Hardscrabble & Feasts in the Douro

The Americans have a genius for words that describe exactly what they mean, so that you can understand it even if you have never heard it before.

Hardscrabble is just such a word and means that the land is so difficult to farm and so poor in nutrients that all you can do is to scratch a subsistence living. I first came across the expression at Linden Vineyards, where Jim Law had bought an abandoned “hardscrabble” farm and turned it into one of Virginia’s most exciting wineries. The place was so steep and stoney that Jim even named the vineyard and the wines produced from it “hardscrabble”.

Rugged, unforgiving vineyards are very often the best place for wine grape growing though, as they force the vine to work hard at surviving and so produce a small crop of tiny grapes with concentrated flavours and depth. In fact land like that, steep, stoney, inhospitable, inaccessible and harsh is perfect for wine grapes, but almost useless for any other marketable crop, which is why so many of these places have become famous as vineyard regions. These hard landscapes tend to be a feature of European wine making more than anywhere else and seem to be most frequently found in the Mediterranean world. RoussillonCinque Terre, Santorini, Pantelleria, Rapsani and Priorat could all be regarded as “hardscrabble” wine regions.

Portugal and Galicia do not actually have Mediterranean coasts, but surely they are culturally part of that world too, so I would add the astonishing Ribera Sacra to that list and perhaps the most wild and romantic wine landscape of them all – Portugal’s Douro Valley.

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The Douro – vineyards and cruise ship.

Terraced vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley.

Terraced vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley.

Untended vineyards are a common sight in the Douro.

Untended vineyards are a common sight in the Douro.

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The terraces soften the landscape and look very appealing.

The Douro is the 3rd longest river in Iberia, after the Tagus and the Ebro. In Spain – where it is called the Duero – it flows through Castilla y León, home to Ribera del Duero and Toro. The countryside here is beautiful, but not rugged or particularly harsh, that comes later once we are within sight of Portugal.  Arribes (del Duero) – where the river marks the frontier – is where the dramatic landscapes start, from here to Vila Nova de Gaia, near Porto, major centres of population are scarce and the wild, rugged, steep, hardscrabble hillsides dominate. In Portugal’s Douro Valley these slopes are home to the vineyards that create Port wines and the still / table wines of  D.O.C. Douro.

The Douro is one of the world’s great wine regions, but I had never managed to visit the place for myself until just the other week as a guest of the Discover the Origin campaign. What I saw fascinated me and educated me about the wines from this beautiful place.

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New terraces side by side with rubbed out vineyards.

The region is renowned today for the rich, sweet, fortified Ports, but of course it wasn’t always like that. In the middle ages – and before – this valley made normal wine, probably quite ordinary stuff as far as we can make out from the sparse records. It is even possible that the first wines known as Ports to the outside world were more akin to red Vinho Verde – light-bodied, low in alcohol and very acidic. We certainly know that even though Cromwell favoured them these wines did not catch on with English consumers until the early eighteenth century.

In those days the spirit was only added as the wine was being shipped, this was to protect it from turning bad on the voyage, so that ‘Port’ would most certainly have been dry – as long as the alcoholic fermentation was complete. It seems that until well into the 1820s there was no set time to add the spirit and no set amount of spirit either, so wines labelled Port could have varied enormously from dry red wines to something like the Port we know today. From what I have read it would appear that adding the spirit before the fermentation was complete – and creating a sweet wine – was not universal practice until the 1850s.

Even then not everyone approved, the influential Joseph James Forrester – created Baron Forrester in 1855 in recognition of his important work in mapping the Douro wine region – was campaigning against fortification and trying to persuade Port makers to return to making normal, but high quality, red wines.

Looking at the vineyards it really struck me just how much Port some people must drink! I like Port, very much but just cannot drink very much of it and yet, looking at the vast expanse of vineyards, someone must drink it all. Looking at those intensively planted slopes it is astonishing that is took so long for table wine production to catch on here. It was not until 1952 that a serious attempt was made to produce a fine red table wine from the region, the legendary Barca Velha made by Ferreira. It was slow to catch on at first, but gained in reputation until eventually the tide turned and more and more growers started making table wines in the Douro region. Finally in 1979 the Douro Denominacão de Origem Controlada / D.O.C. was created for the dry, still / table wines of the region – Port had already had its production zone defined by charter in 1756, making it probably the earliest such official wine region in the world.

Even today though the wines of this valley remain less famous than Port, which is a shame because many of the wines that I tasted were really good, but then so were the Ports themselves.

I have often wondered why the ‘Port’ region is so far away from the city whose name it takes. Well the reason is simple, near the coast the weather is wetter and more humid, so the grapes are grown further East and inland where they are sheltered from the Atlantic rains and winds by the Marão and Montemuro mountains. This gives the Douro a more continental climate with extremely hot summers and harsh winters – there are some pockets of a Mediterranean climate too the closer you get to the Spanish border.

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.

Baixo Corgo – the original area where it all began. This westernmost subregion is wetter than the others and is widely regarded as most suitable for the production of the simpler Ruby and Tawny Ports. However, some of the wines that I tried from this area were superb.

Cima Corgo – the heartland of Port production, this is where the majority of the famous Quintas, or grape farms, are located.

Douro Superior / Upper Douro – this is the hottest and driest zone and extends all the way to the Spanish border. Because it is so cut off it is the most recent zone to be cultivated and so is not intensively planted. Much of this zone is used for table wines rather than Ports.

Large terraces at Quinta do Noval.

Large terraces at Quinta do Noval.

Classically the vineyards for Port production are on the well drained schist soils – decayed slate – and are terraced to make them easier to farm and to counter soil erosion. The traditional terraces look lovely, either the socalcos – the original type that look like dry stone wall steps, or the bigger nineteenth century type terrace that is a gentle slope contained by a dry stone wall that allows use of horses and mules.

Patamares at front right.

Patamares at front right, terraces behind.

The more modern patamares, with their big earth banks and very low density planting are not nearly so attractive or in keeping with the landscape and I understand they are now out of favour again.

Everywhere you look in the Douro there is a feast for your eyes, it truly is beautiful and you can clearly see why the wines are like they are. It is a place that draws in the heat and almost abuses the vines that grow here by denying them water and nutrients – all so they can produce tiny amounts of deeply flavoured juice that always has a deep mineral character to it. When drinking the wines you can almost imagine that you are tasting these hillsides.

I will write more about some of the wineries I visited and some of the wines I tasted, but here are some of the highlights of my trip, the first of which had nothing to do with wine:

Trainspotting in the Douro
It has long been a dream of mine to travel on the Douro railway, the wonderful meandering train track that opened up this inaccessible valley in the mid to late nineteenth century. Sadly this was a short visit, so that ambition is still to be fulfilled. However, I was able to se the famous railway station in the delightful town of Pinhão. It’s a famous tourist attraction in its own right because of the beautiful tile decorations, which really are worth seeing.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

And now for some wine highlights:

Alves de Sousa, Quinta da Gaviosa
The first stop on my visit was at Alves de Sousa, this turned into a real highlight because they made us feel so at home – oh and the wines were really very good indeed.

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Tiago Alves de Sousa telling us about his 80 year old Abandonado vineyard.

This is a true family concern run by Domingos Alves de Sousa and his son Tiago. The impression I got was of a really good balance between Domingos, who seemed traditional and old fashioned in all the good ways and Tiago, who clearly loves his land, but would have been equally at home in a New York bar or an architects practice. The family have long owned some superb vineyards, but have only been producing and bottling their own Ports and table wines since 1987.

They own several Quintas, but we were at the beautiful Quinta da Gaviosa near Régua in the Baixo Corgo, which is the hub of their operation and the family home. The slopes are steep and the deep schist soils clearly visible through the thin ground cover.

The 80-100 year old vines in their Ambonada vineyard. It was abandoned and has been brought back to productive life.

The 80-100 year old vines in their Abandonado vineyard. It was abandoned and has been nurtured back to productive life.

The Alves de Sousa were among the pioneers of table wine production in the Douro and I thought all their wines were fascinating. Good though their reds and Ports are – and they  are very good – it was a couple of whites that really fired my imagination here.

For their white wines they use traditional white Douro grapes – a mixture of Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Viosinho and Arinto – from a mixture of very old vines – 60 years old or so – and newer carefully planted vineyards very high up on north facing slopes where the air is cooler and so the grape’s acids are better preserved.

The 2009 Alves de Sousa Branco de Gaivosa Reserva is a beautifully complex, textured, richly fruity, herbal and flavoursome wine, full of flavour and all balanced by a wonderfully crisp acidity – 88/100 points.

Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal BrancoThe 2007 Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal Branco  is an altogether more 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 entrance to Quinta do Noval.

The entrance to Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval
A wonderful highlight was staying at the beautiful Quinta do Noval, whose Ports and table wines are justifiably famous. It was tremendously exciting to spend a night at this wonderful place surrounded by the neatly ordered terraced vineyards. A comprehensive tasting of their range followed by a stroll around these terraces gave spectacular views – mind you the one from my bedroom took a lot of beating too – and helped get an overview of this amazing place.

The view from my bedroom, the building centre right is Noval's winery.

The view from my bedroom, the building bottom right is Noval’s winery.

The beautiful terrace at Quinta do Noval.

The beautiful terrace at Quinta do Noval.

Later a civilised aperitif of Noval Extra Dry White Port and tonic prepared our palates for a fabulously traditional dinner of roast goat that paired perfectly with the superb Quinta do Noval red table wines. My favourites were:

Touriga Nacional2009 Quinta do Noval Touriga Nacional
D.O.C. Douro

 

This had a deep and beautiful colour, while the nose was scented, aromatic and herbal with heather, oregano and rosemary, spices and an earthy, rocky, granite minerality.
The palate was savoury and rich with deep sugar plum fruit, earthy and granitic savoury characters, round tannins with just a touch of bite and great length – 89/100 points.
quinta_do_noval_2007_douro_doc_3__39102_big2009 Quinta do Noval
D.O.C. Douro

 

If anything this blend of 80% Touriga Nacional; 20% Touriga Franca was even more exciting, more intense and vibrant.
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

As I say it was only a short trip of a few days, but I was able to visit some wonderful places and try some superb Ports and wines that really made me aware of the great quality and wonderful things that are produced in this astonishingly beautiful valley. It may be a hard place to grow grapes, but the results do seem to make all the hard work worthwhile.

Other delights
I will tell you about some of my other experiences another time, but I will leave you this time with one of the great simple pleasures of Portugal – the coffee.

Coffee is everywhere in Portugal and the bars all announce who their coffee supplier is on their signs, much as pubs here used to indicate their brewery. The coffee in Portugal always seems very high quality to me and much hotter than the strangely cold coffee they serve in Italy. My favoured style is the Café Pingo or sometimes Pingado, the local term for a cortado, noisette or macchiato. I have been told that the same coffee in Lisbon and southern Portugal is a Café Garoto, but some people describe that as a weaker version as well, so order with care.

As well as coffee the Portuguese like their cakes too, and what cakes they have too. My favourite and the signature cake of Portugal is the scrummy pastel de nata – or if you are greedy (yes, yes, like me) the plural is pastéis de nata. Some people translate these as custard tarts, but that is to do them an injustice. Made properly the pastry has a crisp and flaky texture that makes these tarts irresistible when partnered with the rich creamy, eggy custard-like filling.

Pasteis de nata really are delicious...

Pasteis de nata really are delicious…

The lovely city of Porto / Oporto – I can never work out whether it starts with an O or a P! –  has a vibrant café culture and boasts a handful of wonderful cafés from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, all are worth a visit. So far my favourite is the beautiful fin de siècle Café Majestic.

The beautiful Café Majestic.

The beautiful Café Majestic.

A café Pingu.

A café Pingu.

So, you see the Douro is an amazing place, beautiful, a joy to visit and full of delights. I will tell you a bit more about my trip there and to Porto very soon.

A tasting of Virginia wines in Kent

Last week I was invited to give a presentation on Virginian wines to Hextable Wine Society in north Kent.

Apparently none of the members had ever tried one before and it was a surprise to a few that there was any wine produced in the state at all.

So, I really enjoyed opening people minds to the delights of Virginian wine – I love introducing people to new things, it really is the best part of what I do.

It also gave me the chance to reacquaint myself with some of the wines that I had tried on my recent trip to Virginia.

I managed to get hold of a good range – using the good offices of Chris Parker, whose New Horizon Wines is really leading the Virginian assault on the UK.

 

Chris Parker in a Virginian Vineyard

The line gave a good snap shot of Virginia, and what is more all the wines are available in the UK. Of course some of the wines really shone, but all of them were good and the reds came in for some special praise as their tannin management met with great approval from this discerning audience:

Map of Virginia showing where the wineries are - click for a larger view

 

2008 White Hall Vineyards Viognier
Monticello AVA

This was widely liked with 80% Viognier, 10% Petit Manseng, 7% Muscat and 3% Gewurztraminer in the blend giving it that touch of the exotic and a real freshness in the mouth – 89/100 points.

2008 Breaux Vineyards Viognier
Virginia

A tad sweeter, but still dry, and more serious too – this is an unoaked example, but the richness of the variety and that delicate spice is balanced superbly by quite high acidity for a Viognier.

By a whisker this was the preferred style of Viognier – 90/100 points.

2008 The Williamsburg Winery Acte 12 of 1619 Chardonnay
Virginia

Act 12 of The Virginia House of Burgesses, which was the first representative assembly in the New World, was a law requiring all colonists to plant at at least 10 vines. It was an attempt to make vines important to the new economy, sadly it failed despite French viticultural experts being brought in. Not enough was known about growing vitis vinifera in North America in those days and it is possible that this was vitis viniferas the first tangle with phyloxerra.

The delicate use of French oak was approved of here, together with the very lean French style – nothing gloopy here – 87/100 points.

2008 Veramar Vineyard Cabernet Franc
Virginia

This cool vintage produced a medium-bodied, fresh, very cherry infused style of Cabernet Franc that was well received – 88/100 points.

I have also tasted the 2008 which was a hotter vintage and the extra ripeness really showed.

2007 Barboursville Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Franc
Virginia

Barboursville make good wines, they have been growing vitis vinifera grapes in Virginia longer than anyone else and their winemaker has been there for 20 odd years – the experience and consistency shows.

This is a terrific example of the grape, ripe fruit, good use of oak and supple, seamless tannins make this a lovely dry red wine of real quality – 91/100 points.

2008 Veritas Paul Shaffer 2nd Edition Petit Verdot
Monticello AVA

English owned Veritas was one of my favourite visits while in Virginia, I think their passion really showed in every wine they produced and this was a gem.

Even in this cooler year, or did that help this late ripening grape?, the fruit was beautifully ripe with lovely depth, judicious use of oak to underscore the wine and not dominate, together with very fine tannins. This wine is a joy – 92/100 points.

2007 Boxwood Topiary, The Boxwood Winery
Virginia

This was the most obviously new world wine of the tasting, which mirrors the amazing winery that is clearly modeled on the Napa Valley. The estate used to be home to General Billy Mitchell and is today run by Rachel Martin whose father used to own the Washington Redskins.

This 50/50 blend of Cabernet Franc is intended to be in a Libournnais style, but I think it is a bigger wine than that implies. This hot vintage has delivered intense fruit with the oak giving some lovely spice notes. This is very good, but needs time – 91/100 points.

2005 Breaux Vineyards Nebbiolo
Virginia

This was a fine, mature and savoury take on Piemonte’s grape, like Petit Verdot it is a real mystery as to why this grape does so well in Virginia. Nebbiolo is a very late ripening grape that was pretty tricky to get right in Italy until well into the twentieth century. That being said I have only encountered it on 2 sites in Virginia, so perhaps it enjoys localised conditions.

Pale, transparent and slightly brickyard red.
Lovely rose petal nose with spice and tea.
Creamy smoothness to the palate soft with delicate spice and rounded red fruit studded with spice and dried redcurrants too.
Lovely wine medium bodied, but very tasty indeed. Great balance with finesse and delicacy – 90/100 points.

Many of these wines are available in the UK from the Oxford Wine Company, Hercules Wine Warehouses in Kent and The Good Wine Shops in south west London as well as Wholefoods in South Kensington.

For details about Hextable Wine Society please contact the chairman,  John Mesnard on 01322 862340 or email: john@mesnard.co.uk

It was a terrific evening and really rewarding to introduce lots of new people to these excellent wines – bear them in mind, their quality far outstrips their novelty value.

My Last Hurrah in Virginia

 


The King's Arms Tavern

My very last visit in Virginia was nothing to do with wine, but was fascinating and important none the less, what is more even on a wine trip you need to get away from the stuff every now and again and see how people actually live. I was taken into Williamsburg which served as the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1698 until 1780 when Governor Thomas Jefferson moved it to Richmond to avoid the state government falling into the hands of advancing British troops.

One reason for it becoming the seat of government was that it was on high, well drained ground which was readily defensible against the natives and seems to have enjoyed a less humid and swampy climate than nearby low lying Jamestown, which was the first capital of Virginia.

In addition, in 1693 Reverend James Blair founded The College of William & Mary on this attractive and healthy site, then called Middle Plantation. So, when the government needed to find a temporary home when the Jamestown House of Burgesses burnt down, for the second time, they moved into the fine buildings of the college. They seemed to like it there and soon built a new capital just to the east of the college, and named it Williamsburg in honour of King William 111. Continue reading

V is for Viognier…and a lot more besides

Viognier vines at Veritas Vineyards in Virginia with the Blue Ridge in the background

Whilst contemplating wine I often think how remarkable it is that quite so many white grapes have names that begin with a ‘V’. Some of them may seem a tad obscure, but here is a list of all the ones that sprang to mind – with a few that I looked up:

Viura
Verdicchio
Vernaccia
Verdelho
Verdejo
Verdejo Tinto
Vaccarèse
Valais
Valdiguie
Valentin
Vilana
Verdea
Verdello – not the same as Verdelho, in case you were wondering.
Verdiso
Verdeca
Verduzzo (Friulano)
Vermentino
Vernaccia – in fact there are a few of these, all unrelated.
Vertzami
Vespaiolo
Vespolina
Vidal
Vien de Nus
Villard Blanc
Villard Noir
Vinhão
Viosinho – sometimes called Veosinho Verdeal for good measure.
Vital
Vignoles
Vranac
Vugava
and finally the most famous of all – Viognier. Continue reading

Virginia – a land of history & wine

Sometimes when I visit a wine region it all makes instant sense, the topography, the climate, the soils and the traditions. Virginia was not like that and I found it hard to get a real grip on the place. As it is so large and the conditions vary, there appears to be no single statewide solution to any grape growing problem and no one perfect grape variety. What is more we are so used to being able to dismiss vintage variation on anything but the finest wines nowadays, that it is a shock to find a region where no two years are the same and where there is no such thing as an average year – vintage is crucial to Virginia.

In so many ways Virginia is the heart of the United States of America. It contains the original English Colony of Jamestown which was founded in 1607 – as well as the Lost Colony of Roanoke which was there from 1585-1587.

Virginia was the site of America’s first experiment with representative democracy when the House of Burgesses was established in Jamestown in 1619. Many of the greatest characters and thinkers of the American Revolution were from here; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Monroe, James Madison. Seven signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Virginian, as was Robert E. Lee. Unsurprisingly the area around Washington and Richmond is littered with Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields. Continue reading

Fried Green Tomatoes

I have read, and loved, Annie Flagg’s book and seen the film, but I had never eaten a fried green tomato until the other day. In truth I didn’t quite believe they were real – after all, they sound a bit like something Dr. Seuss would create.

So, when I saw them on a menu I simply had to try the fried green tomatoes. What a dish it is, these were in crisp breadcrumbs and really delicious. The crunch of the coating contrasting superbly with the succulent, but firm flesh of the tomatoes inside – and yes, they really were green.

If anyone can tell me if they are a green variety of tomato or simply picked while unripe, then I would be grateful.

The food in these parts is quite exciting, I am told that I might get peanut butter soup sometime…
Green ham and eggs anyone?

Virginia – Loudon County delights

Well, it’s early days in my visit to Virginia’s wine country, but already I know that I am experiencing something pretty exciting.
Virginia doesn’t have that many wineries and most of them are very small, but the winemakers and owners seem a very dedicated and enthusiastic bunch so far.
The countryside is beautiful, so far I have only seen the northernmost tip of Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley – just to the northwest of Washington – where the Blue Ridge Mountains form a stunning backdrop. Everywhere you look the scenery is a delight, rolling hills with the dramatic mountains a constant presence in the distance. Many of the towns, like Middleburg, in Loudon County are astonishingly beautiful, where flower covered antique shops, glorious Georgian buildings and bustling cafes line the streets.
I am still processing what I am learning and free time is rare, so for now here a a few photographs to give you a feel of the place. I will try and find some more time soon – so keep checking back.