By Sunny Brown on December 1, 2007
Category: Winery of the Month
Sometimes in wine, just like in life, you have to think outside of the box. Sometimes a new approach is needed, or perhaps a new starting point. Sometimes the solution to a difficult problem was right in front of you the whole time. For Marcial Dorado of Quinta do Feital the solution in this case was staring right back at him from across a lazy stretch of river.
Though the Minho river marks the boundary between Spain and Portugal as it stretches from the Atlantic Ocean, there is much that both countries share in this area: Soil types, climate, grape varietals... Even the Minho (or Miño as it is called in Spain) sometimes is little more than a winding stream, a mere suggestion of a boundary drawn up by politicians decades ago.
It is here that a talented young winemaker from Spain named Marcial Dorado decided to eschew convention and throw a little caution to the wind. Dorado had scoured the countryside in the Rias Baixas region of Northwestern Spain in search of older vines, only to be thwarted by nature and topography at every turn. The best wines from Rias Baixas hail from the rocky soils that line the banks of the Miño in this green and vibrant landscape in southern Galicia.
And so it was it here that Dorado searched for old vines of Albariño planted in the rocky soils which he knew produced the best fruit. The best Albariños from this region are a haunting mix of crisp fruit, elegant floral notes and complex minerality and, as everyone knew, only produced in Spain.
This is not to say that Portugal doesn't produce its fair share of Albariño, or Alvarinho as it is known on the Minho side of the river. In fact Alvarinho is often included in the blends that are known as Vinho Verde, a summertime favorite that is crisp and clean like a Granny Smith apple. These light and lively wines often have a touch of effervescent spritz to them and can make for a delightful addition to the picnic table. But no serious wine drinker would confuse them for the best Albariños produced on the Spanish side of the river, wines that have earned the grape the title of being a "cross between Riesling and heaven."
Yet young Dorado found the old vines and rocky soil he was searching for not in Spain, but just across the Minho in Portugal. The raw materials for fantastic wines had been there all along just waiting for the right winemaker to come along and bring a little quality and ingenuity to the vines. Dorado thought the vines to be so similar that they were "two vineyards separated by birth."
In 1996 Quinta do Feital was born. From the start it was a match made in heaven, even if Dorado's counterparts on the other side of the river thought he was a little crazy. Located in the village of Paderne near the town of Monção the winery is dedicated to producing the highest quality wines possible, and many of the most modern of ideas and the very latest technology has been implemented. Many of the innovations and winemaking practices that Dorado adheres to are considered to be cutting edge by Napa standards, let alone for the mass marketing and mechanical harvesting that dominates the Vinho Verde landscape.
From the very first vintage in 2000 Dorado was ahead of the curve. Though the old vines of Alvarinho produced very low yields anyway, he drastically thinned the crops by green harvesting during the summer. In the fall only the very best bunches of grapes were harvested, and these only by hand and carried in small, open-air crates to minimize the damage to the delicate bounty. Back at the winery the grapes underwent another rigorous sorting to prevent any foreign materials from entering into the fermentation tanks.
After an extremely long fermentation that was carried out at a cool 15° Celsius, the wine was placed in stainless steel tanks where it spent another nine to twelve months on the fine lees. Weekly stirring of the lees (the spent yeast cells left over after fermentation) added complexity and richness to an already stunning wine. Select tanks of the wine were also put through malolactic fermentation which added even more depth and body to an already weighty wine. The result was a work of art, or as Marcial put it "An Alvarinho of a new generation and an old memory."
In the time since Marcial Dorado has done nothing but improve upon his masterpiece. Today about 5,000 cases per year of the wine simply known as Dorado are produced from the steep sand, clay and gravel hillsides that line the banks of the Minho. Not content to rest after creating one great wine, in 2002 Dorado purchased a second vineyard that lies on a rare outcropping of pulverized granite at Seixas near the mouth of the Minho river. With a warmer climate and a drier soil, Dorado has taken advantage of the native Trajadura grape, though at the upper level of the vineyards the Trajadura is being replanted with Alvarinho.
Trajadura traditionally made up a good portion of the Vinho Verde blend, and was known for having high levels of acidity if picked early- and not much else. But when coaxed to lower yields and given a proper treatment in the winery the grape can provide delicate, white-flower scented wines that are pretty and sophisticated if a little on the light side. Marcial immediately created Auratus, a blend of half Trajadura and half Alvarinho. At once floral, minerally and deceptively dry, it remains one of my favorite wine bargains year in and out.
We have never focused our attention on a producer that creates just two wines before, but the reason here is that they are just that good. The wines of this region often have a mineral edge that ranges from chalky and dry to almost salty. This is said to be from the mists that roll in from the roaring Atlantic nearby and settle in to the vineyards at night. The morning sun burns away the fog, leaving the salty remains to be washed into the soil. In my humble opinion, Marcial Dorado's are the best.
The 2006 Dorado Alvarinho is everything I could want from this grape variety- richness, complexity, depth and vibrant acidity on the finish. Green apple, tangerine and lime zest notes mix with a creamy and delicious note that reminded me of a peach cobbler with a little vanilla ice cream on top. Steely acidity and ample minerality washed through to the extended finish.
The 2005 Dorado Alvarinho was similar to the 2006 but seemed to be less in the rich and round side and more in the racy and vibrant side of this grape. Delicate floral notes abound in the nose, with nuanced jasmine and honeysuckle the predominant aromas. Crisp and clean on the palate, with white peach and pommelo flavors as well as an enticing mix of clover honey and chalky minerality.
The 2004 Dorado Alvarinho was my favorite of the bunch. Ripe, round and complex- this has about as much to do with Vinho Verde as a McDonald's hamburger has with filet mignon. Perhaps some of the parts may be the same... but I digress. With a couple of years of bottle age this wine has gained more complexity and nuance than I thought possible with this grape. It has begun to develop the secondary characteristics of a fine Meursault- there is plenty of balancing acidity to the rich and lush frame, along with notes that range from fresh peaches and apricots to candied orange peel to iris perfume. Underneath it all there is a golden and honeyed note that reminds of a plump golden raisin that has been baked into a bread pudding. Just a fantastic wine.
Another favorite of mine was the 2006 Auratus Trajadura/ Alvarinho. This wine never ceases to amaze and delight me, as it is just a fresh, dry, citrusy and mineral-driven white. It also has a certain characteristic that I sometimes find in Spanish whites- the ability to be light, crisp and refreshing with bracing acidity and minerality, but also have a deceptive richness right in the mid-palate that always seems to take me by surprise. A slightly salty twang on the finish suggests a natural pairing with tapas.
Generations of winemakers have dared to stray from the boundaries of their homeland in an effort to make the best wines they possibly can. It is through this experimentation and innovation that we have many of the fantastic wines that grace our palates today. It is in this spirit that we salute Marcial Dorado- without his daring efforts the Minho region of Portugal might still be simply producing green wine, instead of the liquid gold of Quinta do Feital.