The old red-roofed and wooden- shuttered winemaker’s house at Quinta do Crasto is perched on a hilltop in northern Portugal’s Douro Valley.
Surrounding the house in every direction is a patchwork of plots of vines plunging down hundreds of metres in terraced steps before sweeping up again to the next ridge. On one side far below, the Douro River winds its way westwards, eventually reaching the cavernous cellars of Porto, where the world-famous product of this region, the fortified wine, port, is aged, sometimes for decades, in old wooden barrels.
Port, which has Protected Designation of Origin status, has been made in the Douro Valley at least since the 1600s, but winemaking has had a much longer history, stretching back 2,000 years to Roman times. The valley’s impressive legacy of viticulture, particularly its terraces hewn painstakingly by hand from the granite and schist, and its outstanding beauty, have earned it Unesco World Heritage Site status.
But there is a dramatic new twist in this long tale of tradition: Some of the most venerable names in port are casting off convention to focus on dry wines, instead of sweet. Quinta do Crasto, (quinta means “estate” in Portuguese) which appeared in records as early as 1615, now makes only 15 per cent port, the rest being wine. Quinta do Vallado, another esteemed port maker, established in 1716, now makes 90 per cent dry wines, 10 per cent port.
And the Symington family, who have been a significant presence in the Douro Valley for five generations, while still focusing on port, released its first Douro DOC wine in 2007 and is now building a high-tech winery at its organic vineyards at Ataide, which will be exclusively devoted to making red wine.
“Douro wineries are adding to their production a number of dry wines made from traditional port grapes; this necessity follows a decline in the consumption and purchase of port,” says UK-based wine educator Ally Simmons. “But this may be a real treat for consumers as the wineries are producing high-quality, good- value, investment-grade wines that are suitable for long-term ageing.”
Altering The Douro DNA
Manuel Lobo de Vasconcellos, winemaker at Quinta do Crasto, says the Douro Valley has been “redefined” by a new generation of winemakers who have studied abroad, in the US or Australia, and are “more open- minded”. Indeed, it is not only that this new generation is making more wines than port, but also which wines and how they are making them.
Acacio Peixoto, wine director at the elegant luxury hotel, Six Senses Douro Valley, which holds daily communal wine tastings as well as expertly led private tastings, says that the DNA of the Douro region is red. However, the region has become a playground for white wine experimentation, and the results may soon compete with the Douro’s show-stopping reds.
Quinta do Crasto started making white wines in 2007. Says Lobo de Vasconcellos: “When the owner asked me to produce a white wine, I told him, ‘This is not the place for white wines.’ I had always found the whites of the Douro Valley uninteresting. White wine grapes for port were planted at low altitudes for increased yields, but dry wines are totally different from port, and those grapes lacked the acidity and freshness required for wine.”
“So we went uphill, right to the top at 600m, and planted vines in the granite soils. It’s important to have natural acidity, and we wanted to express the minerality of the terroir and to make wines that age well in the bottle.”
Quinta do Crasto now make three white wines from indigenous grapes, including Viosinho, Rabigato, Gouveio, Codega do Larinho and Verdelho.
A Scientific Approach
The new generation of winemakers has also embraced science, from fermentation in stainless steel tanks to temperature controls in the winery.
Often, the high-tech goes hand-in-hand with the historical. Quinta do Crasto’s serious, gastronomic wine, Reserva Old Vines, is a field blend made from the vines of 42 plots that average 70 years of age. Some of the grape varieties in those old plots remain as yet unidentified.
“In one plot, called Maria Theresa, which is 2ha in size, we have identified 47 varieties of grape, some white, some pink, some red. We have GPS coordinates of each vine, and, when one dies, we replace it with the same genotype to preserve history,” says Lobo de Vasconcellos.
Pedro Correia, winemaker at Symington, shows no fear at experimenting in the winery. For example, to remove high levels of tannins or to fine the wine more consistently, he avoids more traditional substances, such as egg white and bentonite, and is instead investigating the effects of an extract from peas. “We like to experiment, even if it can be a slow process – you never know how the wines will react after 18 months. We’re not into natural wines, or low intervention. We want to control the process with whatever we have, but through natural means,” he says.
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At the new Ataide winery, at which Symington aim to be producing wine by 2021, a cooling room will allow grapes picked during the day to rest overnight before pressing, a technique learnt from an Australian winemaker that Correia says improves the wine. The new winery, located on the flatter hills of Ataide, will also embrace machine harvesting, a radical diversion for the Douro Valley, which is essentially a mountain viticulture where the steep slopes prohibit any mechanisation.
Grape-growing by hand has had a huge impact on the valley. In other regions, such as the respected wine-growing area of Alentejo in southern Portugal, costs of producing wine are substantially less. “Because of mechanisation, making wine in Alentejo costs half what it does here, and they produce one-and-a-half times what we produce,” says Francisco Spratley Ferreira, owner and winemaker at Quinta do Vallado. “We make very high quality, and expensive, wines – this is the Douro Valley brand.”
Or, to put it simply: “In the Douro Valley, we can only do high quality wines as there’s no space for cheap wines,” says Lobo de Vasconcellos.
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An Art And A Science
But, while many winemakers are now readily making use of technology, making wine is essentially an empirical process.
“We regularly use probes to analyse the soil and the hydric balance in the plants, and there are methods to help us assess the ripeness of fruit – we can scientifically analyse the pips and skin – but, much more, it’s about our knowledge of the varieties and the weather,” says Correia.
“It’s my job to decide block by block, property by property, on the picking date and sequence of the grapes. It’s a huge responsibility: once the grapes are in the winery, there’s no going back. So I do regular visits… It’s inefficient, and people don’t always understand and ask, ‘Why pick just those grapes and not these ones right next door?’”
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The captivating blend of artisanal knowledge and modern science, the stunning scenery and, of course, the outstanding wines, are drawing global attention to the Douro DOC.
Savvy quintas are setting themselves up for increasing tourism to the region. Along with their stunning modernist-styled new winery, Quinta do Vallado has a gorgeous 13-room boutique Wine Hotel that is split between the Manor House that once belonged to the revered Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira of the 1700s, and a new streamlined slate building.
Symington’s Pinhao winery, Quinta do Bomfim, has a spacious and very attractive visitor centre, and Quinta do Crasto hosts tastings, lunches and overnight stays for sommeliers and journalists in its charming century-old winemaker’s house.
“Portuguese wines are not yet getting the recognition they should, but we’re getting there,” says Lobo de Vasconcellos. “The Douro Valley is now reaching the point of doing top wines that can take their place on any table anywhere in the world.”
For investors, those excellent wines are still relatively cheap.
“Portuguese wines are low-priced for the quality,” says Peixoto. “At the top level, perhaps they are not as cheap as they once were, but they are still cheaper than other countries.”
And as winemaking is so – relatively speaking – new here, there is a good chance the wines have not yet revealed their true value.
“For many wineries, these new red dry wines have yet to show their potential, and it may be that in 20 years’ time, we discover what a delight those wines really are,” says Simmons.
Douro wines are earning accolades aplenty: Wine Spectator rated Quinta do Crasto Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2005 as 2008’s third best wine in the world, while Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional 2008 was placed seventh in 2011. Many Douro wines are regularly scored 95 or more points out of 100 by the world’s most respected critics. Robert Parker gave 95 points to Symington’s Quinta do Vesuvio Red 2015, while Niepoort and Quinta do Vale Dona Maria scored 96 for Batuta Red 2015 and Vinha da Francisca Red 2014, respectively.
Portugal’s Crowning Glory
Many claim the native Touriga Nacional is Portugal’s finest grape variety.
This low-yield grape, with its tiny berries and high skin-to-pulp ratio, is strong on tannins and concentrated flavours of black fruit, and provides structure and body in wines.
It is the main grape used to make port, along with Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz. It is also increasingly being showcased in some of the Douro Valley’s finest dry wines, such as Quinta das Carvalhas’ 2015 Carvalhas Touriga Nacional and Symington’s Altano Douro Quinta do Ataide Reserva 2011.
“In the Douro Valley, this grape can suffer in the very dry years, it needs water and needs the right terrain, but in good years, it’s a great grape, really recognisable in the glass,” says Lobo de Vasconcellos.
The weather also affects the ageing style of the wine. In a cooler year, the “vegetal, mushroomy, asparagus flavours will become more pronounced, while grapes harvested in a warmer year, such as 2009, will age to more jammy flavours”, according to Pedro Correia of Symington.
Touriga Nacional is not only Portugal’s top grape, however. Vine cuttings have been taken to South Africa, Australia and California, making it one of the most planted Portuguese grape varieties around the world.
“Those countries are capitalising on the grape’s appeal,” says UK-based wine educator Ally Simmons. “I’d love to see Portugal leading the charge, though, for this – their own indigenous grape.”
Winemakers are now indeed highlighting the grape in the names of their wines, and listing it on wine bottle labels.
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Know Your Douro Grapes
This is the taste of Portugal’s north.
Lay Of The Land
The Douro Valley is divided into three broad areas, from west to east: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. As a rule of thumb, the farther east the region lies, the drier the climate becomes. Mountains block humid air from the Atlantic from reaching the Douro DOC, making rainfall low, unlike in the Vinho Verde DOC region, which is famed for its light whites, and lies just eastwards, along Portugal’s coast.
The region has a wealth of traditional grape varieties, each of which flourishes in different regions and soils, and at varying altitudes, temperatures, rainfall, and sun and wind exposure. Only indigenous varieties are used to make port or Douro DOC wines.
Red grapes to look out for include Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca (the most planted grape in the Douro), Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao, and Tinta Roriz (which is native to the Iberian Peninsula and known in Spain, where it is the main grape in rioja, as Tempranillo).
Stand-out white grapes include Malvasia, Viosinho and Rabigato. An excellent expression of Rabigato, which means “cat’s tail” in Portuguese, is the Vinha de Martim, Douro White 2017 by Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta do Vale D. Maria. This ancient – and innovative – small quinta makes wines with plenty of personality and style.