The road from the banks of the slow-moving Douro up to the whitewashed walls of the Quinta do Pégo is deeply rutted; strewn with
boulders the size of your fist and throwing up clouds of red dust with every footstep. This is late September, and the temperature still
hovers around 30 degrees celsius as the last few tractor loads of small, intense purple grapes bump and shake their way past me
down impossibly steep slopes.
I hitch a lift on the back of a tractor heading back up the hill and grip the sides for dear life as it twists
and bucks like particularly bad-tempered bronco. Welcome to the Douro, a land of baking heat, vineyard slopes that resemble
cliff-faces, and the grapes for one of the world's greatest wine treasures: Port.
|Rogério Silva had been director of rival Port shipping company Rozes for 19 years
and was a Port man through and through. When
Cálem came on to the market he barely hesitated before taking the plunge and buying.
Perhaps the opportunity to purchase a piece of posterity for himself, his wife and his young family proved irresistible to Rogério, but clearly there was also a hard-headed business sense and a real passion behind the decision. Cálem is a venerable house and one of the most enduringly popular in Portugal.
Rogério himself is wiry, fit as a fiddle and sharp as a tack. He combines an ever-alert, bird-like
awareness with a relaxed, soft-spoken authority.
|He is also a real stickler for detail as was proved time and time again during this visit.
He continually coaxed and encouraged his workers to correct and refine precise points of the operation.
At harvest time in particular, he is very hands-on. He knows all of his workers and farmers personally and busies back and forth from the grape receiving station to the fermentation tanks, crossing t's and dotting i's as he goes. When Rogério took over the famous house of Cálem it had, in truth, been treading a rather middle-of-the-road path. The house is renowned for the quality of its aged tawnies and colheita Ports (aged tawnies of a single vintage year). It is also famed for the quality and popularity of its basic "Velhotes" range, but the vintage Ports of Cálem - the standard bearers for any Port shipper - somehow failed to excite during the 80's and early 90's.
Cálem is a large producer, with a huge share of the Portuguese and French markets. It has wonderfully situated class "A" vineyards
in the highest quality Cima Corgo region (Port vineyards are graded from "A" to "F" on quality). Their modern main winery at
São Martinho da Anta is constantly
being improved and re-equipped. Down in Vila Nova de Gaia, at the mouth of the Douro where the Port houses have their cellars,
Cálem dominates the waterfront with an imposing building and much visited facilities. It would seem therefore that Cálem has
been - in some areas at least - something of an "under-achiever" over the past few decades.
One senses that this knowledge is the real driving force behind Rogério's passion: he is painfully aware of Cálem's shortcomings, yet at the same time is fiercely proud of Cálem's fundamental quality. More than anything, he is utterly convinced that the foundations of the house are solid. He sees a far-reaching investment strategy and some subtle changes to winemaking practices as the moves which will add consistency to the top-end quality of the wines of Cálem.
|Indeed change is a key word at Cálem, and is evident wherever you look around the operation. Down at the cellars in Gaia, the quayside
in front of the Cálem HQ is being extensively and beautifully restored. Inside the atmospheric cellars (where Cálem welcome over
100,000 visitors per year) a tonnelier works away on traditional tools refurbishing barrels, signs on the wall mark the height of flood waters through the
centuries and the massive, sleeping casks of Port wine fill the air with heady fragrance. Yet even here there is change, with brand
new offices bristling with hi-tech communications, a bottling plant where new packaging ideas are being tested and a quiet murmer of
But it is in the vineyards and winery 100 miles up the Douro river that the most
significant chages are taking place. Principal amongst those changes is the recent
purchase of the Quinta do Pego, one of the most illustrious and highest-quality quintas in the region. Most of the 20 hectares of
gnarled, grey vines in the property are around 80 years old, planted on the ancient terraces,
retained by dry-stone walls made of the schistous rock from which the terraces were carved.
|Rogério has an extensive programme of planting underway. To be more precise,
he has a programme of construction and planting underway: new terraces are
being hewn from the rock in every nook and cranny of the property that is not already planted. These are
Patamares; broader than the ancient terraces and supporting several rows of vines that can be worked more
easily. He hopes to increase the area under vine to 40 hectares.
Rogério is keen to develop more of his own vineyard land, where he can guarantee quality and price stability for the fruit.
As in almost all Port houses, Cálem buy their grapes from a family of growers who
work the land of the Douro. Rogério is sensitive to the fact that livelihoods, a way of life and the rural economy is delicately balanced in
the region. He declares that he would never wish to own 100%, or even 50% of the vineyards that he needs, but just enough to offer finer
control of quality and price. He is determined to support the farmers by continuing to buy the bulk of his fruit from them as long as the quality is right.
|Indeed, Rogério is acutely aware of heritage and tradition in the region. He shakes his head and mutters under his breath as we pass the
huge, slab-like modern cellars of a rival company that sit like an ugly scar on the face of one of the most beautiful vistas down the valley. "You
see the roof?" he says with a shrug, "It should never have been allowed". The roof is covered with black tiles, whereas every other roof
I can sweeping down the rural Douro has the soft, mellow tones of teracotta. He is about to begin a complete rebuilding of the old farmhouse at his own Quinta do Pego, removing the layers of whitewashed stucco
to reveal the original schist construction.
He is hoping to restore the small chapel on the site and at the same time transform the interior into a luxurious lodge, which will sit in harmony with its surroundings. He is also restoring the ancient lagars beneath the quinta: the stone vats where grapes have traditionally been trodden by foot. This is how the grapes from Pego will be pressed in future.
São Martinho da Anta
|The next day we drive to the winery at São Martinho da Anta, up the steep road that follows the Rio Pinhão from its confluence with the Douro. This offers some of the most beautiful vistas of any wine region. Here is the final and most obvious proof of Rogério's vision. Brand new pressing machines and fermentation tanks are in place whilst construction work goes on all around to house them. Rogério makes call after call on his mobile phone to hurry along the delivery of yet more new equipment and, between calls, points out details of the operation that he is in the process of changing.|
Though perhaps lacking quite the level of complexity one would hope for, the 1983 Vintage Cálem was also a delicious wine.
It seems there is absolutely no reason to doubt that the already fine wines of this venerable house will be well worth watching given the vision, determination and obvious pride that Rogério has for his beloved Cálem.
Indeed, that revival is already underway it seems: the 1997 Vintage Port recently scooping a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge and a fist-full of other Cálem wines picking up silver or bronze. With the substantial investment and Rogério's obsession with quality, it will be fascinating to see how the house of Cálem fares over coming decades. This is certainly a name for Port lovers to watch with keen interest.