One of the World's Best Winemaking Regions Is One of the Oldest

December 28, 2018

No landscape in the world expresses the idea of mind over matter more powerfully and poignantly than northern Portugal’s Douro River Valley. Over the course of centuries, human grit, gumption and genius have completely transformed the valley’s almost-vertical hills of gnarled schist into terraced vineyards. Humans have massaged the hills’ coarse granite and slate soils into yielding the wines used to make the region’s signature product, Port. Port is the most storied of fortified wines, which differ from standard wines because a grape spirit, or brandy, is added during the production process. Adding the spirit during, and not after, fermentation kills off the active yeast cells and leaves the wine with high levels of residual sugar, making it sweet and strong in alcohol—Port’s special character.

In 2001, UNESCO recognized the uniqueness of these landscapes when it classified the Alto (upper) Douro Valley as a World Heritage site. UNESCO specified that the upper valley constitutes “an outstanding example of a traditional European wine-producing region” that’s been growing grapes for over 2,000 years. The group also noted, “The components of the Alto Douro landscape are representative of the full range of activities associated with winemaking—terraces, quintas [wine-producing farm complexes], villages, chapels and roads.” More simply said, the visual harmony of this countryside quietly exalts with its aura of peaceable permanence. Staring out over such well-groomed and -tended vineyards is profoundly soothing, too. Subliminally, they convey a gentle definition of eternity based on a profound respect for nature transmitted from one generation to the next. There have been vineyards here since almost the founding of the Roman Empire.

This bucolic backdrop makes for an unlikely setting for a revolution, but during the last 30 years a wave of change has jolted the valley’s conservative and genteel traditions of Port production. The bold band of winemakers who launched the charge still leads it. They came together in 2003 and christened themselves “the Douro Boys.” Their shared goal was to put the unfortified wines of the Douro on an equal footing with Port. The wines had the pedigree to achieve a level of recognition appropriate to their inherent quality. And they have. Today the region is rebooted; the Douro’s unfortified wines are on par with the best vintages of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Piedmont and other storied Old World wine lands.

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Consider that wines from one or more of the Douro’s quintas have made it onto Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 Wines of the Year” list every year for over a decade. This feat casts them as rivals of the Pauillacs, Gevrey-Chambertins, Châteauneuf-du-Papes and Barolos. The highest Douro Valley unfortified wine score to date? Wine Spectator rated a 2011 vintage Quinta do Vale Meão 97/100. From the magazine’s tasting notes: “A lush, seductive red, filled to the brim with an array of dark fruit and kirsch flavors, accented by plenty of cream and spice notes. Silky tannins and molten chocolate hints add richness. The long finish echoes with mineral and white pepper. Best from 2015 through 2022.”

During the recent week I spent among the Douro Boys—men, really—as a fledgling but eager student of Douro Valley wines, I’ve never met a more passionate, worldly-but-earthy and intelligently innovative group of winemakers. Each one taught me something different about the essential character of Douro wines. All of them exemplified the same consistent elegance, charm and graciousness as the superb quaffs I sampled.

The “Boys” are a convivial group of cousins, brothers and friends, and did not jump into winemaking on a whim. Between them, they represent five of the most respected wine estates in the Douro—Quinta do Vallado (Francisco Ferreira and João Alvares Ribeiro), Niepoort (Dirk Niepoort), Quinta do Crasto (Miguel and Tomás Roquette), Quinta Vale Dona Maria (Cristiano van Zeller) and Quinta do Vale Meão (Francisco Olazabal). Although descended from some of the most famous Port-making families in the region, none of these men find their ardor for making unfortified wine incongruous with their families’ history. “Innovation is actually very much a part of our heritage,” observed the amiable Cristiano van Zeller when I visited him at Quinta Vale Dona Maria, where he makes wine from 50-year-old vines on property that has been in his wife’s family for 150 years. The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker said of the Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2009, “It will be a contender for wine of the vintage” and rated it 96 points.

“From generation to generation, we have been documenting every single square foot of this valley, because even if they are just a few feet apart, different parcels of land can produce wholly different wines,” van Zeller said. “This is why we have to mix and match different barrels from different plots to get the right balance in a wine.”

“Everything changed in 1986 when Portugal joined the European Union,” explained Carlos Raposo, the brilliant young cellar master who oversees production as part of his collaboration with winemaker Dirk Niepoort at the latter’s Quinta de Napoles vineyards. The EU abolished the monopoly that funneled Ports produced in the Douro region to the big Port houses that blended, matured and marketed them from their cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Porto. “Wine producers were finally able to bypass the houses founded by the English and Dutch Port merchants and were free to sell independently,” Raposo said.

To appreciate the magnitude of this change, it helps to know a little bit about the history of winemaking in the valley of the Douro River, which originates at Picos de Urbión in Spain and then flows 557 miles west across northern Portugal before reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Porto. Archaeological evidence indicates wine has been made in the upper valley since the Bronze Age some 3,000 years ago, but the region’s vineyards really thrived when Portugal became part of the wine-loving Roman Empire in the 3rd century B.C. What sealed the fate of the Douro as a producer of fortified wine for centuries was a series of treaties signed between England and Portugal that gave Portugal privileged access to the lucrative British market.

The 1703 Methuen Treaty put Portugal on a preferential basis in supplying Britain through lower tariffs on wines from Portugal than those from other countries. After a quality scandal in the region in the early 1700s caused Port sales to plummet, the Marquis de Pombal, a Portuguese nobleman, founded the now legendary Douro Wine Company to regulate the Port trade. The company, for the first time, officially delineated those regions of the valley that had the legal right to call their fortified wine “Port.” (The Douro is one of the three oldest established wine appellations in the world.) The thriving commerce between England and Portugal led to the establishment of a community of English and other European wine brokers in Porto, and the founding of the great Port houses, which enjoyed a monopoly some winemakers describe as quasi-feudal with the quinta producers until 1986.

“In 1987, when Dirk told his father that he wanted to buy the 70-acre Quinta de Napoles and begin producing wine, the older gentleman first thought his son had taken leave of his senses, but eventually he came around,” explained Raposo. “After several years of hard work, Dirk’s Redoma wines showed everyone the incredible potential of the Douro to produce unfortified white wine, which surprised everyone, because almost none had been made here in the past—the Douro was considered red-wine territory par excellence. Niepoort whites are made with local varietals like rabigato, codega do larinho and viosinho. These grapes come from very old vineyards planted in mica schist soils at high altitudes, which yield delicate mineral-rich wines of great complexity.”

It isn’t just the grapes and terroir, the French idea of a very specific geographical place. “We still work according to traditional methods, including crushing the grapes by foot in large, open, waist-high stone tanks called lagares,” said Raposo, who worked at wineries around the world before joining the Niepoort winery. “The reason we work this way is the foot never crushes the grape pips [seeds], releasing bitter oils the way that mechanical presses do, and the granite used to make the lagares gives the wine more character, too.”

On a chilly autumn afternoon, a fire crackled in the fireplace of the elegant dining room at Quinta do Vale Meão. August oil paintings on the walls and silver-framed family portraits on the sideboards brought generations of family to the table even though today’s owner, Francisco Olazabal, entertained a single guest—me—for lunch. The meal began with a soothing country soup made from potatoes, stock and turnip greens.

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A main course of braised partridge hunted by the host in the surrounding hills followed. The succulent bird was served with a Quinta do Vale Meão 2013, an elegant red wine made from touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta barroca and tinta roriz grapes grown on the estate. “This wine shows off the best elements of New and Old World style. You’ll find it’s full- bodied and fresh without any cloying jaminess,” said Olazabal, and he was right.

For the Douro, Olazabal’s estate is relatively recent. The 650- acre quinta was founded in 1877 by Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, his great-great grandmother. “She was from the Ferreira Port family, and her plan was to create a model vineyard. Almost all of the grapes grown here were sold to Ferreira to make Port until 1998, when my father resigned as director of Ferreira to dedicate himself to producing great still [unfortified] wines on the estate,” Olazabal said. “My great-great grandmother was sort of a visionary,” he added, explaining that the quinta lies on a geological fault with two distinctly different soil types: schist in front of the house and granite out back. “She knew this, and by buying this land she gave us great tools, because different grapes prefer different soils,” he said.

“We’re quite different from other Douro producers, because our vineyards are young and vinified according to individual parcels and then blended,” Olazabal told me while we visited his recently renovated aging cellars, where the air smelled deliciously of dried red fruit, especially cherries. “The real genius of the new Douro wines is that they can present such a strong sense of terroir but also be discreetly modern.”

While Olazabal maintains individual parcels of varietals, the other Douro estates still use the traditional local “field blend” system of grape growing. In this, different varieties are planted in a single parcel and picked at the same time. “These parcels are so precious that we have catalogued every single vine in case we need to replant. There are some dozen different grape varieties in those parcels, and together they make magic,” Miguel Roquette told me as we stared out over the vineyards that produce the grapes from which his family’s most highly lauded wine, the Quinta do Crasto Vinha Maria Teresa, is made. (Wine Spectator awarded the 2005 and 2011 vintages 96/100 and the 2007 vintage 95/100, while Robert Parker rated the 2001 as 95/100, the 2003 as 96/100 and the 2005 as 94/100.) Until I actually tasted the 2005 vintage in a Porto restaurant a few days later, the most interesting thing about my visit to Roquette’s estate was botanical.

“Come, Alexander. It’s important that you see this. This will tell you more about what makes the Douro the Douro than anything else,” Roquette said. I followed him into the dark on a cool, autumn night with a fine sliver of a new moon in the star-studded sky above. Using his cellphone, he lit the way through the gardens outside of the family house on the farm. “Here we are,” he said, shining the light on an amazingly long, thick and gnarled slate gray root exposed in the side of a snaggly cliff. “The vine that sent down that root is at least a hundred feet above us on the hillside. Do you feel the power in this root, the obstinacy of nature? This is the Douro, a harsh place where the vines struggle but end up producing some of the world’s best grapes, from which we’re now making some of the world’s best wines,” said Roquette, sounding as awed as if he were seeing the root for the first time.

This is why you might honestly say that the Douro is living up to its name, since “douro” means “golden” in Portuguese, and this wine region, at once venerable and brilliantly avant- garde, is clearly just on the cusp of a new golden age.