Wine of the Week 5 – fine organic red from the Douro

The beautiful terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley.

The beautiful terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley.

My wine of the week this time is a wine that I have mentioned before in a piece about Portugal’s Douro region. I drank a bottle the other day and was once again struck by how good it was. It was so classy, so delicious and such great value for money that I simply could not resist making it my wine of the week.

It is made by the Symington family who own many superb estates in the beautiful Douro Valley as well as Port houses such as Graham, Dow, Cockburns and Warre. For the last 15 years or so they have branched out from being purely a Port producer to becoming one of Portugal’s best winemakers too and this wine is a superb calling card for them. If you have never tasted a really good Portuguese wine, or just want something good at a great price, then give it a go, it could well be your wine of the week too:

The view from Vinum

The Douro in Porto.

LN_504100_BP_a_232011 Altano Quinta do Ataide Organic
D.O. Douro, Portugal

This blend of organically grown Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca grapes was sourced from the Symington family’s Assares vineyard which was certified organic in 2006. The wine was cold fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in second fill French oak for 10 months.
This offers great concentration and depth and wonderfully vibrant fruit together with a touch of spice 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.

Available in the UK from Waitrose & Fareham Wine Cellar @ £9.99 per bottle, more UK stockist information is available from Fells, the distributor.
Available in the US from Curtis Liquors, more US stockist information is available from Vineyard Brands, the distributor.

Birth of a Region

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.

The beautiful terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley.

The beautiful terraced vineyards of the 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 beautiful Douro.

The beautiful Douro.

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.

Map of the Douro – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of the Douro – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

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 .

Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal BrancoTheir 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.

The Abandanado Vineyard, these ancient vines create an extraordinary wine.

The Abandanado Vineyard, these ancient vines create an extraordinary wine.

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:

Abandonado2009 Abandonado
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.

The beautiful Quinta do Noval

The beautiful Quinta do Noval

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:

quinta_do_noval_2007_douro_doc_3__39102_big2009 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

The view from Niepoort.

The view from Niepoort.

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.

Duas2009 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.

 

More of the beautiful Douro.

More of the beautiful Douro.

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.

Johnny Symington

Johnny Symington

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

Organic2011 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.

Available in the UK from Waitrose & Ocado @ £9.99 per bottle.

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.

quinta-do-vesuvio-2008-red-wineThey 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.

chryseiaThe 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.

In Conclusion

The schist soil in the Douro Valley.

The schist soil in the Douro Valley.

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.

Post Script

The view from Vinum

The view from Vinum

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

Cut-out-bottle-shot11952 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.

Port and the Douro – perfect for Christmas

In my quest to tell you about some great wine books this Christmas I am currently reading the third edition of Port and the Douro by Richard Mayson. What better subject is there to read about at Christmas?

Richard Mayson

Richard Mayson

Port book coverPort and the Douro
by Richard Mayson
with illustrations by Leo Duff
Published by Infinite Ideas at £30.00
Also available from Amazon.com as well as Amazon.co.uk and Waterstones in the UK at around £27.00.

It is a sadness to me that I do not drink very much Port as I am very fond of the stuff and find it fascinating. I also regret the fact that as yet I still have not visited the Douro, although I hope to put that right very soon. In the meantime I will have to experience the region through Richard Mayson’s eyes and writing.

Luckily I am in capable hands. Richard clearly knows his subject and writes well in an authoritative and almost learned style.

Much to my surprise I greatly enjoyed the first section which gives a general history of Portugal as it relates to Port and the Douro, her wars, politics, culture and gastronomy – my only quibble would be the reference to Oliver Cromwell as a ‘Puritan’, which he certainly was not – but that aside I had learnt a great deal of interesting stuff by page 6.

Given the seeming long history of Port drinking and how closely it is associated with the British in our minds, I found it fascinating that Baltic and Hanseatic merchants actually got the trade going before we Brits arrived – even the Scots beat the English to it in the years before the Union.

I was also astonished by the fact that Port was a dry wine until well into the Eighteenth Century and had the English nickname of ‘black-strap‘. As this term is nowadays associated with molasses I had always understood it to be an archaic colloquial word for Royal Navy rum, but apparently it originally referred to Port.

The development of the wine bottle and of the style of Port we know today seem to go pretty much hand in hand and it seems that it was not really until the beginning of the Nineteenth Century that Port as we know it appeared on the scene. The first recorded use of a Port house name – Croft – as a brand did not occur until 1810 and the practice was not commonplace for another eighty years or so – so only around the time my grandfather was born.

After all this wonderful background Richard settles down to inform us about the geography and geology of the region together with sections that detail the grape varieties that they use. There are maps too and profiles of all the estates marked on them.

The chapter that deals with how Port is made is endlessly interesting – the throw away line about the return to the use of lagares in the the 1990s, after they had been pretty much unused since the mid 1970s, and what that has meant for quality I found very illuminating. Surely it can be no coincidence that this overlaps with something of a Port renaissance.

The chapter on Port Types – referring to the wines rather than the people –  is endlessly fascinating fleshing out details on types of wine that I thought I knew and detailing odd little facts on the classifications and all the styles from Tawny to Rosé and Colheita to Vintage by way of White Port and Moscatel do Douro.

Vintage Port enjoys such fame that it deserves and receives a chapter to itself with vintage details going back to 1844. There is also a directory of Port producers and shippers, which I for one will find invaluable.

Add in sections that deal with the Douro’s table wines of the region, the storage and service of Port and what the future may hold for this great wine region, then I think Richard has done the Port proud and may well have produced the definitive book on the subject.

I have only seen an E book version and not the real thing, so have not felt it or flicked through it as I normally would and therefore have no idea if the book is has that undefinable lovely, tactile and pleasurable feeling that a good book should, but I did like the contents very much.

It is an excellent and beautifully illustrated book that covers Port and the Douro in depth and detail. It’s not a light read, but a serious volume for people who are genuinely interested in the subject and those who need a reference book on this fascinating subject.

 

The Joy of Port

My favourite tasting of the year so far was the Blandys Madeira seminar and I had no expectation that I would go to anything so wonderful again in 2011 – how wrong I was. Barely a fortnight later I was completely spoilt by another line up of amazing Portuguese fortified wines. This time it was Port and I was totally won over.

Our hosts were the effortlessly charming Johnny and Paul Symington whose family have been Port merchants for the best part of two hundred years and own most of the really great Port brands including Graham’s, Dow’s, Cockburn’s and Warre’s.

Paul Symington in full flow…

Remarkably though they can trace their involvement in the Port industry back through 13 generations to 1652 when Walter Maynard, Oliver Cromwell’s representative in Lisbon, exported 39 pipes of Port wine. Walter later settled in Oporto, married a Portuguese lady and one of their descendants married into the Symington family in 1891, but it seems that a good many others had married into various other Port houses along the way.

In recent years the family’s focus has been in expanding their portfolio of vineyards in the Douro Valley so that they control every aspect of their Port production. As Paul Symington told us, in the past they and all the other famous brands were more like negociants, shippers in Port parlance, than a domaine but that is less and less true today. As Paul told us, they have become farmers rather than merchants.

In fact this tasting was all about vineyards as the subject was their Single Quinta Vintage Ports. A Quinta is a wine farm or vineyard with a house and winery on it and the Symingtons now own 26 of these throughout the prime Port lands of the Alto Douro. By some strange oversight in my career I have never visited the Douro, but from the photographs they showed us it looks a stunningly beautiful place.

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