It’s midday and a glorious 30˚C in early October. I am standing by an infinity pool perched over steep vineyards that plunge into the mighty Douro River below. The temptation to take a dip far outweighs any desire for a heady Port — despite being in the heart of the production zone. Don’t get me wrong, I love nursing a glass fireside or after a meal. But, at this moment, a thirst-quenching dry white would be much more appropriate. Fortunately, on cue, a deliciously chilled bottle arrives — and it’s local.
I am in the Douro Valley at the behest of the “Douro Boys.” This endearing moniker refers to the gents at the helm of Niepoort, Quinta Vale Dona Maria, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Crasto and Quinta do Vale Meão. This quintet has been working together for the last 15 years to broadcast the region’s dry table wines. Before Portugal joined the European Union, this style was practically non-existent and sweet fortified wine ruled the Douro Valley almost exclusively until the mid-90s. While the Douro Boys aren’t the only ones to have broken the mould, but their collective effort helped pave the way for others and has brought enormous recognition to the Douro Valley specifically and to Portuguese table wines in general.
Despite the departure in style, there is still a connection with the Port tradition. Predominantly red, the Douro’s wines are hewn from the same schist and granite slopes that boast a dizzying plethora of native grapes. Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (aka, Tempranillo), Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca are just some of the varieties that might show up in the blend. “Until the mid-’70s, vineyards were planted at high density with diverse varieties — more than 30 — mixed in the same plot,” describes Francisco Ferreira, winemaker and co-owner of Quinta do Vallado. With upwards of 7,000 vines per hectare, there is no room for a tractor to navigate these old vineyards so all the work must be done painstakingly by hand. And at harvest, the different varieties are picked and vinified together as a field blend — red and white grapes, with underripe and overripe berries ideally balancing each other out.
Vineyards established in the mid-’70s and beyond are less densely planted, which allows for mechanization — an important consideration in a region where labour shortages are a concerning reality. At the same time, growers started planting grape varieties in separate plots, which means different varieties can each be picked at optimal ripeness and blended after vinification in measured proportions.
Both newer and older vineyards are sources for the Douro’s dry table wines (as they are for Port). Despite the challenges of the older plantings, there is a certain cachet associated with old vines. “They are always very low yielding, giving concentration and structure,” asserts Ferreira, explaining that the deep root systems result in more consist quality than younger vines. “Even in lesser vintages, we can have fantastic wines from very old parcels.”
Francisco Javier de Olazabal, owner of Quinta do Vale Meão, places less importance on vine age. The estate is located in Douro Superior, the eastern-most subregion of the Douro. Vineyards have been established here more recently than in the Douro’s heartland of Cima Corgo and the property’s 100 hectares are planted entirely with separate parcels for each different grape variety. “It’s not as simple as saying old vines equal great wine,” he declares, pointing out that there are poor soils in the area. “Furthermore, having 30 different grape varieties in a wine does not mean quality,” he continues. “It depends on the 30; it depends on the place; it depends on a lot of different things.”
Nevertheless, wineries, such as Quinta do Crasto, who are fortunate to possess prime older vineyards go to great extremes to preserve them. Quinta do Crasto’s iconic Vinha Maria Teresa, which is more than 100 years old, is a mere 4.7 hectares. Each of the 29,822 vines has its own GPS tracking tag, which the winery uses to determine the vineyard’s genetic makeup. So far, they have identified 49 different varieties growing in this single plot. “When a vine dies, we replant the same genotype; otherwise, we would lose the genetic mapping of vineyard,” says winemaker Manuel Lobo. Furthermore, Quinta do Crasto continues to plant field blends in some of its newer vineyards. “That is part of the Douro, so it is what we decided to focus on.”
Preserving the genetic richness of the Douro’s viticultural landscape has equal merits to planting out varieties in separate plots. The latter has contributed to a better understanding of the Douro’s many grapes and has helped producers fine-tune their blends. It has also led to the production of single-varietal wines — definitely a departure from the region’s traditions. “We have fantastic wines from single varieties but they are more unidimensional in terms of flavours and aromas,” suggests Ferreira, presenting a range from Quinta do Vallado.
Olazabal is more bullish. “Some of the greatest wines of the world come from a single grape variety. Why can’t we do that?,” he questions. While not all of the Douro’s varieties are capable of standing on their own, the fresh and violety Touriga Nacional has already made a name for itself with the best wines demonstrating beautiful balance and elegance. I was also charmed by the deeply coloured, slightly rustic Sousão. With mouth-watering acidity, it is positively hunger inducing and a perfect foil for Portugal’s hearty, meat-driven fare. Tinta Roriz was less convincing, often demonstrating austere fruit and hard tannins, which some producers attribute to the Douro’s schistous soil. At Quinta do Vale Meão, Olazabal crafted the Douro’s first-ever 100 percent Baga. More readily associated with the region of Bairrada, Baga shows up in old Douro vineyards and Olazabal is trying to tame its massive tannins. Experience may coax the best from these and other grapes.
The most significant evolution of the Douro’s wines becomes apparent through comparisons between back vintages and new releases. The latter are being crafted less like Port. As Port is fortified during fermentation, it requires assertive and rapid extraction of colour and tannin from the grape skins beforehand. However, applying this technique to table reds can result in a disproportionately stocky frame so gentle, less extractive techniques have been adopted. For some wines, producers also include a portion of whole berries and even bunches. “Instead of hard tannins from grapes, the stems give fresher tannins,” states Ferreira. Getting the extraction right is particularly difficult with field blends due to different levels of ripeness. To manage this challenge, Niepoort’s exceptional Batuta bottling goes through an extended maceration. “We leave the wine on the skins for four to five months to help soften the tannins,” explains Dirk Niepoort.
Some of the greatest wines of the world come from a single grape variety. Why can’t we do that?Francisco Javier de Olazabal
Oak is another area where producers are finding their footing. While wood sometimes still dominates, this is slowly changing. “We try to match the oak to the grape and the parcel,” says Lobo. “Touriga Nacional is sensitive to oak so you need to be careful with the toast level.” Over time, Quinta do Vale Meão has reduced the percentage of new oak in their top wines while at Quinta Vale Dona Maria, Cristiano van Zeller has recently introduced some larger format barrels for less wood influence.
And what about the white wine that appeared poolside? That was no mirage. Besides 60-plus red grapes, the Douro counts more than 40 different whites. Long relegated to white Port production, grapes like Arinto, Gouveio, Rabigato, Verdelho and Viosinho are now showing their potential in dry whites. Sometimes oaked and sometimes not, these are mostly blends. “In 10 years, the whites will be even better as we are still learning about the individual varieties,” says Ferreira.
What is most surprising in the whites is their vibrant acidity and reasonable alcohol levels for such a hot climate. Altitude certainly contributes to their success. “Whites start being interesting at 400 metres,” explains Luís Pedro Cândido da Silva, winemaker at Niepoort. Quinta do Crasto is pushing even higher with a new 10ha vineyard reaching up to 630 metres. With a view to the mountains, it is windier, fresher and away from heat and concentration of lower sites. “A few years ago, no one was betting on the Douro whites, including me,” admits Lobo. “It is the new challenge for the Douro — high-altitude whites.”
Fully mature men rather than youngsters, the Douro Boys now have experience on their side. However, they haven’t lost their innovative spirit and their wines provide a snapshot of an ever-evolving region where there is much to be discovered.
Quinta do Crasto White 2018, Douro DOC
Rabigato gives assertive acidity to the rounder, weightier Gouveio with some Viosinho lending vibrant citrus. While aged mostly in stainless steel, 15% remains in used oak barrels with some gentle lees stirring for a textured creaminess.
Quinta do Vale Meão Meandro 2016, Douro DOC
Vale Meão’s “second wine” is a lovely, accessibly priced offering aged in used oak for a pure, exuberant fruit- and floral-scented expression. Brilliantly proportioned with elegant tannins and a long, succulent finish.
Quinta do Vale Meão Monte Meão Vinha dos Novos 2016, Douro DOC
This 100% Touriga Nacional used to be blended into Vale Meão’s Meandro cuvée but Olazabal felt it was too imposing. Beautifully fragrant nose demonstrating intense violets. Packed with fruit yet remains buoyant and fresh. Very well-integrated oak and polished tannins frame nicely.
Quinta do Crasto Reserva Old Vines 2015, Douro DOC
Jokingly referred to as Crasto’s “trash bin,” this wine assembles fruit from 42 small parcels of precious old vines. Opens slowly to reveal liquorice, baked earth, smoky tea and dark currants. Concentrated fruit backed by vibrant acidity and seamless, mouth-caressing tannins.
Quinta do Vallado Sousão 2015, Douro DOC
Vallado has backed off on the extraction of Sousão since its first release a decade ago. Charmingly rustic but plenty of juicy black plum to flesh out vigorous tannins. Punctuated with notes of vanilla and dried herbs. Fresh, mouth-scrubbing and tangy.
Quinta do Vallado Vinha da Coroa 2015, Douro DOC
From a northeast exposed site with 100-year-old vines, this field blend of more than 30 grapes is fermented with 50% whole bunches. Firm, dry and powerful with pretty rose and violet lifting forest berries and earthy nuances.
Quinta Dona Vale Maria Vinha da Francisca 2016, Douro DOC
A generous 50% Sousão is rounded out by equal portions of Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Rufete and Tinta Francisca. Fairly oak-driven but the fruit remains bright and fresh. Dense plum and black cherry are dusted with powdered cocoa and mint.
Niepoort Coche 2017, Douro Branco DOC
Niepoort’s top white could easily be mistaken for white Burgundy. A field blend from 80-year-old vines grow at 600 metres. Captivating flinty, smoky and nutty aromas lead to pear and wet stone with racy acidity giving piercing precision.
Niepoort Batuta 2017, Douro DOC
Batuta brings together two century-old vineyards — one high up and north facing, the other lower with a southern exposure. Gently extracted, subtly oaked and gracefully restrained, this wine is stunning. Crunchy wild berries meet exotic flowers, graphite and fragrant herbs. Tannins are silky yet mouth-coating. Give it some time.
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