Quinta da Pedra Alta brings elegance to the Douro

06 October, 2020

Winemakers Joao Pires and Matt Gant have collaborated on a range that exhibits levels of freshness, acidity and elegance rarely seen in the Douro.

They first crossed paths on a harvest in Alentejo back in 2007, and they have been sharing ideas ever since. Gant is the winemaker at First Drop Wines in Australia’s Barossa Valley, while Pires has been the winemaker at Quinta da Pedra Alta since 2009.

Pires has completed several vintages in the Barossa, and Gant heads to the Douro each year to work with him at Quinta da Pedra Alta during the vintage. “We have been involved in a winemaking conversation for many years,” says Gant. “We’ve had this ongoing exchange of ideas.”

The owners of Quinta da Pedra Alta put the estate on the market in 2016, and Gant knew it would make a fantastic investment. “I love the diverse range of wines we can make at one property,” he says. “You can go from white port to aromatic white to textural white to lively red to medium red to full-bodied red to then tawny port to vintage port. We can go from an aperitif at the start of your dinner party, then the full range, and finish off with port at the end of the meal. That is what we have from one site, and that is a rarity.

“We both knew this was an amazing site that just needed a fresh start, fresh energy, new capital, to fully realise its potential. The Douro is hugely undervalued as a region globally, and as a result there are amazing vineyards with great potential. Pedra Alta just hadn’t had the cut of the green.”

Gant is originally from Chelmsford in Essex. He went to primary school with Ed Woodward, the executive vice chairman at Manchester United, and they have remained friends ever since. “He had developed a taste for wine over the years, and was really keen to get into it,” says Gant.

Woodward and his wife, Isabelle, visited the property and fell in love with it. The deal to purchase the property was completed in July 2018, just in time for harvest, and Pires and Gant set about producing the wines.

“Since I have been here, we have struggled with structure and the tannins, and over the years we realised that the best expression is elegant wines, taking the acidity and freshness we have and just putting it in a bottle,” says Pires. “We don’t over extract. We have richness near to the river, but we have the freshness on the other side, and we have been working to keep that. You taste the wines and know they are from Douro, but we don’t want the classic profile of bigger wines.”

The 35ha estate produces four core wines – a white, a red, a white port and a red port – and  some reserve wines, all made from blends of indigenous grape varieties grown on its terraced vineyards. The white has an rrp of £13, the red is £15, the white port is £18, the 10 Year Old tawny port is £25, and so are the Reserva Branco and Reserva Tinto.

The estate has secured UK distribution with Winetraders. The firm’s founder, Michael Palij MW, said: “These wines blew me away the first time I tried them. We wouldn’t normally have considered expanding our range into Portugal, but I just couldn’t say no.

“The white is a revelation, with razor-sharp acidity and masses of stone fruit, while the red has those wonderful Touriga tannins to balance the fruit and is exceptional value.

“It’s the tawny port, however, that sealed the deal. Blind, I would have said it was a 20-year-old. The sweetness takes a back seat and the Pedra Alta acidity provides the focus. Awesome wines and a natural fit with our range of hand-crafted, family estates.” 

Andy Brown, former general manager at Lion Nathan and national account director at Liberty Wines, is on board as commercial director. “Because of our size and price point, we are targeting independent merchants and on-trade,” says Brown. “That’s where we see ourselves. We are looking at the UK. That’s an important market because of the connection with Portugal, and the ownership. We also want the domestic market to be important for us. We are looking at a few other export markets to spread ourselves around.”

It has already secured listings in the UK, Portugal, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands, while Scandinavia, the US and Asia are targets.

After the sale was completed, the team made a few tweaks in the vineyard, invested in the winery and then set about overhauling the branding, packaging and route to market. They appointed renowned design agency Denomination to create the new labels. “We have these three stones placed there in 1761 at the property, and that has become the key identity on the shirts and the bottles,” said Brown. “That’s the core thing that goes across the whole piece. The owners are thinking of something for their young children, so it’s definitely a long-term project, and we wanted the identity to be in place for years to come.”

Pires and Gant have created a long-term vision for the winery. “It all comes down to the site itself and what best represents it,” says Gant. “That’s the mission: trying to express the place and be true to it.

“This is Joao’s patch. He knows Pedra Alta like the back of his hand. He’s been there for 12 vintages and he has an intimate knowledge of that, and I have a reasonable knowledge over the period that I’ve been visiting and chatting with him, and through that we have the hallmarks in our mind.

“The acidity is inherent. You can make these aromatic white from higher up, and full blooded reds from lower down, but overall there’s a freshness in the site, and that’s something that we want to be true to. There’s an elegance.

“Whilst it’s a warmer climate, there still can be elegance in the wines, and that’s something we want to be sensitive to in the way we’re making the wines. The schist of the Douro brings minerality and structure. It’s finding the balance. We want to be true to the site with that structure and ability to age, but at the same time not overpower the acidity, the freshness and the elegance of the place. From all the wines that is at the core of it all.”

From a commercial perspective, the challenge lies in getting the wines in front of as many buyers as possible during the age of Covid. “This year, Prowein was going to be a centrepiece to our plans,” says Brown. “The ability to see so many people from all around the world in one place, with your winemaker and wines there, that being cancelled and other events like that being cancelled force you to approach things differently.

“The sample budget has probably gone a bit out of the window, because you need to get the wines out there. We did Three Wine Men and other consumer tastings in the UK earlier this year with Joao. They are great, because you have face to face with knowledgeable people and you’re able to talk them through the range.

“We are doing some Zoom tastings with Winetraders. It’s cutting through an incredibly competitive field and getting the opportunity to have your wines on their tasting bench to compare. Once we’ve got through that, they have the type of staff who can then talk about your story to consumers.”

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