The Douro Boys
By John Szabo MS
Among the countless unofficial winery associations worldwide, the group of five estates from the Douro Valley in Portugal – Quinta do Vallado, Niepoort, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale D. Maria and Quinta do Vale Meão – known as the Douro Boys, have had disproportionate success. Since forming in 2003, they’ve succeeded in raising not only their own profiles internationally, but also the image of the entire Douro Valley.
The group holds regular joint tastings, seminars and presentations around the world, like the one in Toronto in October, aimed at celebrating the Douro Valley along with their own unique histories. Although each produces port wines, the goal is above all to raise the profile of dry wines, and the collective quality of their portfolios, among the best in the Douro, gives their message strength and credence to be sure.
But what makes this group particularly compelling is how unlikely an association they are. Five more distinctive personalities would be hard to script. And the wine styles that result from their fiercely independence natures and individual ideas about how best to interpret the Douro’s great terroir clearly reflect that. It’s as though they gather around the table to discuss how to be different, rather than the typical association approach of trying to harmonize styles and messages. As a result, the Douro Boys’ story is a complex one, with multiple endings, like a choose-your-own-adventure.
On the one extreme lies Dirk Niepoort and his wines of uncommon delicacy and finesse, produced from a collection of high elevation sites, some north facing, harvested a good deal earlier than the mean. Of all the Douro boys, Niepoort is perhaps the greatest outlier, content to operate in his own space, confident enough to push extremes. His influence on the rest of the valley, and Portugal, cannot be under-estimated.
On the other extreme lies the Roquette family’s Quinta do Crasto in the Douro Superiore, an estate favouring density, ripeness and power, abetted by the terroir, and unapologetically generous use of toasty new wood in the modern style. Crasto’s wines have been highly successful abroad, especially in Canada and the US.
Cristiano Van Zeller’s Quinta Vale Dona Maria plays a little in both spectrums, producing powerhouses like the Estate Douro red on the one hand, and the exceptionally perfumed and refined single vineyard Vinha da Francisca Douro red on the other. The way forward for Van Zeller, he tells me on a visit last fall, is a return to co-planting field blends of multiple varieties, which was standard practice before the mid-twentieth century. I eagerly await the results.
João and Francisco Ferreira’s Quinta do Vallado follows a similar pattern, variously expressing a wide palette of vineyards, with old and young vines. Vallado crafts some unusual specialties like a pure souzão, zesty and bright, as well as a pure touriga nacional, open, honest and very natural. A stay at the Quinta’s hotel with its mesmerizing view over the Douro River is highly recommended.
Francisco Olazabal’s Quinta Vale Do Meão (he also makes the wine at Vallado; the Ferreiras are cousins), one of the great historic properties of the Douro where the first great dry Douro red was born, Barca Velha, finds a comfortable via di mezzo. His wines perform a balancing act of depth and power without exaggeration, offering ripe but fresh fruit and carefully measured wood influence. Uniquely for the Douro, the quinta straddles a fault line, on the one side of which is strikingly pure granite bedrock, and on the other, more typical schist. Olazabal puts the granite on display in the Monte Meão red, pure touriga from the granites, charmingly rustic, grippy, tight and high-toned. When combined with grapes from the schists as in the estate Red, the quinta’s maximum expression shines.
That, at least, is how I see it. But if there’s one thing these producers do have in common, it’s a fierce desire to safeguard Douro traditions and grape varieties, a very worthy mission.
Below are my top picks from each portfolio, out of the wines presented in October. Check WineAlign for availability.
Buyer’s Guide: Douro Boys
Quinta do Vale Meão (Available in Ontario via Trialto)
Quinta do Vale Meão 2014 Meandro White, Douro Valley ($20.00)
2014 was just the second vintage for this new white addition to the Vale Meão portfolio, and it’s terrific. Made from high elevation vineyards and (acid-retaining) arinto and rabigato, this is crisp and highly perfumed, lovely and fresh, succulent and savoury, with mesmerizing herbal notes, sage and lemongrass. Fruit runs in the bright citrus range, while cleverly measured lees influence adds a touch of flintiness. Wood is not a factor – this is all about the fruit, floral and herbal perfume, and at the price, makes for an attractive buy to be sure.
Quinta do Vale Meão 2013 Meandro, Douro Valley ($25.00)
Made from about 30% each touriga nacional, franca, tinta roriz, plus 10% other grapes. 2013 was an elegant year in the Douro, with a little more acidity than the mean, yielding a fresh and pure example. This is a great vintage for the Meandro. In 5 years this will be spectacular. Best 2018-2024.
Quinta do Vale Meão 2012 Estate Wine, Douro Valley ($110.00)
From the oldest vineyards of mainly touriga nacional and touriga franca, this is a substantial, ripe, perfumed, fullish and succulent Douro red, with lovely mid-palate pitch and generous but reeled in fruit. It offers balance and freshness, modest wood influence, plenty of floral perfume, bright citrus and terrific length. Over several vintages, the estate red appears to have evolved into a wine of greater finesse and politeness. The Quinta has been gradually replanted from the 1960s onwards. Best 2018- 2035+
Niepoort (Available in Ontario via FWP Trading)
Niepoort 2014 Redoma Branco, Douro Valley ($35.50)
Classically refined in the Niepoort house style, with terrific texture and great palate presence. I love the silky-suave mouthfeel, genuine depth and concentration, and sleek, elegant styling. Terrific length. Top stuff and a great value in the context. Best 2015-2022.
Niepoort 2013 Coche Branco, Douro Valley ($124.00)
Made from a typical Douro field blend, the oldest vines in the Niepoort collection, over 100 years old, on the edge of the Douro zone where the percentage of granite is higher than in the rest of the region. Inspired by Burgundy legend Jean-François Coche-Dury, The Niepoort “Coche” offers notable sulphides in the fashionably reductive style, and is allowed to go through full malolactic. The palate is superb, with multiple layers and beguiling texture, tremendous depth and length. Wood is magically integrated. This should be revisited in another 2-3 years I suspect for the best expression of this exceptional wine, or decant before serving. This is a new Douro white wine paradigm. Best 2017-2025.
Niepoort 2001 Colheita Port, (bottled in 2014), Douro Valley ($74.00)
An unusually long-aged Colheita (only 7 years are required by law, this saw double that), with supremely elegant texture, fine-grained and filigree, mouth filling and pure, with a sort of savoury-saltiness that draws you in for another sip, or more. In the context of great wines, and complex wines, this is very comfortably in the top value category – this is precisely what you want to have on hand for those elegant and sophisticated finishes to a great meal. Best served lightly chilled to enhance the elegance further.
Niepoort 2012 Batuta, Douro Valley ($118.00)
Batuta, Dirk Niepoort’s more structured and robust red wine, is made with virtually no stem inclusion, and using very little extraction, though is left for several weeks on skins. The source of its typically more structured profile is the vineyard, according to Niepoort. Unusually for this house, it’s aged in barriques, including a small percentage of new wood, 20-30%, even if the wood influence remains very modest. The 2012 is relatively closed on the nose at the moment; the palate is mid-weight but full-flavoured, with plenty of dark fruit character. Tannins are abundant but relatively fine-grained, giving this solid architecture, yet in a more refined style than is typical from the Douro. So, although this is Niepoort’s more firm and bold expression, in the larger world context, it remains an elegant, sagely ripened red with plenty of finesse. Best 2018-2030.
Niepoort 2013 Charme Red, Douro Valley ($118.00)
Charme, Niepoort’s most elegant, refined red, is made with 100% stems, and a short extraction period. The 2013 is magical, already open and elegant on the nose, perfumed, all finesse and refinement. This is an absolutely beautiful wine, a monument of grace and sleek styling, so savoury and fine, fabulously silky, and with terrific length. In my view this is the finest Charme yet, which regularly tops my list of favourite Douro reds, albeit in an atypical, almost Burgundian style. It may disappoint those seeking a bolder Douro expression focused on power and extract, but for fans of finesse, the buck stops here. Best 2015-2030.
Quinta do Crasto (Available in Ontario via FWP Trading)
Quinta do Crasto 2012 Reserva Old Vines, Douro Valley ($45.50)
Quinta do Crasto’s old vines reserve is a reliably fine wine, hitting the right balance between power and elegance. It’s more reserved and less obviously woody than the ‘regular’ Crasto estate red, and even more refined than previous vintages, heading it seems into a realm of more elegance, relatively speaking, with clearly very ripe fruit, but ultimately balanced. As usual, this delivers tremendous impact and depth for the money, the equal of many wines in the same genre at far higher prices. Best 2017-2027.
Quinta Vale Dona Maria (Available in Ontario via FWP Trading)
Quinta Vale Dona Maria 2012 Rufo Red, Douro Valley ($20.00)
A terrific ‘entry-level’ red from the Douro Valley, fresh, lightly reductive, juicy, ripe and satisfying, with decent grip and depth. I like the succulent acids and the balance. Serve with a light chill for maximum effect – an infinitely drinkable style. Best 2016-2020.
Quinta Vale Dona Maria 2012 Vinha da Francisca, Douro Valley ($139.00)
A perfumed and edgy Douro red, the most elegant in the Dona Maria range in my view, still slightly reductive and a touch stemmy, with firm, tight tannins to match. Acids are likewise firm and the texture tight and palate gripping. I like the genre-bending aspect of this wine, but it will need at least another 4-6 years to start shifting into the lovely savoury-leathery range of flavours that make aged wine so engaging. Superb stuff in any case. Best 2020-2035.
Quinta do Vallado (Available in Ontario via FWP Trading)
Quinta do Vallado 2012 Touriga Nacional, Douro Valley ($42.00)
A wild and fruity, honest and open, natural smelling wine with a light oxidative (attractive) quality. The palate is fullish, pure, and fruity with a fine touch of earth and herbal character, and decent length. A fine, honest, balanced red wine, neither over nor under wrought. Wood is not a significant factor. Best 2015-2024.
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