Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, and his contribuiton to the Douro Region
At a time when Port wine was all the rage, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida created the iconic red Port of Casa Ferreirinha, Barca Velha. His son Joao carried on his work and continues to shape Douro wines today through his own projects at Quinta do Monte Xisto.
From their easy-drinking Planalto and Esteva to their storied, richer Vinha Grande and Barca Velha cuvées, this family has cemented themselves as Douro wine pioneers.
When it comes to Portuguese wine, few regions have been so consistently innovative as the Douro. The region’s awe-inspiring landscape is the result of centuries of human ingenuity, and its terraced vineyards are a testament to that labor of love. Today, the Douro continues to impress with impressive table wines made from indigenous grape varieties.
The story of Douro’s table wines began in 1952 with Barca Velha, a wine that single-handedly rebirthed this illustrious category of Portuguese wine. It was the brainchild of Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, an oenologist at Ferreira Port house who toured Bordeaux during World War II and found inspiration to create a high-quality table wine from his family’s vineyard in the Douro Superior sub-region.
His winemaking was a bit more advanced than what was common in the Douro at that time—he pumped over the must rather than foot treading it and used French oak barrels instead of local ones. He also decided to age the wine in a new, cooler cellar, which was another first for the region.
Today, Barca Velha is still produced at Casa Ferreirinha. However, the majority of their fruit is sourced from other producers in the Prats & Symington portfolio to help them produce their dry Ports. Eventually, they hope to see that all of their vineyards—some of which are licensed to produce Port—be used exclusively for their dry wines and not for their Port production.
The Douro is Portugal’s most imaginative wine region, with its spectacular landscape of wild and cultivated nature and man-made vineyard terraces. Although it is well known for its world-famous port wine, the region has only recently been gaining recognition for its unfortified still wines, and is awash with exciting new projects from both old and newer producers alike.
One of the first to create non-fortified table wines from Douro grapes was Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, who saw the potential of such wines during his visit to Bordeaux in the second world war, and subsequently created Barca Velha in 1952. Almeida was the technical director of Porto Ferreira at that time, and his wines became a modern benchmark for the Douro region.
His son, Joao Nicolau de Almeida Rosas, now heads the Douro winemaking team at Ramos Pinto and is responsible for making the company’s famous vintage Ports. He is also behind the creation of Quinta do Monte Xisto, which was launched in 2005.
The Douro’s vineyards are primarily located in Baixo Corgo, and less so in Cima Corgo and Douro Superior, which are much cooler and more rugged terrains. The region’s grape varieties are dominated by reds, with Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa and Tinta Barroca more prominent in BC and CC, and Rabigato and Codega more common in DS. The levels of mildew pressure and disease vary across the sub-regions, and Nicolau’s vineyards are carefully managed to minimize their impact.
mat’s eye, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
In a time when Portugal was known solely for the production of Port Wine, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, the creator of the legendary Barca Velha red wine, worked tirelessly to develop quality still wines. He elevated the quality of Douro grapes and improved vineyard practices. He was also instrumental in bringing irrigation systems to the region and suggested the use of vertical plantings, which are now widespread.
At Casa Ferreirinha, the family’s everyday Planalto and Esteva wines, as well as the storied Barca-Velha cuvee, have helped to cement the estate’s reputation for high-quality, contemporary still wines in the Douro. Luis believes that the non-interventionist approach that he learned from Fernando Nicolau de Almeida has been key to their success. He explains that, “vines are like children and must suffer to grow healthy.” He believes that herbicides can ruin vines.
A light, fresh, mineral-driven white, the Callabriga is sourced from vineyards at different altitudes. This blend of Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca is aged in a combination of neutral French oak and new American oak. With aromas of apricot, pear and white flowers and flavours of lemon, melon and chestnut, this is an ideal aperitif or luncheon companion. From the high-altitude vineyards of Douro Superior, this wine is made with Rabigato, a variety that is typically used in dry Port wines. The nose is floral and fruity with a hint of spice, while the palate has a fresh, smooth texture.
The Douro is famous for port wine, a fortified wine served in small glasses and often enjoyed as an aperitif. But the region is also capable of producing fine, unfortified wines.
In the 1950s, there were whispers about the potential to make Douro table wines but it was a slow journey. In 1979, the Bergquists introduced Duas Quintas, a wine that put Douro table wines on the map and triggered a movement.
While it’s still early days for Douro table wines, the trend is positive. The region has unique soils, a Mediterranean climate and local grape varieties, and it offers great scale of vineyards for producers to draw from. “There is a huge amount of untapped potential,” says Jamie Goode, referring to Douro table wines.
Joo Nicolau de Almeida has made a big contribution to the advancement of Douro table wines. He pioneered irrigation systems and vinha ao alto planting (vertical planting), and was a key figure in the study of Douro grape varieties. He influenced the direction of viticulture in Douro, which is now more focused on vineyards with southern or north-facing exposure, depending on the sun’s position.
Today, he makes three “climate” reds—Trans Douro Express, Eremitas and Douro Superior—from around ten different vineyards that illustrate the Douro’s sub-regioes. These are based on vineyards with schist bedrock and varied topsoil composition.
This Day in Wine History
November 2, 2022: Fernando Nicolau de Almeida launched the famous Barca Velha wine, one of the most important Portuguese wines, which elevated the reputation of wines from the Douro Region.