The Godfather and the Douro Boys
The Roots of Red Wine Greatness in the Douro
Despite its very recent explosion in popularity, Douro table wine has had a long incubation. Any doubts that the Douro was capable of making world-class table wine were erased forever in 1952, which was the first vintage of Barca Velha. This legendary wine was made, in part, with grapes from the Quinta do Vale Meão in the arid eastern reaches of the Douro.
For years, Barca Velha, produced only in the best years, was unique. Made by Fernando Nicolau d’Almeida, winemaker and director of Ferreira, one of Portugal’s largest and oldest Port companies, it was expensive and as sought after as Spain’s Vega Sicilia.
If the Douro and its ongoing success has a godfather, it is João Nicolau d’Almeida, Fernando’s son. Managing director of Ramos-Pinto, he has been without doubt the biggest influence on modern viticulture and table wine production in the Douro.
“In 1981,” he says, “I presented a report on grape varieties in the Douro to the University in Vila Real,” Portugal’s top enology school. “With as many as 50 different varieties in the Douro, I couldn’t study them all, but I identified five varieties that in blends or individually could make both better Ports and also make table wines.” The five were Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cão and Tinta Barroca. These are the varieties that are being planted today.
But in the 1980s, there were still no commercial table wines. “We made some experimental table wines based on these five varieties, but we didn’t think to commercialize them,” continues Nicolau d’Almeida. After Roederer Champagne bought it in 1990, Ramos-Pinto launched the first important table wine since Barca Velha: Duas Quintas. Even then, right up to the late 1990s, there was nothing else. “For many years I was alone with Duas Quintas,” says Nicolau d’Almeida. “Nobody outside the Douro knew about our table wines, because there were so few. Today, I say to the new producers, ‘I’m very happy you have arrived. I was tired of being alone in the market.'”
There are two reasons that the explosion in table wines didn’t happen sooner. One reason is that, until the 1980s, wine producers had to store their wines in, and ship them from, Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite Oporto at the mouth of the Douro on the Atlantic coast. This made it almost impossible for individual quintas to operate without going through one of the big shippers.
The other reason was the lack of winemakers with table wine knowledge. Cristiano van Zeller points out that new blood was needed to push the Port dynasties into table wine. “We all knew how to make Port,” says van Zeller, who ran Quinta do Noval until his family sold it. Now they own Quinta Vale Dona Maria. “But it took the arrival of new winemakers in the region, fresh from college, and who knew more about red wines than they did about Port, to change things.”
Enter The Douro Boys—the owners of Niepoort, Quinta Vale Dona Maria, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Crasto and Quinta do Vale Meão. They came together three years ago because they had all started to make red table wines within the last decade. With their top-quality Douro table wines, the Douro Boys have forged a path for newer, smaller producers specializing in table wines to follow.
“There has been more written about the Douro in two years than in the past ten,” says Dirk van der Niepoort, who runs the Niepoort family company, which has been making Port since 1835. “The Douro Boys group has been a driving force in terms of quality, in getting the Douro popular and getting people to taste the wines.” Niepoort’s table wines include Charme, which was first released in 2000, and Batuta, the 2001 vintage of which I rated 94 points on the Wine Enthusiast 100-point scale.
This learning process has been good for Port as well. “We have learned that different vineyard sites are better for table wines and for Port,” says van der Niepoort. “Port grapes like eccentric, over-the-top conditions. Table wine grapes prefer slow, regular maturation.”
“The Douro is a great wine region,” says Bartholemew Broadbent, president of Broadbent Selections in San Francisco. “At the moment, these Douro table wines are even more exciting than Port.”