João Ferreira Álvares Ribeiro is an extraordinary man: 25 years in the sharp tailored suit of a successful investment banker should have sobered his inherent joie de vivre, but if it has, it certainly does not show. Typically, the Portuguese temperament is relaxed and unflustered, but only partially does this describe the boyishly warm-hearted proprietor of Quinta do Vallado. João enjoys sharing: his love of life and lack of inhibition totally illuminated my broken September week in his company, making it complete and spontaneously memorable.
João Ferreira Álvares Ribeiro (rt) and Francisco Spratley FerreiraWith a gently mischievous character, his fearless approach to everyday life is infectious: a paradoxical demeanour offers shyness, twinklingly irresistible charm and the naughtiness of a public school prankster. He adores the Douro valley and comes from the famous Ferreira family whose lifeblood is suffused with great Port wine. All at once he can be measured and serious, hinting at strong reasons for his long-term business success. He works hard, plays hard and is a compassionately sociable man: every one of the Douro Boys has unique characteristics, but none more so than João, for whom life is one enormous adventure. Married to Rita, only daughter of Jorge and Leonora Roquette of Quinta do Crasto, he has two grown children, João 21 and Matilde 18. Away from family and the business of wine, his all-consuming passion is shooting, most particularly the highly illusive woodcock. During summer and early autumn João can be seen aboard his treasured powerboat, ricocheting at high velocity along the placid waters of the mighty Douro, delivering Vallado guests to far-flung Quintas and alighting for surreal, yet sublime, gourmet picnics atop the vast boulders of the river's granite-channelled flow. A natural and easy host, Ferreira is comfortable with all who visit Quinta do Vallado, whether international statesman, diplomats, musical celebrities or writers - he is a consummate host and knows how to entertain. Seated at Vallado's sheltered breakfast table and beyond the reach of a bright early morning sun, João Ferreira is finishing a plate of delicious alheira sausage and fresh farm eggs, his manner is relaxed and content. He widens his gaze to encompass the broad sweep of the Corgo valley's serried ranks of vines and tells me he is anticipating the welcome arrival of a small group of friends and VIP's later in the day. His ingrained latin tan, dark mass of hair, perpetual smile and reflective designer sunglasses, evoke the Portuguese good life, something to which others aspire but this forty-nine year old retired banker has already attained.
João Ferreira is a direct descendent of Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, 19th century queen of the Douro. He was born and educated in Porto, with University coming soon after the great political upheaval of the Portuguese coup in 1974. Incredulously, he explains that some of his post revolution professors were in fact Cuban! "soon after, I went to London for four years of business studies, this was important for me, as Portugal was a very closed country at that time, educationally, culturally and professionally"
"I started to notice the need for a strategic plan and began to think what should be done for the future"
João Ferreira "a happy man"Armed with substantial qualifications, João returned to a country where legislation had been passed prohibiting private banking and simply everything had been nationalized. "At that time some of my friends and friends of my parents started a new investment company, though at the outset it could not have a license to operate as a bank, it did eventually become one" This was how BPI, one of Portugal's biggest investment banks began, when the young João Ferreira joined the workforce it had only ten employees, 25 years on there were 7000 and João was one of the senior management. " My time at BPI was professionally and financially rewarding... banking was my life from my early twenties until I was forty seven years old. I am now very happy in what I do and as a result of 25 years at BPI, I could survive for ten years without worry." Ferreira explains his family's strong connection to Douro winemaking through the Ferreira Port wine empire, "The firm was run by two members of two branches of the same family: one was Vito's branch (now owner of Quinta do Vale Meão) and the other was maternal grandfather's. The baton then passed to Francisco Ferreira's father and when he died at a tragically young age, it was handed to my father". João says winemaking was always in his background and the family owned Quintas and properties outside of the Ferreira business, even one which once belonged to the King of Portugal. Every September João's family came to the Douro for harvest time, though there was never any direct involvement in the wine business. When Ferreira was eventually sold to Sogrape in 1987, João Ribeiro's father decided to develop the family property of Quinta do Vallado as a table wine project and build upon the fabric of its ancient port wine pedigree, the Quinta's grapes having long been used by Ferreira. "There were just a handful of table wine producers in the Douro at that time, Vito had Vale Meão with its long Barca Velha history, my father-in-law had Crasto (João is married to Rita, Jorge and Lenor Roquette's daughter) and there were others like Alves de Sousa. I did not have time to dedicate myself to Vallado and could not envisage leaving the bank to go to a new wine project".
Swimming in the mighty DouroNew Plans at Vallado: During 1994, Joao's viticulturalist cousin Francisco Ferreira began helping at Vallado and eventually obtained his degree in agronomy at Vila Real agricultural faculty, moving to work full time at the Quinta in 1997. João says, "at that particular point I started to notice the clear need for a strategic plan and began to think what should be done for the future, it will be me and my cousin who will inherit Vallado." The property belongs to João's mother and her respective siblings, there are six in all - two of whom are Jesuit priests. From time to time the family had spoken of renovating the original Quinta buildings, though no positive steps had been taken, but with João actively involved, this was set to change. Believing thoroughly in Douro wine tourism and having travelled extensively overseas, he felt the need for first class guest accommodation at Quinta do Vallado. His vision was to create a small boutique hotel within the existing buildings and his fastidious attention to detail was rapidly brought to bear. Architectural plans were drawn up and as the adjacent winemaking production grew, so did the Quinta do Vallado Country Hotel. João Ferreira sets very high standards and seeks perfection, he knows how vital discipline is and that visitor perception is everything. "Once building work was underway I visited the site regularly, picking up cigarette butts and discarded empty yoghurt containers left by the workers, people stared at me in disbelief but I felt we should maintain standards from the very start. Everything we do in the house must match and complement the winemaking, it is important to introduce a culture of quality to the Douro. I have a clear vision of just what the marketing strategy must be - the house, the food, the boat trips, the personal contact and communications with people, the journalists and clients we invite here".
"there were just a handful of table wine producers... Vito had Vale Meão, my father-in-law had Crasto and there were others like Alves de Sousa"
João Ferreira - seeking perfection...True to his vision João has renovated the Quinta to a high level, it is modest only in scale but not ambition. Vallado's wine is now handsomely supported by these superb guest facilities, designed and furnished by João Ferreira, from the modern and simple interior to the eclectic mixture of furnishings, designer and antique. "Since completion I have never heard anyone say it is any way pretentious or not the Douro, we want to be at the top with wine and apply the same principal to the accommodation at Vallado" Though not a winemaking professional, his marketing skills have also been applied to Vallado wines, "we are developing and launching a new high end wine this year and plan to send out samples to leading commentators, garnering good PR and professional opinion. It is important to emphasize the history of the Ferreira family and this estate, I feel more should be done to share our story. We must increase the volume of premium wines, our Reserva will become the main focus and it is this area of production on which we will concentrate. Direct sales make a lot of sense, but for the moment it is too complicated and labour intensive, there will be lots of opportunities because the New Douro is only just starting." The existing Vallado winery will be restructured doubling its capacity, along with a new aging cellar, combined investment for this new stage and what has already taken place exceeds five million euros. João Ferreira is incredibly enthusiastic about the Douro's future and bursting with positive ideas, animatedly he continues, "it will take some time, but as more people realize the quality of Douro wines others will come onboard - more foreign winemakers will discover the region - and our business will expand". Quinta do Vallado now offers winemaker's dinners for executive groups, international banks and VIP's and João Ribeiro presents his award winning wines alongside fine gastronomy, skilfully prepared in the ample Quinta kitchens. Over the coming seasons there are plans to develop cookery classes and corporate entertaining and Ribeiro is creating a further eight rooms to accommodate additional paying guests and professional visitors. "The business is growing exponentially and many more wine lovers now wish to come to the Douro valley."
"it is important to introduce a culture of quality to the Douro"
A smile for everyone: the irrepressible Francisco Ferreira.. Francisco Ferreira, ‘Chico' to his friends, is the younger half of this dynamic Vallado duo: as a trained agronomist he runs the Quinta's winemaking operation, while Joao oversees planning, wine tourism and PR. With the great and trusted support of another cousin, skilled oenologist, Xito Olazabal from Quinta do Vale Meão, Vallado can claim to be a true family business. Francisco is responsible for maintaining the award winning standards within a rapidly growing enterprise offering a full range of red and white wines. He studied agronomy at nearby Vila Real, the same faculty as his oenologist cousin, "Xito is the person who helps me with the winemaking at Vallado, at the beginning he came to the adega every fifteen days" The two youthful winemakers have carved a fine reputation among New Douro producers and both enjoy the pioneering image of being Douro Boys, respectively representing, Vale Meão and Vallado. In 1992, a tragic car accident claimed the life of Jorge Ferreira, Francisco's fifty-six year old father, passing Vallado's proprietorial mantle to João Ferreira's engineering father. Francisco says, "the old winery was built by my father Jorge Ferreira, he loved the Douro and was one of the pioneers of modern vertical planting in the Ferreira vineyards, people said he was crazy because he bought land to plant vines in the arid desert-like area of the Douro Superieur, but he was always looking for new things". Francisco was only eighteen when his father died in a road accident, "I was just beginning my winemaking studies at Vila Real and I wanted to get to know the Douro through his eyes...though I think he is still helping me now". Without Jorge, the business needed someone from the family to help at the winery, so Joao's father came to work on a part-time basis between his own engineering projects. Francisco continues, "When I finished my studies in 1997, Uncle Guilherme asked me to work full time and be responsible for the day-to-day work, I started at the age of 24 and at that time we were producing one million litres of Port wine"
...animated and enthusiastic..The Ferreira family had already built a modest new winery to make Douro table wines and between 1994 and 1997 began a programme of replanting in the vineyards. "At this time we removed many of the old vines, the result was that 40 hectares out of 65 were replaced and this represented a big investment. Since those early days, 52 hectares out of a total 69 have been replanted" At the time a youthful Francisco received experienced help from his Vila Real teacher, Nuno Magalhaes, "we had no experience of new grape varieties and wanted to keep the indigenous varietals. We retained all of the best vineyards and replanted the remainder - it was a big project" New plantings for red wine included; Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tintas, Roriz, Barroca and Cão with some Sauzão. White plantings included Rabegato, Verdelho, Gouveio and Muscatel.
Ten years later Francisco feels the experience and knowledge gained have benefited Vallado enormously and he is gradually re-grafting successful varieties on to older rootstock. "Some of the original varieties were better suited to Port wine production, but not table wines. Some were heavy and lacked acidity, we are now re-grafting parcels of the Tinta Roriz because this varietal is really only good when yields are low and it is now being replaced with Touriga Nacional", Ferreira is applying the same approach to parcels of Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. He thinks the Barroca is good, but when young it "produces too much with too little structure and not such good colour". He does however value it among the old vines, those over sixty years old, where "it lends more elegance and produces much smaller bunches with age". Approximately 50% of the new vineyards at Vallado are planted with Touriga Nacional, there is now a good portion of Touriga Franca and in 2006 Francisco planted a small quantity of Syrah. "We do not wish to make Syrah wine or use very much in the assemblage... but we do think it is likely to be compatible with our indigenous varieties and a small percentage will help the blend. This is an experiment, but we wish to keep an open mind and try many different things" Standing in a vineyard of Touriga Nacional, Francisco shows me some re-grafting and explains there are three options for the planting configuration in young vineyards. Vinho alto - vertical lines used when the inclination of the
..with a great sense of fun..vineyard is not too great, or for steeper gradients of greater than 35º, modern terracing known as ‘Patamares - these represent 95% of Vallado's newly planted areas. "They are more costly and suit the lower production of our high end wines. The space between the vines is double that of vinho alto and the vines get more exposure to the sun"
Interestingly, the more shaded inside line of vines nearer the vineyard walls have more humidity and less insulation, so are more prone to disease, the grapes also mature less quickly. The difference between the inside and outside bunches can be as much as one degree of alcohol! "We now use green harvesting and very little herbicide, we plant special grass between each row of vines and cut this three times a year". Douro vines suffer the attentions of a small parasitic moth whose pupa eat the young grapes and introduce infection, rather than killing this moth, Francisco Ferreira sexually confuses his enemy in order to stop the harmful insects multiplying. A plastic wire like device is attached to the vines, emitting an odour that baffles the moth and prevents egg laying - as a result he limits the use of pesticides within the Vallado vineyards. Francisco says "I am not anti-pesticide but prefer to control their use, this is a more balanced approach that helps to produce perfect grapes".
"we now use green harvesting and very little herbicide, we plant special grass between each row of vines and cut this three times a year"
..and a congenial host.High above the Douro: Driving hurriedly along the dusty track running sinuously uphill from the main Quinta, we glimpse row upon row of assorted vines laden with plump fruit. Francisco is talking animatedly of vineyard practice and techniques employed at Vallado. Eventually, we arrive high above the Douro river and settle in the welcome shade of an olive tree amid massive schist slabs, improbably assembled to form gargantuan picnic tables for Vallado's fortunate visitors... Francisco returns to his favourite theme. The hill is named Devezas and the particular vineyard in which we are seated ‘Dos Fraeras', its panoramic view is breathtaking and my attention is diverted as an eclectic assortment of river craft languidly pass far below. The silence of this perfect pitch adds emphasis to the words of my congenial host. "The old vineyards have some bad things, the varieties are mixed so the maturation varies from one variety to another within the same plot. The picking is not mechanised, there are higher costs and lower production" Some of the traditional grape varieties grown in the Douro are really only suited to Port wine and several give a lot of sugar but offer little colour or structure. "They were planted in the traditional way with 7000 plants per hectare, this means the vines compete and grape production is limited per vine. The old vineyards produce 4000 kilos per hectare, which equates to 5-600 grams per vine, quality is not quite as regular and can sometimes be unsuitable for table wine.
Francisco says, "we have kept the very best of the parcels and they are really good. The low yields provide great complexity, good acidity and balance - the tannins are round and many of these vines are between 80-100 years old...it is a lot" A good deal of the Vallado fruit is rejected because they try to pick late, by which stage the grapes have between 14-15 degrees of alcohol. If they were to pick earlier, the older vines could provide greener fruit with an aggressive structure that would be much harsher on the palate. All Vallado fruit is carefully sorted by teams of 3-5 people, there are no tractors in the vineyards and low production from the old vines combined with the use of best French oak means everything is essentially ‘handmade' with great attention to detail.