Portugal's New Age of Discovery

Portugal's New Age of Discovery

The Portuguese have always been explorers. They sailed the oceans before any other Europeans, moving around the world long before Columbus reached the Americas. Now the Douro winemakers are making discoveries vineyard-by-vineyard and vintage-by vintage about their own region.

In the late 1990s, sales of Port were so flat that winemakers turned to crafting table wines from the historic mountainous schist vineyards. Thus began a process of rediscovery, for both winemakers and consumers: Douro table wines are an exciting, exhilarating work in progress. That may seem strange for a wine region that has been producing Port for hundreds of years. But right now, nothing is fixed, nothing decided, nothing determined. And so much is delicious, it’s amazing.

Opening up their world of fortified wines to include the crafting of table wines was a natural progression but it wasn’t easy. “We started making big, fruity, high-alcohol, New World wines. Some early wines were too tannic,” agreed Sophia Bergqvist of Quinta de la Rosa, a second-generation Port producer. “There has been a change in style and an evolution in drinkability. Now, the Douro is a serious wine region.” With the changes, exciting wines come in all styles and many price points. There are the powerful, single-estate, single-vineyard wines, world-class in their complexity, selling for $50 and up. There are elegant, wood-aged wines, packed with fruit and tannins that can age well, often great values at around $30. And, increasingly, there are fresh and fruity wines, easy to drink, soft and approachable, whose prices can be as value driven as $10. Add to these an increasing range of quality whites and rosés and the Douro’s range must surely be seen as impressive. This year, I have tasted exciting wines from many properties new to the export market, and two other things struck me as new. One is the increase in inexpensive brands from the larger shippers. Sogevinus, with its table wines from Kopke, Burmester as well as under its own name, is one. Real Companhia Velha’s table wine offering has deepened in quality thanks to the several years Napa winemaker Jerry Luper was in charge. These firms have joined the established table wine ranges from Sogrape’s Ferreira brand (inexpensive Esteva up to Barca Velha) and from Ramos-Pinto.

The other is the increasing importance of the Douro Superior. This plateau region at the eastern end of the Douro, close to Spain, is flatter than the central vineyard heartland of Cima Corgo with its gorge-like valleys, and is therefore easier to farm because it allows for mechanization, whereas so much of core Douro vineyard work is done by hand.

Quibbles and queries

Today, the Douro is a fascinating place to be. Winemakers whose fortified wines are already packed with wild, delicious flavors are learning how to cajole the hard schist soil into giving great fruit for table wines. Wherever these winemakers gather, strong opinions are voiced on the best vineyards and most suitable grapes for table wines as well as the best methods to vinify the fruit.

Should table wine come from the same vineyards as Port? It depends who you talk to. “Producers will say that a good vineyard for Port is the same as a good vineyard for table wine,” says Luís Seabra, winemaker at esteemed Niepoort, one of the first to put its table wine into international production. “But we believe in cooler vineyards for table wine.”

He is on the side of those who say you need higher altitude vineyards, maybe north-facing vineyards.

Sandra Tavares da Silva of Wine & Soul, based in Vale de Mendiz, speaks for another contingent: “We really believe that if fruit is good for a vintage Port, then it is excellent for top red wines. You need to work them differently.” Less heated is the debate about varieties, simply because most of the new generation of Douro table wines are blended. It has always been the Port way and, with few exceptions, these new winemakers are staying true to that approach. The older vineyards are still a wild mix of the 50 or so varieties that have been planted in the past, and producers are taking advantage of these by producing field blends. When harvested separately and blended in the winery, the Douro’s wealth of grape varieties lends precision to the final wine.

Which grapes will predominate in the blends? Early on, Tinta Roriz was seen as the grape for table wines. After all, it produced the great Tempranillo-based wines of Ribera del Duero upriver on the Spanish plateau. But in the Douro, Tinta Roriz is too vigorous and needs serious green harvesting. So now, floral, velvet-textured Touriga Franca is “the all-round grape for Douro table wines,” says Rupert Symington of Symington Family Estates, producers of Dow’s, Graham’s and Warre’s Ports. Touriga Nacional, the star grape of Portugal, “needs to be blended,” he believes.

At Sogrape’s Quinta do Seixo, winemaker Luís Sottomayor is testing Touriga Fermea, Dontelinho and Touriga Francisca. “We chose them because we believe they will add even more complexity to blends,” he says. Another contingent of producers swear by the juicy, dark-colored Sousão or spicy Tinta Amarela. But regardless of the lead variety, you’re not likely to find many single-varietal wines, at least not in the near future. There are some (generally with Touriga Nacional) but they are never as successful, or as complete, as blends. The debates do not end in the winery. The Douro’s famed open granite lagars, still used to make top Ports, are favored by some for table wines. Others prefer stainless steel or large wood fermentation tanks. Some producers will use both, depending on the style of wine they want to make.

Lessons flow both ways. “Table wine making is much more demanding than Port making,” says Bergqvist. “We have had to learn how to harvest for table wines—pruning, controlling yields, canopy management. It is more expensive, but what we are learning with table wine can now feed back to improve the quality of Port.”

What’s old is new again

Despite the recent boom and the steep learning curve, table wine is not exactly new to the Douro. In fact, the first Ports were dry table wines, exported to England during its war with France when the country could no longer rely on its supply of Bordeaux. “The sweeter wine style started with the 1820 vintage,” says João Nicolau de Almeida, head of Port and table wine producer Ramos-Pinto. “The year was so good, the yeasts were killed by the sugar, leaving a natural sweet wine that was a big success in England.”

From then on, despite some resistance by Baron Forrester, a major Port figure in the mid-19th century, Port was sweet. The big shipping firms wanted sweet and, of course, they won. Dry red wines disappeared from the commercial export market for over a century. It was de Almeida’s father who began a revival of red wines. In 1952, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, working at Port shipper Ferreira, made the first vintage of Barca Velha, using grapes from the vineyard of Quinta do Vale Meão, high up the Douro in the region now known as Douro Superior. His choice of vineyard was inspired. With Barca Velha, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida showed what could be done—and created a legend: the wine is made only in the very best vintages. (The latest release was the 2000 vintage). Still under the control of the Olazabal family, descendants of the quinta’s 19th century creator Doña Antonia Ferreira, Vale Meão continues to produce deeply impressive table wines as well as Ports.

But why did it take so long? As João Nicolau de Almeida explains: “Nobody else made red wine because of the control problems in the
heat of the Douro.” Until, that is, refrigeration arrived to control fermentation, enabling de Almeida and Ramos-Pinto to launch the first vintage of Duas Quintas (two estates) in 1990. “I really wanted to follow my father in making red wine,” says João. The following year, he introduced a Duas Quintas Reserva.

A tasting of Duas Quintas Reserva from 1991, organized for me by de Almeida at Quinta do Bom Retiro, revealed wines that can age impressively well, some (the 1992) still very fresh, others (1994, 1997) impressive, powerful; the 2001 magnificent.

Close to the land

Slowly, other Port producers followed in making table wines worthy of their stellar names. Dirk Niepoort produced his first vintage of Redoma in 1991. But, as Seabra explains, “until the end of the 1990s, our wines were traditional and rustic in style. Only from 2000 did we see changes all over the place, with more and more elegance.”

“1999 and 2000 were the watershed years, when the existing producers changed their business model,” says Symington. Symington, the largest Port producer, is now well into a table wine program with Altano and Vale do Bomfim as well as the joint venture Chryseia (with French consultant Bruno Prats formerly of Cos d’Estournel) launched in 2000. What started out as a way of increasing sales in the face of a static Port market has taken on a life of its own. Like Symington, Quinta do Crasto’s Roquette family joined with another Bordelais, Jean-Michel Cazes, to create Xisto. Domini and Domini Plus are produced in the Douro by Domingos Soares Franco of J.M. da Fonseca in the Setúbal peninsula near Lisbon. Dão producer Dão Sul now has a Douro wine, Quinta das Tecedeiras.

The movement has inspired many Douro producers to expand to table wines from their small Port base and the sale of grapes to larger shippers, including Quinta do Passadouro, Quinta do Portal and Quinta do Vallado. Others started with table wines and only afterwards moved to Port—we can cite Apegadas Quinta Velha and Conceito. Some, like Cristiano van Zeller at Quinta Vale Dona Maria, are resurrecting vineyards that had been neglected. Their wines range from some of the greatest in the Douro to quality yet inexpensive labels. For many, table wine is now the larger part of the business.

And so the transformation of the Douro continues. Though the languishing Port business and experimentation in the vineyard were the initial drivers, another facet of the movement is what is inspiring the region and will further the momentum: increasingly, wine is being made by people who actually live there.

Gone are the days when shippers came by boat, train or four hours by car from Oporto just for the harvest. With faster communications and better roads, the younger generation is living in the Douro. Jorge Serrôdio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva at Passadouro and Wine & Soul; Jorge Moreira and Olga Martins at de la Rosa, Lavradores de Feitoria and Poeira; Mateus Nicolau de Almeida, the son of João, at Muxagat, may travel as much as anybody in wine. But for him and others, home is the wildly beautiful, spectacular scenery of the Douro. Like all good winemakers, they are close to the land.

Published on November 18, 2010