Secret Spot – some of the best wines in Portugal: an interview with oenologist Rui Cunha
Last summer I travelled to Porto, and we were enjoying a long brunch at Rosa Et Al (a sort of home-from-home hotel rightly famed for its brunches) while I interviewed Rui Walter da Cunha about his Secret Spot and Crooked Vines ranges of quality Portuguese wines.
Rui was looking very relaxed, in shorts, tee shirt and a healthy tan. “You look as if you’ve come straight off the beach!” I commented, a little enviously. He laughs, “I might well have, I’m a very enthusiastic surfer, we have superb waves here in Portugal.” It seems Rui’s wife often has to vie for the passenger seat in Rui’s two-seater. Secret Spot, it transpires, is the name surfers give to places they discover where the best swell is. “You wouldn’t reveal a secret spot, even to your oldest friend”, Rui tells me.
In this interview he explains how he came to give this name to his wine range, and the challenges for the sommelier and the knowledgeable connoisseur presented by the variety of wines from the Duoro.
“You wouldn’t reveal a secret spot, even to your oldest friend”, Rui tells me.
Portugal’s Douro valley has the reputation of being one of the world’s most beautiful wine-producing regions. Its most famous product is, of course, Port, but since the 1970s the area has also become known for red and white table wines, and now produces as much of these as fortified wine.
What makes the Douro beautiful also makes it a complicated wine region to get to know: the tight twists and turns of the valley as the river meanders from its source in Spain to the Atlantic at Porto have created huge variations in growing conditions. A vineyard with the perfect combination of soil and micro-climate might be only a few metres away from another with none of the same advantages. Only one is capable of producing great wine.
A vineyard with the perfect combination of soil and micro-climate might be only a few metres away from another with none of the same advantages. Only one is capable of producing great wine.
Complexity and variation
This variation has long been recognised in the minutely-detailed classification of vineyards for Port wine production, but for the region’s table wines there’s no equivalent regulation, and this can make things difficult for a wine-drinker looking for a particular style or quality. The three sub-regions don’t give much guidance either, and can even mislead the unwary: ‘Douro Superior’ for example is not an indication of a better-quality wine, but simply indicates that the wine was produced in the upper stretch of the river, nearer the border with Spain.
Complicating the situation even more, Portuguese wine regulations prevent wine producers from associating their wines with a town or other location within the region: it’s impossible for example for wines produced in and around the town of Favaios to use the town’s name, (although in this case it is used by one producer, who trademarked it before the current regulation came into force). So a wine buyer can’t easily search for wines made near Favaios in the same way he or she might look for ‘Beaune’ or ‘Pomerol’.
‘Douro Superior’ for example is not an indication of a better-quality wine, but simply indicates that the wine was produced in the upper stretch of the river, nearer the border with Spain.
The concept of Secret Spot
The conundrum of how best to present the variety of character and quality of this fascinating region to a wider wine-drinking public has led Porto-based oenologist Rui Cunha and his viticulturist partner Gonçalo Lopes to create a range of wines they call Secret Spot. ‘The way the classification laws are framed for this region makes it impossible to identify a wine closely with its origins in a way that would help wine buyers,’ Rui explains, ‘but the Secret Spot concept is our way of showcasing vineyards with brilliant micro-climates and soils.’
The Secret Spot flagship wines carry no information about where the grapes were grown, other than the generic DOC. But in fact they represent a very particular location, and the only cryptic clue to it is a coloured dot on the case and the foil cap of the bottle. Only one flagship Secret Spot wine is produced each year, and in a limited edition – typically between 1,000 to 2,500 bottles.
Where do the grapes come from?
Rui and his business partner Gonçalo Sousa Lopes source grapes from 21 different vineyards, and make a range of wines from them at Quinta da Faísca, in the beautiful new, state-or-the-art winery designed by architect Carlos Castanheira near the town of Favaios on the heights just north of the Douro.
Selecting Secret Spot
One glorious day each year, two years after the original harvest, Rui sits down with assistant winemaker Hugo Linton (Portuguese in spite of his name), and viticulturalist Gonçalo to agree which of the wines is the best. Only the three of them ever know the origin of that year’s Secret Spot – even the growers don’t know.
One glorious day each year, two years after the original harvest, Rui sits down with assistant winemaker Hugo Linton, and viticulturalist Gonçalo, to agree which of the wines is the best.
These are big wines for long ageing, made with a combination of cutting-edge wine science and some of the traditional techniques that express the character of the region.
In 2004 for example, the second edition of Secret Spot wine (marked with a yellow spot) came from vines which were over 60 years old, a mixture of traditional Douro grape varieties, planted within the same vineyards by previous generations of growers in a ‘field mix’. The vines are in an area where the combination of high plant density and rocky soil forces them to seek water and nutrients at deeper levels, enabling them to produce high quality grapes even in a difficult year for vines.
Producing the wine
After the bunches were individually selected, stems removed and then gently crushed, fermentation took place in traditional stone fermentation tanks, with treading and manual punch-down of the grape skins and pulp to extract colour, tannins, flavour and aromas. Apart from the rigorous sanitisation and tight control over fermentation temperatures practised in the Secret Sport adega, this is how red wines have been made in the region for generations. The emphasis for Rui, Gonçalo and Hugo was to source exceptional fruit and let it talk, keeping to a low-intervention wine-making method throughout in order allow the full character of the vineyard to be expressed.
But each year the method may vary in order to express the particular potential of the grapes from that year’s chosen location. In 2007, the fourth edition of Secret (lilac) Spot wine came from a vineyard planted in 1916, on pre-phylloxera terraces. The vine varieties in this vineyard cannot be identified in their entirety, but there are over ten represented in the wine. The grapes were selected manually, berry-by-berry and then allowed to macerate for four days in French oak barrels to extract complex flavours and colour from the prolonged skin contact, before the addition of the yeast. After fermentation in oak, they were macerated for a second time before being aged in new oak barrels for 20 months. The result is a wine that achieves the tricky double act of combining elegant mineral and wild fruit character with 16.4% alcohol.
Are the grapes used for Secret Spot wines ever sourced from outside the Douro?
Secret Spot flagship wines have been made with grapes from outside the Douro too: from the Alentejo and even as far afield as Rioja in Spain. Gonçalo’s role is to scout out growers of interesting, quality grapes who are willing to sell exclusively to the Secret Spot partnership. “It’s important to get the timing right when looking outside the Douro region,” explains Rui, “The grapes mature differently in the Alentejo for example, and they have less tannins than in the Douro. Gonçalo is scouting for grapes from vines that are at least twenty years old – any younger and it’s hard to produce the complexity we are looking for in our wines.”
Other ranges – Crooked Vines and Lacrau
As well as the limited-edition flagship wines, the Secret Spot partnership produces two other ranges.
The ‘deuxième cru’ Crooked Vines – as the name suggests – are wines also made from older vines, and achieve great complexity in a slightly lighter style than the flagship product.
The Lacrau range is mainly made with grapes grown further north, at altitudes around 500 metres; these are elegant wines suitable for drinking with contemporary cuisine. One particularly intriguing Lacrau wine is made with the Moscatel Galego (aka Muscat à Petit Grain) grape, much grown in the Favaios region around Quinta da Faísca; yet unlike the well-known Favaios dessert wine product, this is a wine that carries all the heady exotic scents of the Moscatel variety, but in a refreshingly dry and elegant style.
The challenge for Portuguese wines as a brand
For all its fascination as a wine-producing country, Portugal still struggles to project a big profile in the international wine market. As with Germany perhaps, the wine laws and naming conventions do not always help Portuguese producers present a clear identity for their quality wines. Buyers in some markets such as the USA are also reluctant to buy wines made with a blend of grapes, after decades of learning to choose wine by grape variety. It is telling that one of the most appreciative export markets for Secret Spot is Japan, where there is a deep-rooted respect and understanding of craft traditions. The sake-brewing process is highly sophisticated, and the Japanese can immediately resonate with the complexities of European winemaking, including the benefits of blending. “In Europe of course, many of the most prestigious and sought-after wines are blended, so there is no resistance to the idea in European markets either,” says Rui.
One of the most appreciative export markets for Secret Spot is Japan, where there is a deep-rooted respect and understanding of craft traditions.
Portugal is in a position to ride a wave of wine fashion as enthusiasts begin to explore the new flavours and aromas of its dozens of indigenous grape varieties. At the same time, much of the charm of this lovely corner of Europe stems not from being fashionable but from its still intact and meaningful traditions, updated and maintained in the modern but respectful wine-making practiced by Rui and the country’s other quality producers. In this paradoxical way perhaps, the whole of Portugal remains a delicious, secret spot.