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Coming up Rozès

by Tom Cannavan, 07/08

This is part I of a two-part feature. part II is a tasting of 20 table wines and Ports.

When the call came through asking if I would like to visit the Port house of Rozès I didn't hesitate to accept. Rozès was a Port name I'd seen around quite a lot, yet I realised I knew very little about the company. Also, the invitation included a visit to their new vineyards in the 'International Douro', hundreds of kilometres from Oporto where Portugal lies on one bank of the river and Spain on the other. These represent a pushing of the boundaries in vineyard ownership for the traditional Port houses.

Many Port shippers are, of course, in foreign hands. But unlike the famous British-owned names like Taylor or Warre, Rozès has had French ownership for 150 years, and since 1999 has been owned by the Champagne house of Vranken Pommery, who purchased it from LVMH. Vranken Pommery already owned the small Port company of São Pedro das Águias, and the two companies trade together from the same administrative, winemaking and storage premises in the Douro and Villa Nova de Gaia.

The fit between Champagne and Port may not seem immediately obvious, but in fact the French have a huge appetite for Port, and France is a major market for all Port shippers, and certainly for Rozès. Vranken Pommery's owner, President of the company, Paul-François Vranken, plays a very active role and visits Portugal regularly. The group has gone on to expand its interests with the purchase of several Douro 'quintas', or wine estates, and a substantial programme of vineyard planting.

   Indeed, to be so energetically buying-up quintas and planting vines is somewhat unusual for a Port shipper, in an industry that separates into over 80,000 small farmers and just a few hundred bottlers and shippers, in a very traditional 'négociant' model, where one group grows the grapes and the other makes and sells the wines. I met up with Rozès' Winemaker and General Manager, Antonio Saraiva (left) to spend some time at the company's Villa Nova de Gaia warehouse and winery near Régua, before travelling all the way up to the Spanish border, visiting various of the company's nine quintas as we went.

Antonio is a laid-back, relaxed character. A Port man through and through who was born in the village of Pinhão, the epicentre of production, he has overseen the company's expansion. Antonio says he is determined to respect tradition, whilst continuing to innovate. Even in the upper Douro only indigenous grapes are planted, yet at the same time some radical new ideas on packaging and presentation have seen a big break with tradition.

the quintas

I have to say it is quite unusual to visit a Port shipper that pays quite so much attention to its vineyards. Whilst the quality of grapes is no doubt of vital importance to all the best houses, the simple fact it that most trips to visit the shippers concentrate on the winemaking process and ageing of the wines, with relatively little focus on the vineyards.

First stop was at Quinta Monsul (1, in map below), a small vineyard and sited next to the Rozès winemaking facility in the village of Cambres, close to Régua. The winemaking facility is dazzling, almost literally: it is one of the most scrupulously hygienic faculties I have ever come across. The vinification cellar, floors painted an almost fluorescent green so that even the tiniest spillage of wine is obvious and immediately dealt with, bristle with the latest technology amid signs of obvious investment and huge attention to detail.

Though they did operate a second winery high in the Douro at the Quinta do Grifo, all production is now centered here, for the company's two-million-bottle annual production. The vineyards here is in the Baixo-Corgo, which is not of the highest designation, and contributes less than one per cent of Rozès' production,

After a relaxing and enjoyable evening spent in the Quinta, we set off on the long drive up the Douro to the Quinta do Grifo (2, in map below), the trip broken by a superb lunch at the restaurant D.O.C by the river at Folgosa - which is highly recommended. Grifo is named after the huge vultures which inhabit this remote and ruggedly unspoiled part of the upper Douro, in the heart of the International Douro Nature Park. The estate is 41 hectares, 25 of which consist of terraced vineyards with the highest 'A' classification.

This is the Douro Superior, the third of the three demarcated areas for the production of Port wines and, increasingly, Douro table wines. An aggressive programme of planting has seen the vineyard area of the Grifo estate more than double already, with plans to expand further.

Interestingly, a substantial amount of the planting is of Sousão, a recognised Port variety, but one that is increasingly rare as more and more producers concentrate on a handful of varieties from more than 80 that are permitted. Rozès are excited about Sousão, and confident that it is one of the best varieties for their soils and climate in the Douro Superior. Certainly a barrel sample of their Sousão-dominated Grande reserve Douro table wine was deeply fruity, smoky and delicious.

Antonio told me that all of the new plantings here and in their other Douro Superior Quintas are for the production of Port rather than increasing their volume of table wines. "Five years ago everyone was talking about Alentejo," he says, "and before that it was Dão. Now it is the Douro that's on everyone's lips for table wines, but we cannot take the chance that it is just a fashion: we are Port wine shippers, and that's where we concentrate."

From Grifo to Canameira

After a morning spent viewing the magnificent Grifo as they make full use of their 2.3 metre wingspan to soar lazily on the thermal currents above the Douro River, we began the long drive back to Oporto, with side trips to see the two most recent Quintas acquired by Rozès, Quinta de Anibal and Quinta da Canameira.

   Again, their is a massive programme of replanting here, with both estates on wonderful sites, with deep layers of schist tumbling down to the river. There are substantial plantings of orange and lemon trees too on the farms, but the expansion of the vineyards higher up on the slopes has been a major work.

The photograph left shows the new plantings at Quinta da Canameira on the far bank, but doesn't capture the steepness of the slopes - very different when seen from the ground.

This photograph (right) perhaps illustrates that better, as well as showing the deep layering of crumbling slate (schist) that, along with this extraordinarily hot, dry climate, helps give such distinctive quality to the grapes of these vineyards. The Douro Superior sees only around 380mm of rain per year, so as Antonio says, "it is almost like the desert."

the wines

Having been founded by Frenchman Ostende Rozès in 1855, and remaining in French hands ever since, the style of Rozès' Ports is distinctly different from both the Portuguese- and British-owned houses. The wines tend to be lighter, quite restrained, but with finesse and charm. No matter how concentrated, there is an elegance and freshness to the wines. Is that part of the French influence, or a style created by these vineyards? It is difficult for me to say, but my few days spent in the vineyards with Antonio Saraiva convinced me that these are wines with integrity, and well worth seeking out.

Go to part II of this profile: a tasting of 20 table wines and Ports.