming an object of commercial desire for several larger competitors. The possibility arose of family members selling out for financial gain and consequently weakening the hand of those who remained as minority shareholders. Vito Olazabal took prompt action to save the situation, he called a general meeting of shareholders and with the help of BPI Bank President Artur Santos Silva negotiated the best sale agreement for all concerned. Although Allied Lyons and Seagrams placed competitive bids, it was Portuguese wine giant Sogrape S.A. who made the highest offer for A.A. Ferreira. Vito was invited to stay in his position as CEO and happily remained at his desk for a decade more.
"by 1987 Ferreira was prosperous and we began acquiring our own vineyards in the Douro"
Using the money gained from his sale of Ferreira shares, he gradually bought small percentages of Quinta do Vale Meao from assorted cousins, acquiring a substantial 38% stake. In 1994 the surviving six relatives decided to sell to Vito, it was a dream come true and at last the Olazabal family owned the property as a whole, this marked a new beginning for the direct descendent of Dona Antonia. With his son Xito now making excellent wine at distant Quinta do Vallado, he developed plans for a Vale Meão wine to follow in the footsteps of legendary Barca Velha... Since the inaugural vintage in 1999 and the mutually agreed termination of Sogrape's Barca Velha association, Quinta do Vale Meão has gone from strength to strength and built an impressive reputation for massively complex Douro D.O.C. wines, setting a standard of excellence, founded on one man's patient determination and vision. My abiding memory of time spent with the inimitable Vito Olazabal is of kindness, laughter and compassion for others; combined with dynamism and a strong work ethic. His conversation flows and he entertains with a dry delivery of hilarious anecdotes and stories from the past - but is most definitely a man of the future. Though in the early autumn of his life, Vito is a man for all seasons and endorses the exciting new plans of his skilled winemaking son Xito. This vitality, warmth and generosity of spirit set him apart and elevate him to the status of a Portuguese national treasure.
Xito Olazabal - 'a visionary winemaker'Xito Olazabal is the visionary wine-maker at Quinta do Vale Meão and unless cryogenic preservation becomes reality, it is he who will ultimately carry his father's vinous baton into the future, as well as his penchant for slightly eccentric hats. In contrast to the patriarch of Vale Meão, 39 year old Xito avers limelight, seeming to prefer the anonymity and quietude of the Quinta's isolated outpost, 175 kms from the Atlantic and Porto's waterside hustle and bustle, though it is here in town Xito keeps a second home with wife Ana and their two young children, Leonor (8) and Vasco (6). He was educated in Porto and subsequently studied oenology at Vila Real's winemaking faculty. Xito now spends most of his time in these remote high country vineyards bordering the Douro, valuing the solitude for his creative work in the adega and periodically dropping downstream to the Corgo valley to work with his cousin Francisco Ferreira at Quinta do Vallado. Xito has been winemaker at Vallado since 1993.
Like many great winemakers, Xito is totally consumed by his passion for perfection and continually strives to do better. His hard work has paid substantial dividends, evidenced by Vale Meao's great popularity with critics and consumers alike. He endorses his father's policy of two principal wines: the grand vin, Quinta do Vale Meão and a second wine, Meandro. The Olazabals share a view that all good grapes should contribute to their star wines, shunning the notion of a more diverse multi-marque approach - fearing possible dilution of quality. However, this clear focus on Vale Meao's two wines does not preclude experimentation elsewhere, Xito's latest white wine is made from grapes grown at altitude on his cousin Luis Bernardo Ferreira's property at Porrais, near Murca north-west of Vale Meão.