Tastings: The Douro Valley -- gorgeous, and the wine is good, too
A view of the Portuguese city of Porto.
Bunches of Tinta Barroca grapes grow on the vine at the Quinta dos Malvedos estate, owned by Symington Family Estates, in Vila Real, near Porto, Portugal.
Port produced by the Symington Family Estates sits in wooden casks at the Quinta do Vesuvio estate in Guarda, near Porto, Portugal.
View of the Douro River and vineyards in Portugal's Douro Valley wine country in the fall.
Douro Valley, Portugal.
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PORTO, Portugal -- The Douro Valley in northern Portugal is the most visually exciting wine region in the world. It is a spectacular gorge carved out by the Douro River that flows from Spain to the Atlantic Ocean a few miles south of Porto. UNESCO has named it a World Heritage Site.
The narrow valley is banked on both sides by steep terraces of grape vines. These vineyards formed the first demarcated wine region in the world, dating from 1756 when the area's fortified wines already were producing strong sales, especially to the British. Port dominated the economy of the region, accounting for the majority of Portugal's wine exports until the 1980s.
Before the recent revolution in table wine production, non-fortified wines were made from grapes deemed of insufficient quality for port. Now the new, high-end table wines are made from the same indigenous grape varieties that go into port.
Although there are 31 white grapes and 51 red varieties planted throughout the Douro region, five varieties predominate:
Toriga National, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo in Spain), Toriga Franca, Tinto Cao and Tinta Barroca.
The wines usually are a blend of several of these grapes. With the exception of Tinta Roriz, these are varieties that previously were virtually unknown in the international wine market. They tend to have great structure and complexity with aromas of dark fruits, spice and minerals. Portugal's most expensive red table wine, Barco Velha, has been produced by the port house Ferreira since 1952.
But the table-wine renaissance began in 1986 when Portugal joined the European Union. The World Bank, hoping to jump-start a new economic stream, financed the replanting 6,000 acres of vineyards in the valley, wisely stipulating that the new plants must come from the list of the five best varieties listed above. By the 1990s, the Douro wineries were a hot-bed of innovation, using such modern techniques as temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, small oak barrels and air-conditioned aging cellars, while adding some of their own creativity.
For centuries, the traditional method of crushing grapes was by stomping them with bare feet inside shallow pans called lagares. The Portuguese still are partial to foot crushing, a more gentle treatment for delicate grapes but a difficult labor requirement for large wineries. Most wineries in the world now crush with mechanical alternatives. But in Portugal, it was deemed important to stick with tradition, so someone designed a robot with large, soft, flat pedals that travels over the lagares and crushes the grapes with a soft and gentle stomping action.
Vineyards in this valley cascade down cliffs that range from to 30 percent to 60 percent inclines. Terroir in the Douro has little to do with soil. The land is 90 percent schist rock. The vines are planted in rock, which once had to be dug by hand to a depth of 5 feet. Roots find narrow channels in the flaking schist and burrow down as much as 65 feet to reach moisture. Obviously drainage is no problem. We're told vines must suffer to make great wines, but these take suffering to a new level.
The vineyards are shielded to the north, south and west by mountains that rise to 4,700 feet, preventing much rain from arriving in the valley. Yields are low. Because the river continually twists and turns, there are innumerable micro climates. All of this contributes to the remarkable wines.
One can visit the valley by boat, train or car. The first two are more romantic choices but for practical reasons I chose a car. Fortunately, I was not the driver so could fully enjoy the World Heritage scenery, which begins about an hour outside of Porto. The road hugs the river bank as it twists through the bottom of the gorge. The once-wild river has been tamed by six dams.
I was dazzled by mile after mile of steep terraces contained behind 15-foot dry stone walls climbing the hills on both sides of the river. Scattered throughout the vineyards were numerous tidy white farm houses with red tile roofs called quintas, where for centuries port has been made. I kept thinking about the back-breaking labor required to plant, maintain and harvest grapes from these vines.
It wasn't surprising to learn that today when vines require re-planting, most work is being done by bulldozer rather than by hand and the vines are being spaced so that tractors can be used. The flat-bottomed boats called barcos once transported the port from the quintas to warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto, where it spent years aging in large oak casks. Sadly, the barcos have been replaced by modern tanker trucks.
At the top of a steep road winding through vineyard terraces, I visited Quinta do Seixa, a large estate and modern winery with state-of-the-art technology, gorgeous architecture and mind-blowing panoramic views of miles of terraced vineyards.
This quinta is owned by Sogrape, Portugal's most important wine company, which owns a number of properties in the valley (sograpevinhos.eu). The place provided the perfect introduction to how port and table wines are made in the region. Afterwards we enjoyed a port cocktail as we marveled at the views from the its hilltop aerie.
A visit to the Douro Valley had been a goal from the moment I first saw photographs of those spectacular vineyards. The real thing surpassed all expectations.
While traveling in the valley I tasted a number of splendid examples of the deep-red, complex wines that have great structure, appealing minerality and lots of red and black fruit aromas. Most of these are produced by the legendary port houses that have farmed the valley for more than 200 years.
Among my favorites were various 2007 bottlings from the Quinta do Vallado and the Quinta do Crasto. The wines from the 2007 vintage are powerful and concentrated with a good dose of dried cherries and plums on the palate. I also enjoyed lovely wines from the Carm and the Encostas do Douro estates. Unfortunately none of these wineries can be found in local inventories of the state Liquor Control Board stores
I was excited to find another of my Portuguese favorites on the PLCB product list. It was Sogrape Callabriga Douro 2007, a beautiful and very affordable bottle with aromas of dark fruits and chocolate. Unfortunately the wine was on the Chairman's Selection winter list and there is only one bottle left in the entire state and it's in Philadelphia!
To re-live the Douro experience, I am constantly on the lookout for interesting table wines from the region. Listed below are some currently in our market. What makes them special are the unusual grape varieties not found in wines from other regions.
Note that Portugal has had an string of high-scoring vintages going back to 2003 and ending in 2009. Although 2006 was slightly difficult, 2007 was the best vintage of the decade. I have included two 2007 wines but they are only available at the PLCB's premium store in Bethel Park.
Please try a few bottles. They are well-made wines that offer great value.
Francois Lurton Barco Negro 2007, Douro, Portugal
PLCB No. 17112, $12.99
Although Francois Lurton is from a legendary Bordeaux wine family, he has chosen to make his own wines in other parts of the world. He owns vineyards in Languedoc, France, as well as in Chile, Argentina, Spain and Portugal. He owns two properties in the Douro, but Barco Negro is made from a blend of estate fruit and purchased grapes. The wine is supple and pleasant with aromas of cherries and red berries with a long finish.
J. M. Fonseca Domini 2007, Douro, Portugal
PLCB No. 17751, $13.49
This is Portugal's third-largest winery. The wine is rich and layered with ripe black fruit flavors. Although a bit rustic, it's a perfect pasta or grilled meat wine.
Domini Plus, 2007 Douro, Portugal
PLCB No. 17678, $34.99
A beautiful example of the excitement that native Portuguese grape varieties can produce. This is a wine made in very limited quantities only in exceptional vintage years. This is widely available in Allegheny County.
Francois Lurton Barco Negro 2008, Douro, Portugal
PLCB No. 24075, $12.99
Jancis Robinson gave this wine a high score. I haven't yet tried it but at this price, it is high on my list.
Ferreira Vinha Grande 2008, Douro, Portugal
PLCB No. 18449, $17.99
A well-structured wine of intense ruby color, complex aromas of ripe red fruits and Indian spices with a touch of oak. An elegant example of the Douro style.
Sogrape Vinhos Gazela Rose, 2010, Douro, Portugal
PLCB No. 24009, $7.99
A great patio sipper with a strawberry and citrus nose wrapped around a mineral core.
Warres Altano 2008, Douro, Portugal
PLCB No. 22721, $9.99
A blend of Douro red grapes Toriga Franca and Tinta Roriz that produces a mouthful of red fruit with notes of mocha and dark chocolate.
Sogrape Vinhos Callabriga, 2008, Douro, Portugal
PLCB No. 32034, $8.99
Sold out in Pennsylvania but hopefully will be back on the list eventually. It ranked sixth in a recent New York Times tasting of Douro reds. Those tasters listed it as $16.99 and tasted it against wines costing more.
First Published April 26, 2012 2:32 pm