Quinta do Vale Meão
“A Ferreira Legacy Thrives”
Quinta do Vale Meão
October 16, 2015
Quinta do Vale Meão has a rich and complex family history that was born out of the legacy created by the legendary Antonia Ferreira, Queen of the Douro. The current generation managing Meão are Ferreira 6th generation and they hold Antonia in high regard and reverence. Not only was she the Queen of the Douro Valley, Antonia Ferreira is one of the most important figures in Portuguese history.
When laying the foundation for Meão, Antonia Ferreira was chastised as being crazy and told she would fail as the Douro Superior was still wild with little in the way of a civilized settlement and no other wine production in the late 19th century. In fact, a close personal friend who shared those beliefs was the historical record keeper of Meão. But by the time he began recording its history, the property was flourishing and considered a success. Having only two children, over time and through inheritance or business transactions, the original Ferreira empire started to split up. Meão however ended up back in the family where it remains to this day, a shining example of Antonia Ferreira’s legacy of perseverance and fortitude in the wild Douro Superior.
Sister and brother, Luisa and Francisco, share responsibility in managing Meão today. Francisco is the winemaker and technical leader, while Luisa is responsible for sales, marketing and customer relations. Their father, the highly respected “Vito” Francisco Javier de Olazabal, has a long and storied career in the wine and Port trade of Portugal. Vito’s father-in-law, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, changed the idea of table wine in Portugal forever when he created the now legendary table wine Barca Velha, one of the most coveted and expensive wine in all of Portugal. The Olazabal family wanted a place of their own to produce their own wines so they amicably parted with Sogrape to whom Meão supplied with grapes since Meão was not making its own wines. Vito acquired the majority of shares of Meão held by other family members to retain a majority of ownership as well as resign from the Board of Directors at Sogrape. An important fact to remember is that while Sogrape retained the Barca Velha label, Barca Velha is now made from a different set of vineyards from Meão. Though it is the same concept of blending mountainside and low altitude vineyards, it is not the same wine. In essence, the Meão Douro red is the original Barca Velha since it is made from the original vineyards with the same principles. This fact seems to have been lost on most people from what I can tell because of either marketing or a lack of knowledge by the consumer.
Douro Superior is the furthest quadrant east in the Douro Valley. As we arrived you could immediately notice the difference in the topography to Cima Corgo, the middle sub-region of the Douro Valley. The riverside is not as immediately steep and mountainous in Douro Superior as it is in Cima and Baixo Corgo. In the Douro Superior the mountains rise further back from the river, allowing for gentle sloping vineyard plantings along the river and the steeper hillside and high altitude mountain vineyards set back from the river. In Cima Corgo the flatter vineyards are at the top of the steep and dramatic rises that are planted right along the Douro River and its many tributaries that feed it. These sites are almost always reserved for white grapes because of the cooler temperatures from higher altitude.
Driving to Meão is no easy feat if you don’t know where you are going. We drove along the banks of the Douro through tiny and winding roads, through what looked like an old village to arrive at the entrance to this viticultural gem. Luisa was there as we arrived and welcomed Miguel and I warmly to Meão. Having come straight from the airport, this is the longest single trip I have taken door to door from home to a wine producer. Freshly fueled up on coffee and adrenaline from the excitement of being in the Douro, we had arrived and were ready to go.
We started things off in the main building which was the original structure on the property that was renovated by the Olazabal family. It houses the production and aging rooms. The dichotomy between the old and new was on full display from the renovations that expanded and enhanced the original structure. The original building erected by Antonia Ferreira with its original lagares and tanks dates to 1894 and was fully operational by 1910. The railroad from Porto finally made it out to Posenho which helped speed up the completion process of the production facilities. The Olazabal family invested in adding practical modernization once they were handed the keys from Sogrape. Though the traditional practices remain intact, the improvements were to increase efficiency, hygiene and organization, as well as enhance technical practices.
The original granite lagares and the steel fermentation tanks are the first thing you see when you enter the building at the start of the production cycle. The lagares are the original ones cut from a nearby granite quarry by Antonia Ferreira over a century ago. At one point the lagares were shortened for more efficient foot trodden maceration and fermentation which continues to this day. Like many places in the Douro, the flow is like a waterfall from one step to the next allowing gravity to do a lot of the work. From the lagares the wines will go to the steel tank for the still wines to complete a more controlled soak and/or fermentation. From the steel tanks we move on to the barrel room. Allier standard sized 225 liters French oak barrels are the vessel of choice. The wines will rest here aging before they are bottled with the Meão spending 18 months in 80% new and 20% used barrels, while Meandro spends 14 months in used 2 and 3-year-old barrels.
On this same floor tucked into the corners adjacent to the slope of the hillside are older rooms you would expect to see in a building 100+ years old. The original barrel room was what you would expect with a cave-like appearance used to age wines. The corresponding corner is an old bottle aging room where you can see old beams that support the floor above and keep the wines in perfect humidity and complete darkness. As we moved through the facility we progressed into the new addition that contains more aging and bottle storage room, as well as the tasting room and the business offices above ground.
In the tasting room we sampled all of the latest releases: 2013 Meandro Tinto, 2013 Meão, 2012 Monte Meão (100% Touriga Nacional), and a wonderful comparison of the different plots of 2014 Touriga Nacional from different soils and site aspects. We tasted Touriga Nacional from granite soils that were from the lower elevation site adjacent to the tasting room, and then from a small schist plot high up on the mountain, Monte Meão. The differences were quite contrasting, as one would expect, from such different aspects of vineyard planting, vine age, and soils. The schist was my favorite of the two with jaw-dropping complexity, freshness and power. The Granite was plush and round, with more fruit depth and a softer texture. When combined, these are the core characteristics that are the signature of Meão’s serious complexity and generous personality.
Both Meandro and Meão where drinking great, though young, but both in classic form. Meandro being what you would call a second wine is typically an early drinker, but for a value wine this can age 10 years easy or more in vintages that allow it. It also needs a good 30-60 minutes of air to hit its stride when young. The Meão by contrast is always firm young, but with air and in the right vintage accessible early if you can’t wait. However, I highly recommend waiting because the 2005 and 2006 wines that I have had recently were exceptional.
Having finished tasting the wines from the different plots we saw from the tasting room windows, we then took to the vineyards. We hopped into a truck with the viticulturist Pedro Barbosa as he explained the breakdown of the different sites all over the property. The classic Range Rover grunted and roared in 2nd and 3rd gear up the winding and steep dirt road. We were headed up to Monte Meão where the high elevation schist plots were planted. From the top you could see the entire loop of the Douro around the property – the Chapel at the top, and down below at the bottom the Meão buildings and the olive tree groves that looked like specs from this vantage point.
Here are a few views from the top of Monte Meao.
Since these are the youngest vines of the property, first planted 8 years ago, their production is sporadic and unpredictable. Take a look at the photo below to see the difference in just one block and in the same rows the difference in how the vines grew in the 2015 growing season. You can see this in the photo immediately below this paragraph.
As we arrived at the Chapel there was an odd feeling of completion, like reaching the end of a pilgrimage. Ever since we arrived I felt its presence hovering over us keeping watch. Once there I could see why, because it literally has a view of the entire property. The inside was small with a typical Catholic setup of an altar, a large cross above the altar, with statues and paintings of biblical characters. A quick sign of the cross and a prayer and we were on our way back down for lunch.
We pulled in through the gates to the Meão home and took a walk around the property, stopping down at the patio by the pool for some cheese, charcuterie and the crisp, minerally Meandro branco wine. Limited in production and thus rare outside Portugal, this was my first taste of Meandro white wine. Well worth a spot in my suitcase, I purchased one to bring home.
Back in the house a freshly roasted Capon arrived in the dining room just as we were starting to pour a few older vintages of the Meão. The Capon bird, a larger version of what tastes like a cross between a turkey and chicken with more dark meat, was a good pairing with the Meão wines. The 2009 was firm and fresh, with some tertiary aromas and flavors. The 2007 was ready to go and fully mature with silky and fine tannin, a generous wine that now benefits from a somewhat difficult Douro vintage.
Luisa and I talked about her family and mine, our children, what life is like for her and her family out on the edge in Douro Superior. Things have changed with the new highways and soon it will be even easier to get directly into the Douro from Porto once a new stage of a highway, tunnel and bridge system are finished. I saw it on our way out to the Douro and it is almost finished and may even be open by the time I publish this story. Life for Luisa and many of her family is in Porto, while for Francisco he and his wife remain at Meão year round as he needs to be there in the cellars and the vineyards. Luisa takes the train back and forth, sometimes a few times a week, working on the train as she rides the 2.5 hour commute. We finished up with 2 Ports, the spectacular 2000 vintage Port that was drinking really well and had been open for about 2 days, and a Tawny that is in the process of being created with older stocks of Ports from the new Meão years under the Olazabal management. As is typical from the Quinta Ports I like, the 2000 vintage Port was more wine-like in character with less sweetness and more dry extract of the wine in the composition. Ready to drink now, if you have any go for it or you can wait several more years as it coasts deeper into maturity. The Tawny was good, but again an experiment so it was hard to say in the proper context what it will be like, but I can tell you it was quite delicious and young in style.
I look forward to breaking bread with the Olazabal family again sometime, they are true pioneers and protectors of the traditions of the Douro Valley and of the Ferreira legacy. Should you find yourself in the Douro it is well worth spending some time at Meão. You will make new friends and get to live, if for a small sliver of time, like you are stepping back in time and reliving history.
Youthful, with power and concentration in the nose and palate. A very traditionally styled Meão showing the typical style of this wine. The nose shows a mix of red and blueberry fruit, subtle spices, and barely a trace of oak. These wines are always masterfully aged in oak to impart just the right amount of oxygen and wood character. The palate is well-balanced, youthful and medium+ in intensity and a fresh, persistent finish. This is just as good or better, depending on your tastes of course, of the recent string of many excellent Meão and reminded me of the 2009.
Not many better “regular” Douro Tinta wines, but then again this consistently performs at a level above its basic Douro designation. At around $18-23 USD this is a perennial over-achiever and model of approachable young Douro that is expressive and a little finer in texture so it’s ready to go but can be aged 5-8 years easy and more in great vintages (2011). Red to dark red fruits, spice and a stony schist component add complexity on the nose and palate with good acidity.
2012 Monte Meão Touriga Nacional
Extremely rare, not sold in the USA but available at the Quinta to taste and take with you so I did just that. 100% Touriga Nacional from both schist and granite, the combination of both soil types adds power, structure, freshness and complexity from the schist, while the granite rounds out the wine with more body, deeper fruit and plush tannins. Well-structured and balanced, this is an elegant version of Touriga Nacional that will please traditional Douro wine consumers, as well as those that appreciate precision and elegance matched with power and grace. We were able to taste the 2014 individual parcels that allowed us to see the components that each soil type bring to the wine.
2014 Meandro Branco
Finally I get to try this as it is nearly impossible to find with production limited to 500 cases. Latin for sure in its signature, but with a nod north to the great wines of the Anjou-Saumur of Loire. Chenin Blanc comes to mind with the lime and loads of minerality and a touch of wild reminding me of Savenniere. 100% stainless steel and no malolactic fermentation keeps the edgy and fresh acidity live and refreshing.
If you want to try a Meão that is starting to show what age in bottle will do this is the wine to try. 2005 and 2006 are drinking much younger, but 2007 is showing slight brick red tones at the edges, while the nose and palate have softened some, likely this is from the more difficult growing season. Aromas and flavors of forest floor, especially fall leaves, red savory fruits, roasted plum and subtle licorice spice and lavender. The structure is fine and silky as the tannin have mellowed, while the fruit has started to evolve into the tertiary phase. Drink now or hold for another 3-5 years.
Classic Meão that is intense but at the same time light on its feet. But that is what you get when you combine the great 3 main terroirs of the Meão property: schist, granite and riverside alluvial mounds. Power, grace and depth are achieved on the palate without trying hard. The wine delivers layer upon layer of flavor and complexity effortlessly. The wine is young, so the longer you can decant the better. A few hours is ideal, but open in the bottle for 1 day is better (how we had it). More black to dark red fruits, spice and the most intense depth and complexity of all the Meão on the day.
2000 VP Meão
A deep red and purple colored core, with a vibrant cherry red on the edges. The nose is intense, but more expressive like a wine showing the red and black fruits, with more elegant and tertiary character of spices like star anise, lavender, and other wildflowers. The length is superb, with a similar persistence to the Meão table red in that it shows strength without trying hard. This further convinces me of the ability of the Quinta single vineyard Ports to excel above all of the regular big house Port wines. I consider these to be more wine-like in their character, being less intensely fiery from the spirit when young and allowing for more complexity and approachability earlier in life, but with the ability to still age very well and in excellent vintages much longer. Will a VP from a big house age longer, probably but it has less of the wine like character and the world can use more variation in great Port for sure.
Meão Tawny Port 1999 barrel sample
From stocks that Francisco is experimenting with, these Tawny wines may or may not turn into a commercial bottling. From what I gather with discussing it with Luisa they are still tinkering with the blend and the style they want to represent as a Meão Tawny. Caramel and roasted nuts jump from the glass and fan out over the thicker textured wine that adds oxidized notes of orange and ginger. For me as good as this is, if I were to have on critique is that it could use a little more freshness.