We live in a golden age for wine, it has never been better made, more exciting or as affordable as now.
I often think though how much more thrilling it must have been to have been around while the great regions were emerging and while their reputations were being originally earned. All the truly great wine regions that we talk about in reverential and hushed tones – in the old world anyway – were established long ago and so now have something of the past about them. This is not to be critical by the way, merely acknowledging that these places are often steeped in tradition.
Of course what constitutes a great wine region can vary from opinion to opinion, but I am pretty sure there is a broad agreement about the very best wine regions. They must produce wines that talk of that place, be terroir wines, they must produce complex and layered wines that can be aged – whether you do age them or even want to is another matter. They must be wines that command a following and a premium price – after all that is one of the key criteria for the Cru Classé of Bordeaux and the Grands Crus of Burgundy.
Taking all of those points into account, there is one leading, world class wine region in Europe that at first glance would seem to be as old as any of them, but is actually a pretty recent phenomenon.
That region is Portugal’s Douro Valley.
Of course the Douro has existed for ever and has produced wine of a sort since records began. However for many complex reasons, the place developed a particular style of wine – sweet and fortified – that to some degree sets it aside from places like Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, Tuscany and Rioja.
Unfortified table wine from the Douro though has only been produced in relatively recent times, certainly in any quantity and to a world class standard. It was not really until 1979 that they received any recognition at all, with the creation of the Douro D.O.C..
Baron Forrester of course famously championed the production of table wines and advocated the Port producers stop ‘adulterating’ their wines with spirit, a fact that led to many conspiracy theories about his untimely death.
Before phylloxerra unfortified wines from Port country were known as ‘consumo’, which certainly implies that they were simple wines drunk quite quickly after production and their market was limited to Portugal and Brazil. It seems that after phylloxerra they nigh on disappeared with the bulk of the grapes being used to produce the spirit for Port.
The Douro remained purely a region for fortified wines until 1952 when Ferreira produced the first vintage of Barca Velha. It wasn’t made every year, but I well remember how this wine acquired almost mythical status and a high reputation which had a knock on effect on other producers causing them too to use surplus port grapes to make a table wine – often just on an experimental basis. It took well over 20 years for such wines to become anything other than a novelty.
Portuguese membership of the E.U. had an enormous effect on wine production, massive investment in the 1990s transformed many wineries and the entire outlook of the country. Huge strides were made and development was so fast that by the turn of the 21st century Douro wines were well established.
What is astonishing though is that at some point within the last dozen or so years the Douro has clearly and unambiguously taken its place amongst the great wine regions of the world and overtaken all its Portuguese rivals. Obviously this is no overnight success, but it is a remarkable achievement none the less.
I have been excited by the wines for many years, indeed I used to sell a couple of Douro reds in the mid 1990s when they were still a rarity, but I have been thrilled by the amazing development I saw on a recent trip to the Douro as a guest of the Discover the Origin campaign and at the New Douro tasting in February.
There were many highlights, but these producers stood out:
Domingos Alves de Sousa were among Douro’s table wine pioneers and produce exciting reds and whites .
Their 2007 Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal Branco is a very individualistic sort of wine, full of character and depth. For this dry white they decided to make a wine with some of the personality and intensity of a white Port. To achieve this it was fermented (on the skins for the first 48 hours) in new French oak with hyper-oxidation and hard pumping over and a further 6 months in new French oak. The result is extraordinary, full flavoured, concentrated and quirky with barley sugar, caramelised orange, rich apricot, spices and honey, in fact it sort of tastes like a very rich Sauternes, but is bone dry. It put me in mind of those new wave amphora aged wines and orange wines, but unlike most of those it is utterly delicious – 93/100 points.
Their top red is the Abandonado crafted from an 80 year old vineyard that was abandoned for many years – hence the name – before being nurtured back to life. I tasted the 2009:
Field-blend of old vine Tinta Amarela, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and some other grapes too and aged for 18 months in new Portuguese and French oak.
Lovely nose, a red fruit and black fruit melange, smoky too, with stewed plums, sugar plums, herbs, some eucalyptus and tar.
Lovely palate, great weight, fruit, tar, earth, slate, minty, supple texture with fine smoky wood and fine grain tannins.
Superbly integrated and balanced, quite brilliant – 92/100 points.
Quinta da Noval is justifiably famous for both ports and wines and I was excited to stay there last year and enjoyed tasting their whole range. Everything was good, but my stand out wine was the 2009 Quinta do Noval:
2009 Quinta do Noval
A blend of 80% Touriga Nacional and 20% Touriga Franca.
The colour was a lovely opaque and intense cassis, while the very rich nose offered liquorice, earthy mineral notes, wild herbs, mocha and a hint of spice.
The palate was very smooth and supple with fine grain tannins, fleshy black fruit to the fore, a supple texture and touches of warm granite, clean earth, leather and eucalyptus. I really loved this wine, it was rich, concentrated and pretty full-bodied, but still had plenty of freshness and elegance – 93/100 points
Ramos Pinto is a family owned Port house that has been around since 1880, but has been at the forefront of the Douro’s table wine revolution. Which is hardly surprising given that the current owner’s father created Barca Velha. Their table wines are called Duas Quintas because they are a blend of fruit from 2 different estates, but I am sure that you could have worked that out for yourself.
The 2011 Duas Quintas (cask sample) was as reliable as ever with rich fruit, supple tannins and that slatey minerality to the finish. The 2011 Duas Quintas Reserva (cask sample) was more intense with richer fruit and more concentration.
2009 Duas Quintas Reserva
50% Touriga Nacional, 40% Touriga Franca & 10% Tinta da Barca with 18 months barrel ageing.
This great wine was equally intense, but more developed, smoky and earthy and mineral with some leather touches and rich raisined fruit giving a slight Port-like feel. Incredibly concentrated, but vibrant and modern in a really delicious and stylish way – 92/100 points.
Available in the UK from the Wine Society @ £25.00 per bottle.
Symington Family Estates is of course one of the firms that dominates the Port business – amongst other brands they own Cockburn, Warre’s, Dow’s and Graham’s. I visited them at Graham’s Lodge in Porto and was very impressed by what I tasted – dinner in the new Vinum Restaurant at the Graham’s Lodge was rather stunning too and Johnny Symington was a charming, entertaining and informative host. Renewing acquaintance with their wines at the New Douro tasting in London I was wowed all over again – even their relatively humble Six Grapes Reserve Ruby Port was delicious.
The Symingtons main table wine brand is Altano and even the standard wine is very good, with rich fruit and a distinctive minerality, but I really enjoyed the
2011 Altano Quinta do Ataide Organic
This blend of organically grown Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca grapes was cold fermented and aged in second fill French oak for 10 months.
This offers great concentration and depth and wonderfully vibrant fruit and a slatey minerality, it gives lots of pleasure and is sinfully drinkable. This is stunning quality for its price and should be more popular – 90/100 points because of the great value.
The 2009 Altano Reserva Quinta do Ataide is a bit more serious and concentrated still, showing a little ageing, but the fruit is still intense and it has that spicy, earthy, mineral and inky character that reminds me of Priorat’s licorella and which I have come to identify with the Douro – 91/100 points.
They also produce a pair of deeply impressive wines at their Quinta do Vesúvio estate in the Douro Superior zone. The 2009 Quinta do Vesúvio was my favourite red wine of 2013. It is intensely ripe, fragrant and floral, concentrated and so gloriously fruity that the complexity and structure is a little hidden, but it’s there, with silky tannins, mocha tinged oak and that rocky herbal, slate minerality on the finish. This is a magnificent wine and was the most impressive Douro I tried on my trip, perhaps only by a whisker, but I loved the intensity of the fruit, the concentration, the supple tannins and the incredible spectrum of flavours – 93/100 points.
The second wine, the 2009 Pombal do Vesúvio is very good too, just that bit lighter and more stony in character – 91/100 points.
The Symingtons also produce wines in partnership with Bruno Prats at Prats & Symington which is based on the fruit from Quinta de Perdiz and Quinta de Roriz, which are close together midway between Bonfim and Malvedos. Unusually, given that these properties are bang in the middle of premium Port country, it is Douro table wines that is the focus here and so the best fruit is selected for that, although a little vintage Port is also produced. The company was formed in 1998 with wines following in 2000, so it is all still very new, but also very assured. The principal wine is called Chryseia which means gold in Greek – Douro also means gold. The 2011 Chryseia promises much, being intense and concentrated with plush fruit and lots of that licorella-like minerality. It isn’t just big though, there is freshness and balance too making it very fine.
The 2007 Chryseia is 50% each of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca and showed more development. It is beautifully supple and richly fruity, but with more dried fruit showing now. The minerality is still there giving an almost bitter twist like tapenade and strong espresso to the finish, while the tannins are just beginning to be silky – 93/100 points.
There are two second wines, the 2011 Post Scriptum has bags of fruit and an elegant juiciness. While the 2011 Prazo de Roriz too had lots of fruit, it was more earthy, mineral and savoury with a bitterness reminiscent of unsweetened dark chocolate.
All the wines I had were very good. Some were bargains, many offered great value, while others were great at any price, but in all of them there was elegance and a sense of place. That mineral, slate or licorella taste was always there giving a true taste of the Douro. The water is drawn up through these schist soils and whether that directly effects the wine or not they do have this slatey schistous flavour profile that makes them very distinctive indeed.
It seems to me that any tasting of the Douro will reveal wines worthy of rubbing shoulders with the best. They scream of their terroir – you can taste the wild slate hillsides in the glass. The better wines are certainly layered and complex and can age, while many of them now command and indeed deserve eye watering prices.
These wild, barren, sun-soaked slate / schist hillsides seem to be able to produce extraordinary wines with great depth and often real complexity. What’s more the region has its own grape varieties – used to make Port in the past, but now clearly capable of producing world class dry wines. So if you want classic European wines, but with new flavour profiles, the Douro is a good place to turn. If you like Tuscan wines, Priorat or the wines of the Rhône then these really could be wines for you.
I am certain that we have just lived through the birth of a truly great wine region, they are not yet widely popular or sought after, but as Paul Symington confidently told me, their time will come.
Last year I enjoyed a stunning dinner at the Vinum Restaurant housed in the Grahams Lodge in Villa Nova de Gaia. It is a wonderful place with great food and lovely views across the river. Everything was perfect and as I said above, the 2009 Quinta do Vesúvio was my favourite red wine of 2013. Well as this superb meal drew to a close Johnny Symington set yet another bottle down on the table and some was poured for each of us. I could not have believed that things could get any better at that moment, but they did, because we were about to taste the
1952 Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny (Colheita) Port which was bottled to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Now I love Colheita Ports, I think they are a fabulous and underrated style, but the quality of this took even my breath away. These old wood aged Ports – and this wine has lain undisturbed in wooden pipes for 60 years – lose that opaque colour and look quite brown and nutty. This was fragrant and perfumed with molasses, dried fig and salty caramel aromas. The palate was sensuous and rich with liquor orange, dried apricot, dried figs, sticky toffee pudding and candied pumpkin characters. The finish was long and nutty, but balanced by a nice cut of refreshing acidity to cleanse the senses. A stunning, stunning wine and without a doubt the best thing I drank in 2013 – 96/100 points.