When Rita Ferreira Marques completed her degree in oenology, she was 23. Grape-growing was in her family, as her mother, Carla Costa Ferreira, had inherited vineyards from Rita's grandfather and great-uncle. For 45 years, however, the grapes had been sold to port producers, rather than being turned into wine.
Now, Marques's mother was offering her the chance to use the grapes from these old vineyards in the eastern Douro to launch her own label – Conceito (concept). A lucky break, you might say, but not without its pressures; since 1960, selling the grapes had generated a steady family income.
Marques freely admits it was not her game plan, adding that her mother’s offer surprised her: “People in Portugal don’t really trust people without experience; when they talk about a young generation, they mean people in their 40s!”
With her strikingly labeled Conceito vintage port and red and white Douro table wines, Marques is now a key player among the Douro’s new-wave producers. Her eclectically sourced portfolio includes a pioneering single varietal Douro red made from the bastardo grape; a vinho verde; a New Zealand sauvignon blanc; and a South African cabernet merlot – each one made by Marques.
Given that she is not yet 30, how did this young winemaker accomplish so much, so soon, in a country that still harbors deep pockets of old-school conservatism? The early signs were hardly auspicious. Marques and her sisters were born and bred in the lively university town of Coimbra, well south of the Douro. Back then, says Marques, the Douro was “boring.” Although her family owned vineyards there, wine didn’t really impinge on her consciousness because the grapes were sold elsewhere.
Marques’s interest in wine was piqued at university, where she was studying engineering, and she soon switched courses to study oenology at Vila Real in the Douro. At this point the family vineyards began to exert their pull, as Marques sought to balance her “very theoretical” studies with hands-on experience among the vines.
And the studies and skills development continued. Marques did stints at the University of Bordeaux and U.C. Davis, California, augmented by internships - with Denis Dubourdieu (Bordeaux), Chateau Montelena (California), Villa Maria (New Zealand), Bruce Jack (South Africa) and with the producer Niepoort (Douro).
Her South African and New Zealand connections led to Marques making her own wine in both countries. It was made easier by the fact that these wine regions have far fewer grape varieties than Portugal (which has more than 300), enabling Marques to get to grips with them quickly. Already released, the Conceito New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – a full-bodied, part-barrel-fermented style – offers her a point of difference on the domestic Portuguese market. However, Marques adds that while “it’s good to have it in the portfolio, it has to make money ... it has to pay.”
To help achieve that, she has paid attention to labeling, employing an artist, João Noutel, as her designer. “If I have 10 wines, people must realize they’re the same brand,” she says.
In the glass, her watchword is elegance. It bothers her that some Portuguese wines have become “too New World," which means that it’s increasingly hard to tell apart wines from the Douro and Alentejo (in the warmer south). Pale and pinot noir-like with its red fruits and incense spice, Marques’ single varietal bastardo signaled her intention to do things differently.
Back in her grandfather’s day, Marques reports, the bastardo grape was very popular with port shippers because it produces high sugar. Her revolutionary idea was to pick it early – in mid-August (rather in than September or even October) – for a lighter table-wine style. Though Marques says she’s never thought of her Conceito Bastardo as a great wine, its singularity and charm have wooed the critics.
Summing up her approach, the young winemaker says it has become “more about best grapes than best wines,” which means “less extraction*, more persistence, lightness and focus than before.” When first praised by the critics, she "didn’t think the wines were so good.” Now, she says, “my wines have got lots better.”
Has she any advice for others who are keen to follow her path? Impatient with Portugal’s national trait – pessimism – she keeps it simple: "If you want to make your own wine, you have to put your soul into it and just do it.”
*Extraction is the process of drawing out tannins and color from the grape skins during fermentation.
**For information on Conceito wines: