Portugal’s Douro region is a tough place to live but it produces some of the world’s best wines. For publication in the week starting 5 March 2018.
The Douro region in north-east Portugal is vast – about 300,000 hectares that run east to the border with Spain. The region gets its name from the mighty Douro River, though it is known as the Duero River in Spain where it originates.
The Douro has about 45,000 hectares of vines. A feature of the terrain is the steep slopes that stretch from mountains to the edge of the river and its tributaries. Vines are planted on terraces, many of them centuries old. The steep slopes and climate make the Douro a tough place to work. Some vineyards report difficulties in finding enough labour.
The Douro DoC is the world’s oldest designated wine region, established in 1756. That was almost a century before the French set up their designated-region system in the 1850s to ensure quality. The nearby Vinho Verde region to the north-west of the Douro sits on granite soils and gets about 1,000mm of rain a year. The upper Douro near the Spanish border gets a mere 200mm.
Vines are low, typically about 40 from the ground, because the rocky schist soils provide few nutrients and vines are only irrigated for their first three years. The low height is to make the journey of the nourishment from the roots to the grapes as short as possible.
Yields tend to be low compared with other regions – an average of four or five tonnes a hectare. In Champagne, for example, vines can produce 15 tonnes a hectare.
Life in the Douro is harsh, with blazingly hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Locals describe each year as “nine months of winter and three months of hell”. The weather is also variable. In late February I experienced sunshine of almost 20C, then snow and minus 2C the next day, followed by days of rain.
Schist rocks in the vineyards retain summer heat and keep vines hot at night, which means that some grapes do not develop enough acidity (a key component for wines to be cellared, along with tannin from oak and skins). Perhaps 90 per cent of vineyards acidify their grape juice.
A recent trend has been to plant white grapes higher than reds, the theory being that lower temperatures will increase acidity. Temperatures decrease five degrees of Celsius as we move from river vineyards to those planted at about 500 metres. DOC regulations forbid any increase in hectares of vines. This means that vineyard owners who want to plant new grapes must first remove an equivalent number of hectares of vines.
Traditionally the Douro produced great port. That wine was shipped along the Douro to Porto, the major city on the west coast, in sailing boats known as “rabelo”. There it was stored in “lodges” close to the ocean. Douro locals started making table wine with the grapes used for port in the 1980s, and in recent years they have been making superb white wines. Jancis Robinson, the queen of wine writers, said this week that the Douro produces some of the best wines in the world.
Port is made in concrete or granite tanks known as lagares. The traditional way to extract flavour was through foot-treading grapes, though now-a-days this is mostly done by machines that emulate human feet. Some dry table wines are made in lagares.
The Douro has many vines more than a century old. These vineyards were usually planted with a range of red and white grapes, in what is known as a “field blend”. Some wines made in the traditional style can contain up to 20 varieties.
The upper Douro became a UNESCO World Heritage area in December 2001, and documents associated with that appointment say that wine has been made there for 2,000 years.
Visits to several estates, known as quintas, revealed many impressive wines. The best included Quinta do Infantado, Quinta do Zimbro, Quinta do Romeu, Quinta dos Lagares and Esmero Wines.
Infantado refers to younger members of a royal family who will not inherit the crown. The wines, made from organic grapes, have a regal quality. Joao Roseida’s family have owned the estate since 1816. He organised the Simplesmente Vinho festival described in last week’s column.
The quinta’s delicious 2012 reserva red comes from vines at least 90 years old and is a “field blend” of at least 12 varieties. Another favourite was the 2010 Branco Ambar, a white wine made like a port in lagares and the juice macerated on the skins for three weeks. Ambar is like an “orange” wine and the aromas are distinct and pungent. Also impressive was the 2006 Old Vines Red which received some new oak and is just beginning to reveal its qualities with sensational aromas of mushrooms and balsamic.
Manuel Pinto Hespanhol purchased Quinta do Zimbro in 2003. The quinta only makes about 35,000 bottles a year from its 23 hectares of vines. All of his daughters are named a variation of Maria, their mother’s name, and they are celebrated on the label of the 2014 Five Marias Red. All of the reds have a characteristic chalky flavour and mouthfeel because of the large amount of schist on the property.
Quinta do Romeu is one of the few estates in the upper Douro that follows bio-dynamic principles though they prefer the term “organic”. Joao Meneres creates marvellous wines. His delicious 2014 Westerlies is deep black in colour, tastes of sour cherries and is made only from the Sousao grape. The 1980 tawny port has marvellous flavours of dried rose petals and pairs beautifully with cheese and dried fruit conserves.
Quinta dos Lagares produces elegant wines and has resurrected a little-known variety called Mourisco to make a rose. The 2017 edition is tangy and sophisticated. Owner Pedro Lencart offered a taste of a glorious 1934 port his grandfather Narciso Pedro da Fonseca e Silva made. It was a toffee and coffee treat and still had some acidity.
Rui Xavier Soares has a day job as viticulture manager for the gigantic Real Companhia Velha company whose 55 brands produce about 8 million bottles a year. His passion is four wines he makes in his village of Valdigem under the Esmero Wines label, in what is probably the smallest winery in the Douro. A tasting of his lovely 2002 Esmero red, the first wine he made, showed the potential of the 2016 barrel samples tasted in his winery.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of ViniPortugal who supplied travel and accommodation.