Muxagat

If you’ve not read the prior entry, about the Quinta de Ervamoira, please do, it introduces and sets the context for this entry.

Mateus makes his wines under the name Muxagat Vinhos Lda. taken from the name of a nearby village (Muxagata).  The past couple years the wines have been re-branded as Mux.  By the way, the “x” is pronounced in that very Portuguese sound halfway between “sh” and “zh”.   He makes a branco and a tinto, mostly from his own vineyards, but he does work closely with other growers to buy in some grapes.

Friday morning early Mateus took me up to his own vinyard, Monte Xisto, Schist Mountain.  It is.  The vineyards cling to a pinnacle of rock overlooking the Douro.

I love how the road appears to lead simply into the sky.  Actually, it does.  From that point, it’s all down hill, very steeply, on all sides.  Like this:

My notes say the vinyards are between 100 and 300 metres, but it felt higher.  If that doesn’t make you dizzy and clutch your armrests with white knuckles…

Mateus said he is passionate about altitude and acidity… clearly!

He did his professional training in Bordeaux, and after some time there, Mateus went on to work in Chile, Argentina and Mendocino (California).  He settled in the Douro Superior at Foz Côa in 2003 and began to create the vinyards at Monte Xisto.  It took 3 years to create 10 hectares of vinhas ao alto, clearing the land, setting the posts and laying the irrigation system, and then planting the vines, and he thinks that was  probably too fast, just madness.

The Douro Superior is unusual in the EU as having authorisation for irrigation – as a direct result of research conducted at Quinta de Ervamoira.  In the museum at Ervamoira is a map of the Douro DOC:

The photo is not as well focussed as I could wish, apologies, but hope you can see at the bottom the names Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior and the white lines leading up into the map to show the divisions.  The deep blue indicates average rainfall of around 1200 mm per cm2 in the Baixo Corgo, through yellowy orange in most of the Cima Corgo of around 600 mm, to the deep red orange of the Douro Superior which is indicative of negligible rainfall – around 300 mm on average.

At Monte Xisto, there is an immense water tank sunk into the rock at the highest point.  Water is pumped up from the Douro into the tank, then through filters in a small concrete hut alongside, and from there out to all the vineyards, every line of vines – you probably spotted the black hoses in the photos above, and also in the photos of the vineyards at Ervamoira.

The argument for irrigation is not to increase production, but to make production – especially the establishment of newly planted vines – possible.  In the first three years the vines need irrigation to survive, until their roots have penetrated deep enough into the rock to find the natural water supply (such as it is).  One of the good things about schist is that the fissures in the layered rock catch and hold water.  Faithful readers may recall my photos in October of some newly planted replacement vines in Pinhão, with the depressions dug out around them to catch and channel the water to the roots – in the Cima Corgo there is enough rainfall to sustain a mature vinyard, but the new vines must be watered by hand for the first few years.  In the Douro Superior irrigation is essential to establish a vinyard.  After those first three years, Mateus said he may only use the system twice in a year.

After several years of even lower than usual rainfall, the heavy rain this past winter has been a blessing, though not unmixed.  Graham’s Malvedos blog (http://malvedos.wordpress.com/ ) has a pretty graphic description and photos of the winter rains and the trouble they caused.  They say near Pinhão the rainfall in just four months this winter was greater than the annual rainfall in four of the past six years.  Many vineyards built in terraces – either socalcos or patamares – have had terrible damage from the runoff.

I asked Mateus if he’d had trouble with the rain this winter – the answer was a very cheerful no – he was absolutely thrilled by the rainfall, he’s had nothing like it since he started.  He said there had been a similar winter in 2002, just before he’d begun, so he’d only really known drought, this was his first season of heavy rainfall.  I looked and walked down to the bottom of some of the vineyards, and there was no washed down accumulation of soil or rubble, as I would have expected.  While they probably didn’t get as much rain as elsewhere – the Douro Superior typically gets half of Pinhão’s rainfall – the vinhas ao alto seem to take it better than the terraced vineyards.

In addition to the viticultural work, Mateus has done the building works at the vineyard – he built the hut to shelter the water filters, and also re-built a ruined small schist shelter perched on a natural ledge:

It really is a rather beautiful thing, and the view is superb.  To the right of the building Mateus plans to create a little patio for relaxing occasionally.

If you look at the line of rock just beyond his feet, and then look across to the right you can just see what looks like a line of twigs – those are in fact the wooden posts of a vineyard that drops down that hillside.  I can’t get over the verticality of the terrain here.  Or the beauty.

When I was on the bus from Tua to Pocinho we passed a little car dealership in the middle of nowhere which proudly proclaimed Ford – Chevy – Lamborghini.  I mentally giggled, trying to imagine just how many Lamborghinis there were in this rather remote and rural pocket of deepest mountain Portugal.

Lots.  Meet the local Lamborghini:

Yes, the famed mad Douro tractor is a Lamborghini – a cross between a high performance sports car and a Sherman tank, I think.  It’s quite a small thing, its muzzle doesn’t come up to my shoulder.  Besides clearing and creating vineyards, it is used ongoing for general landscape maintenance, for instance they had just dug out some gutters alongside the roads in the vinyard to channel the runoff, and they are used for spraying.

Not that he needs to spray very often – Mateus said he was going to spray the next day to deal with a little leftover oidium, but between the heat and the wind he has almost no pests or diseases in his vinyards.  I forgot to mention the wind – as we stood at the top of the hill my plait was being blown at a right angle to my skull like a windsock.  He manages the vinyard organically, and there were some old barrels clustered together where he brews herbal sprays and remedies to use in the vinyard.  I was thinking there probably were none of the issues created by an intensive monoculture – you can see from the photos the surrounding area is not all vinyards, and even within Monte Xisto there are substantial pockets of wild vegetation – rosemary, juniper, a mulberry, some oranges, and of course olives.  Mateus wants to plant more oranges up there as well.

In Burgundy I had seen some tractors used to trim the vines, almost like a hedge, but not here.  All the work on the vines is done by hand – all pruning, trimming and of course harvesting.  There are two men who help Mateus with the vineyard maintenance, and that includes weeding, I saw two ancient and much used hoes propped up ready to start again.

Like every other vigneron I’ve met, as he got out of the car Mateus reached for his secateurs, and as we walked he was critically surveying everything and stopping to pull out clumps of weeds that were encroaching on the vines, or to trim, prune, tie up or dig out vines, even a couple of odd old vines growing in the wilderness between vineyard plots.   When we got back into the car he reached for paper and pen and made some notes before we got underway – as he said himself, he never stops thinking, getting ideas.  And what impressed me most as he was talking was that he thinks in terms of work needed in the region overall, not just his own projects.  He spoke of the need for more research and trials to match grape varieties with soils (in the Douro Superior there are some areas of granite, as well as the prevailing schist), he feels strongly there should be more specific DOC’s defined within the Douro given the variety of rainfall, altitude, terroir.

Well, once in a while he does take a break.

That little patch is the golf course – Mateus and his brother have been known to get a hole in one into the Douro.

We also visited his winery in Mêda, another village southwest of Foz Côa and Muxagata, but at a slightly higher altitude – according to my map it’s in the area above 500 metres altitude.  This is important for the wine making, as it makes life that little bit cooler.

There are two small stone lagares fitted for temperature control during treading, as well as a press, and a variety of stainless steel vats and wooden barrels used in different stages of the vinification.  There are small stainless vats used when he first blends the varieties together “so they can get to know each other better” (the red is a combination of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, the white is Rabigato with small amounts of Gouveio, Côdiga and Viosinho), small wooden barrels for the aging of the red, and some larger stainless steel vats sunk into the concrete, which are excellent for keeping the wines cool in the Douro heat (40° C is common in the summer, and 50° C is not unknown).  Mateus is passionate about finding the right container for each stage of the vinification and aging.

I debated including this photo of the sunk vat, as I don’t think it makes the wine look terribly appetising, but I promise you, it is wonderful:

One thing that fascinated me, as we tasted the 2009 red wines from barrel, was that they had already passed through their malolactic fermentation – in fact that occurs almost immediately after the alcoholic fermentation (compare with Burgundy, where it doesn’t occur until the spring, when I visited David Clarke last April his wines were in the throes at the time of my tasting).  Both Mateus and Teresa prefer to let the fermentations occur naturally – no introduction of yeasts for the alcoholic and no inducement of the malolactic unless absolutely necessary (which is rare).

I did not get any photos of the wooden barrels, but Mateus raved about his tonnelier, Marc Grenier of Burgundy, and is working closely with him to have some larger standing wooden vats made in the coming year.  There is an excellent article with photos at http://www.wineterroirs.com/2008/11/grenier.html

Mateus also loves his wine press (he just plain loves every step of the process and every tool used for it, I think), when he showed it to me he was practially hugging the thing, saying it was the best press possible.  The wine oozes out between those slats, to be collected in the bottom blue rim and run out from a pipe which would be joined at the bottom left side.

His production is small – about 10,000 bottles of branco and 18 to 20,000 of tinto.  In 2006 a hailstorm destroyed much of the crop, and he made no white and only about 6,000 bottles of tinto.

From there, we visited the winery at Lucinda Todo Bom, for whom he has been making wine since 2003.  The winery is at Mêda, and their vinyards are at Poço do Canto, north of Mêda and very high, up to 600 metres.  Their website says Bacchus stopped by this part of Portugal and being very tired and thirsty, asked for a drink.  He was given water.  Grateful for the water, but thinking they really could do better around here, he planted vines for them – hence the magic of Douro wines.  Lucinda Todo Bom make a range of wines (Quinta dos Romanos, Fraga Alta (both tinto and branco), and Fonte Cordeiro) – see their website (Portuguese and English) which has detailed technical tasting sheets and a downloadable brochure.  http://www.lucindatodobom.pt

The winery was very spacious, with large stainless vats as well as a beautiful standing wooden Grenier vat – like the one Mateus is having made for Muxagat.  We tasted some of the wines from barrel, and brought home a half bottle of one for further tasting and discussion with Teresa that night over dinner, debating the timing of the bottling.

Again, astonished, touched and grateful for the hospitality and generosity of a busy winemaker, spending a day to show and explain to me all he does.  The wines are a joy, as is Mateus, do try them.

One last image – in the photo of the sunken vat of white wine, you may have spotted the chalkboard at Mateus’ feet which says Baltazar.  He buys in some Rabigato from a vigneron of that name – loves the vinyard, which we passed on our way to Ervamoira, and the name, which he may use some day for another wine.

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About Cynthia

Free lance wine writer based in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal
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