Text Sarah Ahmed
My last post focused on Filipa Pato, one of a new generation of well-travelled Portuguese winemakers (or should I say wine growers) who are making waves with exciting, terroir-driven wines.
In stark contrast with Pato (who has now narrowed her focus to Bairrada), Rita Ferreira Marques, a member of Young Winemakers of Portugal, has cast the net wide. Well beyond the parameters of Quintas da Veiga and Chão do Pereiro in the Douro Superior, the two family estates which have been the source of her eye-catchingly labelled Conceito brand since 2005. One might add, even though said family estates are the Teja Valley’s largest properties.
Marques additionally makes a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend from Breedekloof, South Africa and an Alvarinho from the Vinho Verde subregion of Monçao e Melgaço, all under the Conceito label. Last year, she became involved in the re-launch Quinta do Fojo, the famous Cima Corgo estate (Marques is making the wines with Margarida Serôdio Borges).
I asked Marques about her seemingly insatiable appetite for knowledge and self-improvement. Where does it come from? And how has it influenced her approach to making and marketing her wines?
What are the most important lessons that you have taken away from your oenology studies?
The importance of science, and technological development. The development and reinforcement of my own intuition and critical sense, having technical knowledge as a basis for understanding and choosing to accept or reject practices coming from tradition, from innovation, from commercial pressures, etc. The decisive importance of practical based learnings, including a lot of tasting, that I found in Bordeaux.
What are the most important lessons that you have taken away from your travels (visiting and working abroad)?
To understand winemaking in several contexts, from the almost industrial, to small handcrafted wineries where everything is made by hand. To be able to take any amount of work during a day’s long hours, realising that the wine always comes first, and justifies every sacrifice. To understand that some vineyards have magical qualities, be them the light, or the soil, and the people that make those wines there have a huge respect for the plants, the grapes, and feel blessed to be able to take those factors and integrate them in great wine.
What are the most important lessons that you have taken away from tasting so widely (foreign wines)?
Studying and making my wines makes me focus more and more on what I can improve in vine growing and winemaking. Tasting widely makes me want more for my wines, it makes me look out and try to get a grasp of the place I want to go to. I have tasted some wines that left me thinking “when I make a wine like this I will be satisfied.”
How have these lessons affected your approach to grape growing, winemaking and marketing your wines?
Every year I try to respect what nature offers me. That respect is firstly shown in the fact that I don’t use pesticides or herbicides in the vineyard. Mostly I do organic farming, but don’t care about certifications or diplomas. I just believe it’s better for my wines, and indeed I think it shows. The other thing is to book the harvest date, one of the most important single decisions of a winemaker. I have tried to make my wines easier to drink at an early stage, while not endangering their longevity. I am more and more interested in restraint, and having my wines more and more welcome at the table, worrying more and more about balance, freshness, purity, rather than power or body. Elegance is a strong word to use here, as the Douro is a hot place, and by no means do I want to fight ripeness, or depth. But I do work towards balance and, each year, I try to adapt the quantity and quality of the extractive techniques I use to fully respect the grapes, and the design of the wines I propose.
You studied in Bordeaux and California as well as at Vila Real – how did the approaches to studying wine in Portugal, Bordeaux and California differ if at all? How did studying in Bordeaux and California help you? How did they add value to your experience in Vila Real?
In Bordeaux I had the pleasure of studying and working with Denis Dubourdieu, a great person, a great winemaker, and a great teacher. In the University of Bordeaux the courses I took were very much focused on tasting, and in this case tasting some of the best wines in the world. It’s sadly funny that at Vila Real we also have available some of the best wines in the world, but they don’t get to the University classrooms. The basic courses I took in Vila Real (and previously in Coimbra) had an appropriate level for what I subsequently learned in Bordeaux and California. Vila Real is more theoretical than Bordeaux or California, doesn’t have practice enough. Another major difference is that in Bordeaux everything is about wine and making wine. So the students are allowed to work in wineries during harvest, which is impossible in Vila Real, for the school calendars are not adapted to the winemaking reality.
The Young Winemakers of Portugal website says “the coming generation of Portuguese winemakers have adapted their production to a new era and are creating wines that no longer can be regarded as being too robust for the international palate of taste. Do you feel that you understand what consumers in your different markets want and have you adapted how you make or present your wines in any way so that they fit in with different markets?
Yes and no. Some things remain a puzzle to me, for instance why some particular style of wine is a success in some country and not at all in another. I try to make wines that respect what nature offers in the place I am sourcing them from. The wines I like are not heavy or cloying, and so naturally I try to make such wines in every place I work in. But I feel that my mission (to put it grand) is to deliver a bit of that place (namely, and always first in my mind, Douro) to peoples’ tables, not really to give them something they might want to drink over some other thing, but that wouldn’t respect that sense of origin.
Are there any wines from your travels which have had a key influence on your work? What impact did they have?
José Luis Mateo from Monterey or Didier Raveneau in Chablis make the most astonishing wines, full of clarity, light, freshness. Ricardo Freitas from Madeira makes wines that are a lesson in winemaking intuition for a Porto producer like me. In those cases, the land offers perfect fruit, they have an obsession with acidity and freshness of fruit, and most of all they keep everything simple and upfront.
Are there any wines from Portugal which have had a key influence on your work? What impact did they have?
Yes, of course, both great wines and regular wines. For instance, tasting old vintages of Fojo I was taken away by the purity, focus and youth of those wines. But also tasting the first vintages of Duorum I was left wondering about techniques that would allow my wines to be more accessible at a younger stage and strived to do a more precise job when extracting. Then wines from Mário Sérgio Alves Nuno in Bairrada, Álvaro Castro in Dão or Miguel Louro in Alentejo (to name just a few) also influenced the way I look to wine.
In England there is a saying it’s not what you know, but who you know. What advantages has been so well networked brought?
Every teacher or boss you work with gives you part of his or her knowledge, more experience, helps you correct some mistakes, and provides answers for some of your questions. But a really good teacher will also point you towards more questions, makes you question what you have learned, and drives you into wanting to learn more. So you go from one place to another, sometimes with a recommendation, sometimes just because you heard of your idols talk about one of his idols (or places, or wines). Plus, it’s easier to go back to one place and start something there if you already know someone or have a recommendation [Marques is here referring to having worked at Villa Maria in New Zealand and with Bruce Jack of Flagstone in South Africa]. It’s a small world, and the world of wine is really generous with its inhabitants.
Are there any people whom you’ve met on your travels abroad who have particularly inspired you or helped you?
I already mentioned some names before, but I am being unfair, it’s really countless people (all the places where I work inspired and helped me to be a better winemaker) and not only teachers and fellow winemakers, it’s sommeliers, customers, school colleagues. Every day we can be inspired by anyone. I always make it a point to listen to what people have to say, be them famous winemakers or the most inexperienced wine taster, or client. We never know where a good idea might be coming from, and often good and precious knowledge can be hidden in some old story, or even some misconception about a grape, a barrel, a place.
Are there any people whom you’ve met in Portugal who have particularly inspired you or helped you?
Jorge Serôdio Borges was the first winemaker I worked with and he inspired me with his enormous dedication. Dirk Niepoort with his passion for wine. Again, it’s impossible to talk about all of them. Recently I have met a farmer, António Ribeiro, who knows a huge amount about old grape varieties, their performance and role in the field and in the cellars, and how it all influences the resulting Port wine he makes. Sometimes, it’s all about having the time to sit down, grab a glass to allow yourself to spend time in a good conversation.
You said that an advantage of producing varietal wines, for example New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, is that you learn quickly. Do you think that Portugal’s potential has been relatively slow to be realised because there are so many different varieties to work with and field blends make it difficult for winemakers to understand how to coax the best possible result from their vineyard?
I am a big fan of blends and of field blends. In fact I have just planted a mixed field with about 15 different varieties. It does make the learning curve slower, but it’s a matter of grabbing the knowledge that already exists in people, even if it’s not structured into scientific books, as in other countries. We cannot have it both ways. Our range of autochthonous grape varieties is a gift we received from the past, a miracle of our culture and agriculture. If it makes our wines harder to understand, that’s a small price to pay for working with such variety and bringing difference, complexity and interest to the wines Portugal can and is offering. Tasting old wines from every Portuguese region we discover that the potential was not created yesterday, it was always there. The world’s eyes were perhaps not focused on our wines, but then again that factor was perhaps decisive in this preservation of character.
How do you get the balance right between spending lots of time in your vineyards getting to know them and on the other, travelling around the world selling your wine and making wine in the Cape and New Zealand?
The seasons separate quite well the northern from the southern hemisphere so that was easy. The rest is also easy: I will travel anywhere to sell and promote my wines, provided that does not conflict with making them and attending to them. Two recent events changed somewhat the work conditions. I became a mother, so I have less time away from home and to some extent less desire of being away from home. The other thing is that the winemaker Manuel Sapage started working with us, and that gives me an increased confidence in traveling while leaving the wines well attended.
The Young Winemakers of Portugal website says of your group “They all produce distinctive wines, and show a new way of differentiated and uninhibited winemaking. Learning from tradition and bringing new methods.” How do you balance tradition with new methods and what is your most successful example of balancing tradition with new methods?
Speaking for myself, I would say that the most successful example would have to be my red wine made exclusively with Bastardo. This is quite an innovation since almost no one made and bottled a dry wine of Bastardo in Douro, but it is also made in the most traditional way possible, being foot trodden in granite lagars without de-stemming and with autochthonous yeast.
Given your experience of the international market and wines from around the world, what do you think are the Portuguese wine industry’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.
Strengths: the variety of grapes, blends, styles, something amazing for such a small country. Also the increased know-how and ambition that a new generation of wine-makers is showing. And the international prestige of Port wine, a true potential that was never explored to full extent to market our other wines.
Weaknesses: the economic climate is preventing many of those youngsters from making and selling their wines. There is a lot of pressure to lower prices, and that comes from financially weak companies, struggling to sell instead of keeping calm, believing in the quality of their products and sticking to defending and increasing their value. Also, promotion should be better coordinated by public bodies, throwing money at the problems very seldom works.
How do you think Portugal can best play to these strengths and overcome these weaknesses?
No idea. I think we just have to keep going. The most recent figures show that the trend is for growth. There is still a lot of work to be done in educating our wine public, and that includes some of the professionals that play key roles in the industry. The more people know about wine, the easier is to sell good wine, and in particular good Portuguese wine.