An extraordinary story of a Portuguese dry wine made in Douro a region known for so many famous port wines.
Portugal’s most famous table wine, made just 18 times since 1952
Quinta do Vale Meão is an important property in the history of the Douro, and Portuguese wine in general. This is where the Barca Velha story starts. It is based near Foz Coa, in the Douro Superior, the warmest and driest part of the Douro, quite near the Spanish border.
The famed Dona Antónia Ferreira was the first to plant vineyards in this part of the Douro. It was a difficult time for the regional council, and to raise funds, they auctioned off some land. She bought some 53 parcels of common land between 1877 and 1879, which she promptly leased until 1886. In all, these parcels totalled 300 hectares.
She began developing the quinta in 1887, and began planting grafted vines two years later (remember, phylloxera had recently hit the region). While the purchase price was relatively low, the cost of establishing vineyards here was high. But this proved to be a wise move, because it is a very interesting place for growing top quality wine grapes. Dona Antónia’s descendants carried on running the quinta, and the grapes were used mainly to make Ports for the family-owned house of Ferreira.
Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, son of the head winemaker at the time, joined Ferriera at the age of 16 in 1929. Fernando has had some consultancy help from the well known Bordeaux-based enologist Emile Peynaud: he’d been looking for ways of reducing malic acid in Vinho Verde wines, but had also shown some experimental Douro wines to Peynaud, who recognized the potential of the region for dry reds. In 1949 Fernando he visited Bordeaux, and this gave him the idea of making a top quality dry red from the Douro. At this stage, the Douro was all about Port, with table wines an afterthought.
After taking over from his father in 1950, Fernando began working towards this goal, and using grapes from Vale Meão the first vintage of this new wine was made in the rather rustic winery on the property in 1952. There was no electricity there (it didn’t arrive until 1963), but he realised that in order to make a really good wine, he needed to ferment in vats, not lagares, and temperature needed to be controlled. His solution was ingenious: he brought ice, kept from melting by placing in sawdust insulation, from the canning factories in Matosinhos, a 12 hour journey (nowdays less than 2). He assembled a watertight container for the ice, and then devised a system where the must could pass through this improvised cooler when it was pumped over, and as a result, the fermentation could be extended to 10 days (without temperature control it would have completed much faster). Then the wine went to Portuguese small oak barrels for malolactic fermentation and ageing.
In addition to fruit from Vale Meão, some grapes were also included from some farmers in Meda, higher up where the soils were granitic. These grapes had less sugar and more acidity, and provided balance, and the resulting alcohol of the final wine was a sane 13.5% alcohol.
Fernando also decided to hang on to the wines for a few years before release. Barca Velha has never been released before it is seven years old, and it isn’t made every year. When the 1952 Barca Velha was released, it was a great success. The wine was also made in 1953, 1954 and 1957. It quickly became famous. So far there have been just 18 releases of this wine, and when it doesn’t make the grade the Reserva Especial from Casa Ferreirinha is sold. It’s an excellent wine in its own right.
Fernando handed over the reins to Jose-Maria Soares Franco, who made the wines from 1998 to 2003. This period saw a big transition.
In 1987, A.A. Ferreira were purchased by Sogrape, and the majority of the grapes for Barca Velha began to be sourced from their nearby Quinta da Leda. Vale Meão’s vineyards reverted back to the Olazabal family who began making their own table wines from the property in 1999 – these are among the best of the Douro wines being made now. In 2001 Sogrape stopped using Vale Meão grapes, and the first vintage of Barca Velha to be vinified at Quinta da Leda was the 2004.
Since 2003, Luis Sottomayor has been the winemaker at Barca Velha, and the wine has continued to keep its revered place at the top of the Portuguese table wine tree. In comparison with other top Douro wines – there are quite a few world class examples these days – Barca Velha seems a little old school and backward, but certainly a bit more polished on release than in the past. The vineyard sources have changed, and the Portuguese oak has been replaced with French. But it still ages brilliantly, and it would be a shame to change this winning formula too much and lose the continuity with the past.
Authored by Jamie Goode