Far away, in the remote eastern mountains and valleys of the Douro wine region, where Portugal meets Spain, exciting things are happening. New vineyards, new owners and new red wines are coming from an area that was relatively inaccessible only 30 years ago.\r\n\r\n\u201cI remember it as the end of the world,\u201d says Jo\u00e3o Nicolau d\u2019Almeida, who has been visiting the Douro Superior region for 50 years. \u201cIt was biblical in its primitive wildness and its distance.\u201d He retired as CEO of producer Ramos-Pinto and is now owner with his sons, Jo\u00e3o and Mateus, of Quinta do Monte Xisto, a spectacular vineyard in Douro Superior.\r\n\r\nFrancisco Olazabal, winemaker at his family\u2019s Quinta do Vale Me\u00e3o, remembers coming with the family from Porto as a child.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt took five hours on terrible roads with curves [now it takes just over two hours on new roads]. But when we arrived, we were happy in this wild and inhospitable land. It was perfect for adventures.\u201d\r\n\r\nThere have been a handful of major vineyards in this region since the 19th century. Quinta de Vargellas, Quinta do Ves\u00favio and Quinta do Vale Me\u00e3o were all founded and developed by the iconic Dona Ant\u00f3nia Ferreira as she expanded her Ferreira empire eastward. All three vineyards still produce exceptional Ports and, at Ves\u00favio and Vale Me\u00e3o, equally important red table wines.\r\n\r\n\r\nA Bit of History\r\nIn 1756, the Douro became among the first defined wine regions in the world. Portugal\u2019s prime minister, the Marqu\u00eas de Pombal, issued the decree to stop British wine shippers from importing wines from outside the Douro and labeling them Douro. Douro Superior is so remote that this spectacular wine region wasn\u2019t demarcated as part of the Douro area until 1907. But its history goes back much further.\r\n\r\nIn the heart of Douro Superior region are the astonishing UNESCO-registered wall paintings at Vila Nova de Foz C\u00f4a. Only officially recognized in the 1990s, but dating as far back as 20,000 BCE, they are among the oldest wall art in the world. Their presence underlines and emphasizes the region\u2019s palpable and still living antiquity.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nAs Douro wines have developed in quantity and quality since the 1990s, so has Douro Superior. Lu\u00eds Sottomayor, head winemaker at Sogrape-owned Casa Ferreirinha, with vineyards in Douro Superior, explains why.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe drier, warmer climate of Douro Superior gives the wines an extra volume and aromatic component that sets them apart from other subregions,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\nGrowers from the Pinhao-centered Cima Corgo, the traditional Douro heartland, have swarmed in, helped by the new roads and easier access. They\u2019ve seized the opportunity for expansion in a place with just the right conditions, the granite and schist soils, for the growing demand for Douro wines.\r\n\r\nThey\u2019re planting the same grapes here, principal among them Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa, Sous\u00e3o, Tinta Barroca and Tinta C\u00e3o. With the new plantings, Touriga Nacional dominates, while the older vineyards have a bewildering mix of more than 30 varieties, muddled up in random order.\r\n\r\nNames such as Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vallado and Quinta de la Rosa are producing wine here. Outside investors at Colinas do Douro have also bought land. The Symington family, owners of the largest vineyard acreage in the Douro, have vineyards by the Douro River and more than 200 acres in the Vilari\u00e7a valley along the Sabor River. Other new projects such as Conceito by the Marques family have come from local growers who started to bottle their wine.\r\n\r\nSophia Bergqvist, owner of Quinta de la Rosa, purchased the Quinta das Bandeiras property in 2005. She says the wines being made there under the label Passagem \u201chave a seductiveness and exuberance that always surprises me. They are voluptuous and attractive\u2026with intense aromas but at the same time equilibrium and freshness.\u201d\r\n\r\nShe describes the Bandeiras vineyard as a \u201cfabulous location, but remote. It reminds me of the Douro of my childhood.\u201d\r\n\r\nBento Amaral, director of the Technical and Approval service at the Port and Douro wine Institute (IVDP) puts a more technical nuance on the rich wines of the Douro Superior: \u201cUsually the grapes are riper, with more phenolic compounds, and less acidity and the wines are a little bit more tannic, powerful, jammy and ageworthy.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nDouro Drama\r\nDespite the development, Douro Superior is still a place where time moves slowly. The land carries its sounds and echoes vultures, falcons and songbirds overhead. The stars shine brightly. There are no sizeable towns. Vila Nova de Foz C\u00f4a, the largest, has well under 10,000 people.\r\n\r\nComing upriver, as most travelers do, Douro Superior starts its dramatic landscape at the Valeira dam. In a remote countryside, set between rock faces, it is a wild and inhospitable place. A small chapel on a mountaintop is a reminder of the dangers once faced by voyagers who traveled by boat.\r\n\r\nThese mountains block half the rain that comes from the Atlantic Ocean, below the already derisory amount in the Cima Corgo. The result is that Douro Superior is arid. The majority of vineyards are planted close to the rivers, either the wide Douro or its tributaries, the C\u00f4a and the Sabor. There, the vines can take advantage of the moisture and greater humidity in the air.\r\n\r\nAs new producers have come in, existing ones have upped their game. This is certainly true of the Olazabal family at Quinta do Vale Me\u00e3o. They\u2019re descendants of Dona Ant\u00f3nia Ferreira, who bought and planted the estate in 1877.\r\n\r\nThis is a magnificent quinta. Standing by the chapel on the terraces of Monte Me\u00e3o and looking across the property, I can see the Douro, glittering in the sun, performs a massive horseshoe bend as it meets granite and forms a wide undulating plain.\r\n\r\nOlazabal says this lower land is \u201cexcellent for Douro wines, not so good for Port,\u201d which is produced from vines on the hilly schist soils. The legendary Barca Velha Douro wine, from vines planted on the granite, was first produced here in 1952 and, for the first time, showed the potential for dry wines in the Douro.\r\n\r\nThe same progression happened at Quinta do Ves\u00favio, another of Dona Ant\u00f3nia Ferreira\u2019s creations just downriver from Me\u00e3o. The Symington family bought the property in 1989, initially to produce Port and later to produce a Douro wine.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe set about planting considerable areas of the property partly with a view to developing the quinta\u2019s potential for Douro wines,\u201d says Charles Symington, head of winemaking for the family company. Plantings at an altitude of between 980 and 1,400 feet have given \u201csome of our most prized grapes for our flagship Quinta do Ves\u00favio Douro wine.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nStaying Wild\r\nDespite being the largest of the three Douro regions (from west to east: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior), the Superior is also the most sparsely planted. Only 23% of the land has vines. In theory, more land to the east as far as the Spanish frontier could be planted, with more wine produced.\r\n\r\nBut in practice, the growers already there caution it would be difficult.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe best lands are along the rivers, and they are almost all planted,\u201d says Olazabal.\r\n\r\nSymington agrees. \u201cMost of the best sites to the east have already been identified, and to go north or south, the geology is not favorable,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nIt is also even hotter and drier further east, where summer temperatures regularly exceed 100\u02daF. Amaral says that\u2019s the Douro region most exposed to climate change.\r\n\r\nSottomayor says the Douro Superior creates \u201cwines with soul.\u201d\r\n\r\nWhen Jo\u00e3o Nicolau d\u2019Almeida looked at the almost virgin soil of Quinta do Monte Xisto, he felt that it had \u201call the keys to play great music.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe region has proved its potential for Douro wines: It is the source of some of the greatest wines the valley can produce. It is a new frontier, yet will always be the most remote and wildly romantic region of the Douro.\r\nPrime Portuguese Brands\r\nBarca Velha: Only produced in exceptional years, the wine originally came from Quinta do Vale Me\u00e3o, but grapes are now sourced from Quinta da Leda and other Sogrape Douro Superior vineyards. The latest release, 2011, was the 20th vintage since 1952.\r\n\r\nQuinta da Leda: This vineyard, the flagship estate of Sogrape-owned Casa Ferreirinha, is located in the far east of Douro Superior. It yields an estate wine and contributes to Barca Velha and Reserva Especialin the best years. The resulting wine style is structured, ageworthy and impressively elegant.\r\n\r\nQuinta do Ves\u00favio: One of the estates created by Dona Ant\u00f3nia Ferreira, the Ves\u00favio Douro wine reflects structure and minerality as well as aging potential. As the vines for this wine have aged, each vintage has deepened and become more concentrated.\r\n\r\nQuinta do Monte Xisto: This astonishing estate with steep slopes that descend a conical hill, terrifying to drive down, is the brainchild of Jo\u00e3o Nicolau d\u2019Almeida. Having created with his uncle the Port vineyard of Quinta da Ervamoira for Ramos-Pinto, he now concentrates on an impressive, structured Douro wine at his family's own property.\r\n\r\nQuinta do Vale Me\u00e3o: The last and probably the greatest creation of Dona Ant\u00f3nia Ferreira, this estate, still in the hands of her descendants, produces memorable Douro wines and Ports. As the estate\u2019s renovations have taken hold, the wines have become more and more impressive.\r\n\r\nConceito: Produced using grapes from Rita Marques\u2019s family vineyard, this brand\u2019s name translates to concept. \u00a0Look particularly for Conceito \u00danico from old vines and for the single-vineyard, earthy 100% Bastardo grape bottling.\r\n\r\nColinas do Douro Quinta da Extrema: This vineyard planted at high altitude in the far east of Douro Superior is producing rich, full and powerful wines taking advantage of the transition between the high plateau and the granite and schist soils.\r\n\r\nThis article originally appeared in the December 31, 2021 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!