Portugal’s upper Douro Valley is one of the oldest and most-traditional wine-growing areas in the world—indeed, the ancient vineyard terracing system used here for 300 years to make classic Ports has resulted in the region being classified a United Nations World Heritage Site.
Yet, faced with a declining regional pool of inexpensive labor and changing world markets, Port manufacturers—called “houses”—have been forced over the past two decades to rethink how they make and sell their classic fortified wine. This in turn has lead to changes in vineyard plantings, the mix of class grapes used, fewer and more centralized wineries, and, to a large extent, the replacement of traditional foot treading of gapes in large concrete vats called lagares with fermentors fitted with mechanical pistons. New types of Ports, such as LBV (late-bottled vintage) have been introduced.
The latest chapter in this book of changes takes place this summer when Fonseca introduces in the U.S. market the world’s first all-organic Port.
It is being made by David Guimaraens, who is the sixth generation of his family to head winemaking at Fonseca, and who also oversees all winemaking at the Fladgate Partnership, which, in addition to Fonseca, also owns Taylor Fladgate, Croft and Delaforce.
“In 1992, we converted one vineyard at our Panascal estate to organic,” says Guimaraens, who at that was just getting ready to take over duties from his late father, Bruce. “It was one of the most important decisions we made.”
Port is created by first extracting as much color, fruit and soft tannins before fermentation, and then adding a brandy or neutral spirit while the wine is only half-fermented. This infusion of alcohol kills the yeast and stops fermentation, leaving a wine that is about 20% alcohol (most table wine is 12-15%), naturally sweet and very fruity. The category of Port it becomes depends mostly on its aging regimen in wood or in the bottle.
Until 1991, Guimaraens says the Port industry supplied all the brandy used in manufacture. Then it began allowing the
individual houses to source their own spirits. This opened the way for him to find a distiller to make an organic brandy, which he did in Spain, to match the fruit grown at Fonseca’s organic vineyard.
The Fonseca organic Port will be a reserve called Terra Bella, and it will sell for around $23 a bottle. The initial shipment will be about 400 cases and will arrive in stores sometime in June or July.
“The organic spirit is very fruity, so I wouldn’t want to use it in vintage Port,” Guimareans says, “but it makes a very good reserve.”
Growing grapes organically is somewhat easier in the Douro, he says, than it elsewhere. “Learning to live with weeds was important,” he says, as herbicides can’t be used in organic growing.
“We won’t be able to be organic everywhere we grow or buy grapes,” Guimareans concludes, “but we will be able to do sustainable agriculture everywhere.”