A guide to Porto & Douro DOC/Duriense VR

The Douro Valley: a river runs through it, flanked by steep valley slopes

Big picture

The Douro Valley is an exceptionally beautiful, historic wine region. It was the first wine region in the world to be demarcated and regulated in 1756. Oporto city (where, in Vila Nova de Gaia, Port wine has been aged for centuries) and two regions within the Douro Valley itself, Alto Douro and the Côa Valley, enjoy UNESCO World Heritage status.

Looking out from The Yeatman Hotel, Vila Nova de Gaia, over Port lodge roofs and, across the river, to Oporto old town

Steeped in heritage as it is, the Douro is also a winemaker’s playground, making it one of Portugal’s most forward-looking regions.  Though most famous for Vintage Port, which accounts for a measly 1-2% of all Port wine, in the last 25 years, this dynamic region has, pardon the pun, broadened its portfolio immeasurably.

Quinta da Leda, the Douro Superior, principal source of Barca Velha, the first Douro table wine

First made in 1952, Casa Ferreirinha’s iconic red Barca Velha is regarded as the first Douro table wine of the modern era, but it was not until the early nineties that others followed this ambitious lead.  By 2000, the floodgates for table wine production had well and truly sprung open.  Today, the Douro’s production is split pretty evenly between Port and Douro table wine.

More recently still, the profile and popularity of wood-aged Ports (Tawny Colheita and White Ports) is on the up, in part boosted by a host of exceptional “new” fine and rare releases, such as Very Old Tawny Port and upmarket White Colheitas and White Ports with an Indication of Age (10, 20, 30 and 40 years old).

Taylor’s Scion: at the vanguard of the Very Old Tawny trend

This shift of emphasis in production and the proliferation of a new generation of quinta or estate-focused projects has paid dividends for both Port and table wines thanks to a greater focus on grapes, terroir and vineyard practices. Taste the 21st century’s brighter more refined premium Ports (especially LBV Ports and up) and you’ll see that they have also hugely benefited from improvements in winemaking practices, notably better “brandy” spirit and robotic “foot” treading.  As for the region’s white wines, what better way to lift off the page the increasing emphasis placed on site selection.

New World/Old World lagares – human and robotic foot treaders side by side at Sandeman’s Quinta do Seixo

For leading Port winemaker David Guimeraens of The Fladgate Partnership (probably the only Port House not to have succumbed to making Douro wine), the region has seen more innovation in the last 25 years than during its entire 250 year history.

David Guimeraens delivering a brilliant masterclass on the history of the Douro and analysing its lead grape varieties – reported here.

It’s why he calls “the Douro Valley the New World of the Old World” and why I reckon the Douro produces Portugal’s starriest and most consistent wines.  With a very many producers, my recommendations are by no means comprehensive.  But I’ve highlighted benchmark examples from established and up-and-coming names alike.

Terroir

With seven hills, Quinta do Vesuvio rises from 106 to 462m

The Douro Valley, the source of Port wine and Douro table wine, is located inland in north east Portugal. Majisterial in scale and grandeur, it tracks a 100km stretch of the Douro river and covers around 250, 000 hectares (of which c.15.4% are under vine).

Book-ended by the Marão and Montemuro mountains to the west (which protect the Douro from humid Atlantic westerlies and rain) and Spain to the east, locals describe its extreme continental climate as ‘nine months of winter, three months of hell.’

Schist, schist everywhere – soils, vine posts & terrace walls

Autumn temperatures can soar to 40 degrees and drought can severely reduce yields. Yields which, it might be added, are already very low thanks to the Douro’s lean and mean rocky soils – predominantly schist with patches of granite up on the plateau or in transitional areas bordering Vinho Verde/Minho, Trás-os-Montes and Beira Interior.

The world’s biggest mountain vineyard lifted off the page by the region’s biggest landowners, Symington Family Estate’s map

The Douro wine region has three sub-regions:

  1. The western-most Baixo Corgo (Lower Corgo), whose rainfall averages 900mm and temperature averages 18 degrees centigrade (compared with Oporto’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; and
  3. Eastern-most, nearing the Spanish border, the Douro Superior (Upper Douro), whose rainfall averages 500mm and temperature averages 21 degrees centigrade.

It also encompasses the valleys through which the Douro river’s 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 in this, the world’s largest mountainside vineyard. For example:

  • elevation ranges from 150m-900m (broadly speaking, for every 100m of altitude, the temperature falls by up to one degree centigrade); and
  • the Douro has 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.

The extent to which these variables of aspect and elevation can challenge the west/east rule of thumb is perfectly illustrated by a comparison of four quintas belonging to the Douro’s largest landholder, Symington Family Estates. “R” represents rainfall (based on a 20 year average), “T” represents average temperature and “S” represents soil pH.

  • Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha (94km from Porto), 1,300mm (R), 13.8°C (T), 5.24 (S)
  • Warre’s Quinta do Bomfim (98km from Porto), 777mm (R), 15.94°C (T), 5.67 (S)
  • Graham’s Quinta do Malvedos (107km from Porto), 606mm (R), 16.8°C (T), 6.64 (S)
  • Quinta do Vesuvio (124km from Porto), 423mm (R),15.9°C (T), 6.33 (S)

As you can see, although the dramatic drop in rainfall as you move from east to west reflects the general rule of thumb, the impact of altitude on rainfall and temperature at Cavadinha is impressive, also the influence of continentality on Vesuvio (winters are much colder here than at Malvedos, which accounts for Vesuvio’s lower average temperature, though it’s further inland).

Grape varieties (DOC Douro)

The first point to note is that traditional Douro wines (red or white) are varietal blends because old vineyards themselves were/are blends – so-called ‘field blend’ vineyards with a muddle of different varieties (perhaps 40+).

Extreme field blend, 100+ year old white field blend vines & olive trees at Maritavora

Since the 1980s, new vineyards were generally “block-planted” with individuated parcels or blocks of one variety making it possible to produce single varietal wines, though blends predominate (and, in general, make the better wines given the region’s challenging climate).

White grapes: Alicante-Branco, Alvarelhão-Branco, Arinto (Pedernã), Avesso, Batoca, Bical, Branco-Especial, Branco-Guimarães, Caramela, Carrega-Branco, Cercial, Chasselas, Códega-de-Larinho, Diagalves, Dona-Branca, Donzelinho-Branco, Estreito-Macio, Fernão-Pires (Maria-Gomes), Folgasão, Gouveio, Gouveio Estimado, Gouveio-Real, Jampal, Malvasia-Fina, Malvasia-Parda, Malvasia-Rei, Moscadet, Moscatel-Galego-Branco, Mourisco-Branco, Pé-Comprido, PinheiraBranca, Praça, Rabigato, Rabigato-Franco, Rabigato-Moreno, Rabo-de-Ovelha, Ratinho, Samarrinho, Sarigo, Semillon, Sercial (Esgana-Cão), Síria (Roupeiro), Tália, Tamarez, Terrantez, Touriga-Branca, Trigueira, Valente, Verdial-Branco, Viosinho and Vital. [Bold italicised varieties are those which, in my experience, produce best results/are most popular for block planted vineyards].

Jorge Serodio Borges & Sandra Tavares, makers of one of the Douro’s very best white wines, Wine & Soul Guru

Red grapes: Alicante-Bouschet, Alvarelhão, Alvarelhão-Ceitão, Aragonez (Tinta-Roriz), Aramon, Baga, Barca, Barreto, Bastardo, Bragão, Camarate, Carignan, CarregaTinto, Casculho, Castelã, Castelão, Cidadelhe, Concieira, Cornifesto, Corropio, Donzelinho-Tinto, Engomada, Espadeiro, Gonçalo-Pires, Grand-Noir, Grangeal, Jaen, Lourela, Malandra, Malvasia-Preta, Marufo, Melra, Mondet, Mouriscode-Semente, Nevoeira, Patorra, Petit-Bouschet, Pinot-Noir, Português-Azul, Preto-Martinho, Ricoca, Roseira, Rufete, Santareno, São-Saúl, Sevilhão, Sousão, Tinta-Aguiar, Tinta-Barroca, Tinta-Carvalha, Tinta-Fontes, Tinta-Francisca, TintaLameira, Tinta-Martins, Tinta-Mesquita, Tinta-Penajóia, Tinta-Pereira, TintaPomar, Tinta-Tabuaço, Tinto-Cão, Tinto-Sem-Nome, Touriga-Fêmea, TourigaFranca, Touriga-Nacional, Trincadeira (Tinta-Amarela), Valdosa and Varejoa. [Bold italicised varieties are those which, in my experience, produce best results/are most popular for block planted vineyards].

Fortified wine styles – Port

Magnificently restored terraces at Quinta do Noval

There are broadly two types of Port wines:

  1. bottle-aged Ports, which are aged for a relatively short amount of time in wood prior to bottling and, on release, are deep purple/crimson and display primary fruit characters; and
  2. wood-aged Ports, which spend a significantly longer period of time ageing in wood and, on release, are golden or tawny in hue with an emphasis on tertiary characters (dried fruits, spice, nuts, caramel).

Bottle-aged Ports

The glass-staining. palate-staining glory that is young bottle-aged Port!

Here are the key bottle-aged styles in order of ascending quality:

Rosé Port: A recent category spear-headed by Croft Pink in 2008 and officially recognised in 2009. Primarily aimed at new, younger consumers and best enjoyed long and chilled or as a cocktail ingredient. Benchmark examples: Croft Pink, Poças, Quevedo.

Ruby Port: young, fruity quite simple Ports for drinking on release. Benchmark examples: Niepoort, Quinta do Passadouro

Ruby Reserve Port: fuller-bodied with better quality, more concentrated fruit than basic Ruby Port; broachable on release and does not require decanting. Benchmark examples: Fonseca Bin 27, Fonseca Terra Prima (organic), Warre’s Warrior, Graham’s Six Grapes, Cockburn’s Special Reserve

Crusted Port: an unfiltered Reserve Ruby Port which was aged for longer in bottle; more complex, developed profile. Throws a sediment; decant. Benchmark examples: Fonseca, Niepoort.

Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV): a Ruby Port from a single year, chosen for its extremely high quality and bottled after ageing for four to six years in wood. Most commercial LBVs are ready for drinking on release but smaller production more concentrated unfiltered LBVs benefit from extra ageing, require decanting and can be very good indeed – check out this vertical tasting of Niepoort LBV. Benchmark examples (unfiltered): Niepoort, Sandeman, Churchill’s, Warre’s Bottle-Aged Late-Bottled Vintage Port, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Noval, Fonseca.

Vintage Port: Considered as Port’s jewel in the crown. Produced from the grapes harvested during a single year and bottled two to three years after the vintage; they can age for decades, the best a century plus. There are effectively two categories of Vintage Port.

The best Port tasting of my life – Cockburn’s bicentenary tasting; the legendary 1908 one of many superlatives – reported here.

 

The top tier comprises Vintage Ports from truly exceptional years (latterly 2000, 2003, 2007, 2011). With a few notable exceptions (e.g. Quinta do Noval, Quinta do Vesuvio) they are typically sourced from different estates with the aim of producing a very consistent house style of great longevity. Benchmark examples: Taylor’s, Graham’s, Quinta do Noval (especially Nacional), Niepoort, Fonseca, Dow, Warre’s, Quinta do Vesuvio.

Ungrafted old vines at Quinta do Noval’s Nacional vineyard

From very good but not exceptional years, Single Quinta Vintage Ports are declared. They are the product of a single quinta or estate whose name appears on the label. Single Quinta Vintage Ports are significantly cheaper than classic Vintage Ports and broachable younger. All Vintage Ports require decanting. Benchmark examples: Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos, Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas, Quinta do Passadouro, Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira, Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais, Niepoort Bioma.

Wood-aged Ports

Slumbering wood-aged Ports at Quinta do Noval

Wood-aged Ports may be made from white grapes (producing White Ports, which are lighter in style) or red grapes (producing Tawny Ports, which tend to be richer).

Because they have been aged for longer in wood compared with bottle-aged styles, they are ready to drink on release and do not require decanting. Unlike bottle-aged Port, wood-aged styles also keep well once opened – for a month or more, especially if kept chilled in the fridge.

Here are the key wood-aged styles in order of ascending quality:

Tawny: a non-vintage blend made in a relatively simple style from relatively young Tawny Ports (minimum two years in wood). Typically ruddy/reddish in hue with a relatively fruity profile. It’s worth paying a bit more for a Reserve Tawny.

Tawny by name, tawny by nature

Tawny Reserve Port: a non-vintage blend with greater complexity (minimum seven years in wood). Benchmark examples: Graham’s, Niepoort.

Tawny with an Indication of Age (10, 20, 30 and 40 years old) – non-vintage blends made from increasingly mature stock. As you step up a decade, they rachet up in concentration and complexity by reason of the blend’s component parts having spent longer in wood. Benchmark examples: Ramos Pinto, Graham’s, Taylor’s, Fonseca, Kopke, Burmester, Barros, Quinta do Noval, Sandemans, Ferreira, Andresen, Warre, Krohn, Vasques de Carvalho.

A handful of the blend components of Ramos Pinto 30 Year Old Tawny Port

Colheita Port: single vintage Tawnies which must be aged in cask for a minimum seven years (often much more). Benchmark examples: Kopke, Burmester, Barros, Quinta do Noval, Niepoort, Andresen, Krohn, Taylor’s.

Very Old Tawny: must be at least 30 years old. However, as my Very Old Tawny Port posts demonstrate, most releases have been much older, the oldest being pre-phylloxera 19th century examples.  Benchmark examples: Graham’s Ne Oublie, Taylor’s Scion, Taylor’s 1864, Niepoort VV, Wine & Soul 5G.

Like Graham’s Ne Oublie, these yet to be bottled casks date back to 1882, commemorating the year in which A.J. Symington arrived in Portugal to work for W&J Graham’s

White Port – a niche category which exists in the same premium categories as Tawny Port (with an indication of Age, Colheita). Cheaper “Dry” (off-dry) and Lágrima (dessert wine sweet) styles exist. Lighter in colour and palate-weight than Tawny Ports. Basic styles best enjoyed lightly chilled as an aperitif or as a Portonic cocktail when mixed with tonic over ice. Benchmark premium examples: Andresen, Kopke, Burmester, Dalva, Quinta de Santa Eufémia, Churchill and Niepoort.  For a fresh, bright, fruity Madeira producer’s take on the genre, try Conceito by Barbeito White Port.

White (1st row) versus Tawny Port (back row) – Kopke 10, 20, 30 & 40 Year Old White & Tawny Ports

Fortified styles – Moscatel do Douro

You may be familiar with Moscatel de Setubal but Moscatel do Douro, which is made from Moscatel Galego (Muscat à Petit Grains, not Setubal’s Moscatel d’Alexandria), flies under the radar.

Traditionally, production (which broadly follows the Port wine method though with typically cooler ferments and more protective ageing) was dominated by two co-operatives. Moscatel accounts for 50% of production at Adega Co-operativa Favaios but, in 1995, smaller producers entered the Moscatel market.

The Moscatel vineyards are predominantly focused around around the town of 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. Alijó, another elevated town, is also known for its Moscatel.

Non-Vintage and Reserva wines must be aged for a minimum of 18 months in wood before release. Reserva denotes quality and complexity, not years in the wood. Relatively rare Colheita or Vintage wines are only made in top years and can be very ageworthy. Benchmark examples: – Adega Co-operativa Favaios (esp for Vintage), Quinta do Portal, Poças, Niepoort, Secret Spot (the only producer to make a 40 Year Old).

Douro table wine styles

Stellar Douro wine producer Quinta do Crasto – in the shade is the Maria Teresa vineyard, a 4ha parcel with Crasto’s oldest (centenarian) vines – at least 47 different varieties, six of which are white, three rosé.

With low yields, sunshine and heat, the Douro’s reds show good concentration and ripeness of fruit and tannin. Signature notes include wild fruits of the forest, black cherry, raspberry, floral lift (rock rose, violets) vegetal/herbal notes (eucalyptus,esteva), dark chocolate and minerals (schist, slate).  A new breed of fresher, lighter reds is emerging, which is exemplified by Tiago Saimpo ‘Uivo Renegado. 

Fewer in number (though growing in number fast) and much more site driven, it is less easy to generalise about whites but, save for entry level wines, they tend not to exhibit overt fruity characteristics. Rather, the emphasis is on vegetal (green olive, fennel, celery salt) and mineral notes; the best (from elevated sites) have lovely freshness and drive. Benchmark examples: Wine & Soul Guru, Niepoort Redoma, Redoma Reserva, Tiara, Coche, Conceito Branco, Maritavora Grande Reserva Old Vines White, Lavradores de Feitoria Meruge.

Single varietal wines (white, red): few and far between. Touriga Nacional is the most popular candidate followed by Tinta Roriz. Benchmark examples: Churchill’s Estate, Alves de Sousa, Altano Quinta de Ataíde, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Passadouro (Touriga Nacional) and, for Tinta Roriz, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Portal, R4, Real Companhia Velha Series (Rufete (r), Samarrinho, Alvarinho (w)). Tiago Saimpo and Marcio Lopes are also making interesting examples – very fresh and mineral.  

Rita Marques of Conceito

You also find the odd Touriga Franca (Quinta do Portal, Quinta do Passadouro), Tinta Barocca (Muxagat) and Sousão (Quinta do Vallado, Alves de Sousa), Tinta Cão (Muxagat, Quinta da Cottas); talented Rita Marques of Conceito makes an excellent single varietal Bastardo. Single varietal whites are even rarer; Secretum Arinto is worth seeking out, as are Lavradores de Feitoria Meruge Viosinho and Muxagat Os Xistos Altos Rabigato.

Another Douro young gun, 3rd generation winemaker Muxagat’s Mateus Nicolau d’Almeida with his sister Mafalda at the family’s Monte Xisto vineyard – no prizes for guessing what they are standing on

Entry level wines (white, red): typically fruity blends, the reds with some oak. Whites tend to be a little anodyne (clean, ester-driven) but reds can be very characterful with attractive regional/varietal expression. Where the Douro’s landscape inhibits mechanisation as well as yields this is not a cheap region to make wine, so I recommend you spend at least £8. Benchmark examples (c£8-15): Duorum Tons de Duorum (w,r), Altano (w,r), Lavradores de Feitoria Tres Bagos (r,w), Niepoort Drink Me (w,r), Quinta do Vallado, Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas (r,w), Van Zeller Rufo do Vale D Maria (w,r), Crasto Douro Red, Quinta do Portal Colheita. Conceito Contraste (w,r), Casa Ferreirinha Papa Figos, Churchill’s Estate, Muxagat Tinta Barocca, Passadouro Passa (r,w), Quinta de la Rosa douROSA (r,w), Pedro Mario Baptista Garcias Mapa (w), Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo Pomares (r,w).

Middle-tier wines (white, red): more concentrated, complex, often old vine blends or focused on the very best grape varieties; often single estate/more selectively sourced. Red wines will age into the medium-term. Benchmark examples (£15-25): Niepoort Vertente (r), Redoma (r,w), Tiara (w), Quinta do Vale Meao Meandro (r), Quinta do Crasto Vinhas Velhas (r), Quinta do Vale D Maria (r), Muxagat (esp. w), Prats & Symington Post Scriptum (r), Quinta do Passadouro (r), Wine & Soul Pintas Character (r), Casa Ferreirinha Quinta da Leda (r), Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas Reserva (r,w), Maritavora Grande Reserva Old Vines White (w), Poeira Po de Poeira (r), Conceito Bastardo (r), Casa de Casal Loivos (r), Lavradores de Feitoria Meruge (r,w), Quinta de la Rosa (r,w), Quinta de Cottas (w), Quinta da Touriga Cha (r), Van Zellers VZ (r,w), Wine Drops Somnium (w,r), Mafarrico (r,w), Luis Seabra, Marcio Lopes Proibido Grande Reserva (r), Tiago Saimpo ‘Uivo Renegado (r).

The talented Jorge Moreira, owner/winemaker at Poeira & winemaker at Quinta de la Rosa and Real Companhia Velha

Super-premium wines (white, red): powerfully concentrated or intense terroir-driven wines; invariably single estate/single vineyard. Often old vine blends or focused on the very best grape varieties; ultra-low yields, highly selective sourcing. Expect more extraction, more oak and higher alcohol, although recently greater restraint is being exercised by some in favour of freshness and more emphatic terroir translucency. Benchmark examples (+£25): Poeira (r), Niepoort Batuta (r), Charme(r), Coche (w), Redoma Reserva (w), Turris (r), Robustus (r). Conceito Branco, Tinto. Quinta do Crasto Maria Teresa (r), Vinha da Ponte (r). Casa Ferreirinha Barca Velha (r) & Reserva Especial (r). Quinta do Vale Meão (r), Quinta do Vale D Maria CV (r). Quinta do Passadouro Reserva (r). Quinta do Vallado Reserva (r), Adelaide (r). Churchill’s Estate Quinta da Gricha (r), Grande Reserva (r). Prats & Symington Chryseia (r), Alves de Sousa Abandonado (r), Quinta da Gaivosa (r). Real Companhia Velha Quinta das Carvalhas Vinhas Velhas (r). Wine & Soul Pintas (r), Guru (w). Quinta de la Rosa Reserva (r).

Sparkling (Espumante) wines: made in white and rosé styles; best are good attempts at a serious Method Traditionelle style with autolytic complexity. Benchmark example: Vértice.  Conceito Brut Nature 2012, an exciting off-the-wall fizz is classified a Vinho de Mesa because it’s 100% Grüner Veltliner.  Similarly, Tiago Saimpo is making fresh, delicate Petillants-Naturels, the rosé from Pinot Noir.

Dirk Niepoort always pushes the boundaries: Niepoort Projectos range includes Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling

Vinho Regional Duriense (white, red, rosé): typically include French varieties. Benchmark examples: Lavradores de Feitoria Sauvignon Blanc, Quinta do Noval Cedro do Noval (includes Syrah) & Labrador (Syrah), Niepoort Projectos wines, Quinta da Romaneira Petit Verdot, Real Companhia Velha (various), Poeira Branco (Alvarinho), Tiago Saimpo (Pinot Noir).

Late harvest styles: rare but can be very good. Benchmark examples: Quinta do Portal, Rozès Noble Late Harvest, Tiago Saimpo Olho no Pé Colheita Tardia.

Find out more

See all my Douro posts.

The Institute of Port & Douro Wine website is a useful source of information.

Other useful links (UK retailers, writers)

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