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Port That Bypasses the Port
By Jim Clarke

Since the 18th century almost all Port has been cellared and shipped from Vila Nova de Gaia, which lies across the Douro River from the city of Oporto; Quinta do Infantado is an exception. The Infantado estate lies upriver, surrounded by the terraced vineyards which improbably cover the steep, difficult schist and granite slopes of the region. Absentee landlords own most of the region’s vineyards and sell their grapes or wine to the large Port companies downstream. Like Burgundy, the area’s real estate has been sub-divided ad infinitum by Napoleonic laws that divided all land equally between a landowner’s children, each generation owning less and less land. Only persistent buying made maintaining a large estate possible.

Quinta do Infantado was established in 1816. Until very recently they sold their wine to Taylor and other big Port companies, who brought the wine downriver for cellaring, blending, and export. In the 70s, many shippers began buying grapes instead of fermented wine; Quinta do Infantado decided it was time to go it alone, making theirs the only estate-bottled Ports available at that time. Since then other Quintas in the Douro have followed their lead.

At the time, bottling their own wine must not have been an easy decision; without a cellar in Vila Nova de Gaia, Infantado was forbidden by law from exporting its wine. So their Ports were only available within Portugal until 1986, when the Portuguese government changed the laws and Infantado could begin marketing its wines abroad.

Making the Grade

The Quinta’s vineyards are ideally suited to making an estate-bottled Port. Vineyards in the Douro are graded on an A-through-F scale according to a complicated point system; twelve different factors, including grape variety, soil types, productivity, and exposure, are taken into account. The cost of the grapes is proportional to their class. Generally the more expensive Class A and B grapes are used for Vintage Ports, LBVs, and Tawnies, while grapes from lesser sites go into lower-level Ports such as simpler Rubies. Infantado is fortunate to own exclusively Class A vineyards. Because they grow their own vines, they are not permitted to buy from other growers, so their entire range is made from grapes grown on some of the best sites in the Douro.

The Quinta has about 100 acres of producing vines; just over half of them are relatively new, having been grafted at the beginning of the 90s. All of these new plantings are of the five grapes considered most suitable to Port production: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca, Tinto Roriz, Tinta Barroca, and Tinto Cão. Half of the older vineyards are planted with the same grapes, the balance being filled out by lesser-known varietals.

In 1990 Infantado took another innovative step and converted one of their vineyards – Barreiro – to organic viticulture. The vines there were five-years-old at the time and were gradually converted to organic farming; changing a vineyard to organic farming too quickly risks damaging or killing the vines, which need to adapt before the supports of pesticides and fertilizers are removed entirely. The following year the Serra vineyard was planted with 100% Touriga Nacional and was farmed organically from the beginning; the resulting wine is doubly unique, being both organic and made from one varietal instead of a blend.

Quinta do Infantado has two hopes for organic farming: firstly that it will treat the earth more gently and help preserve the environment, and secondly that vines so grown will better express the terroir of the vineyard.

Making the Wine

João Lopes Roseira bought Quinta do Infantado at the end of the 19th Century; his grandchildren, João and Catarina, now handle the day-to-day operations. Catarina is the company’s CEO, and João is the vineyard manager and winemaker, assisted by Fátima Ribas and Luis Soares Duarte. Duarte is one of Portugal’s rising stars, part of a young generation which is rethinking Portuguese winemaking. College training in enology is relatively new to Portugal; traditionally cellar workers handed down their knowledge as they went, and only recently has a balance been struck between theoretical training at the university and hands-on winery and vineyard experience. Duartes’ success in this regard earned him the title 2001 Winemaker of the Year for Fortified Wines.

The Lucille Ball cliché of foot-treading the grapes is not just a tourist exercise in the Douro; it’s still considered the best way to get the most out of the grapes. Infantado maintains this tradition, and also continues to allow the native, wild yeasts to ferment their wines instead of inoculating them with purchased yeasts; this can make the fermentation harder to control, but many winemakers feel it allows one more element of terroir to come out.

Modern thoughts about winemaking show themselves in the fermentation itself. Many wineries in the Douro transport their grapes in large trucks; the grapes warm up in the region’s intense summer heat and ferment quickly at such high temperatures. This can burn out some of the fruitier flavors of the wine and impart a stewed character to the wine. By handpicking the grapes, transporting them in smaller boxes, and cooling the tanks during fermentation, Infantado extends the fermentation period and preserves the flavors in the wine. A typical Infantado lagar (Port’s traditional fermentation tank) takes three or four days to ferment, whereas 80% of the region’s grapes ferment in less than 24 hours.

Ports are blended wines, and one of the great difficulties facing a smaller, younger Port producer is that they may not have the reserves of wine that allow for greater flexibility when they bottle their wines for market. Even before they began marketing their own ports, Infantado was setting aside stock instead of selling all their wine, so they also have a useful backlog of wines available. Again, the A-class vineyards also give them an advantage – there aren’t any inherently weaker wines that need to be accounted for when blending.

In the Bottle

Quinta do Infantado has a definite house style. Trusting in the richer fruit flavors that their vineyards provide, they ferment their wines to semi-dryness, further than most Port producers, for whom sweetness can be a crutch to obscure flaws. Subsequently Infantado can use up to 30% less brandy to fortify their Ports, which also means more room for finesse and expression from the wine itself. I find it also makes the wine’s acidity more pronounced, especially in the finish, which makes the wines more flexible in food pairings.

  • Vintage Ports: Vintage Ports are only made in years when the producer thought the vintage had been particularly good; these are the premier achievements of the vineyards: deep, rich, and intense. They are made to age; if you have a child during a vintage year, buy a bottle or a case and save it for their 21st birthday. Drunk young, they are usually enormously fruity and tannic; they shut down during their adolescence and only emerge into their glory after 15 or 20 years. Today, Infantado’s 1997 seems shy compared to the 2001; some dark fruits and leather notes suggest that much of the wine is resting in its cocoon. But a wine like the Infantado 1982 is a healthy, mature adult. The fruits – quince, figs, dates – are dry but crystal-clear, and share the glass with notes of walnut and caramel.

  • Late Bottled Vintage: Ports of this type enjoy four to six years of wood-aging, generally in large wooden vats. Many are then bottled and released as ready-to-drink. Some, including Infantado’s, will merit 2-3 years of bottle-aging after release to really express themselves. The Infantado LBV 1998 currently shows lots of blackberry, licorice, and raisin notes; just a couple of years should lend this wine some other, earthier aromas to round it out.

  • Ruby: Ruby Ports are blends of wines from different years, which have usually been aged in concrete or stainless steel to limit the oxidative characteristics that can come with wood-aging. The Infantado Ruby shows lots of raisin and quince notes; it’s full-bodied, and the semi-dry style makes it more focused and expressive than many rubies, which can be cloying.

  • Tawny: Tawny Ports take full advantage of the effects of extensive wood-aging. The wood used is not the new French Oak of Bordeaux and elsewhere; these are larger vats of older wood, which has largely been sapped of any flavors of its own. Rather the more porous surface of the wood allows the slow seepage of oxygen, which can sap color from the wine and promote the development of nut and caramel flavors. Infantado makes two Tawny Ports. The basic Tawny is aged for about 4-1/2 years; its nuttiness tends toward lighter flavors like hazelnut and almond. The 10- Year Tawny is more intense and suggestive of walnuts; the dry finish reminds me of an Oloroso Sherry.
  • Quinta do Infantado makes a few other wines, most notably the unusual Organic Ports mentioned earlier. Like some other Port producers they have also begun producing some dry table wines, but these are not yet available in the U.S. All of their wines seem to reflect the house style so powerfully that it seems endemic to the grapes themselves – terroir coming through in a region where blending and aging often obscure it.


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     Published: January 2005