In a rapidly evolving and expanding wine world, even a certified wine wonk should be excused for being oblivious to a heretofore humble wine region or even to new wines emerging from classic European vineyards. Take, for example, Douro table wines---and take them seriously. A decade ago, a few good bottlings were obscured by a plethora of plonk. Today, a stunning array of unfortified wines from the Douro share the glory with the region’s magnificent Ports.
A Pedestrian Past
Douro table wines have been made for millennia, but until the 1950s, they wallowed in mediocrity. Early in the eighteenth century, most of the wines of the Douro were distilled dry, and many were unstable and spoiled easily. To make the most of a second-rate product, wine merchants began adding aguardente (brandy) to the wines to elevate the alcohol level and retard spoilage; wines so fortified and shipped to distant shores were more likely to be drinkable upon arrival. Brandy-fortified wines quickly became favored in the Douro, and the age of Port began---officially when the valley was demarcated in 1756, one of the first regulated regions in the wine world.
In contrast, Douro’s unfortified table wines remained unchampioned and ignored for two more centuries---and for good reason. The best Douro vineyards---mostly those with schistose soils close to the river bank---were dedicated to Port production. Table wines were made from inferior grapes grown at the fringes, in the cooler, westernmost Baixo Corgo region and high in the hills close to the 650-meter (2,130-foot) demarcation boundary line. Furthermore, methods developed to crush and ferment the very ripe and tannic grapes for Port were not advantageous for making sound unfortified wines from low-quality grapes. As long as the Port trade thrived and production methods remained primitive, there was no incentive to view table wines as a profitable alternative to the Douro’s international star.
Pioneer of Princely Wine
When the Douro was finally demarcated for table wines in 1979, only a handful of producers were aspiring to make more than humdrum quaffers. The Port trade ruled the region, supporting investment in vineyards for Port---not table---wines, and in Portugal, the global wine market had not yet become a relentless force for change.
Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, the technical director of the estimable Port house, Ferreira, was the first to break away from the prevailing Port-only mentality of the Port houses. He returned from a visit to Bordeaux in 1950, his head filled with Bordeaux winemakers’ techniques and encouragement from Emile Peynaud, Bordeaux’s visionary enologist. At Quinta do Valedo Meão, high in the Douro Superior near the border with Spain, de Almeida employed primitive but Bordeaux-based methods to fashion a remarkable red table wine. Over time, Ferreirinha’s Barca Velha, first made in 1952 and produced only in exceptional years like vintage Port, has become the “first growth” of Portugal, similar in stature (and price!) to Vega Sicilia’s Unico, made further up the Douro/Duero River in Spain. In lesser years, a Ferreirinha Reserva Especial is produced---a lower-priced, age-worthy beauty. Sogrape now owns Barca Velha and sources grapes for the wine from a Douro Superior estate, Quinta da Leda.
Rule Change and Rise of the “Douro Boys”
The wines made at Quinta do Valedo Meão may have convinced the Port trade cognoscenti that excellent---even great---unfortifieds could be fashioned from Douro grapes, but the region’s table-wine revolution needed a boost from a change in the Port regulations and the bravado supplied by a new generation of Port owners and winemakers.
In 1986, a revision in the wine legislation, which for the first time since the 1930s permitted quintas (grape-growing estates) to export wine in their own right, was a step in opening up the Douro to innovation. Quintas without the financial means to compete with the major Port houses and their established brands could not exercise this option. But Alves do Sousa of Quinta do Gaivosa, the Roquette family of Quinta do Crasto, and the Champalimauds of Quinta do Côtto, to name three, had the resources and drive to create wines marketed under their own labels---including quality table wines using Vintage Port--quality estate grapes.
The quinta-based Douro table wine movement accelerated in the 1990s as younger members of Port families took active roles within their companies and talented young winemakers found opportunities in the region. These like-minded friends, who exchanged winemaking and viticultural ideas as they tasted their wines together, began mutually marketing their table wines and came to be known as the “Douro Boys.” The group includes Dirk Niepoort of the Port brand and Quinta do Carril, Cristiano van Zeller (Quinta de Roriz), Miguel and Tomas Roquette (Quinta do Crasto), Francisco Ferreira (Quinta do Vallado), and Francisco (“Xito”) Olazabal, Jr. (Quinta do Vale Meão).
Joining the Douro Boys in pushing Douro unfortifieds to the forefront are the Symington family, who control a powerful Port empire that includes Warre and Dow; Quinta de la Rosa; Ramos Pinto (Duas Quinta is this Port producer’s red table wine); and Jorge Moriera, Quinta de la Rosa’s winemaker, who makes his own wine, called Poeira. Today, many more Port producers are reserving some of their best grapes for table-wine production.
In a departure from the Douro tradition of blending two or more varieties, some of the Douro producers are marketing single-varietal wines, particularly wines made from Touriga Nacional, the best Douro red grape that rivals Cabernet Sauvignon in complexity, longevity, structure, and finesse. To date, this gambit has been used to introduce mostly moderate- and premium-tier wines of the variety to an international audience; the top Douro table wines, similar to Bordeaux, are blends.
Are these wines the first of a “Super Douro” category? Considering the increasingly global nature of the wine world and the immense potential for Douro table wines, more such partnerships are inevitable---and ever-better wines will be the result. But as these Douro treasures are “discovered,” prices are sure to rise. There is no better time for restaurant wine buyers to become familiar with these impressive wines and introduce the best of them to their dining-room guests.
What Is a Douro Table Wine?
Douro whites have decidedly more body than the nervy and lithe Vinho Verde wines grown to the west and northwest and are endowed with complex aromas and flavors of citrus, stone fruit, melon, and spice. They have surprisingly good acidity. Douro reds are formidable---structured wines with firm and fine tannins, deep color, and concentrated, mature red- and black-fruit aromas and flavors with some earthy and spice notes.
Most Douro whites should be consumed within two years of release. Regular bottlings of Douro reds can be drunk upon release but will be lively for five or more years. Reserve bottlings from good vintages reward cellaring beyond ten years.
The Douro Difference: Terroir and Grapes
The ascendance of Douro wines, both Port and table, is attributable to a remarkable convergence of climate, typology, geography, soils, and grape varieties. The Douro appellation, with its majestic terraced vineyards lining the steep-sloped valleys of the Douro and its tributaries, begins 45 miles from the Atlantic and east of the 4,600-foot Serra do Marão Mountains that cut off the cooling and dampening oceanic influence from the vineyards. From 80 inches on the coast, annual rainfall drops off to 35 inches in the Baixo Corgo and to 16 inches in the Douro Superior near the border with Spain. The almost impenetrable schist on the riverbanks and granite outcroppings elsewhere must be blasted and broken to root vines. During the dry summers, temperatures soar into the low 100s, sometimes for weeks on end.
Of the surprising number of grape varieties that grow in this hostile climate, a handful have been found superior for wine production for both Port and table wines. Similar to the southern Rhône, producers prefer to blend two or more varieties for both whites and reds, following the successful Port model that builds wine complexity by utilizing the wide palette of aromas and flavors of Douro grapes.
Douros on the List
Unfamiliarity is probably the greatest hurdle that on-premises wine staff face when introducing Douro table wines to their customers. None of the Douro estates are household names, and the names of Douro grape varieties do not trip easily off the tongue.