Portugal’s remote Douro Superior, close to the border with Spain, is proving an exciting new region for winemakers. For publication in the week of Monday 6 June 2016.
Passagem means “Journey” in Portuguese, and the journey from the city of Porto up to the Douro Superior, a mere 20 kilometres from the Spanish border, used to take a whole day, recalls Xito Olazábal. These trips were to visit his grandmother on the family’s remote 135-year-old wine estate, where the Douro’s first table wine, the iconic Barca Velha, was famously produced in 1952.
It was like visiting another world, Xito says, and parts of the River Douro were quite dangerous to navigate. People drowned. He’s now based there, as the winemaker of one of Portugal’s most renowned table wines, Quinta do Vale Meao.
Today one can drive to the Douro Superior in under three hours, negotiating hair-pin bends at up to 800 metres above sea level. Passegem today is the name on the labels of the wines Jorge Moreira makes at Quinta das Bandeiras, a vineyard just across from Quinta do Vale Meao.
It is a vineyard Jorge has created with the Bergqvist family, who own Quinta de la Rosa in the “famous,” central part of the Douro (Cima Corgo), where Jorge is also the winemaker. Tim Bergqvist, approaching 80, said he wanted a new challenge. And so in 2005 the two families began a new journey, with five hectares, releasing their first wine in 2008. They now work with 100 hectares. “You can buy 100 hectares here, which would be impossible in the Cima Corgo,” marvels Jorge. Even more amazing, they were purchased from a single owner.
It is probably more of a challenge than even Tim would have envisaged. In spite of the new roads, this part of the Douro remains remote, mostly uninhabited and largely unfarmed. Up here, it is hot and dry and inhospitable. There’s barely a house to be seen, just the occasional chapel on the top of the slope (readers are probably familiar with Paul Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle in France – perhaps the most famous chapel hitherto in the world’s vineyards).
But what a lot of activity is going on; what a lot of vineyard plantings. Douro Superior has quickly become probably Portugal’s most dynamic wine producing region. Ramos Pinto, Crasto and Sogrape are some of the other important producers developing vineyards up here.
Unusually for the Douro, Jorge explains that the young vineyards produce better wine than the older vineyards, because vines die early because of the intense heat. Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca are the top-performing reds, because they can better handle the heat and drought. “Touriga Nacional fruit, even without leaves, stays fresh,” Jorge explains. “The skins are thick, the berries are small, but the vine can still photosynthesise even without leaves. It is hard to understand.”
What is remarkable about the wines from this part of the Douro is their freshness. “We think the big challenge is to get the Douro DNA (port-ish styles) and then give the wines freshness. But here, in the hottest and driest part of the Douro, we can have impressive finesse – wines which are fresh and floral and long.” These qualities shine through on the Passagem Reserva Tinto 2013.
Getting the white right has also been a challenge. The Passagem Reserva Branco 2015 was voted White Wine of the Show at a competition held last month as part of the fifth edition of the Food & Wine Festival Douro Superior. The result is an excellent one for Jorge, because this is not necessarily a wine that would always do well in a blind tasting. They’re making this white from a field blend – even Jorge doesn’t know know the exact cepage, but the major grapes are Rabigato and Malvasia.
For a while he couldn’t produce anything interesting, even when he tried to focus on structure above flavours and aromatics. Skin contact delivered no results of note. When he began to ferment the grapes on skins for three days, the phenolics were incredible. He moved the juice to oak and practised battonage for oxidisation. The wine went from being brown and phenolic to something beautiful, elegant and restrained, and full of character. From the bottle, it is a long and interesting wine, and it takes some concentration to understand its complexity. It is defined neither by aromas nor acidity. It is dense and forceful at the end as if there were some tannic component.
“Pay attention and there is always a way in winemaking,” Jorge has concluded through this experience. “That is how it is with wine all over the world now. You need to look at things in a different way.”
Disclosure: Annabel Jackson was a guest of this year’s Food & Wine Festival Douro Superior.