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As swivel eyed Jack Elam and his sidekick Woody Strode await their trackside demise in the opening sequence of Once Upon A Time In The West, the sun-baked isolation of their Arizona outpost is evoked by a western silence, punctuated only by the mundane sounds of nature. The momentary creaking of a weather-beaten windmill and buzzing of a single bluebottle, serve to mesmerize the viewer, while defining just how it feels to be ‘in the middle of nowhere'.


To arrive at Pocinho railway station is to come to the end of the line, quite literally. Though parched Spain is but a few kilometres distant, this is where the mainline train journey ends. Beyond this far easterly outpost, we find olives, oranges and the Douro soon becomes Duero: Quinta do Vale Meão is right here. A place where verdant valleys succumb to parched ochre, and olive groves gradually supplant vines, lush undulations dilute to sierran dust and an emerald corduroy masterpiece de-saturates to an abridged paleolithic work in progress.

 

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'it's a dog's life'... a little rest in the dappled shade
Stepping steeply down from the corrugated steel carriages of the imperturbable Campanha train, you step back in time onto the single platform of Pocinho railway station and in summer a wall of oven-dry daytime heat instantly makes its presence felt. At this time of year you feel disinclined to move quickly and comprehend the necessity for measured progress. The elegant wrought iron entrance to Quinta do Vale Meão is but a short distance from the station, perhaps three kilometres. Travelling in an elevated four-wheel drive, the air-conditioned cocoon separates visitors from a crumbling world of single story peasant housing along the roughly hewn track, narrowly sandwiched between rustic dry stone walls. This place feels special and quite different from Quintas encountered lower down the Douro valley - with a distinctive frontier feel, it offers a tangible sense of splendid isolation. One immediately thinks of the intrepid Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, who during the early 19th century, located this magnificent estate on horseback and then waited patiently for decades until the railway lines were laid and civilization as we now know it, made its way to these remote communities of the Douro Alto. Only in recent decades did electricity arrive, prior to this, life was harsh and far from hospitable. This is a land of impossible extremes: bitterly cold winters and insufferably hot summers. The unforgiving climate gave rise to a local saying "nine months of winter and three months of hell" - though in reality, this is far from true.

 

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Under a baking September sun the mighty Douro drifts lazily beside the magnificent Vale Meão estate (far bank).

 

Quinta do Vale Meão comprises 270 hectares, with some 67 currently under vine. The vineyards are block planted with six varieties of indigenous grapes, on soils comprising schistose, alluvial gravel and granitic. This geological diversity contributes great complexity to the two Vale Meao wines and with a further 14 hectares of new vineyards planted in 2007 and 2008, production will undoubtedly increase in the years ahead. Much of a giant 180º meander in the mighty Douro river is filled by this majestic property, its massive granite outcrop defibrillating an unruly apex in the stately flow heading seaward. With the great Pocinho dam at its base, this sea of regimented vines skirts hectares of impermeable brush clad escarpments, offering refuge to wild boar, partridge and other worthy game. Until recently the Vale Meao estate provided the majority of grapes for the Legendary Barca Velha - a wine of modern Portuguese legend, made only in great vintages since 1952 and the first serious Douro table wine ever made.

 

'Much of a giant 180º meander in the mighty Douro river is filled by this majestic property'

 

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The hillside chapel atop its earthen platform...
The Quinta
: The main house at Vale Meão sits hard against the base of a steep hillside: resembling a long elegant country manor house, white washed with ivy green shutters and a broad front terrace, it overlooks rolling vineyards stretching south and down to the reflective Douro river. A line of beautiful Plane trees shade the unadorned façade and terrace from an unrelenting sun, providing the most idyllic dappled location to dine al fresco or adjourn for an early evening cocktail. From the back of the main house, a wooded hillside rises steeply perhaps 250 metres and a false summit, short of the crown, is surmounted by a cube-like chapel of nineteenth century classical proportions. From here one might survey much of the nearby river valley, upstream to Pocinho where the River Coa departs for a life of its own, lending its name to the historic town of Vila Nova de Foz Coa, or looking downstream, the river bends out of sight and rolls toward a star studded kingdom of noble Port wine.

 

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The exquisite Vale Meão chapel: 'two pairs of heavy brown shutters open to reveal a stream of particle strewn afternoon light'

 

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The view of the chapel from inside the tiny vestry (left) and the towering gilded and cream coloured altar (right)

 

This remarkable property boasts no less than two chapels: the first atop its all-seeing earthen platform, while a second, discreetly placed within the relatively shallow body of the main house, offers a comforting refuge to calm the mind and lift the spirit. A serene and peaceful space, where in recent times the Olazabal's daughter Luisa was married, it remains in regular use by the family. The towering gilded and cream coloured altar dominates the high narrow room populated by simple country pews: side walls carry traditional hand painted blue and white tiles to dado height and two pairs of heavy dark brown shutters open to reveal a stream of particle strewn afternoon light, whose south-western intensity punctures the shade and generates an ethereal dimension to this private religious space. Like an elegant suspended chocolate box, the cream and gold, cantilevered pulpit sits at a height of nearly three metres, equidistant between the two beautifully proportioned windows, it is reached by a simple set of skeletal wooden steps rising from the altar rail. At the foot of the steps and immediately to the left of the grand altar is the tiny vestry, an ecclesiastical capsule where time stands still. Original 19th century vestments hang untainted by damp or mildew in this bone-dry atmosphere, a place where the past is preserved and heavenly stillness permits reflection.

 


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... the door and the boar
vale_meao_7The Quinta interior remains untouched: with original family furniture it offers an accurate glimpse of Douro past. Leaving the sun-drenched atmosphere of the terrace and crossing the granite threshold, one enters the charming dimly lit hallway through large chestnut double doors beneath a classical cast iron fanlight, in the half-light, one suddenly feels an unrelenting gaze. A mounted boar's head, whose benign physical appearance fails to instil terror, gazes down from the wall. This bristled and be-tusked inmate provides more gentle amusement for Vito Olazabal as he apologetically ventures, he has seen "much finer specimens". This ancestral relic along with many others, lend a sense of family warmth and physically demonstrate Quinta do Vale Meão is a real living place. The Olazabals welcome international visitors from far and wide and the massive kitchen provides the beating heart of their home, as Zinha commands her troops during important lunches and dinners in the elegantly furnished dining room, amid family porcelain and paintings.

"I've seen much finer specimens"

 

The Adega: Several hundred metres from the house at Quinta do Vale Meão stands the huge adega or winery. This immense twin-gabled stone building, built over one hundred years ago by Dona Antonia, has double granite walls and a heavy chestnut roof structure. Within this awe inspiring edifice, fully refurbished and equipped for modern winemaking, we find the granite lagares where foot treading of the grapes takes place, before temperature controlled fermentation in 10 tonne stainless steel vats. This is Xito's domain; where he and assistant oenologist Marcela Brites closely craft Vale Meao's purple individuality into a profound expression of local schistous terroir. This building is soon to be sympathetically remodelled with the help of dynamic architectural duo Arnaldo and João Barbosa, and thus a new chapter in Vale Meão's rise and rise will gradually unfold.

 

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The immense, twin gabled, double granite walled adega at Quinta do Vale Meão, built by Dona Antonia in the 19th century


Future plans: Riding with Xito Olazabal in the four-wheel drive, we ascend an aggressively rough and narrow track traversing the steep hillside high above the house - progressively making our way to the hilltop location of Vale Meao's latest vineyard project. I withdraw my bare arm inside the open window of the vehicle, as we brush between dense thickets of vegetation and shrubs. Crossing from one side of this rocky peninsular to the other, we alight on the very top to assess the Olazabal's good fortune, a new piece of previously hidden terroir... uncovered with the aid of a little dynamite.

 

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...'the sun sinks low on the horizon and a hidden valley is revealed'
Xito explains "this new but modestly proportioned parcel (7 hectares) was previously thought to be unplantable, it proved to be a schistous pocket totally concealed by hard granite... this plot offers a majestic view of the valley below. One hectare will be planted in the old way with rows aligned along the contours but with no terracing, in order to obtain a much higher density of about 10,000 plants per hectare. No herbicides will be used and treatment of the vines will be similar to those adopted in the 19th century. Instead of block planting, this parcel will have about 5 to 8 varietals mixed together, some almost extinct like Tinta Francisca. The idea is to compare the wines coming from this 'field blend' with those obtained from block planted single varietals, blended after vinification. We will have to wait at least ten years for results and production will only be a few thousand bottles, this is a long term project." Xito tells me the surrounding hillside is entirely granite but this schist ‘cap' has presented an unexpected opportunity to develop something new. As we continue along the rocky track I learn more of Xito's plans to acquire high altitude land for planting red grapes, in a simple attempt to combat global warming and protect the business, "in order to defend ourselves in the future, we have to go up".

 

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Xito Olazabal
Quinta do Vale Meão occupies a giant meander in the Douro river (hence the name of the Olazabal's second wine, Meandro) and as we make our slight descent north, the sun sinks low on the horizon and a hidden valley is revealed, a place where the river's glassy surface narrows and is momentarily bisected by a midstream island. Immediately below this calmly belted punctuation, the Douro's flow adopts a mysterious grey-green hue as it constricts to a surging run, perhaps 30 metres deep. Here the terrain is covered by brush and gorse, with occasional tinges of Indian red and dusty raw sienna. At this early evening hour, I gaze along the neutralised dusky banks from my aerial vantage point and discern a miniscule but jarring contrast far below. Xito stops the vehicle and as I step onto the track, like a vision from the pages of Tolkien, I focus on a circled wooden pen filled with the jostling forms of seventy to eighty lyre-horned, slate grey goats. Standing among them, a family of farmers in the company of their goatherd appear to be segregating their charges. The vividly coloured t-shirt of the goatherd had initially caught my eye and staring hard, a fairy tale scene unfolded before us, accentuated by the muted charm of this isolated setting and its secret nature.

 

'like a vision from the pages of Tolkien'...

 

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'I focus on a circled wooden pen filled with seventy to eighty lyre-horned, slate grey goats.'

 

As we affect our final descent to arrive in time for dinner, Xito suddenly halts the vehicle and points excitedly to a grey platoon of wild partridge on the track ahead, but their animated twilight forms suggest it is too late and we have been spotted. Briskly, the covey of birds take flight in a whirring flurry of feathers, emitting the sound of a muffled automaton winding down and a split second later they alight disparately, vanishing amid the gorse. Though a fleeting moment in Vale Meão's nature, these few short seconds spell the captivating magic of a very special place. Quinta do Vale Meão is a timeless estate: founded upon Dona Antonia's great Port wine heritage and the majestic Barca Velha, its D.O.C. future now promises even more. Under the competent Colonelcy of Vito Olazabal, this place of family values, respect for tradition and trust in nature, combine to create a vinous kingdom devoted to interpreting earth and elements in a fresh and exciting way. Vale Meão has quickly found a place in Portugal's pantheon of new classic wines and as its reputation grows, we begin to grasp the real potential of truly great Douro terroir.

 

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a pair of ancient stone gates at Vale Meão
A journey home
: It is now mid December 2007 and three months have passed since my time at Vale Meao. Seated comfortably on the 7.45 Alfa Pendular from Porto to Lisbon, I settle in for the slick three-hour train journey, en-route to a business lunch at Vitor Sobral's fashionable Terreiro de Paço restaurant in Lisbon.

 

An aquatinted countryside glides by, bleached Atlantic beaches and granite villages gradually giving way to a more Mediterranean aspect, as onboard television screens offer touristic programmes to while away the modest journey. At over 200kms per hour, the tilting motion soon induces slumber, though my early morning departure from Oporto Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club, has further accentuated my lethargy. Having left Porto far behind, I incredulously hear a familiar Douro voice through my complementary headset... Vito Olazabal is speaking to me, indeed, he is speaking to all of my fellow passengers. Looking up and ahead to the multiple screens suspended from the ceiling, I see the Douro's Commander-in-Chief, full-face, extolling the virtues of fine wine, while standing on the manicured lawns of a distant Vintage House Hotel in Pinhão.

 

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Francisco 'Vito' Javier de Olazabal: 'a man who reaches the parts other vignerons cannot reach'

 

A celebrity chef from Portuguese television has invited Vito Olazabal to appear as guest of honour: at this surreal moment I sit looking at the echoed image, contemplating just what a valuable asset to Portuguese wine Vito Olazabal really is. To paraphrase Heineken, Vito's long time brewing associates, in their famed seventies advertising campaign, "Vito certainly reaches the parts other vignerons cannot reach" and in so doing, effectively shares his own great passion for Quinta do Vale Meão and the Douro Boys.

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