Rui Cunha of Secret Spot Wines: «Wine is like painting»
Interviewed By Oleg Cherne
In each wine region of the world there is an exceptional winemaker who through the quality of the processes shows us the wine culture of the region with a distinctive depth and makes us look at the local wine with an extraordinary feeling. The activities of such people reveal to us the art of creation, a special facet of which is the creation of great wines.
And when we talk about Mr. Rui Cunha, oenologist of the Douro and co-owner of the company Secret Spot Wines, we can see that this art is something definitely personal, delicate, and at the same time truly national, reflecting the nature of the Douro valley — the heart of winemaking in Portugal. This is the code of wine culture, the secret zone, Secret Spot, which is revealed with special force and beauty with due approach.
Douro Valley is one of the oldest wine regions in the world, and its peculiarity is that in one vineyard can be dozens of varieties represented by old vines. This feature Rui Cunha turns to the benefit of their wines — the company does not have its own vineyards to every new year, working closely with farmers, suppliers, to show the best results and reveal the possibilities of terroir and vintage in the best way.
— What is the story of creating and developing Secret Spot Wines?
— I started working as a consultant since 1995. First in the Douro and Vinhos Verde Region, and later in Trás-os-Montes, Alentejo and Colares. Gonçalo Sousa Lopes joined me later and was my partner for the viticulture. In 2004 we had the possibility of renting a winery in Favaios, and the dream of producing our own wine came truth…
— Who is the founder and owner of the company?
— We are 2 partners: Gonçalo Sousa Lopes (viticulture) & Rui Cunha (winemaking).
— What is the company’s philosophy?
— The company is called Secret Spot Wines, handcrafted wines from the Douro Valley. First we source fruit from different spots all over the Douro Valley. Second we are like «tailors» that handcraft each wine. By applying «less is more» during the winemaking and aging but looking very carefully at every little detail we arrive to produce wines that show the regions characteristics with elegance, finesse and coherence.
— Where are the vineyards located? What is the total area? How is the terroir special?
— We source fruit from many different areas in the Douro valley, according to the style of wines we produce. For our whites we concentrate our selves in the higher parts of the region (altitude between 450 to 600 meters). For example our Moscatel Galego Blanco grapes are sourced from Favaios, the «Grand Cru» terroir for growing this grape. Our reds come from grapes closer to the river Douro, where the soils are poorer, have more schist and it’s much hotter for having a more «fuller» maturation. In total we source fruit from 28 ha.
The terroir in the Douro is very special. We are talking about the biggest schist “island” in the world, the bigger man build region in the world (the terraces were hand build. The modern ones of course with the help of bulldozers) and the oldest demarked and regulated wine region in the world. We have a main river, the Douro, that crosses the valley and many side rivers. Different altitudes, expositions, types of schist, etc. — all this strengthens the effect of different microterroirs, and all that we considered when creating our wines.
— What grape varieties do you use?
— We work 100% with native Portuguese wine varieties grown in the Douro valley. For our whites we work with Moscatel Galego Branco, Viosinho, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina and Rabigato. For our reds (and rosé) Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Tinta Barroca.
We focus also on old vineyards, and there as you know we work with field blends. In some vineyards you can find up to 40 different varieties.
— Please tell us about the work in vineyards and work of Mr Gonçalo Sousa Lopes. What contribution does he bring to Secret Spot Wines?
— As I told you we don’t have any vineyards. We want to feel free to explore all the Douro Valley. Gonçalo’s work is very important in the way that he oversees all the work that’s being done in the vineyards by all the different growers, exchanges opinions and guides them in the way we want our grapes to be treated. Being constantly on the road he is able to discover new vineyards, meet new growers and is capable of sourcing more fruit. When harvest time arrives, our team starts to visit each vineyard once a week, to check the developing of the maturity. With all the information that Gonçalo has gathered during the viticulture year we’re well «equipped» to start the process of winemaking.
At the end, we know our grapes so well as they were ours. That’s our aim!
— Which wines do you consider as the company’s best?
— It’s a very difficult question to ask… (as if you was asking me, which of my sons I like the most…) for me all our wines are of exceptional quality for their price range. But I’m particular proud of the single variety Lacrau Moscatel Galego Branco, our Crooked Vines Red (a tribute to the old vineyards of the valley) that is a blend of 21 different old vineyards and our icon wine the Secret Spot that is a single vineyard bottling. To show the different terroirs from the valley we choose every year a different one…
I can’t forget to mention our Secret Spot Moscatel do Douro 40 years. The first, and until now, the only Moscatel do Douro being produced with this category. Ideal for paring with a nice cigar.
— Which vintages are the best for Secret Spot Wines?
— The region blessed us with a couple of excellent vintages like 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013. Even 2012, which was when it was released, not so well ranked by the critics is developing with elegance and showing today much more expressive and giving much more drinking pleasure than the highly rated 2011 that still needs a few more years of bottle maturation.
— You mention the great years from 2012 to 2017. Which grape varieties showed their best properties in this period? How important is the age of the vine and the vineyard? What is the age of the vine for your best wines?
— Here in Portugal we have saying «You can’t make an omelet without eggs». I’ve made a slight adjustment in this expression. The grapes are the most important asset in quality, terroir driven wines. The age plays an important role, because like we, the vines produce less but with better quality (with age we also tend to speak less but with more wisdom). In dry farmed vines, as they age, they adapted to the soil, we adapt to them, their root system grows deeper in the soil and the yield and quality gets better and better.
At Secret Spot Wines, I consider that we have 3 excellent and very different wines. Our Icon is of course the Secret Spot. A single vineyard wine. The vineyard can be young or old, a field blend or different varieties planted in different plots. But as it’s a secret no one at Secret Spot can reveal the location and therefore the grape varieties.
We also produce the Crooked Vines and Lacrau Old Vines (Portuguese name for scorpion). Crooked Vines is a blend of 21 old vineyards that we harvest, ferment and age separately. As we are working here with old vineyards, we are talking naturally of field blends. So it is for Gonçalo very difficult to say which of the varieties planted had a more important role in that particular year. What we of course see, is the behavior of the different vineyards in each year.
Lacrau Old Vines, a wine with more freshness and elegance than the structured and full body Crooked Vines, has its origin again in old vines that grow around the 450m to 550m and Touriga Nacional. And here begins the interesting part. If you think of humans, as a single individual you can see and control the behavior of him and also predict with much more accuracy. It’s very difficult to predict a crowd. And for this wine we have used completely different % of Touriga Nacional to achieve the same balance every year.
We also produce two single varieties: Lacrau Colheita 100% Moscatel Galego Branco and Lacrau Colheita Rosé 100% Touriga Nacional. Both are dry and crisp wines. Here I can tell you that 2017 was a great year for both wines. In 2016 I prefer the Muscat. And in 2015 I prefer the Touriga.
— Tell us please about your experience in the wine world. How did you make wine your business? What education and professional experience have you had? What is your main interest when you make wines?
— Easy — I’ve studied for it! As being half German I’ve attended the German School in Porto. At the age of 15 (1987) we had to decide if we wanted to study sciences, art, languages or economics. I remember arriving home and talking to my father about it. I hated mathematics, loved biology, wasn’t so bad at chemistry and of course loved sports. I hated to be locked in a room for one day. Even know everything blood related impresses me. And while writing gave many grammatical errors.
My conclusion: I wanted to study biology out in the world or be a sports teacher! My father looked at me and said: «Look I understand you pretty well. But you’ll be bored of teaching and it’s very difficult to earn a living being a scientist… Why don’t you study Oenology»?
I was impressed about the name, didn’t knew of course what it was. Had to look it up in the dictionary (don’t forget that Google only appeared a «few» years later) and found the idea great. He continued… «Portugal will always be a wine country, wine is developing and we don’t have oenologists yet» — (My father worked in the offices of a Port Wine house) — «If you want I can speak to the oenologist and you could go and work for the harvest in the Douro».
So I went and although I was just washing the floor and tanks and drinking beers at the local coffee at the end of the day and a wine during meals (which with such a periodicity never happened before), collecting berries in the vineyards and pumping overs I loved the experience. Since that year I was working all the harvests in the Douro until today.
After graduating I attended the University of Oenology in Trás-os-Montes, went to Germany to study the white wines, and started working on my own in 1995. I also attended many master classes in Bordeaux about different subjects in winemaking and nearly every year I continue to study.
My main interest in winemaking is trying to express the «terroir». We are so lucky to have so many grapes, soils, expositions… So my goal is to protect them and help nature and bottle that years result. This is what I do in Secret Spot and also in all the projects I work as a consultant.
— Germans are generally accepted as hardworking successful people. But what does it mean for you to be a half Portugal?
— I was born half German, so I don’t know how it is to be 100 % Portuguese or 100 % German. I can even imagine that it would be to boring… I see myself having inherited the good parts of both nationality’s. Half Portuguese means that I’m seen as a Portuguese, I fully understand the culture and working habits. To achieve my goals I know what I can expect and how I have to behave. And living in Portugal, when I do a mistake I can always say: «Sorry, it was my German side!»
— You are a recognized oenologist in the region and cooperate with many companies.
Tell us please about the projects you take part in.
— I divide my working time between Secret Spot Wines and several wine projects where I participate as a consultant winemaker. Actually I started my working live consulting because nobody wanted to give me a fulltime job. Depending on the type of project, the dimension, the wines & vines, etc… I visit the projects form a weekly basis to a trimester basis.
Now I’m focusing more on the North of Portugal, this means, Vinho Verde (Covela, Casa da Lavandeira, Quinta da Massôrra, Casa do Casal, Quinta de Paços), Douro Valley (Quinta das Apegadas, Quinta dos Avidagos, Pala da Lebre, Quinta da Boavista and Quinta das Tecedeiras) and «the forgotten» Trás-os-Montes (Casal de Valle Pradinhos, Faioura, Casal Cordeiro).
My aim is always to express the soil, grape varieties and the style of each particular house. I’m not speaking about expressing the terroir, because, as you know, this involves also the human man working the project, I don’t want to leave my «foot print». I don’t want people to recognize my winemaking style, I don’t want to leave my footprint! I want the wine lovers to say: «I love this wine!» That’s my aim in consulting. And I have to tell you, I love this job…
— You sound very poetic when you speak about your best wines, and it looks like you really enjoy your work! If we try to detail, which special aspects of your work make you feel fulfilled and happy? What do you enjoy the most in the process?
— Yes, you’re 100% right! I love my work. Sometimes too much… so I can’t find any time for surfing.
Creating… that is the part I love most. Sometimes you create for yourself (the different Secret Spot vintages), sometimes you create new wines (Avesso Reserva oak fermented & aged) and sometimes you create for others (Avidagos Rosé Reserva).
And creating in wine world has a very large and deep meaning. Most of the people just think of the step of blending. For me that’s just fine tuning. Creating means first thinking of the wine you want to bottle. Then be honest enough to yourself and sometimes say: «With this grape it’s not possible to do it right» or «It’s a very good idea, the wine would for sure be different, but has the producer the capacity of marketing it?»
So as you see the creating step starts from a dream or a demand from the market. Then you look for grapes. After that you’ll check if the vinery needs different equipment to ferment and age the wine. During all this process you meet with graphic designers, sales rap’s, bottle manufacturer’s for, together deciding the image and the launch of the wine. If you want to do it right you have to decide when you present your wine to the press. Finally, sometimes many years after the «baby» is finally born!
Another aspect I love is preparing with detail (that’s my have German side working) of vinification the different harvests I have to control. This is very hard and is hours of “paperwork”. But then comes the best part: controlling the maturation of the grapes. I love to wake up early morning and see the sunrise in a vineyard. Walk through the different terraces and taste the berries, evaluate the canopy, with the help of some meteorological apps try to predict the weather and then decide harvest time. And, if I see a nice fig tree, I’ve of course also to check the maturity and eat a couple!
— How do you think, is there any difference between wine as business and wine as art, or is this difference not applicable to Portuguese wines?
— Very interesting question! For me winemaking is like painting. You decide on what you’ll be painting, which colors to use, how you’ll mix them and of course what you’ll be painting. You can have from simple one color canvas (for example Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period 1901–1904) to something much more colorful (for example Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror 1932). But like any good painter he not able to paint many canvas… In wine terms, produce many bottles of very good wines — this is my vision and how I work.
But there’s the other side of art aka winemaking. Look at pop art — you have a very famous artist Andy Warhol who with simple lines and images created a movement. Very easy to understand and still is easily recognized and enjoyed.
Coming back to wine. You have the more complex wines, that deserve maybe decanting, a big glass, time for enjoying and you have the easy drinking wines, ready to be enjoyed at any moment.
— If we could continue the comparison with painting, let’s say that you paint your wines rather than just make them. Then what kind of style do you prefer? Or do you just follow the nature?
— Another very interesting question! I try to paint coherent wines. If you could describe my philosophy in the art of winemaking it would be that «simple» word. No matter the number of colors, their intensity, the complexity of the process… at the end the painting has to be coherent.
Working with dry farmed vines as we do, you just follow the nature and I’m very happy that it continues to stay like that. Some years nature is very fast and you have to run like crazy to keep up with her, like 2017. Another years, like 2016, nature is slowly and I have more time to enjoy the figs…
What I have to do, is of course, depending on the type of wine, permit myself to follow more or less the nature. In other words: terroir driven wines like Crooked Vines, Secret Spot, Lacrau Old Vines is nature speaking. For Lacrau Colheita we have to be in some years more interventionist in the winemaking.
Even the ones that can control irrigation they are also following the nature, because they are always responding to her. And irrigation is only one aspect. You’ve the sunshine hours, the winds, the temperatures, etc… it’s a blessing that we will never control the nature!
Wine farms with which Rui Cunha cooperates as an oenologist and winemaker
Covela. «My first working experience. I started as assistant winemaker. Here I can write (which is quite trendy at the moment) «Since 1991», — said Rui Cunha. Focusing on organic vines & wines: Avesso, Arinto, Blends both oaked and unoaked and a dry 100% Touriga Nacional Rosé.
Casa da Lavandeira. Small project focusing on whites: Avesso.
Quinta de Paços. A typical Minho producer. From Alvarinhos, Loureiro, Arinto, etc… Many different styles!
Quinta da Massôrra. A family of winemakers that lives and works full time at the farm. Besides fruits they produce Arinto and Tinta Roriz.
Casa do Casal. Small producer. His highlight a 100% Espadal (province style colour, refreshing dry & crisp rose).
Quinta das Apegadas (Baixo Corgo subregion). A boutique winery, runned like a petit chateau bordelaise. Dry whites and reds.
Quinta dos Avidagos (Baixo Corgo subregion). More than 60 há of grapes. Large volume, consumer friendly wines.
Pala da Lebre (Cima Corgo subregion). Small family runned winery. Nice labels. Dry complex whites and reds.
Quinta da Boavista (Cima Corgo). One of the Douro’s flagship estates. Since 2013 it changed ownership from Sogrape to Lima & Smith (same owners of Covela and Tecedeiras). Since 2013 producing dry reds for the first time. Iconic wines.
Quinta das Tecedeiras (Cima Corgo). Small estate on the left bank of Douro river. One white, to reds and Ports (Tawny, LBV and Vintage).
Casal de Valle Pradinhos (Macedo de Cavaleiros, Trás-os-Montes subregion). Trás-os-Montes flagship winery. In the same family for over 100 years. The white is one of Portugal best known wine. The reds are of Bordeaux influence. One of the few wooden aged grappa’s produced in Portugal.
Faioura (Vidago). Also known for one of Portugal’s premium natural sparkling waters, it’s a also home of a joint venture of 3 producers. One white, one rose and 2 reds.
Casal Cordeiro (Valpaços). One of Trás-os-Montes well known sub regions. Very nice whites and reds. Full of power and structure.