Van Zellers & Co. – Douro Valley, Portugal.
One-and-a-half-hour drive west from historically the most famous Portuguese wine city, Porto, to the Spanish border, you will be struck by the stunningly breathtaking scenery. The UNESCO heritage area, with its unique vineyard establishment protected by the stone wall, is recently getting a reputation as a wine-producing region for high-quality dry wines. We had a chance to travel to Portugal at the beginning of March. We visited Van Zellers & Co. , amongst others, not only because it is one of the brilliant Port wine producers with a long history, but also because we already fell in love with their mind-blowing, high-quality dry wines. In this article we are sharing a story we learned from their 14th generation, Cristiano Van Zellers.
Porto and Douro Valley region
Porto and Douro are located along the Douro River, which runs from Spain to the Atlantic Ocean. Porto is on the Atlantic coast, and Douro Valley starts from about 70 km inland from the coast to the west, over 100 km. While Porto has a cooler climate with cold Atlantic oceanic wind, Douro is hot in summer, easily exceeding 40C°. Surprisingly, 48-49C° was recorded last year alongside the Douro River. This hot climate is one reason to have started a powerful style of wine, Port wine.
Port is the art of blending. In general, a 40-year-old Port means an average of 40 years old. To make Port wine of this age, a producer would have to blend from its own stocks or get Port wines from the 50, 60, and sometimes 100 years old market. With uncertainty as to whether a wine of the desired quality and age will even be available in the market, blending to achieve the consistency of the style is an art in the Port wine business model.
Let’s reflect on the history of Porto wine and the Douro for a while.
Port wine is a sweet, fortified wine made with grapes from the Douro region of Portugal, whose history started in 17C. Based on the trade war between England and France, England increased its trade with Portugal, and the robust red wines soon became popular in England. Soon after, brandy was added to stabilize the dry wine and ensure they were in good condition in England after transportation.
Porto was the only harbor for export until the middle of 20C (not sea harbor but river harbor). In front of the Porto, Villa Nova de Gaia was a perfect maturation place for most Port winemakers from the management perspective. In the 19C, wine was already made the same way it is today. Wines are made with grapes from Douro Valley, moved to Villa Nova de Gaia for maturation for several years to decades, and shipped from Porto for export.
In this region, how much producers can make Port wine is designated in the regulation depending on the grade of its vineyard, and the rest is destined to dry wine. The first ambitious Douro dry red wine was made in the 1950s, but the improvement in the quality had historically been overlooked for a long time because Port wines were too popular and could be sold at a higher price. However, as time passed, some producers started to produce high-quality dry wine. In 2003, five leading producers, called Douro Boys, gathered and collaborated with one goal: ‘to go beyond their already famous port wines and produce the best dry reds and white table wines, collectively showcasing the immense potential the valley along the lengths of the Douro River has to offer to the world’ (ref. Douro Boys). You might expect it, but Cristiano is one of them.
Van Zellers & Co.
Van Zellers & Co. has a long history from 1780, which started as a wine merchant and then became a Port wine producer. Cristiano is in their 14th and his daughter Francisca and João in their 15th generation. They are a great producer and excellent storyteller in the family-owned company, and we are attracted by their exceptional wines and open-minded welcoming atmosphere.
They produce 60,000-70,000 bottles annually, including dry and Port wine. A fun fact in their lineup is the wine category: ‘Crafted by hand,’ ‘Crafted by nature,’ and ‘Crafted by time.’ All starts from the hand of humans for care, picking, and blending, which makes their wine unique, so wines with their basic level are categorized as Crafted by hand. Some of their own vineyards have exceptional characteristics with more than 70 years old vines, leading to the most celebrated wines (CV Curriculum Vitae Douro Red and white, Vintage Port, or LBV, are in ‘Crafted by nature.) Then time mellows the palate and gives depth and complexity, which surprises and impresses us all (Old Tawny Port, in ‘Crafted by time.’)
Their vineyards are in the center of the Cima Corgo sub-region, at 500m altitude. This mitigates the high temperature in the Douro Valley and keeps freshness in the wines without high alcohol overwhelming them. Freshness also comes from their style. In hot years such as 2020, Van Zellers didn’t make CV Curriculum Vitae Douro White because the alcohol was too high, which is not their style.
Tasting of dry wines
We tasted the new vintages of VZ Douro and CV Curriculum. Below you can find our reviews and ratings of the wines.
Van Zellers & Co VZ Douro White | 2021 | Arinto, Códega de larinho, Rabigato and Douro grapes (from an old vineyard) |DWA score: 92/100
White Wine with grapes from different vineyards. Fresh with lemon and lemon zest and a hint of floral and herbal notes. Vibrant acidity with a long and intense finish.
Van Zellers & Co VZ Douro Red | 2019 | Douro blend |DWA score: 91/100
Red Wine with grapes from different vineyards. Just ripe (not over-ripe) red fruit aromas are expressive, with lively acidity yet a rounded mouthfeel with a long finish.
CV Curriculum Vitae Douro White| 2019 | Douro blend |DWA score: 96/100 (From a single vineyard of around 70 years of age)
Highly concentrated aromas yet very elegant, ranging from lemon peel, dried herbs, cinnamon, and a hint of floral. Subtle oak flavor and additional creamy, rich texture give depth and complexity to the wine. Mellow, rounded mouthfeel. Long ageing potential yet already surprisingly approachable.
CV Curriculum Vitae Douro Red| 2019 | Douro blend |DWA score: 98/100
Made with more than 25 red varieties from average 100 years-old old vines in a single vineyard. Absolutely amazing wine. Still youthful, with fresh, clean red and black fruit aromas, a range of spices, and a hint of floral notes, showcasing Douro red wine. But the fruits are neither over-ripen nor green, yet with vibrant acidity and ripe tannins. Complex, savory, with an integrated mouthfeel. Exceptionally elegant. Already approachable but waiting 5-10 years to enjoy further complexity is also an excellent idea.
Journey of Old Port Wine
Cristiano shared tasting with us from multiple casks as a journey of the history of Van Zellers Port wines from new to old from the vessels- from young Ruby Ports of 2022 and 2021, 10-, 20-, 30-, 40-, and 50-years-old Tawny, and single vintage of 1950, 1934, 1870 and so on. Some are not for bottling but for blending to make a certain-year-old blend.
With each passing year, the color changes from deep ruby to garnet to tawny with oxidation, and the rim drains away to transparent. Surprisingly, after 50 years, the same oxidation act to darken the color, changing it to an olive color through the brown. The flavors change to more concentrated and complex with spices, nutty, dried fruit, orange peel, honey, toast, and toffee by evaporation and transformation of chemical compounds. It was an exceptional experience for us.
We were excited to learn from Cristiano’s informative and thoughtful story about their wines, history, and the Douro region. Port wine sales have been stable for the past five years (except for 2020), but the demand for dry wines has increased more than its capacity. When you find their wine, it would be the best time to add them to your stock. If you want to try a high-quality, modern style of Douro wine, Van Zellers is a great choice; we can highly recommend it.
We would like to thank Cristiano and Francisca Van Zeller for their hospitality. Our own Kazumi Uejo has covered the visit to Van Zellers and this article. Van Zellers wines (both Port and still wines) are imported and distributed by Ad Bibendum in Belgium and the Netherlands.