Portugal’s premium estates are meeting consumer demand yet maintaining traditional values and quality. For publication in week of 31 October 2016.
Quinta de la Rosa and Bulas Wines represent good examples of how wineries in the Douro region of north-west Portugal have adapted to changing global wine tastes. Both estates started as port houses but now also make high-quality table wine, a reflection of how they are catering for changing consumer attitudes.
More quality table wine is consumed globally compared with port, which continues to have an image problem — associated with cigars at the end of the meal or Christmas. Indeed, port sales boom near the end of the year.
Over the past two to three decades Portugal’s winemakers have moved from a focus on port to producing elegant dry table wines that improve in the cellar but can also be drunk young. This is not to diminish port from the Douro. These are beautiful wines that can last for decades, some for more than a century. The mighty Douro River dominates the region and flows from Spain, where it is known as the Duero, through to the country’s second city of Porto on the west coast, which gives us the name for the wine.
Dietrich Matthias Feuerheerd, born in Hamburg, set up a port business at Quinta de la Rosa in 1815. The estate was given as a christening present to Claire Feuerheerd, grandmother of the current owner, Sophia Berqqvist, in 1906.
The Bergqvist family was one of the pioneers of table wine production in the Douro region from the early 1990s. Quinta de la Rosa’s reds have won many prizes and are sold in prestigious restaurants and wine stores around the world. Hospitality has always been core to the spirit of La Rosa and the quinta has offered wine tourism and accommodation since the late 1980s.
Wine-making at both estates continues the traditional approach of using concrete tanks known as lagares. Grapes are trodden by foot for about three hours in the evenings after harvest. Typically scores of people take turns treading grapes in a five metre by five metre lagare, accompanied by live or recorded music. Traditionally for table wines, different grape varieties are trodden separately, while port is trodden with all varieties in the lagare at the same time.
The Douro port and DOC wine region is believed to be one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world, dating from 1756. That is almost a century before the French set up their system in the 1850s to ensure quality. Douro DOC extends along the Douro River and its tributaries up to Barca d’Alva and around the districts of Vila Real, Bragança, Guarda and Viseu towards Spain in the east. The Marão, Alvão and Montemuro mountains protect the region from the influence of cold Atlantic weather from the west.
The region is very hot during the summer as grapes ripen, with wide temperature variations between night and day which concentrates flavours. Locals often say “Each year we have nine months of winter and three months of hell.”
Jorge Moreira is the winemaker at La Rosa, and Nuno Barros the viticulturalist. Moreira was Portugal’s winemaker of the year in 2011. He also produces his own wine, Poeira, which has further cemented his reputation for excellence. Peoria means “dust” in Portuguese and one only needs to be in the area for a short time to appreciate the taste that the dry land leaves in one’s mouth and nose.
The two 2015 La Rosa whites, the entry level and the reserva, are blends dominated by the Viosinho grape. Both have elegant structure and citrus zing. The 2014 red and the 2013 reserva red are blends of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain) and Touriga Franca, with intense colour and restrained use of oak producing smooth tannins. These are wines that can be consumed now but will be even better after a decade in the cellar.
The reserva red has a deserved reputation around the world and demands high prices. A relatively new red known as Passagem (2013 is the current release) sells for less than half the price of the reserva and is an absolute bargain, mainly because it is not yet well known. Passagem means “crossing” in English.
Quinta de la Rosa wines feature the national eagle, part of the family crest, on labels. The quinta produces about 70,000 bottles of port each year, and about 200,000 bottles of table wine.
Bulas averages about 80,000 bottles of port and 53,000 bottles of table wine each year. Winemaker Joana Duarte has been with Bulas since 2010. “We are a port house that also makes table wines,” she said. Bulas has been making port since 1758 but only started making table wine in 1996. Work on the winery, made from the local schist stone, started in 1840 and took a year to complete. The year work started is marked above the entrance at one end of the 50-metre building, and the year of completion at the other. The same schist rock is also used as fence posts in the vineyards.
The two estates that make up Bulas, Quinta FozCeira and Quinta da Costa de Baixo, are located where the Ceira River meets the right bank of the Douro. The estate has 40 hectares of vines in the Douro and another 20 hectares elsewhere in the country. A feature of the Douro is the fact the vineyards are not irrigated, apart from baby vines until they start to produce grapes after three years. This means yields per hectare are low, often less than half or even a third of yields elsewhere in Portugal.
The grape varieties in the Bulas flagship red, the magnificent 2010 grand reserva, are not known. This is because 80 per cent of the grapes come from an 8 hectare block planted about 90 years ago. Back then varieties were planted at random and not labelled, so it is a true “field blend”. The wine offers profound perfume-like aromas of violets and ripe blackberries, encased in a structure of subtle and soft tannins.
The Bulas 20-year-old tawny port smells of toffee and walnuts and tastes like a creme brûlée. This port comes from the same block of 90-year-old vines, a pertinent comment on the ability of great terroir in the Douro to produce great ports and table wines from the same location.
DOURO WINE REGION, PORTUGAL