Profile on the Douro – John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for May 26th 2012
Portugal is the other theme of the May 26th Vintages release, with a selection of wines from four different regions. I take an in depth look at the Douro Valley below and I’ve included a link to some Smart Portugal Buys from both the LCBO release and private import channels.
The Douro Valley
The Douro Valley is easily the most recognized wine region in Portugal. Its fame was of course established as the source of one of the world’s great fortified wines, Porto. The strong, sweet red and white wines of DOC Porto are still, three centuries after their creation, considered among the world’s best and immediately associated with the country that makes them. It was the early commercial success of port and the resulting need to protect its reputation that led to the Douro’s demarcation in 1756, making it one of the oldest appellations in the world.
The fame and reputation of port lives on, but early into the 21st century, it’s the dry white and especially red table wines (in the sense of unfortified) that are making headlines. No less than half of the region’s grapes are destined for table wines today, and increasingly they are sourced from some of the region’s finest vineyards and oldest vines, too, which in the past were reserved exclusively for port. In the short span of 30 years since the DOC for table wines was granted in 1979, Douro wines have become the most admired in Portugal, and increasingly respected around the world.
The region itself takes the ideal image of picturesque vineyard landscapes to a new level of jaw-dropping beauty. No visitor can fail to marvel at the ingenuity, or perhaps madness of man to have endeavored and succeeded to tame the rugged, tortuously twisted course of the river into a viable agricultural landscape. From its source in Spain, the Río Duero takes a name change to the Douro as it comes crashing over the border on its 200km journey through Portugal down to the Atlantic Ocean. On either bank, hundreds of kilometers of carefully contoured, walled terraced vineyards rise up to 700m, some on seemingly impossibly steep slopes dynamited into submission straight out of the bedrock. The surface is littered with fractured pieces of stone, creating a dazzling yet blinding shimmer of reflected sunlight. Handsome but rugged manor houses made of the grey stone dot the sides and crests of hills, commanding impressive views over the river and its vine-covered banks. So unique is the region that UNESCO declared the Douro a World Heritage Site in 2001, describing it as a “cultural, evolving live landscape” worthy of protection.
The river, and later the train track that follows its course were once the only way to access this remote region, and the further up river one travelled, the more remote and wild the surroundings became. A nearly completed four-lane highway makes visiting the Douro much easier these days. Yet as wild as the Douro Valley still appears today, the region’s climate is perhaps even less hospitable.
Often characterized as ‘severe’ by vine growers in the resigned way that only a lifetime’s worth of agriculture can validate, the temperatures inland towards the Spanish border regularly reach 50ºC in the dead of summer. Rainfall is scant here too, and one wonders how the vine even survives at all.
The secret lies in a curious geological phenomenon: at some distant period in the past, a thick layer of underlying pre-Cambrian schistous rock was upended vertically, breaking through the upper layers of granite that otherwise dominate in this part of the world. As viewed from above, the Douro Valley looks much like a sort of schist sandwich with thick slices of granite bread surrounding it, and indeed the irregular boundaries of the Port and Douro DOCs follow almost precisely this queer rocky outcropping. Laid horizontally, schist is one of the most impenetrable geological formations for even the most persistent vine roots. Vertically, however, the strata of rock are more like tiles stacked side-by-side, with fissures between each that encourage roots to penetrate tens of metres into the ground where coolness, nutrients and moisture can be found. Thus not only do vines survive, they also thrive, as attested to by the significant number of ancient vineyards in the region, some dating from as far back as the late 19th century.
The part of the Douro Valley relevant to wine growers stretches 100 kilometres from the Spanish border to near the town of Mesão Frio, in the eastern foothills of the Serra do Marão. This range of hills offers protection from the Atlantic, but nonetheless this part of the valley, referred to as Baixo Corgo (Lower Corgo), receives the most rainfall and experiences the coolest temperatures. Wines, too, tend to be less dramatic, a little softer and fresher. The central part of the valley, or Cima Corgo (Upper Corgo), runs from Régua, taking in the unofficial capital of Douro wine country, Pinhão, perched on a hillside at what looks from a distance like the end of the river until you see it take a sharp turn to the southeast. This is the heartland of the appellation where many of the Douro’s finest vineyards are situated. Then, further eastward from Numão to the Spanish border is the area known as the Douro Superior (Upper Douro), with its bitterly cold winters, blistering summers and low rainfall. Once extremely remote and inhospitable, vineyards are much more recent here. With modern vineyard management techniques to cope with the extremes, and more gentle gradients that make mechanization possible in some places, the area is fairly exploding with development.
Portugal is well known for its wide array of grape varieties, but nowhere is the diversity more dazzling than in the Douro. In the not-too-distant past, here, as elsewhere in the country, grapes were co-planted in the same parcels following folk wisdom and empirical knowledge handed down through generations. It is still common today to find old vineyards planted with 40, 50 or even more varieties all jumbled and harvested together. The frenzy of vineyard industrialization and rationalization into neat rows of single varieties that gripped the rest of post-war Europe seems to have spared this part of the continent.
According to DOC rules, no less than 54 white grape varieties and some 77 red grapes are authorized for Douro wine production. Yet for all but the prized wines from old vine parcels, in practice, the number of grapes in common use has been significantly reduced over the last 30 years and the first monovarietal vineyards were planted in 1981.
The most promising grapes singled out were Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cão. Of this elite group, most producers consider the first three to be the Douro’s marquee red grapes. Admittedly, it would be a great shame to lose the diversity that makes the Douro’s wines so unique. And fortunately, there are several producers committed to maintaining variety in the face of fashion. While the VR Duriense appellation covers over 45,000 hectares, the land entitled to the DOC Douro is just over 38,000 hectares, and that for port, is more restricted still, at 32,000 hectares. The individual vineyard sites of the Douro have been carefully classified over time, in a system that dates back to mid-17th century, when measures were put in place to protect the reputation of port wine. The rating of each vineyard is based on physical attributes such as altitude, aspect, elevation, varieties planted, planting density, vine age, and soil type. They are rated from A (excellent) to G (unsuitable), with significant potential quality differences between each level. As in Champagne, the better the rating, the higher the prices paid for grapes, and the more port wine they are permitted to produce. Officially the system relates only to port wine production, but a vineyard’s real estate value and the price commanded for its grapes remains nonetheless valid for whatever style of wine will be produced.
On the production side, the romantic vision of stone lagares, the ancient shallow troughs used to crush grapes by foot power since Roman times, is not as distant a memory as one might believe. Many producers in the Douro proudly describe their wines, port or table, as “foot trodden,” claiming that modern technology has yet to devise a better system of extraction. The original adherence to this method was based on simple pragmatism: unlike most red table wine, port wine spends little time in contact with the skins (two to three days), given the need to fortify and press to separate skins and partially fermented juice early on in the process (or risk extracting really harsh tannins in such a high alcohol milieu). Yet in order to last a half-century or more in barrel or bottle, the wine needs to be richly extracted. So how to achieve that extraction in such a short period? Continual treading by foot is the answer, in a shallow vessel with high skin-to-juice contact ratio. The foot is gentle enough to avoid splitting grape seeds and releasing harsh green tannin, all the while maximizing the colour, tannin and flavour extraction.
The traditional technique has spilled over into Douro table wine production, resulting in wines with uncommonly deep purple colour and intense extraction, capable of significant aging. Naturally, modern vinification facilities with stainless steel tanks using pump-over or punch down extraction methods are found throughout the region, as are more modern versions of the lagar, made from stainless steel and equipped with temperature control and robotic pistons designed to reproduce the effects of the human foot. Yet it’s hard to shake the quixotic image of a band of harvesters rinsing their dusty feet at the end of the day and plunging, thigh deep, into a pulpy purple mass of juice and skins, linking arms and dancing to the sound of an accordion in between occasional swigs of stamina-inducing bagaceira (Portuguese grappa) until the wee hours.
Aging takes places either entirely in stainless steel for the immediately fruity reds designed for early consumption, or in wood (often 225 litre barrels these days, but the larger 550 litre pipes and other sizes are in common use). The term reserva on a label guarantees a minimum of one year in wood. In addition, the wine must receive a higher score on the blind tastings conducted by the Port and Douro Wine Institute (IVDP) during the appellation approval process. Notably, the overall rejection rate for Douro wines by the IVDP is on average 17%, one of the highest in Europe.
That’s the background detail, but the proof is in the wines. Here’s a list of smart Portugal buys, currently available, to make sense of it all.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier