We continue with the writings of guest Quentin Sadler who talks about a recent visit to Portugal’s Douro Vally. For publication in week starting 17 September 2018.
Almost all famous wine regions were established long ago so now they are often steeped in tradition.
What constitutes a great wine region can vary from opinion to opinion, but I am pretty sure there is a broad agreement about the very best wine regions. They must make wines that talk of that place – terroir wines.
These regions must produce complex and layered wines that can be aged. They must also make wines that command a following and a premium price – after all that is one of the key criteria for the Cru Classé of Bordeaux and the Grands Crus of Burgundy.
Taking all these points into account, there is one world-class wine region in Europe that at first glance would seem to be as old as any of them, but is actually a pretty recent phenomenon.
That region is Portugal’s Douro Valley. The Douro River rises in Spain where it is known as the Duero. It serves as the border between the two Iberian neighbours for a while, before heading West and cutting Portugal in two. Historically the region developed a particular style of wine – Port, which is sweet and fortified – that sets it aside from other great wine regions.
The Douro remained purely a region for fortified wines until 1952 when Port House Ferreira produced the first vintage of their legendary Barca Velha. It wasn’t made every year, but acquired almost mythical status which caused other producers to make table wines too. But it took more than 20 years for such wines to become anything other than a rarity.
At some point within the last dozen or so years the Douro has overtaken all its Portuguese rivals and unambiguously claimed its place amongst the great wine regions of the world. Obviously this was no overnight success, but it is a remarkable achievement.
I have been aware of the high quality of the wines coming out of the Douro for years, but a recent trip to the region really brought it home to me.
All the wines I tasted were very good. Some were bargains, many offered great value, while others were simply great. In all of them there was elegance and a sense of place. That mineral, slate taste was always there giving a true flavour of the Douro. Vines draw water up through the schist (decayed slate) soils. Whether that directly effects the wine or not, they do have this slatey, liquorice flavour profile that makes them very distinctive.
The region focuses mainly on red wines, although there are some good whites too. The reds are normally blends of indigenous grape varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca.
Of the many highlights, these producers stood out:
Alves de Sousa were among Douro’s table wine pioneers. Their top red is the Abandonado crafted from an 80-year-old vineyard that was abandoned for many years – hence the name – before being nurtured back to life.
Quinta da Noval is justifiably famous for both ports and wines. Their main estate wine, Quinta do Noval, is rich, concentrated and pretty full-bodied, but still has plenty of freshness and elegance. (Quinta means farm or estate.)
Ramos Pinto is a family owned Port house that has also been at the forefront of the Douro’s table wine revolution, which is hardly surprising given that the owner’s father created Barca Velha. Their table wines are called Duas Quintas because they are a blend of fruit from two different estates. The Duas Quintas Reserva is aged for 18 months in barrel and is incredibly concentrated, but vibrant and modern in a really delicious and stylish way.
Symington Family Estates is one of the firms that dominates the Port business – amongst other brands they own Cockburn, Warre’s, Dow’s and Graham’s. Their Altano Quinta do Ataide is made from organically-grown grapes and aged in French oak for 10 months and is a great value bottle of wine.
The Symingtons also produce a pair of deeply impressive wines at their Quinta do Vesúvio estate. The Quinta do Vesúvio itself is a magnificent wine with great fruit intensity, supple tannins and an incredible spectrum of flavours.
The second wine of Quinta do Vesúvio, the Pombal do Vesúvio is very good too, just that bit lighter.
The Symingtons also produce wines in partnership with Bruno Prats at Prats & Symington. The principal wine is called Chryseia, which means gold in Greek. Douro also means gold. The wine is intense, concentrated, beautifully balanced and fine with plush fruit and lots of that slate-like minerality.
They also produce two second wines: The Post Scriptum has bags of fruit and an elegant juiciness, while the Prazo de Roriz is more earthy, mineral and savoury with a bitterness reminiscent of unsweetened chocolate.
Casa Ferreirinha, which grew out of the Ferreira Port house, are still going strong. When they don’t make Barca Velha, they produce the almost equally illustrious Casa Ferreirinha Reserva Especial. Their Quinta de Leda is a source of fruit for both those wines, but is also sold as a single vineyard wine and is one of the finest Douro reds. Keep an eye out for their lower priced Papa Figos too, because it is a superb value wine.
It seems to me that any tasting of the Douro will reveal wines worthy of rubbing shoulders with the best. These wild, barren, sun-soaked hillsides can produce extraordinary wines with great depth and real complexity. What’s more the region has its own grape varieties – used to make Port in the past, but now clearly capable of producing world class dry wines.
I came away convinced that we have lived through the birth of a truly great wine region. They are not yet widely popular or sought after, but I am sure that any enthusiast of great wine would enjoy these and many other wines from the Douro Valley.
Quentin Sadler is a wine communicator who has spent more than 30 years in the UK wine trade and has done it all from retail, buying and selling through to marketing. Nowadays he trains members of the trade as well as interested consumers in both WSET qualifications and bespoke courses. He is a popular speaker for wine clubs as well as giving presentations to the trade and hosting wine events and entertainments. Quentin also writes about wine and is a cartographer, creating maps used to illustrate wine books and educational presentations, as well as these articles. His web site can be found here.