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The charmingly quaint sitting room of Quinta do Crasto's timeworn guesthouse seemed a perfect location to discover why Miguel Roquette regards his family's beautiful estate with such great affection. Roquette is passionate about Quinta do Crasto and as a late afternoon sun casts long September shadows upstream and the terraced vines of Maria Teresa cascade far below our elevated outpost, the dynamic forty-one year old, responsible for spreading a New Douro gospel on behalf of his family estate, declares a profound allegiance. "Crasto means my life, the first time I tasted Port I was probably six months old; my grandfather would give us tiny sips when drinking our milk, some of my great winemaking friends and neighbours who visit us today held me in their arms as a tiny baby. I love the climate, the river, the plants and vegetables grown in the garden, I love the smell of food being cooked in our kitchens, the honey, tomatoes, figs... we are so passionate about this place and try to put this heartfelt sentiment into every bottle of wine we make. It's not just about drinking the wine, I want you to drink the tradition, the earth, ferocious sun and freezing winters - this is what great wine should be"

 

 

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Crasto United: Miguel and Tomas Roquette(left)
Miguel was born in 1967 to Jorge and Leonor Roquette (née de Almeida). A sister Rita and younger brother Tomas complete a successful triumvirate of wine professionals in one family. All siblings are equally dedicated to the Crasto cause and play an essential role in family business. The first eight years of Miguel's life were spent in Porto, but in 1975 the Portuguese revolution caused massive family upheaval and they left their native shores for a more secure yet distant Brazil, returning six years later in 1981. Miguel finished his education in Portugul and in 1987 the young Roquette was travelling once more - this time to Britain for studies in English, after which he applied for a business studies diploma. Gaining initial acceptance, he was disappointingly declined due to over subscription for the course and thus began a five year marketing degree at home in Porto, during which time his professional career in wine started with Sogrape. Roquette is not a typical wine professional: a keen surfer with muscular physique and stylish clean cut appearance, his jet black hair and tanned good looks must occasionally convince wavering female wine buyers of Crasto's bottled virtues... the Roquette's secret weapon is undoubtedly charm. Disarmingly good manners run throughout the family, though Miguel is quite different from his affable younger brother and charismatic father, a retired, successful banker. He combines businesslike efficiency and an impatiently nimble mind with in-depth knowledge of the Douro; a formidable salesman, he eloquently adapts his vocabulary and rides wine conversation with the verbal dexterity necessary for success in a tough marketplace. Miguel Roquette is a fine advocate for Quinta do Crasto and the Douro Boys, he is also young enough to plan for the long term and develop the true potential of his family's burgeoning empire.

 

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Side by side on Quinta do Crasto's delightful veranda
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"the plan is to conquer the world while keeping our feet on the ground"

Miguel worked at Sogrape for six months on Ferreira's domestic market and in marketing promotion and label design with Vinho Verde. In 1991 he was still in the final stages of his marketing degree when he transferred to the prestigious Quinta do Noval with Cristiano van Zeller, this was followed by a stint as commercial director at Van Zeller & Co - for his final thesis Miguel concentrated on Quinta de Roriz Port wine, and scored an impressive 18.5 out of a possible 20. During the late eighties and early nineties, his father Jorge Roquette had been buying large quantities of shares in Crasto and began investing heavily in the vineyards. Within a total of 130 hectares for the whole estate, the original 25 hectares under vine grew to its current 70 hectares of vineyard. 1993 saw the sale of Noval to French insurance giant AXA and CEO Cristiano van Zeller was duly enlisted to help establish a new market for the Roquette family's wines - a gradual process of networking with existing contacts and wine journalists. After completing a post-graduate course in marketing at UC San Diego in California, Miguel was soon on his way to developing an exciting D.O.C. business alongside his old Noval boss. "Having adapted the Crasto winery for making D.O.C. wines we asked my uncle in Alentejo if we could borrow his Australian winemaker David Baverstock, a man responsible for making 15 million bottles of wine on a 750 hectare property". This highly skilled professional was soon transplanted from Herdade do Esperao in Alentejo, the Southern Portuguese wine estate belonging to Jorge Roquette's brother, and the new adventure began. Anticipation for the inaugural Crasto vintage of 1994 was considerable but the first year's production totalled just 800 cases. At this early stage in Crasto's red winemaking evolution facilities were limited and malolactic fermentation took place at Quinta do Bom Retiro in the Torto valley, thanks to the kind assistance of João Nicolau de Almeida from Ramos Pinto.

 

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The view from the top: Vinha da Ponte - Miguel and Tomas atop the massive stone parapet


What Makes the Douro so Special: For Miguel Roquette there are so many things that combine to make the Douro valley special: as he speaks a tangible passion resonates within this small gently lit room. Earnestly shifting in a creaky wooden dining chair, his evangelistic desire to share a familiar world he so adores is evident. The efficient marketing rhythm of Roquette's words are well rehearsed, but they are sincere and carry conviction, the conviction of someone dedicated to a cause. "There is a great tradition attached to the Douro - we were all born here. We have people working at Crasto who have been here for forty to fifty years and know the vineyards like the back of their hands. The grape varieties are tremendously important, we are not talking of boring or familiar grapes, but interesting indigenous ones - especially when it comes to table wines. There are great Cabernets in Bordeaux or classic Pinots in Burgundy, but here it is different and it is up to you to judge whether you like it or not"

 

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No time for vertigo: the Roquette brothers at the apex of New Douro
The many faces of Quinta do Crasto are described by Miguel Roquette, he effervesces about the tremendous variety and individual micro-climates of the estate. The upper part of the property is planted with Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca and Tintas Cao, Roriz and Franca. There are many different sun exposures and altitudes of up to 400 metres. In the lower part of Crasto there are the two great vineyards of Maria Teresa and Vinha da Ponte containing perhaps 30 varieties of old vines at almost 100 years old. Roquette describes this as "truly a fruit salad". He says the recipe for Crasto wine is in the soil and it is the older vineyards from which the top end wines are produced. "Maria Teresa is named after the first granddaughter of my great grandfather and was planted in 1912, the centre Azulejo (traditional blue and white tile panel) on the façade of Pinhão railway station depicts this vineyard". Maria Teresa faces east towards Spain, absorbing the morning and midday sun but in the afternoon it is able to cool down. Within this single, modestly proportioned vineyard there are between 32 -35 varietals and within Vinha da Ponte over 22. The mixed grapes ripen to differing degrees and combine well with the superb terroir, supplying the unique identity of these acclaimed red wines. "Most of our mature vines produce perhaps 6-7 bunches of grapes or 2 kilos of fruit, but with the Maria Teresa vines it is only 150grams, so only 10% of the younger vines... the concentration is amazing". The Roquettes have found that Touriga Nacional is the most flexible of grape varieties because it adapts so well to both dry and wet conditions. In the upper Douro, Touriga flourishes and on the Roquette's new 140 hectare estate Quinta da Cabreira, near Vale Meão - 40 hectares are already planted with 40 to follow, the majority with this dark and deep indigenous varietal. When speaking of Touriga plantings overseas, Miguel is so far unimpressed and feels it remains most compatible with the local Douro schist.

 

"we are not talking of boring or familiar grapes but interesting indigenous ones"

 

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Early success: Success for Miguel Roquette and Quinta do Crasto came early in the shape of the British based International Wine Challenge. " if you can succeed in the UK you can succeed anywhere, it is the toughest market in the world" says Roquette and while attending Bordeaux' Vinexpo in June 1997 Roquette was informed by IWC that Crasto 1995 had won ‘International Red Wine of the Year' - it was an astonishing achievement for a wine in only its second vintage and the organizers of the challenge asked Miguel how many cases of the 95 had been allocated to the UK ? The answer was ‘none' and the IWC explained, in order for Crasto to receive the award, there must be a minimum allocation to the UK. "The problem was soon resolved as Crasto's 96 vintage had been awarded the IWC 4th place, of which many thousands of cases remained available". Therefore, the IWC plaque in Crasto's tasting room reads ‘Crasto 95-96' and so began the stratospheric rise of Quinta do Crasto as a new classic Douro wine and many more accolades would follow, including five stars from Decanter magazine. "At this time the Douro was unheard of as a red wine producing area, before Crasto there was Barca Velha, Cotto, Ramos Pinto and Niepoort...that was it - Crasto began to put the Douro on the map. It was always my father's dream to make red wine and Crasto was the first of the Douro Boys wines to make an impact. We must keep focussed and be mindful of pricing as we build the business and our credibility, the plan is to conquer the world while keeping our feet on the ground".

 

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"the future of single Quintas is in table wine"

 

"When we talk about high-end Douro table wines they are often garage wines, these wines help with critical mass for the New Douro but I want Maria Teresa and Vinha da Ponte to become the ‘vintage ports' of DOC wine and for this I have a clear strategy". Crasto only makes its premium red wines in the best years by applying this Port wine system. Roquette does not declare a vintage every year -2003 & 2004 were considered acceptable, but 2005 and 2006 rejected. He believes that one of the most difficult things to tame in the Douro are the tannins, most of the vines planted were originally intended to produce grapes for Port wine - so Roquette says "the structure must be very well controlled. The oak is very important also - we must not overpower the wine with wood. The combination of these elements makes great wine - it requires time and experience to understand the terroir and how best to express it, but without good fruit we have nothing". Investment at Crasto has been considerable and over the past five years approaching 6 million Euros has been spent and with new projects underway, this figure is set to double. The Quinta has temperature controlled storage, top quality barriques in French and American oak and humidity control - the standards are set very high and Roquette proffers "the future of single Quintas is in table wine, but we are still just scratching the surface and have only achieved perhaps 65% of our potential"


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Tomas Roquette: responsible for managing the Crasto estate .
Tomas Roquette: Miguel Roquette is the overseas face of Quinta do Crasto, but other members of the Roquette family play an equal role, not least Tomas. Miguel's younger brother is responsible for making all Port wines as well as managing the estate and its workforce. Tomas has a warm personality and great sense of humour combined with the Roquette's trademark courtesy. Unlike his globetrotting older brother, Tomas spends most of his time working hard in either Porto or at the Quinta. This is undoubtedly the less glamorous side of the business but vitally important, though Tomas can often be seen playing his role as an active Douro Boy at tasting events and with promotional activities - engaging in amusing verbal fencing with Cristiano van Zeller. Crasto own brand Port is a relatively new development and its production has only been possible since 1986 when the Douro regulations were changed. Before this time it was illegal for Quintas to export or sell directly under their own label and in Crasto's case, most production went to the famous Port wine marque of Ferreira. In 1994 Crasto began selling their own vintage ports dating back to 1978 and the first batch of LBV's were produced in 1988. The Roquette brother's grandfather owned the once famous Constantino brand, synonymous with fine brandy, as well as a lodge in Vila Nova de Guia, in the 1950's this was sold to Ferreira. The oldest vintages of Crasto port wine in the Roquette's current cellar date back to 1927, the family were permitted to produce their own ports for family consumption and many of the best vintages still survive today. Selling some of these old stocks helped early development the fledgling business.

 

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The ever jovial Jorge Roquette, father of Miguel and Tomas, with Crasto winemaker Manuel Lobo(right)

 


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'Elegant wines' from Australian Dominic Morris
The Crasto Winemakers: The current winemaking team at Crasto has a wealth of experience: since the mid nineteen nineties, there has been a strong antipidean contingent, firstly David Baverstock, who was soon joined by fellow countryman Dominic Morris in 1995. Once David had made a major contribution he returned to Alentejo and was replaced by Spanish oenologist Susan Esteban, who worked alongside Morris producing a string of successful vintages. Though Dominic remains as constant as the stone schist at Crasto, Susan has made her way to pastures new and was recently supplanted by Portuguese Manuel Lobo, a skilled and thoughtful winemaker who also works with Frenchman Daniel Llose of Chateau Lynch Bages fame, to create the superbly elegant ‘Xisto' - a highly regarded Roquette Franco-Portuguese joint venture with the Cazes family of Bordeaux. When speaking of his winemakers, Miguel Roquette opines: "I think that Dominic Morris understood from the very beginning what we were trying to achieve, our philosophy is to express the fruit - Dominic likes elegance, he is a truly great winemaker and his impact on the quality of our wines is immeasurable. My grandfather had some theories - he always said he preferred wines around 13-13.5º alcohol - this he believed was the optimum level and balance. In those days it was hard to control the alcohol - he said that great wine can teach you things and even the greatest palates and experts can be surprised. There are always new experiences in wine and you never know everything - this is what makes wine so incredible. Every year we have something different".

 

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Planning to conquer the world: Miguel and Tomas Roquette of Quinta do Crasto with their very fine Douro wines.

 

The Douro Boys: Miguel's final words are saved for the Douro Boys - "the Douro Boys started as a fun thing, Vito from Vale Meão is the best friend of my father, Cristiano van Zeller has a long history with us and Dirk Niepoort has always been a great networker and fun to be with. João from Vallado is my brother-in-law and this is why it works so well - the secret of our success is that we are all friends and meet up outside of business for dinner or occasionally hunting" The Douro Boys do share everything and Crasto has undoubtedly contributed a great deal to this joint marketing venture. As Roquette says, they are modern thinking and open with one another. "I am convinced the Douro Boys have done more for Portuguese winemaking than the whole country has managed in the last fifty years. We spend five months of the year travelling and promoting the Douro Boys, but in so doing we promote Portugal"

 

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