Van Zeller is a mighty name within the annals of Port Wine history: its ancient ancestral roots penetrate deep into a pre-Napoleonic landscape and parallel the evolution of the modern Douro valley. Though not quite pre-Cambrian, the operatically proportioned Cristiano van Zeller cuts an imposing 21st century figure, solidly complimenting the granite and schistous folds of his jewel-like Quinta. With more than a passing resemblance to the great cinematic deity, Orson Welles, his flawless English enunciation, courtesy and measured dash of old-world Portuguese charm, make a lasting impression on all who encounter this buccaneering titan of Douro wine. By striving for perfection in all that he does, he honours his distinguished family name; from Quinta do Vale Dona Maria high above the Douro's diminutive Rio Torto, to the baked sherry fields of Jerez in southern Spain, the one time owner of legendary Quinta do Noval and descendent of vinous aristocracy, lends his viticultural gravitas to so many. He shares a personal and irrepressible passion for the grape with collaborators and colleagues alike, while visiting his frequently irreverent humour on close friends and acquaintances.
Cristiano van Zeller cuts an imposing figure...When Cristiano enters a room his physical presence dominates: he is larger than life. In conversation. or when addressing an audience, his carefully inflected vowels resonate in a soft undulating series of articulately constructed sentences. Listening closely to Cristiano, one detects a strong Portuguese foundation, on which a deep veneer of English grammar has been applied, the result, is a pleasing melange of paused public school pronunciation and quaintly nuanced syllables, harking back to a more learned era... an image reinforced by his James Roberton Justice whiskers. As a Douro Boy, Cristiano van Zeller is no Third Man. He was the original catalyst for gathering together like-minded friends in the mid to late nineties, and by design, it was he who formed an occasional unified force to effect joint winemaking promotion. His enthusiasm for group activity, co-operation and the selfless sharing of ideas, combined well with Dirk Niepoort's pragmatic generosity of regular invitations to present van Zeller wines alongside Niepoort's at tastings. This informal association created a springboard for enlarging and consolidating a mutual team effort, ultimately leading to formation of the Douro Boys with families Roquette, Olazabal and Ferreira, and more latterly, the burgeoning New Douro movement...
How it all began: Born in 1959 to a Port wine making dynasty, Cristiano van Zeller's early education was entirely Portuguese. Moving briefly to the northern Basque region of Spain between 1975 and 1979, he began a degree course in Industrial Engineering at Navarra University's campus in San Sebastian, following in the footsteps of three earlier van Zeller generations. His own father was a career engineer and for a time during between the late 1950's and 1970, directly involved with the construction of the Douro dams.
Cristiano van Zeller.. Citizen WineThe blueprint for a life of drawing boards and site plans was soon cast aside, when Cristiano triangulated a return to Porto, eventually becoming non execute director of family owned Quinta do Noval in 1981, the company encompassing Van Zeller & Co Port wine brands. Graduating through full directorship and vice-presidency, he became CEO of Noval in 1983 and for a whole decade was entirely responsible for the management of this legendary estate. In April 1993 when French insurance giant AXA purchased Noval from the van Zellers, Cristiano remained at the helm for some six months, after which, and by mutual agreement, the new owners decided to release their incumbent CEO. After twelve senior years at Noval, van Zeller was compelled to seek gainful employment elsewhere. "During the beginning of October I decided to call my good friend Jorge Roquette at Quinta do Crasto, it was the middle of the harvest and I was still at Noval", Cristiano continues, "I was about to leave my post and suggested to Jorge we should meet and discuss his future plans at Crasto, I wanted to remain in the wine business and thought maybe there was an opportunity to do something together". At the time Jorge Roquette had invested heavily in Crasto with a view to the future and quite separately, as an executive at BPI, happened to be the banker for Quinta do Noval. Additionally, his eldest son Miguel had been working alongside Cristiano for two years and there was a longstanding friendship and trust. Immediately after this telephone call, van Zeller was heading towards Porto, making a minor detour south for a meeting with the Roquettes and an unexpected overnight stay. By the next morning a deal had been done: Cristiano van Zeller would begin a freshly minted New Year at Crasto, combining Port wine production with a new development program for red table wines.
"at that time we saw Quinta do Cotto and Barca Velha a small shining examples and had some idea of the possibilities"
This was not entirely virgin territory for van Zeller, having already conducted extensive red wine experiments at Noval during the mid eighties, "at that time we saw the wines of Quinta do Cotto and Barca Velha as small shining examples and had some idea of the possibilities". The early non-commercial experiments at Noval had prepared van Zeller well for his Crasto plans, "we had made a lot of mistakes, tried everything and made deliberate errors just to discover the consequences. We left stalks in and used tiny vats, the results were over concentrated and tannic - completely undrinkable, but we learned fast" By 1989/90 yet further plans were evolving with Cristiano's cousins from José Maria da Fonseca to jointly produce dry red table wines, though due to family politics and indecision, these did not reach fruition. During this period approximately 50% of all Douro grape production went into Port wine and the balance was either discarded or made into inferior product. It seemed logical to put this regional excess to much better use, rather than wasting the balance of good fruit, or distilling it for brandy, red table wines would offer a sensible and totally commercial solution. This fact was obvious to the brand new van Zeller/Roquette partnership and harmonized well with Quinta do Crasto's future ambitions.
Tasting at Vale Dona MariaMaking Douro Red Wine: A new era had begun for Cristiano: in addition to the familiar production of fine Port, he was embarking on a new red wine adventure... for a market yet to be developed! "the challenge was to build anticipation over a two to three year period with existing Port wines, make something of real value and then launch the new Crasto red wines to a receptive market" During these early years at Crasto, a range of outside interests both commercial and recreational were also pursued. Having served as a director and President of the distinguished Port Wine Shippers Association earlier in the decade, he even became CEO of the distribution operation for ice cream icons Haagen Daz (Portugal) - although, for a considerable gourmet, one imagines Cristiano deemed this a purely vocational post! As late as 1997 the big man was still intent on achieving his degree in industrial engineering, now ten years on this seems a distant notion.
In 1994 Quinta do Crasto appointed talented Australian winemaker David Baverstock to work with Cristiano, he was based with Jorge Roquette's brother in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal and wanted to return to the Douro valley. The inaugural red wine vintage of Crasto was made by Baverstock, using facilities kindly loaned by Ramos Pinto in the Rio Torto valley, this type of helpful co-operation between companies is typical of the region and greatly helps new ventures, and ultimately contributed to van Zeller's own growing success throughout the first decade of D.O.C. evolution. During this early stage, van Zeller's efforts were devoted to building international interest in Crasto and Douro red wines generally, made possible through his massive network of Port wine contacts. The 1995 vintage of Crasto was a joint effort made by Baverstock and young Australian newcomer Dominic Morris; released to great acclaim, it achieved the prestigious accolade of Best International Red Wine of the Year... suddenly, the world was beginning to take note of the Douro's still wine potential.
"we tried everything and made deliberate errors just to discover the consequences... the results were 'undrinkable' but we learned fast"
A very good nose indeed...1996 was a landmark year for Cristiano van Zeller and wife Joana: having purchased a Quinta of their own earlier in 1995 (Quinta do Vale da Mina, which was subsequently sold), an opportunity arose to take over the running of a modest estate belonging to Joana's grandmother, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria in the Rio Torto valley. The Quinta was leased to the Symington family, contributing much of its annual harvest of grapes to the group's Smith-Woodhouse Port, indeed, 95% of the Vale Dona Maria old vine grapes went into the now classic 1977 vintage. Cristiano declared his interest to Joana's family, but stipulated he must be permitted to buy the property outright, " I always wanted to have vineyards of my own, but did not wish to have any shareholders or discussions of the property's value after my investment". The Symingtons were happy to comply with this clear proposal, graciously agreeing to relinquish the remaining seven years of their lease, subject to the grandmother's approval.
On the 6th September 1996 Quinta do Vale Dona Maria was officially handed over to Cristiano and Joana van Zeller, together with the current year's grape harvest, but with a crumbling buildings and a vineyard to regenerate, the real work was only just beginning... Thanks to the valuable friendship of Dirk Niepoort and Jorge Roquette, van Zeller was able to make and store his first Vale Dona Maria vintage at their respective properties, a considerable act of generosity, permitting rapid progress and the essential grafting and planting of new vines from the very start. By the time Crasto's 1996 grapes were being harvested, the Ferreira family at Quinta do Vallado had already engaged van Zeller to assist with the development of their new range of Douro red and white wines... it was a busy and exciting time in the Cima Corgo and this growing momentum helped the steady rise of the New Douro movement.
Sandra Tavares da Silva: 'a solid reputation'Sandra Tavares da Silva: Sandra Tavares da Silva is the highly talented oenologist and winemaker at Vale Dona Maria, respected by her peers and considered by many to define the New Douro generation. A skilled interpreter of local terroir, she is bright and beautiful, with a strong work ethic, maintaining confident discipline at all times. It is hard to define how such a calm and self-effacing personality could be so successful, yet her winemaking reputation is now solidly established. Born in the Azores to a Portuguese naval officer father and Swiss mother, Sandra was taken to live in Lisbon when a year old. After formal education followed by a degree in agronomy, she moved to Italy and studied for her Masters in oenology at a catholic university near Milan, a city not famed for viticulture but style and design. It was here the young oenologist gained a clear comprehension of old-world winemaking skills, visiting vineyards in the company of fellow students and developing an appreciation for truly fine wine. At the time Sandra moved to Porto in 1999, Cristiano van Zeller was actively looking for a skilled winemaker and asked her to join him at Vale Dona Maria. This was an auspicious year for the winemaking debutant: in addition to her exciting new post and inaugural vintage at Vale Dona Maria, she was invited by her parents to help at the family vineyard. Quinta de Chocapalha is in the Estremadura region of southern Portugal and produces indigenous red grapes on clay soil, until 1999 the fruit was sold to other winemakers, but with Sandra's great oenological skills, the Tavares da Silvas could justify building a winery of their own. In the same year Sandra met her future husband and winemaking partner, Jorge Serodio Borges. Married in 2001, it seemed only logical the dynamic duo would embark on their own winemaking adventure, and thus evolved a new enterprise - Wine & Soul. In the past six years their joint success has been impressive with a string of high scoring wines, including the much acclaimed Pintas and stylish newcomers Character and Guru.
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