Interview with Susana Esteban
Conquer the Quinta do Castro
Galician by birth, she became a “duriense” by passion. Today, the oenologist Susana Esteban is already a Douro Girl, signing of some of the most famous wines of the regions. Faithful to cork, Susana says cork “already makes part of the underlying values of any great wine: tradition, longevity, a refined aesthetic of the label and the packaging up to the ritual of opening”.
The sky is dark, heavy, it smells of strong rain and wet earth, but a small ray of run in between the clouds is enough for the vineyards to be seen in a different light. The ochre and reddish colours of a stormy October which reaches an end, colourfully stroke the terraces which involve the 73 hectares of Quinta do Crasto, where just over a decade ago some of the big red wines which brought so much fame and prestige to the Douro started to be produced. “These are our best vines”, says Susana Esteban, 37 years old and resident oenologist, whilst pointing at two big plots of old vines which cover the steep slope which, almost perpendicularly, slides down to the river. “This is the vinha da Ponte and that one is vinha Maria Teresa. Both are over 90 years of age, a great mix of varieties of the region and give name to two of our “monovines”, a concept which is similar to the “monocasts” (varietals), but applied to the vines instead,” she adds, explaining that despite vinifying from these grapes every year, the wine is only bottled in best years, so as to keep the high level of excellence which the market has become accustomed to. Therefore, and although the first Quinta do Crasto Douro, the most current wine of the property, was launched in 1994 – a small production of 40 thousand bottles which, twelve years later increased to 180 thousand -, the first Vinha da Ponte and Maria Teresa were only launched in 1998.
The harvests of 2000, 20003 and 2004 followed for the former, and of 2001 and 2003 for the latter, always scarce productions (around five thousand bottles, for old vines have low productivity) for an appraiser market who always asks for more, but which, almost immediately, achieved international recognition (Vinha da Ponte 2000 and 2004 received 95 points from the renown American magazine Wine Spectator).
“Every year we make our Douro, our Reserva, which spends a year and a half in barrel and the Porto Vintage and LBV. But up to now there was only one year – 2003 – in which we also bottled our for high-range wines: these two “monovines” and the varietals Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional, the latter being the first Portuguese red achieving 96 points in Wine Spectator (harvest of 2001),” she proudly refers.
A Galician in the Douro Boys
Susana Esteban, a Galician born in Tui, belongs to the restricted group of the Douro Boys, a group of young oenologists who have been at the centre of what specialists have called “a tranquil revolution” in the oenology of the Douro, creating reds in a region which until fairly recently had been known only for its Porto wines. Graduated in Chemistry and with a Masters in Oenology from Rioja, Susana opted for the Douro, with no hesitation, when once she had finished her studies she won an international scholarship for an internship in a country of the European Union. “Most of my colleagues went to France or Germany, but I had an enormous curiosity in finding out how Porto wine was made. Besides, I had been here on a educational trip and loved the place.” She started by interning in Sandeman, and spent three years in Miguel Champalimaud’s Quinta do Côtto, where the Roquette family, owners of Crasto, went to get her for the harvest of 2002.
Although she lives in Vila Real, this is where she works, in this “crasto” (from latim castrum meaning fortified hill or fortress) perched on top of a hill, with a breathtaking view over the Douro valley and its river, located around half an hour away from Pinhão and with a history that dates back to the seventeenth century. For years, its vines produced grapes and brand-less wines which were sold to the big Porto wine houses, until its present owner, Leonor Roquette, inherits it from her grandfather Constantino de Almeida (known for his famous Constantino brandy). With her husband Jorge and two sons, Tomás (linked to production) and Miguel (to commercializing and marketing), they create a successful family company, where the quality superimposes quantity, but which already produces around 450 thousand bottles annually, 70% of which are exported to markets such as Brazil, USA, Canada or England. The investment in equipment and technology has progressively increased and the last big conquest was the surprising wine cellar (750m2) built from scratch in one of the property’s terraces, overlooking the liver and where, stone by stone, like a giant puzzle; the locals raised the land completely covered in schist from the region. And, because it is here that, in the French oak barrels, all of Crasto’s brands (with the exception of Douro) are aged, the ceiling was covered in grass, transforming into a garden which gives Access to the house, built in an upper terrace. “As it is constantly watered, it keeps the temperature of the cellar always fresh, and it is so well integrated in the environment that, despite being so big, it does not clash”, Susana Esteban explains. In fact, it is also here that Xisto 2003 was aged, the most recent star of the house and which results from a successful oenological and commercial partnership between the Roquette family and Jean-Michel Cazes, a French man from Bordeaux, married to a Portuguese woman and owner of Châteaux Lynch-Bages.
From the collaboration between the respective oenologists – Susana Esteban and Daniel Llose, a Frenchman of Catalan origin responsible for the technical direction of the Axa Millésimes Group which owns wine cellars all over Europe -, emerged Xisto, a DOC made from grapes of the Douro (but not from Crasto), carefully selected for that end, vinified in the cellar of the Quinta but worked on in a different way, following the Bordelaise method.
“Xisto is a wine with the typical elegance of the wines from Bordeaux but with the aromas and characteristics of the wines of the Douro, although completely different from the traditional Douro wines. It is much rounder in the mouth and people love it,” she discloses, without hiding the enthusiasm this project brings to her. The success was of such a dimension that they retained part of the production of the 30 thousand bottles launched larch March, so that the wine would not immediately disappear in the national and international market.
Xisto is sealed with a natural cork stopper
Like all other wines produced in the Crasto, Xisto is also sealed with a natural cork stopper. “As an oenologist, I like to use these types of stoppers in wines with quality like ours, because they make part of the underlying values of any great wine: tradition, longevity, a refined aesthetic of the label and the packaging up to the ritual of opening”, Susana confesses, adding that “personally, I do not like synthetic stoppers”.
“I think a synthetic stopper seems to be something it is not. On the other hand, I don’t mind opening a bottle for fast-consumption which is sealed with a screwcap. But one thing is true; there is not enough knowledge or history to compare wines with these two alternative stoppers; for the existent studies are very recent. In the case of cork it is completely different, one we can predict the evolution of the wine.” And she exemplifies: “Both Vinha da Ponte and Maria Teresa 2003 which are already in the market and which were sealed with natural cork stoppers, can perfectly be consumed ten years from now.” Susana Esteban confidently smiles: “I actually recently tasted Maria Teresa 98 and Vinha da Ponto 2000 and they are simply fantastic.”