Luís Sottomayor, the enologist who makes Barca Velha, an iconic Douro valley wine, is uncomfortable with his fame. He misses spending August in quiet solitude amidst the vines at Quinta da Leda, the large estate that produces most of the grapes used in Barca Velha. Today everybody wants to talk to him, journalists, sommeliers, and wine enthusiasts. They all want to discover the secret of Barca Velha.
Luís says the style was created by the legendary Fernando Nicolau de Almeida when he produced the first Barca Velha in 1952. Nicolau de Almeida traveled the Douro valley in search of grapes that could make an exceptional table wine and found them in a region called Douro Superior. He blended grapes from high altitudes that have acidity and freshness with those from low altitudes that have maturation, body, and color. This marriage of acidity and structure created a sublime wine that can age and improve for decades.
Barca Velha is made with the best grapes that Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine company, has in Douro Superior. The parcels are vinified separately and stored in casks. Then Luís creates a blend from the different barrels. If the resulting wine meets his exacting standards, he bottles it. Then the wait begins. He samples the wine with his team for four, five, six, sometimes seven years before deciding whether to label it Barca Velha or Reserva Especial. Since 1952, there have only been 20 vintages of Barca Velha and 17 of Reserva Especial.
Luís says that some decisions are challenging but he was lucky to learn with the two masters who made Barca Velha before him, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida and José Maria Soares Franco. Luís was hired by Soares Franco in 1989 and became responsible for Barca Velha in 2007.
“For how long should we store a Barca Velha?” we ask. Luís smiles and says he doesn’t like waiting too long to pull the cork from the heavy bottles that guard the precious wine. “Open it when you’re with good friends,” he recommends. Luís is a hunter, so he loves to pair Barca Velha with partridge or duck. “But the wine also can be enjoyed without food, especially by the fire on a cold winter night,” he says.
We asked Luís about another remarkable Sogrape wine called Legado (the Portuguese word for legacy). “Barca Velha has a consistent style and is the expression of a large terroir,” says Luís. “Legado is the opposite. It comes from a small terroir– a vineyard planted in 1910 with eight hectares that produce only six or seven tons of grapes. Each vintage is a different chapter of the life of that vineyard.”
Luís grew up on a farm near Porto. His father, who studied enology in Dijon after the 2nd World War, worked in a port wine company. From an early age, Luís dreamed about being a winemaker. Now he makes wines that people dream about drinking.