Growing the Vinho Verde: The Wines of OLO
In the Basto zone of Vinho Verde, Jorge Quinta of OLO at Quinta de Val-Bôa grows white wines that bring together lifted texture–all lightness and length–with rich flavor. It’s a young project that has already garnered international attention, carrying distribution in the UK, and being regarded as one of the best wines of Portugal for 2014.
The project brings together long-standing friends Jorge Quinta and Dirk Niepoort. Prior to his venture into winegrowing, Quinta owned one of the top restaurants of Oporto, through which he and Niepoort’s father, Eduard, developed their most popular dish, pepper steak served with young vintage port. Sitting to lunch at Quinta’s table with the two men–Jorge and Dirk–feels like I’ve been invited into a great intimacy. I don’t glimpse all the details of its history, but I can feel the comfort between them.
Outside we begin the meal with Quinta’s 2012 bruto–a fully dry sparkling white Vinho Verde that carries a textural richness and purity refreshing alongside the salty meats and fish we’re eating. We’ve been served charcuterie, and what Quinta calls fried sardines though they look and taste just like smelts, small fish I grew up eating in Alaska.
The joke there has always been that you know you’re family if you’re invited to share smelts. The little fish are eaten whole like a breadstick from head to tail with the guts and bones intact. Cooking them smells up the house so much you have to be comfortable alongside the person you share them with.
Niepoort explains he wants Quinta to hold the 2012 bruto, and not release a sparkling wine until the 2013 is ready. The 2012 is delicious but Niepoort believes it will be insightful to see how the wine develops over time.
As we snack through the foods outside, Quinta describes a sort of experimental traditionalism. He wants to make wines of his region, but avoid knowing in advance exactly how they’ll be made. It’s a balance of making crucial decisions in advance, while avoiding a formula. “One of the most important things,” Quinta tells us, “is the point of the harvest. Without that there is no point, you have to adjust to it.” Each vintage, he explains, puts differing demands on the grower-winemaker. You decide what to do in response to those demands, rather than deciding in advance the wine you’ll produce.
As Quinta describes his goals, he excitedly points out his newest acquisition for the winery — two large casks he will use to make rosé. As he explains, five of the casks arrived in Portugal from Denmark in 1910 full of beer. He has no idea how old the casks were at the time. His father-in-law acquired them next to make red Vinho Verde. In the last year, Quinta received two of the five. They’ve been without wine in them now for six years, so he’s been soaking them to prepare the wood for next year’s rosé. After finishing the bruto, we move inside for a sit down lunch.
We begin with soup made half of wild mushrooms, and half wild asparagus, both harvested from Quinta’s 3.5 hectare vineyard. Quinta’s VAL-BÔA Vinho Verde pairs beautifully. It is a wine Niepoort describes as all about harmony — the kiss of sweetness balances the high acid so well the two appear together as simply light refreshment on the palate. It would be perfect too alongside spicy Thai food in the place of Riesling.
The VAL-BÔA opens a point Niepoort has come to believe strongly in winemaking. “It is more important to get the acidity right than to get the alcohol right.” He explains. That said, the VAL-BÔA comes in at 11%, the OLO wines at 12.5%. Niepoort’s point is on deciding when to harvest. He makes picking decisions now almost ignoring sugar levels in favor of the preferred acidity. The alcohol will take care of itself. It’s an idea he believes supports the ultimate aging of the wine, and, more importantly, it’s pleasure now. “The point of it is the lightness” of the wine, he says.
We move to the main course. Quinta has chosen to serve us a traditional Portuguese dish, bacalao, of dried cod, and potatoes. That morning though he was also able to take a fresh white fish from a river that runs through the vineyard. They’ve baked it covered in herbs, alongside lightly minted rice. We enjoy both with the core wines of the OLO portfolio — Alvarinho, and Mondim de Basto, a Vinho Regional Minho white blend. The Basto brings together traditional Portuguese varieties–Trajadura, Pedernã, Alvarinho, Avesso e Azal–in a branco (white) blend.
The Mondim de Basto has recently received the country’s top attention. The news is to be released the day after our visit, and Quinta is very pleased. Jaoa Paulo Martins named it one of the top white wines of Portugal for 2014 in his book Vinhos de Portugal, considered the top wine review text for the country.
It’s a beautiful wine that offers incredible lightness amidst intensity of flavor and a creamy midpalate followed by tons of length. When it was first bottled, Niepoort explains, it was one of the best white wines he’d ever tasted from Portugal. Then it refermented in the bottle.
“It refermented in the bottle.” Quinta tells us. “I slept on it for three nights.” He points at his eyes. He’s actually saying he barely slept. “I have to either [dump it] or go forward. I decide I go forward, so I had to reopen 17,000 bottles.” To correct the problem they had to open every bottle to filter the wine, then rebottle everything. “Unbelievable amount of work.” Quinta says. The wine is beautiful, but Niepoort clearly misses the magic of what it had been before. For Quinta it’s still a wine to be proud of. Martins’s regard simply affirms it.
We pour the OLO 2013 Alvarinho. I smell the wine and am immediately dumbfounded. It’s unlike anything I’ve smelled before, not a typical Alvarinho. It’s as if Quinta anticipates my thoughts. “There is no other Alvarinho like this,” he says. “You can like it or not but there isn’t.”
The wine is confounding but pleasing. It’s all lightness and pungency on the palate, simultaneously strange and attractive. The nose almost spiced, almost sweet, then both disappear. The palate almost hints oak, then stretches through the midpalate into a minutes-long and lifting finish. It’s a wine of contradictions–spicy but not, sweet but not, woody but not, intense but light–held through Niepoort’s idea of harmony.
Leaving the restaurant business to open the Quinta de Val-Bôa, Quinta carries what feels like realistic pride in OLO, as well as a new sense of inspiration. His wines are beautiful, and he keeps the achievement in larger perspective. “What I know about wine,” he explains, “is 15%. In that 15% I know a lot. I still have 85% to learn.”
Quinta de Val-Bôa does not currently have, but is interested in representation in the United States.
Thank you to Dirk Niepoort, Jorge Quinta, and Joao Pires.
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