This old property is situated in the heart of the Douro Valley and is owned and run by the talented Cristiano van Zeller. He had spent time working at Quinta do Noval, the historic port house, but left in 1993 to found his own independent winery, with ambitions not just to produce port but also to showcase how much more the Douro region has to offer in terms of still wines.
In 1996 he bought Quinta Vale D. Maria, an ancient, run-down property in the Rio Torto valley which at the time only had 10 hectares of vineyards. Although small, this vineyard was full of very good old vines - over 50 years old - which were planted on south and south-east facing slopes. The vines covered a broad spectrum of traditional Douro grape varieties, including tinta roriz, touriga nacional, tinta amarela, rufete, tinta barroca and sousão.
Over the next ten years, Cristiano went about expanding his vineyards, and he now has 31 hectares in total: 16 of his own old vines (which are between 60 and 80 years old), 10 hectares of vineyards on a long-term lease from neighbouring properties, (with vines ranging from 25 to 80 years old) and five hectares of brand new vines planted between 2004 and 2007.
The winery had to be rebuilt as well, and while it still has some elements of tradition (such as treading the grapes by foot when producing port) it also has innovative machinery to improve quality, including temperature-controlled granite and stainless-steel tanks and a modern vertical basket press. The team uses a mixture of one to four year old French oak barrels to mature its wines.
We buy Rufo, the quinta's entry-level range. Rufo means 'red' in Latin and features a red drum on the label. The name was inspired by both the red-legged partridge, which lives in this part of the Douro, and by the Portuguese word for the sound of the drum, rufar. The 2011 vintage was a winner in our Wine Championship tastings in 2014.
The wine serves as a great introduction to Cristiano's more complex and ageworthy reds, notably Quinta do Vale D. Maria Douro itself.