I am a devoted fan of Port, especially the vintage type. There is something undeniably passion-provoking about the combination of power, sweetness and elegance of a 20-plus year-old bottling. Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to participate in a tasting of VPs from throughout the 20th century, including the fabulous trio of 1928, ‘34 and ‘35.
So, when my travels brought me, this past summer, to the breathtaking Douro valley, with its picturesque quintas (vineyards/farms) climbing the incredibly steep slopes, I was expecting to be blown away by my favourite fortified. Yes, there were truly some impressive Ports to be had, but to my surprise, the wines that intrigued me the most were the Douro DOC dry reds.
Both Port and Douro wines are made from the same grapes. Over 100 are authorized. But after harvest, vinification diverges. Fermentation for Port wine generally transpires in a lagare — a low, granite (occasionally stainless steel) open-top trough. Grapes are either crushed underfoot or via mechanical paddles, which emulate the gentle treading of the tootsies. Port wines have only two to three days to acquire both colour and flavour via a fast and furious fermentation, before being hit with the aguardente (neutral brandy). The brandy eradicates the yeast, leaving natural sweetness and raising the alcohol level to 20 per cent. Aging then transpires in older barrels. Douro reds wines follow standard red winemaking protocols — 8-to 12-day fermentations to dryness in stainless steel tank or lagare, regular macerations, and then aging in new barrels.
Even though the Douro has a long history of dry wine production, until recently the industry has concentrated primarily on Port. Thus, there was little ambition to produce world-class table wines. The breakthrough moment came in 1952, when after a visit to Bordeaux, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, oenologist at Ferreira, decided to produce a premium dry red from indigenous grapes. His genius was Barca Velha. Initially, acceptance for this new style grew slowly. But by the early 1970s, a few more bottlings started to join the marketplace, and by the 1990s, the evolution was in full force.
Another contributing factor to the rise of dry wines is the Quinta/Beneficio classification system. Every vineyard in the valley is rated from A to F. For Port, “A” is the best, benefitting from prime exposure, lower altitudes, better grapes (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cao, and Tinta Barroca), age of vines, vigor, schist soils, and so on. “F” is the lowest grade, with the fewest benefits.
Each year, the Instituto do Vinho Douro e Porto (IVDP), the governing body over all things vinous, authorizes production levels of Port wine for each quinta. The amount authorized fluctuates, depending on the quality of the vintage and state of the market. This ensures there is never an excess of Port flooding the shelves, and that what is available is of quality.
“A” and “B” vineyards receive the largest piece of the pie, while the rest receive virtually none. What is not authorized as Port automatically becomes Douro wine. Financially, it makes sense to concentrate on premium table wines, and what is good for the proverbial goose is not necessarily ideal for the gander. Higher altitudes, cooler zones, less exposed areas, granite soils and a myriad of grapes make for excellent table wines.
Depending on the year, over 50 per cent of the crop can be relegated to table wines. So does the industry’s future lie in Douro or Port wines? According to Manuel Lobo of Quinta do Crasto, “We believe that both industries have a future. Port, because the region is the only one in the world that can produce and declare the authentic version (the region was first demarcated in 1756); table wines, because the Douro wine region has a unique identity, what with the different amount of grape varieties and terroirs, which are a result of mountain viticulture.”
Rupert Symington of Symington Family Estates, producer of Dow, Graham, and Warre adds, “It is very important to recognize that with its steep slopes and very low yields, the Douro can never be competitive with other regions of Portugal in terms of the cost of grapes. The only future for DOC from the region is in terms of delivering quality at a higher price, as it does with Port. What is required is a greater perception of the region as source of quality DOC wines that can be sold at a price equivalent to the least expensive Port (i.e., $15 or above). As with high unit production costs there is absolutely no future for the Douro as a cheap volume producer of wines.”
93 Brites Aguiar Bafarela 17 Gran Reserva 2009 ($15)
If you love high octane, hearty, thick Zin or CNP, this is your drop of juice. At 17% alcohol, think of this as a dry Port. Super concentrated and rich, it just oozes copious amounts of blueberries, blackberries, mocha fudge and spice. The length just goes on and on. A self-gratifying wine if there was ever one!
92 Quinta do Vale Meão 2008 ($20)
This dark cherry/violet-tinged red is a blend of 55% Touriga Nacional, 30% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Roriz and 5% Barroca. Full bodied, it offers impressive concentration as well as a profile of cinnamon, cocoa, raspberries, cassis and damson plum. First-rate length and firm tannins ensure that this wine will age well over the next two decades.
91 Quinta do Crasto Reserva Old Vines 2008 ($36.50)
Sourced from 70-year-old vines, this blend comprises some 25 different grapes. The nose yields abundant crème de cassis, violets, barbecue spice and mocha fudge. The palate is ripe and emulates the nose, with an additional an orange peel note. There is excellent length and firm tannins, which bodes well for aging. Hold it for a few years and drink it until 2020.
91 Casa Ferreirinha Quinta da Leda 2007 ($44)
Still extremely youthful-looking, the black/purple colour is the precursor to a bouquet of violets, spice, dark cherries, mint and dark fruits. Full body, superb length and solid tannins make for a wine that is drinkable now until 2025.
91 Brites Aguiar 2007 ($40)
A huge perfume of blueberries, blackberries, balsamic, mocha and violets flatters. The palate is extremely rich and powerful, with 15.5% alcohol and good tannin structure underneath the baby fat. The finish is long. Drink until 2020.
90 Prats & Symington Chryseia 2008 ($70.50)
This wine is a partnership between Bruno Prats, formerly of Cos d’Estournel, and Rupert Symington of the Symington Family. It is a hearty offering that serves up barbecue spice, smoke, plums, raspberries and liquorice. Full bodied, there is excellent length, with some hard tannins appearing at the end. Pair it with braised lamb shanks in a rosemary tomato sauce.
89 Niepoort Batuta 2008 ($105)
Batuta is made from an ensemble of Douro grapes, the primary one being Tinta Amarela. It is wall-to-wall damson plums, spice, dark cherries, raspberries and vanilla. It finishes fresh, with very good length and an herbaceous note.
88 Quinta de Ventozelo Reserva ($22.95)
Huge vanilla, plum, smoke, cocoa and dark cherries soar out of the glass. Supple tannins and very good length make for a wine that is accessible right now, but can still age another 5 years.
88 Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2008 ($38.75)
This opaque wine showcases a huge menthol and dark cherry nose, with hints of raspberries and liquorice. The palate unfurls the cassis, menthol, herbs and liquorice. It is a gutsy offering that requires some rich meat to tame the tannins, so my suggestion would be to enjoy it with suckling pig.
88 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia 2009 ($27.95)
Post Scriptum is the second wine from Chryseia. That being said, quality-wise, there is nothing second rate about it. Medium bodied, the inky black/ purple colour leads into a dark fruit-tinged offering that is accented by herbs and cedar, orange peel, spice and violets. The aftertaste is persistent.
87 Real Companhia Velha Evel Tinto 2007 ($14.95)
This modern-style Douro shows a good deal of upfront black and red fruits, all built on a medium bodied frame. Tannins and acid are all in check. Medium in length, it is well suited for grilled chorizo or Italian fennel sausage.
86 Flor de Crasto 2009 ($9.95)
This blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca is an opaque red that is chock full of spice, black raspberries, dark cherries and floral aromas and flavours. It is light-to-medium bodied with a smooth texture; or, in other words, a perfect barbecue wine.
86 Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas 2008 ($17.95)
The intense nose of cassis bush and tobacco opens the door to a midweight wine with a peppery palate. Fresh acid and supple tannins round out the experience.
85 Symington Altano 2009 ($12.99)
Here is a smooth and easy-drinking red, gifted with violets, crème de cassis and herbs. A medium length wine, it is ready to drink.