Institutional

Barão de Vilar: Porto, the Douro and something more

3/25/2024

Text: João Paulo Martins Photos: Barão de Vilar

The company, which has a strong presence in the domestic market, will become part of a larger group - Van Zeller Wine Collection - which will also include the group's other brands, all of which have "foreign" sounding names. The business is very varied and one of the most interesting components is the Port-filled barrels. Something never seen before...

Our meeting began in Pocinho. At the door of a huge warehouse, which isn't very pretty at all, there are hundreds of half barrels, all empty. Is this for Porto? We asked, but Álvaro van Zeller, our guide and host, replied: it is and it isn't! What do you mean? We insist. The explanation comes straight away: "This is one of the good deals we have in the company; we receive empty barrels (usually 200 a month) that have been used for still wine and after being filled with water and treated with metabisulphite, they are washed and blended with Port for as long as the client wants: 3, 5, 6 and 12 months. The customer in this case is the American bourbon company, the whiskey which, in this way, gets an extra price because the barrel has been vinted with Port. Longer, more expensive. The business becomes very interesting because the Port, once the barrels have been emptied, stays in stainless steel vats and is used again in the next barrels that arrive. As Álvaro reminds us, "we only provide services, they come here to put them in and pick them up, the business they do with them is no longer ours". The enormous size of the air-conditioned warehouse can hold 1,500 of these barrels at the moment and could reach 2,000 when the facility is extended, something that has already been planned.

BROTHERS FERNANDO AND ÁLVARO VAN ZELLER HAVE LONG EXPERIENCE IN THE DOURO AND PORTO BUSINESS

Many casks and vats of Port wine also rest here. In all, we're talking about 2.2 million liters of Port of all categories, i.e. the majority of the stock, which in total reaches 3 million liters of fortified wine, of which one million are old wines and dated Colheitas. To these figures must be added 2 million liters of Douro wines. The company only has 24 hectares of its own vineyards, and buys grapes from a further 280 hectares in various areas of the Douro. The company's own vineyards range from Quinta do Castro do Saião (which makes its own brand and sells wine to Barão de Vilar) to vineyards in the Vilariça valley (Quinta do Tombo). Quinta de Zom, in Freixo de Espada à Cinta, with 22 hectares of vineyards, does not belong to the company: it supplies grapes and gives the name. There is an intention to "push" Saião by creating more brands, possibly with the names of vineyards on the estate. To make the DOC Douro wines, the company has since 2008 created a winery in Santa Comba da Vilariça, where Mafalda Machado is the resident oenologist. And to make room for all the storage, Barão de Vilar still has a winery in Romarigo (Régua), with a storage capacity of 6 million liters, and a bottling center in Vila Nova de Gaia. Barão de Vilar is now part of the Van Zeller Wine Collection group (and even has a third partner linked to it). As a whole, the company is betting very heavily on foreign markets, which means that the domestic market only accounts for 10% of turnover. It all began, slowly, when the van Zeller family sold Quinta do Noval to AXA Millésimes and when the brothers inherited some of the family's port. Since then, especially with Fernando's entrepreneurial drive and Álvaro's qualities as a winemaker, the company has grown tremendously and everything points to further growth. The Van Zeller Wine Collection will continue to score points in the Douro.

The company's range of Port wines is made up of several brands (the best known being Barão de Vilar), some aimed mainly at foreign markets - as is the case with Feuerheerd's, a brand acquired from the Barros family - others more geared towards a strong presence on the domestic market, such as Maynard's and a more discreet one, which includes some of the top of the range, with the Palmer brand, only aimed at the HORECA channel. The best will come out under the Palmer brand, both Colheita and Vintage. Maynard's, although from the same years, will continue to have Port wines but from different blends, at a different price level.

MANY CROPS AND BRANDS

The tastings took place in the Vilariça winery and the technical team (with Mafalda Machado) took the opportunity to revisit older vintages of some brands. The portfolio is so broad that it would be impossible to taste all the wines here. Of those we tasted, here are some notes and impressions. The tasting covered the group's various brands. We started with the Kaputt collection of wines, a brand that was born occasionally, when it was necessary to find a name for a wine that brought together batches from various vintages; it began with a white edition, of which we leave here a note on the 2nd edition. The first was bottled in 2016 and 2645 bottles were made at the time. Tasting it now shows that it's still in excellent shape, with a light gunpowder aroma and even distant notes reminiscent of Sauternes. It's a pleasure to drink and, curiously, at a slightly higher level than the 2nd edition. It could now cost €70. Every year they try Kaputt in both white and Orange. They're leaving whites in reserve to see what happens. They taste it twice a year to see how it's evolving. New editions can be expected in the future. The Zom brand does not correspond to the vineyards of the Zom estate. For now, it's just a name and it covers three levels of wines: the Colecção (top of the range), Grande Reserva and Reserva, Garrafeira and generics. We did an extensive tasting of this range, leaving out the white Reserva and the rosé. The red Reserva (15,000 bottles/year) and the Grande Reserva have already been tasted in various editions of Grandes Escolhas; this is the case with the Grande Reserva 2017, which, when tasted now, has shown itself very well, still full of small, high-quality aromatic nuances. The market price is now around €30. We tasted the first edition of the Garrafeira but, we're told, it will continue for years to come. The Zom Colecção reds - presented in an original shaped bottle designed together with Martin Berasategui - will only be released in years considered to be of a very high standard, with productions of between 3,500 and 5,000 bottles. In addition to the two mentioned here, we also tasted the Zom Colecção 2009, which is now at its zenith, at its best, with all the elements giving a very good account of themselves. The record is one of elegance, but it's giving us signs that it still has arguments to keep it in the cellar.

The Reserva range is much more accessible in terms of price, with remarkable quality. It was to show this that we tasted two older editions which confirmed the suitability of these wines for life in the cellar.

THE BEST BATCHES GO TO SOME BRANDS, THE SECOND LINES TO OTHERS. THE COMPANY'S PORTFOLIO IS A PUZZLE THAT WON'T BE EASY TO MANAGE

Van Zeller Wine Collection stocks all ranges of Port and the various Port brands also include practically all categories, ranging from entry-level wines to Vintage and Colheitas dating back to the 1940s. The best blends go to some brands, the second lines to others. Looking at the company's portfolio, you can see that it's a puzzle that won't be easy to manage. With the exception of Feurheerd's, all the other brands, including Barão de Vilar, correspond to ancestors of the van Zeller family, linked to the Port business. The oldest batches of Port correspond to purchases made at Casa do Douro, which has a huge collection of old wines and where companies in the sector often buy wines but which, as Álvaro van Zeller told us, "are wines that need to be educated in the cellar, from removing copper, correcting the brandy and the acidity, especially the volatile acidity, which sometimes comes in at very low levels and this requires aging in non-attested barrels to force oxidation and raise the volatile acidity". However, he stressed that, rather than selling Port to third parties, they are mainly buyers, as they need large stocks of all their brands. In the case of Vintage Port, Álvaro tells us, "we always send samples for approval but we don't always sell them. The 2012 is on sale now but, for example, we haven't released the 14 or 15 yet; but the 16 and 17 have already been released; the 2018, 19 and 20 vintages are bottled and we'll see. If we don't sell it, we can open the bottles, ask the IVDP to declassify the wine and it will be included in the current account for the year."

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