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One of the Douro’s most beautiful vineyards, Senhora da Ribeira is located 24km (15 miles) upriver from Quinta do Bomfim in the remote Douro Superior. The vineyard commands a magnificent north bank position, overlooking a broad sweep of the Douro, directly opposite another famous Symington owned vineyard: Quinta do Vesuvio. Senhora de Ribeira was built close to an ancient river crossing, guarded by two 12th century castles on either side of the river built by the Moors during their centuries long occupation of Iberia. A small chapel dedicated to the ‘Lady of the River’ (literally: Senhora da Ribeira) has stood here for centuries and gave the quinta its name. Travellers would pause here to ask for a safe river passage and onward journey.
Senhora da Ribeira’s wines are some of the finest in the Douro and they complement those from Bomfim in the composition of Dow’s classic Vintage Ports. The quinta’s high proportion of old vines (45% are over 25 years old) is of critical importance. The old vines are very low-yielding, producing on average less than 1Kg of grapes each, giving intense and concentrated musts which are ideal for classic Vintage Port. The remainder of the vineyard was replanted as follows: 21% in 2001 and 34% from 2004, the latter involving mainly Touriga Nacional vines. This grape variety - very important for Vintage Port - now represents almost exactly a third of the total planted at the quinta. The entire vineyard has the maximum ‘A’ rating.
As with Bomfim, the consistency of the climate plays a key role, although the rainfall is only half of that experienced at Bomfim: 448mm is the 10 year average. This more extreme climate, hot dry summers and cold, equally dry winters results in wines with unique depth of colour and complexity.
As with Quinta do Bomfim, the best Ports from Senhora de Ribeira are used to make Dow’s Vintage Ports in the great and rare ‘Declared’ years. In the good year’s when Dow’s does not ‘declare’ a Vintage, the best wines of ‘The Lady of the River’ are bottled as Dow’s Quinta de Senhora da Ribeira Vintage Port. They will tend to mature a little earlier than the very rare ‘Declared’ years, but can be every bit as good as some other Vintage Ports.
Senhora da Ribeira has one of the most advanced specialist wineries in the Douro, combining the best of traditional winemaking practice, evolved over centuries, and the latest state-of-the-art automated systems. Three granite ‘lagares’ for foot treading are complemented by three ‘robotic’ lagares, designed by the Symington family and installed in the quinta’s winery in 2001.
It has long been recognised that traditional treading produced some of the finest Ports, but there are some drawbacks involved in traditional treading; temperature control is difficult, there is a limit to how long people are willing to tread and they need to sleep. The winemaker’s options are therefore limited, he or she cannot order treading at different times through the night, or pull people off the picking team at will. Furthermore, emptying the traditional lagar takes a long time; in the meantime the fermentation process is accelerating away. A further handicap arose over recent years, when an increasing scarcity of labour obliged producers to look for less labour-intensive vinification solutions. The Symingtons opted to devise a mechanical means of replicating the proven method of foot treading. The result was the Symington ‘robotic lagar’, an automated treading machine which exactly replicates the gentle action of the human foot and which has revolutionised winemaking in the Douro Valley. This equipment is very expensive but the results have been so good that an increasing proportion of Dow’s finest wines are now made in these automated lagares. Approximately half of the wines for Dow’s much praised 2003 Vintage were vinified in them.
The very hot climate through the summer at this vineyard results in highly complex and concentrated wines but very low yields. Colours of the musts in the fermentation tanks are always purple-black due to the very high skin to juice ratio. The old vines add further to the intensity of the wine as they make up a very large percentage of the vineyard. The resulting wine can be described as being the essence of Vintage Port, with powerful wild red-fruit flavours, leading into rich black chocolate notes, the whole balanced by complex, attractive and peppery tannins.