The Douro is no longer just a place for great Ports, no longer just the home of Port dynasties. Today, the Douro—the rugged river valley in northeastern Portugal—is a breeding ground for new winemakers who have come up through wine schools rather than old schools. And what they are making in Portugal is red table wine that rivals those of Bordeaux and Napa Valley.
The names of these winemakers will be new to most American enthusiasts: Jorge Moreira, Jorge Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva, João Brito e Cunha and Rui Moreira. Their wines—Pintas, Poeira, Lavradores de Feitoria and Kolheita de Ideias, among others—are the Douro’s new generation of table wines. Many of the wines are produced in small quantities, no more than three or four thousand cases. But these are not cult wines. They properly express a sense of place, of the Douro as a great table wine region, as well as a great Port region.
These table wines are full-bodied; the best are structured and elegant, although many of them are so concentrated and fruit-forward they are reminiscent of New World wines. They are muscular, often packed with exotic flavors, from herbs and spices to dark black fruits. And with their dry, tannic structure and acidity, they could age for many years. The wines are new, in many respects, but their roots are firmly grounded in traditional Douro wineries.
Top Table Wines of the Douro
94 Niepoort 2001 Batuta (Douro); $71. A great wine, which has the richness and the intense concentration of the Douro and world-class style. This blend of regional grapes is full of black fruits, new wood flavors, and solid, dry tannins. But it also has tastes of prunes, brooding dark fruits and balancing acidity. This is undoubtedly one of the greatest wines from the Douro. Imported by Martine’s Wines. —R.V.
94 Quinta da Carvalhosa 2001 Campo Ardosa (Douro); $30. Matured in new oak, this shows how the Douro is capable of producing elegant wines. Flavors of dark fruit balance dry tannins and spice. This wine will age for 10 years or more. Imported by Classical Wines. —R.V.
93 José Maria da Fonseca 2000 Domini Plus (Douro); $25. This is one of two wines (and a Port) that are the products of a joint venture between Domingos Soares Franco of J.M. da Fonseca and Cristiano van Zeller, a leading Port producer. It is a powerful, black-fruited wine with new wood and tarry fruit flavors. Still young, its exudes potential with its layers of richness. The relatively high alcohol (14.5%) is held in check by the power of the fruit. Imported by Palm Bay Imports. —R.V.
92 Quinta do Crasto 2001 Touriga Nacional (Douro); $100. This pure varietal wne and smoky aromas. Smoky wood flavors and black currant fruit, balanced with ripeness, create a gallery of intense black fruit characters. This manages to balance power with elegance, a great achievement. Imported by Broadbent Selections, Inc. —R.V.
92 Ramos-Pinto 2000 Duas Quintas Reserva (Douro); $34. The senior partner of the popular Duas Quintas brand, this wine from the Ramos-Pinto stable has a dark, intense color. It is a big and black wine, with serious tannins and powerful fruit. Still young, this should develop into a solid, chunky wine. Imported by Maisons Marques & Domaines USA. —R.V.
91 Pintas 2001 Red Wine (Douro); $60. Offers sweet, ripe fruit, packed with flavors of blackberry juice, and balanced by new wood. This is a serious wine, showing pepper, herbs and firm, dry tannins. It has great aging potential. It is certainly a world-class wine, but it also keeps its roots firmly in the Douro, with its solid structure, opulent, ripe fruit and food-friendly character. Imported by Michael Skurnik Wines. —R.V.
91 Prats & Symington LDA 2001 Chryseia (Douro); $45. Boasts a huge nose of blackberries and vanilla, with hints of blueberries and tobacco. The flavors capture the essence of Port in their untamed, effusive berry flavors, but in a balanced, dry wine. Firm tannins suggest cellaring 3-5 years. Imported by Premium Port Wines Inc. —J.C.
91 Quinta de Roriz 2000 Reserva (Douro); $29. A powerful, oak-aged wine with fine, ripe red fruits and firm tannins. This Reserva wine has 12 months of French oak aging, which gives it complexity, but the richness of the fruit gives a great firm balance to the wood. It is still young; age for at least 5 years. Imported by Premium Port Wines Inc. —R.V.
91 Quinta do Vale Meão 2001 Red Wine (Douro); $49. The great estate of Vale de Meão, established in the 19th century by Dona Antonia Ferreira, is still in the family hands. It has produced this intense, fruit-powered wine that packs herbs, dark tannins and sweet wood flavors. It oozes concentration from low yields and has great potential for ageability. Imported by W.J. Deutsch & Sons. —R.V.
90 Lavradores de Feitoria 2001 Red Wine (Douro); $9. Lavradores is an innovative project that brings together 15 Douro growers (lavradores) and estate owners to make and market their own wine. This first vintage, an amazing bargain at the price, justifies the innovation. It has a fine, earthy character, with rich, dark tannic fruit and big blackberry fruit flavors. A powerful and impressive wine that tastes of schist rocks and mountain vineyards. Imported by European Cellars. Best Buy. —R.V.
90 Quinta de la Rosa 2001 Red Wine (Douro); $18. The attractive Quinta de la Rosa, at Pinhão, under the ownership of the Bergqvist family, is acquiring a good name for its table wines as well as its Ports. This vintage has delicious, ripe, sweet fruit on the nose and fine, forward fruit and sweetness. The ripeness and almost-jelly juiciness give a real sense of the wine being made from serious Port fruit. Imported by Lauber Imports. —R.V.
90 Quinta Vale Dona Maria 2001 Red Wine (Douro); $NA. A spicy, elegant wine that has all the hallmarks of great style as well as power. From the hot valley of the Torto, a tributary of the Douro, the wine still manages to retain dry tannins along with plums and sultana fruit flavors. It is designed for aging, but will be drinkable in 4-5 years. Imported by Europvin. —R.V.
A Track Record in Table Wines
It would be simplistic to say that the red wine renaissance in the Douro is a matter of new, young wine- makers forging a path separate from the traditional Port houses. Yes, there is the new generation of winemakers, buying small parcels of land to make their own table wines. But there are also several of the long-established single quintas, or estates, that have added top-quality table wines to their portfolios. Some of these are members of the famous Douro Boys group ; others, like Quinta de la Rosa, are not.
And then there are the big Port houses. Ramos-Pinto and Ferreira were the first to make table wines, but they have been followed by the Symington group, with Altano and Chryseia; by Royal Oporto and Churchill’s; and in the south of Portugal by J.M. da Fonseca, producer of Lancers, which has set up a joint venture called Domini. The project is a collaboration between Fonseca’s winemaker, Domingos Soares Franco, and van Zeller of Quinta Vale Dona Maria.
While big companies of the Douro are adding table wines to their large production of Port, the single quintas are now generally maintaining just a few Ports—primarily vintage and late bottled vintage—while concentrating more on table wines. Quinta do Crasto, for example, produces 200,000 bottles of table wine and only 30,000 bottles of Port.
Miguel Roquette, who manages sales and marketing for Crasto, is excited by the fact that the Douro is beginning to get a track record in table wines. "We have a long way to go," he adds. "Some of our customers still think Douro is a grape variety."
The Roquette family has recently purchased an additional 160 acres in the Douro Superior at the eastern edge of the region, and has also started a joint venture with Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux. The venture’s first wine, Sxisto (named after the schist soil of the region), from 2003, is to be released later this year.
It’s been clear since the first vintage of Barca Velha in 1952 (see sidebar) that the Douro is capable of producing world-class table wine. In fact, the vineyard source of Barca Velha, Quinta do Vale Meão, the creation of Doña Antónia Adelaide Ferreira in the 19th century, is now being revived. When the Ferrreira company was sold to Portuguese giant Sogrape, the family retained Meão, and now this venerable vineyard has finally put its own name to a wine. The first vintage of Quinta do Vale Meão was 1999, with Francisco Olazabal as winemaker (he also makes the wine at Quinta do Vallado). Olazabal uses traditional foot-stomping lagares (open, granite tanks) to ferment the wines in what is otherwise a modern winery. He is keeping old techniques because he believes these give better extraction without letting the tannins dominate.
Olazabal’s approach is interesting because it shows how some winemakers, even new winemakers, are fascinated by the old traditions of the Douro. For example, Nicolau d’Almeida of Ramos-Pinto has launched a wine that he calls Reserva Especial, made "from very ripe grapes trodden in lagares. I wanted to create the sort of wine that Port came out of in the 19th century," he says.
Rising stars of the Douro
This interest in old ideas harnessed to new wines is likely to be extended to the vineyards, involving both site and selection. The challenge of the Douro is to keep the Douro character. With boiling hot summers and droughts that make international news, "it’s easy to make high-alcohol, concentrated wines that are easy to sell and that win awards," says Jorge Moreira. "But then you lose the character. I wanted a wine with acidity, with flavors and that could age well. So I chose a north-facing vineyard where the maturation was slower," for his own wine, Poreira.
The 34-year-old Moreira is making waves both as winemaker at Quinta de la Rosa and as producer of Poeira. And yet he only went into winemaking by accident. "After my studies at Vila Real University, I didn’t go into wine, I sold wood-burning stoves. It was my father, a wine lover, who got me a harvest job at Real Companhia Velha. I stayed there seven years, working with consultant Jerrie Luper." At the time, Real Companhia Velha, or Royal Oporto as it is know in English, was restarting its table wine program almost from scratch, and it was a good time to learn.
Later, while working in Vila Nova de Gaia, Moreira bought a small vineyard, Quinta de Terra Feita de Cima, in the Pinhão Valley. "But I also needed a job, and Sophia Bergqvist of Quinta de la Rosa needed a winemaker. She wanted me to make the best table wine and Port possible at her quinta, and that’s what I wanted as well.
"I did my first vintage of Poeira five years ago," he continues. "I wanted wine with acidity, with flavors and that could age well. Table wine should be a question of acidity and balance. I saw that people had been choosing the same grapes as went into vintage Ports to make their table wines. I wanted to be different."
In the Douro, the vast majority of acreage is devoted to only five varieties of Douro grapes, based on a study in the 1970s by Nicolau d’Almeida (see sidebar). Now winemakers like Moreira are expressing regret that some of the many varieties pushed to one side in the rush to replant and reform the vineyards are being forgotten. Nicolau d’Almeida himself laments the fact that there has been no further research into grape varieties. "I chose the five grape varieties empirically, but now we need to look at the rest," he says. "Many of them can make good wines, and broaden the range of taste in Douro wines. We need research."
Another rising star of the Douro echoes this concern. Sandra Tavares da Silva, who works with Cristiano van Zeller and also makes her own wine, has 70-year-old vines in her own vineyard. "We have varieties in the vineyard which we cannot identify. The old timers who could tell us what they are, are retired or even dead. We are losing part of our heritage."
Born in the Azores islands in 1972, Sandra da Silva is, along with her husband, Jorge Borges, one of the new-generation producers of Douro table wines. Called Pintas, Tavares da Silva’s wine has become a Douro classic in four short years.
Tavares da Silva studied enology in Lisbon University and then took a master’s in the subject in Italy. Since graduating in 1999, she now has three jobs. She makes wine for Cristiano van Zeller at his Quinta Vale Dona Maria; works with Domingos Soares Franco of J M da Fonseca on the van Zeller/Fonseca joint venture called Domini; and produces wine in Estremadura in central Portugal at her parents’ Quinta de Chocapalha.
But when, in 2001, she married Jorge Borges, who at the time was working at Niepoort, they "decided we wanted to make something on our own," says Tavares da Silva, "where we could learn and build something for ourselves." To make Pintas, Borges and Tavares da Silva bought grapes for two years from a vineyard in the Pinhão Valley close to Quinta do Noval. Then in 2003 "we were able to buy that vineyard. That was the year we also made our first vintage Pintas Vintage Port.
"Stylistically, our biggest goal is to make balanced wine," she continues. "Of course it has to be elegant, with freshness balancing concentration and ripeness. Here in the Douro we have such a good potential, and we have a 70-year-old vineyard. But we do have to watch that [the grapes] don’t over extract or get over-ripe. We do want to enjoy drinking our wine."
To that end, beginning in 2004, they are also producing a white wine. "We wanted to call it Guru," she says. "We even registered the name, but there may be problems, so it could end up being called after our company name."
She and Jorge call their company Wine & Soul. "We wanted to have an easy name, which also told something about us," she says. "It’s the way we are, the way we work, we have so much passion in what we do."
Passion has always marked the winemakers of the Douro, a region that stands on the cusp between ancient and modern. It is the creative tension between these two aspects, between the history-laden vineyards and the new fresh air that is sweeping over them, that makes what has happening so exciting. There are no answers yet, no stylistic unity. "For every five producers in the Douro, you will find five different styles," says Dirk van der Niepoort, who runs the Niepoort famly company.
Yet there is a unifying factor here. That is the determination that the Douro is a world-class region and that it can make world-class table wines as well as great Ports. It’s a rare, and lucky, vineyard area that can do two things so dissimilar, and do them both very well.