The Douro, dynamic, diverse, red, white & pink!

Ask anyone why the Douro Valley is famous and they’ll say Port – most likely vintage port, which accounts for a measly 1-2% of all Port wine.  At London Wine Fair I was delighted to be asked to talk about the Douro by the Instituto do Vinho do Porto.  It’s one of my favourite wine regions and much more cutting edge than you might think (pictured, Oscar Quevedo, demon-blogger and one of the region’s young guns, about whom more later).  As Fladgate’s Chief Winemaker David Guimeraens puts it, in its 250 year history, the region has probably seen more innovation in the last 25 years.  And he was just talking about port, not table wines!

I’ll be writing about Guimeraens’ take that “the Douro Valley is the New World of the Old World”in a forthcoming regional report.  Meantime, here’s what I had to say about the Douro’s dynamism and diversity, followed by an exploration of the different types of wine which celebrate its “nose to tail” possibilities, together with tasting notes of those wines shown.

First, what do I mean by nose to tail?  Well, in the food world, it’s become de rigeur to eat “nose to tail,” making a virtue out of using every part of the animal.  In my tasting, I wanted to shine a spotlight on the Douro Valley’s nose to tail possibilities, because its multi-faceted slopes shape an increasingly glorious array of fortified wines and table wines across a range of price points and styles, traditional and brand spanking new!

Wines shown

  • PV Egle Branco 2009   
  • Zimbro Tinto 2006   
  • Quinta do Crasto Reserva 2007   
  • Croft Pink Port   
  • Ad Favaios Moscatel Douro 1989   
  • Andresen 20 year old White Port   
  • Grahams 20 year old Tawny Port   
  • Duorum Vintage Port 2007

Nose to tail under the microscope

And the ingredients of this nose to tail region?  A range of microclimates – unsurprising when you consider that we’re talking about the world’s largest mountain vineyard (pictured) which runs to 250, 000 hectares (c.15.4% under vine).  Majesterial in scale and grandeur, the Douro Valley tracks a 100km stretch of the Douro river and is split into 3 sub-regions:

  1. The western-most Baixo Corgo (Lower Corgo), whose rainfall averages 900mm and temperature averages 18 degrees centigrade (compared with Porto’s averages of 1,200mm and 14.4c)
  2. In the middle, the Cima Corgo (Upper Corgo), whose rainfall averages 650mm and temperature averages 19 degrees centigrade
  3. Eastern-most, nearing the Spanish border, the Douro Superior (Upper Douro), whose rainfall averages 500mm and temperature averages 21 degrees centigrade.

And it’s not just one valley – it also encompasses the valleys through which its tributaries run, notably the Tua, Corgo, Torto and Pinhão.

As a rule of thumb, from west to east, it’s progressively warmer and drier (see the average rainfall and temperature figures above), but the reality is much more complex once you take into account factors like:

  • elevation range – from 150m-900m, very significant when, for every 100m of altitude, the temperature falls by up to one degree centigrade; and
  • multi-faceted slopes – south facing slopes are influenced by the dry southerly winds while north facing slopes are more exposed to the colder and damper northerly winds and, more shaded, receive less sun.

Not just a port folio…

Forgive the pun, but here’s a closer look at each of the categories I presented:


Douro white wines:
 there’s still a good deal of ignorance about Douro whites.  Last December, I met Joao Brito e Cunha who confided that he’d overcome his initial scepticism about the category when he made his first white at Lavradores de Feitoria (see my reporthere). Only then had he appreciated that, from the right site, “the freshness was amazing, even at 13.5% abv.” There’s an exciting diversity of style too.  Take Niepoort Redoma, which becomes positively Burgundian, especially with age (see my notes of the 96 vintage tasted last year here), VZ Branco/Quinta S Joao Azeo which, smoky and flinty, are more Bordelais orWine & Soul Guru, Rhone-like in its girth.  And there are some cheaper but classy unoaked fruit-driven styles emerging too like this one:

  • PV Egle Branco 2009 (50% Rabigato, 40% Viosinho and 10% Codega)  – PV, an innovative collaboration, was established in 2004 by José Maria Calem (of the Calem Port Family), Jorge Serôdio Borges (of Pintas/Passadouro) and Cristiano Van Zeller (of Quinta Vale Dona Maria). The grapes for this unoaked white wine come from elevated schistous vineyards at 700m in Pombal, at the Douro’s northerly edge. It shows very good intensity and length, with a persistent tangy citrus and lemon zest fruit and underlying minerality.  Good value at around a tenner.

 

A red wine for under a tenner: the Douro’s reputation for table wines has been forged by iconic wines like Barca VelhaNiepoort RedomaBatuta and CharmeQuinta do Crasto Vinha da Ponte and the like.  I’m really pleased to see some sophisticated cheaper Douro reds emerging that go easier on the oak and reflect a sense of terroir, wines like Passadouro Passa (and Passa Pequena to be written up shortly), Conceito ContrasteQuinta de S. Jose Red Label and this wine:

  • Zimbro Tinto 2006 (30% Touriga Franca, 30% Tinta Roriz, 20% Tinta Barroca, 20% Touriga Nacional). Owned by Mr Manuel Pinto Hespanhol Jnr since 2003, the quinta tells a familiar story – until then, the grapes had been sold for port wine.  Perhaps because of its situation in the (warmer/drier) Douro Superior in this difficult (rainy) year, the Zimbro shows admirably plush yet juicy layers of ripe, primarily red, but also black fruits with a lick of toast and hint of eucalypt. Fine tannins add to its poise.  It’s another great buy at around £8.99 and was aged for 9 months in large (500l) barrels of French and American oak (50% new).

An old vine red – though block (single varietal) plantings typify the modern Douro, there are plenty of mixed (varietal) old vineyards whose co-fermented grapes produce tremendously characterful, concentrated yet balanced reds, like this one sourced from a mixed vineyard of 25 to 30 different varieties aged 70 years old plus:

  • Quinta do Crasto Reserva 2007 – I tasted a terrific vertical of this, one of Crasto’s more modestly priced wines, in September last year (see my report here) and selected the 2004 vintage among my 50 Great Portuguese Wines (reported here).  The 2007 is also a cracker, not to mention a great reflection of this elegant vintage with its very floral nose and palate, elegant black cherry fruit, fine tannins and spice. Long with a mineral finish, this is a youthful wine.  In both mentioned reports you will find a host of other stunning old vine Douro reds, which come highly recommended.

Rosé Port: Croft may be one of the oldest port houses (founded in 1588) but it’s hard to think of a less conservative product than Croft Pink which the Fladgate Partnership, owners of Croft since 2001, unleashed onto the market in 2008. At that time, Portuguese legislation outlawed rosé port, which Fladgate worked around by describing Croft Pink as a “light ruby port” – a recognised category. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Croft Pink – whose label injuncts you to serve it chilled or one ice – has inspired a host of newbie rosé ports since the category was officially recognised in 2009.
Though I confess I was sceptical about it, on my first taste, Croft Pink impressed with its freshness and the “Douro’ness” of its fruit. No doubt because Croft is the product of experimentation driven by Fladgate’s talented Chief Winemaker David Guimeraens.  His approach is to extract a light amount of colour from the skins before pressing and cold fermenting the juice for several days – twice as long as for standard port.  Having since tasted other rosés at the fair, my feeling is that others have reacted to the launch of this new category without perhaps the same level of interrogation and perhaps need to tweak the formula a bit?  I certainly tasted some rather short, baked/unfresh, even green-tasting rosés.  Aside from the Croft, I’d recommend Quevedo rosé and the Dalva is quite good too.

If you’re wondering when you might drink rosé port you’re not alone.  In my case it’s probably a reflection on my age!  After all, the category is primarily aimed at new, younger consumers and in my experience, the secret is to enjoy it long, as an icy drink (Slush Puppy style) or as a cocktail ingredient, and very good it is too in this context.  For specific ideas, check out the Croft Pink website here for cocktail suggestions, meantime, here’s my tasting note on the Croft:

  • Croft Pink Port – a Douro’ness about it in its floral, perfume, red and black berry fruits and hint of chocolate, though the emphasis is on bright red cherry/cranberry fruit.  Recommended serving is chilled, on ice or as a long drink with tonic water.  It costs around £10.

Fortified Moscatel: you may be familiar with Moscatel de Setubal but Douro Moscatel, made from Moscatel Galego (Muscat à Petit Grains, not Setubal’s Moscatel d’Alexandria), flies under the radar. Traditionally, production was dominated by two co-operatives – Moscatel accounts for 50% of production at Adega Co-operativa Favaios  – but in 1995, smaller producers like Quinta do Portal (Reserva in new half bottle pictured) entered the Moscatel market and Niepoort make a very good one too.  The Moscatel vineyards are focused around Favaios, a village at the north end of the Pinhão Valley which is located at around 550 to 630 metres above sea level – ideal for preserving Moscatel’s delicate floral qualities and freshness.   Vintage wines are made only in top years and, as this wine showed, are ageworthy:

  • Adega cooperativa Favaios Moscatel Douro 1989 – shows delicate floral notes, with hints of barley sugar, orange peel, almonds and dried honey on the nose and palate – not as sweet in style as a Moscatel de Setubal, which comes from much lower sites.

Aged-dated white port: white port and age dated (10, 20, 30, 40 year old) tawny ports have been around for some time, but age dated white ports are a new category, only permitted as of 2005.  In case you didn’t know, age dated tawny ports are made from red grapes and age dated white ports, surprise, surprise from white grapes, but otherwise the process is the same.  The wines are a blend of ports aged for many years (at least 10, 20 etc) in barrels and vats – see my report here of a aged 20 year old tawny masterclass at Fladgate for an insight into the art of the blender.

Andresen, a family owned port house, are renowned for their wood aged ports and were the first to register an age dated white port, a 10 year old; their 20 year old wine was released last year. Quinta de Santa EufémiaChurchill and Niepoort also make very good age dated white ports and, incidentally, I tasted my first white colheita (single vintage) ports at the fair  – Dalva’s 1952 and 1963 Golden Whites, wines which also challenge the perception that white port is a light weight style.  Here are my notes on the Andresen:

  • Andresen 20 year old White Port – lighter bodied and smoother than a tawny, it’s like the Quinta de Santa Eufémia aged dated white ports I tasted a couple of years ago (see here). It’s also very different from a tawny in flavour: more almond than walnut and crème caramel than crème brulee, an impression much reinforced by the next wine.

Age dated tawny port: this is a long established category, but you may be surprised to learn that its the most popular after dinner wine in Portugal where it’s also very popular served chilled as an aperitif.  Over here, the Symington family’s heavy investment in Warres Otimaage dated tawnies has done much to challenge the perception of Port as a dark and full-bodied after dinner drink.  Though also owned by the Symington family, Grahams is a different kettle of fish.  As you may have seen from my report of the Fladgate blending masterclass (here), making age dated tawny ports is all about house style and, at Graham, the house style is richer and more powerful than Warres, so this made for a great contrast with the Andresen:

  • Grahams 20 year old Tawny Port – this is a satisfying tawny with a great depth of moreish dried fruits, a nutty texture and crème brulee/caramelised sweetness.  Well balanced, it almost gives the impression of finishing dry.

Vintage Port: you may be wondering what’s new about vintage port, a category which has been in existence for some 250 years.  At the fair I wanted to make the point that the usual suspects are getting a run for their money from some excellent, smaller, “johnny come lately” producers.  Take Wine & Soul’s PintasQuevedoDona Matilde and Duorum.

Duorum, which proved a fitting finale for my presentation, means two in Latin and is named after its founders, renowned winemakers, moderniser João Portugal Ramos of the eponymous Alentejo label and Jose Maria Soares Franco, formerly of Ferreira, where he was responsible for Barca Velha.  It’s also a reference to their two sources of fruit, which comes from two rented old vineyards in the Cima Corgo and the Douro Superior, where they also rent two vineyards and, excitingly, have purchased and planted 150 hectares.  Though they originally focused on (very good) table wines, Ramos had always wanted to make port and was determined to have a crack in 2007, a record breaking year for the number of vintage declarations.  The aim is to produce a modern, fruit-led style, though with good ageing capacity.  To that end, the duo have sought out relatively elevated sites because they prize freshness and don’t want overripe grapes.  It showed in Duorum’s exuberant, well defined fruit – as one fellow journo observed, it’s remarkably expressive and drinkable already.  Here’s my tasting note:

  • Duorum Vintage Port 2007 – an inky, deep hue, it shows exuberant ripe blackcurrant, berry and cherry fruit on the nose.  In the mouth, it’s big, fat and spicy with plenty of oomph thanks to its concentrated black fruits; a pronounced menthol note gives lift.  Well balanced, forward and fruitful, it looks set to deliver plenty of drinking pleasure without the need to cellar it for decades.


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