This feature is in two parts:
- Introducing the Fladgate Partnership: Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft
- Tasting 30 Port wines from Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft
Though our domestic wine industry has enjoyed real credibility only in the past 30 or 40 years, the British have a long history of involvement not just in the wine trade, but in wine production too. Nowhere is that more evident than in Portugal’s Douro Valley. The signing of the Methuen Treaty between England and Portugal in 1703 meant wines imported from Portugal faced one third less duty than those from France (the latter constantly at war with England around this time), so, hard-nosed commerce was one reason the British took an unusually keen interest in the very popular Port wines of the Douro Valley, an association that persists to this day.
The Fladgate Partnership is the over-arching company that owns such famous Port brands as Taylor’s, Croft, Fonseca and Krohn, and is owned by the Robertson family. I was delighted to spend an evening with the charming Alistair Robertson and his wife Gillyane at Quinta de Vargellas (Vargellas, pictured at midnight after grape-treading ends). Alistair took over Taylor’s Port from his aunt in the mid ’60s, and the next generation is now fully involved: eldest daughter Natasha is married to Adrian Bridge, who is CEO of what is now the Fladgate Partnership. Ex-1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards officer, ex-international investment banker, Adrian is a formidable dynamo of a man, now cutting a swathe through the Port establishment as he pushes the company on alongside head winemaker David Guimaraens.
Beyond wine production
Focused only on Port wines and eschewing the move into dry table wines that many others have followed, Fladgate is concentrating its brand extension on the hospitality sector. Having built the Yeatman Hotel on the banks of the river in Vila Nova di Gaia, Oporto’s first truly world class modern 5* hotel, the company then bought the substantial Vintage House hotel in the heart of the Douro at Pinhão, and more recently the Grand Dame 5* in Oporto city centre, the Infante Sagres. A hotel in Lisbon has followed, as well as extending and improving visitor facilities in Gaia and in the Douro.
But the latest tourism project in Vila Nova di Gaia is the one that is causing most excitment, as well as a certain amount of head-scratching among observers of the Port wine scene: immediately below the Yeatman on the banks of the river, a vast expanse of former Port lodges is being transformed in a truly epic, €100 million investment project called the ‘World of Wine’. Some have described it as a Port wine ‘theme park’, and while that may not be strictly accurate, it’s hard to argue as Adrian yomped me round the building site in hard hat and high-vis jacket past a workforce of hundreds, and a bewlidering array of spaces: five museums, 12 restaurants, artisan and handicraft shops, a wine school, exhibition spaces and much more. The 30,000m2 complex hopes to welcome up to a million visitors per year, and very few wine regions in the world have seen anything quite like it.
The scale of the project is almost as big as the scale of Adrian Bridges’ ambition. But wine is not being forgotten, as my day spent with David Guimaraens would attest.
What’s in a name?
The Fladgate Partnership is the holding company for the various brands it controls. It grew from the original Taylor’s company – or to give it its full name, Taylor, Fladgate, & Yeatman – which was founded in 1692. Along the way it acquired Fonseca in 1948, followed by Croft in 2001, and Wiese & Krohn in 2013. Between the various brands there are over 600-hectares of prime Douro vineyard and a vast array of Port wines.
Though obviously backroom resources are shared, and David Guimaraens is Technical Director across the group, each house retains its own vineyards, lodges and, it would appear, a great deal of autonomy. The group sees it as vitality important that individual terroirs and house styles are maintained.
The Guimaraens Way
David Guimaraens is the sixth generation of his family to be involved in the Port business. He spent time gaining hands-on wine making experience in Australia, California and Oregon. Having graduated in œnology from Roseworthy in South Australia, he remained there to gain additional experience before returning to Portugal in 1990.
Climbing high in the vineyards of Croft’s Quinta da Roêda estate he explained that making Port is different from other winemaking jobs: “It takes four disciplines,” he says, “not just viticulture and winemaking, but distilation and blending – and the blender is the role with an extra dimension. Blending vintage Port is much like blending any fine young wine, but for the aged tawnies the blender’s actions are crucial to the product.
“Port is so well suited to the Douro, just like Champagne is to its region. In Champagne the cool climate has led to techniques that cope with less ripe grapes. The Douro is the opposite, with heat, humidity and high sugar levels. In both regions the vintage wines are the ultimate expression of a single harvest, where conditions are at their optimum. With tawnies, it’s other extreme – the blender basically eliminates the character of a particular vintage in order to achieve the desired house style.”
David is resolute that his vineyards are for the production of Port, not table wines. “Irrigation was introduced here because of the growth of table wines,” he says. “That is the ultimate statement of a lack of sustainability. It brought to and end 300 years of dry farming for the region.” The Douro is incredibly challenging to grow grapes and make any wine, needing 1000 man hours per hectare to manage these mountain vineyards. “I am not here to make standard wines,” says David. “I have to be here to make great wines, and in the Douro, that is only possible with Port.”
David Guimaraens is a passionate advocate for the Douro Valley, which was demarcated in 1756. He reminds me of the wealth of viticulture experience gathered in the region: “If you take time to unearth the written scholarly material of winemaking in Portugal it easily rivals that of France,” says David.
In the modern era it seemed an obvious idea to gradually get rid of the old field blends – vineyards where multiple varieties are planted together – and instead to plant in varietal blocks, which could be cared for as each variety requires. Again, David takes a contrary position: “Although it can pull the bottom up, it drags the top level down and loses some of the individuality of the wines. The challenge is to achieve an uplift in both, so we maintain the old mixed vines, but also pay a lot more attention to the blending, particularly the secondary grapes which are used in smaller amounts.”
All of the partnership’s premium Ports are still foot trodden, but David admits mechanization has eventually raised the overall quality of their other wines – the rubies, tawnies and LBVs. “At first the introduction of steel tanks, temperature control, pumping over, etc. did not raise quality. Swapping foot treading for those techniques missed something.” So David introduced mechanical plungers in 1995, believing these robotic methods that mimic foot-treading, along with an understanding of the subtle differences between it and human food treading, have improved the premium commodity wines.
In part two of this report I taste over 30 of the Fladgate Partnerships Port wines, but meanwhile, a couple of short films of foot-treading at Quinta de Vargellas, and robotic treading at Quinta da Roêda. Similar effect, slightly different atmosphere:
Go to Part II: Tasting 30 Port wines from Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft