Cinda Chavich introduces readers to the wine industry in Portugal. This article was originally published in the May 2005 issue of Wine Access magazine.
But it might be considered a little radical in this traditional Port wine region, where the British blue blazer and button-down oxford shirt are still standard issue. Roseira is a little radical in his approach to winemaking, too, but he comes by his independent streak honestly. In 1979, his family was the first to break out of the grower/shipper monopoly system and create its own estate-bottled Port.
Now this young entrepreneur is betting his future on another emerging trend in Portugal – top-quality, dry Douro table wines.
“We are in a revolution of dry wine in the Douro,” says Roseira who, with Infantado’s young winemaker Luis Soares Duarte, began making red and white wines under the Bago de Touriga label in 1998.
“There are a lot of good grapes in the Douro — from 60-, 70-, 80-year-old vineyards — that were completely wasted, going into the same vats with everything else,” he adds, pouring a ripe but lively Terroso Douro 2001 and a more intensely structured Montevalle Douro Reserve 2000, with its Port-like dark fruit aromas and dry tannins.
“We are buying grapes from small growers, looking for old vineyards, and making wines that express terroir.” The terroir here is unique and impressive — hot, rocky and one of the most inhospitable growing regions in the world. The Douro is an ancient region of steep granite and slate gorges, carved first by rivers and then by generations of farmers into miles of sloped terraces. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would go to such lengths to grow crops in these torrid conditions, but the terraces on this spectacular sculpted landscape date to Roman times when cereals, almonds, oranges and olives took up most of this arid, yet fertile land.
Over the centuries, the hardy, indigenous Douro grapes have adapted to the region’s difficult climate and soils, sending their roots deep into the vertical fissures in the multi layered rock to survive and thrive. These traditional Portuguese varietals — touriga nacional, powerful tinta roriz and delicate tinta cao, among the dozens of others planted here — have long been used to make the strong base wines for age-worthy Port.
And while it’s a challenge to tame these native varieties when fermented dry, with modern winemaking techniques and careful blending, they can produce intensely structured and interesting table wines, from big meaty reds reminiscent of the finest southern Rhone blends to medium-bodied, dry and fruity wines that are perfect with food.
In the modern wine parlance of appellation contrôlée, the Douro Valley is ground zero, first recognized as a specific production zone in 1756 and the very first wine region in the world to have a national demarcation. The Douro is known primarily for producing sweet, fortified Port — a style created in the eighteenth century for export to British consumers. Until recently, the table wine of the Douro was only produced for “pasto” (local, everyday consumption) but a new generation of winemakers is using indigenous Portuguese grapes to make impressive table wines, too.
Roseira is also involved with Lavradores de Feitoria, a group of 15 quality driven Douro growers who have formed a co-operative to make table wines from their best grapes — some as single quinta wines, others as blends under the Três Bagos (Three Berry) label. While each quinta makes its own wine, with the help of the group’s technical team, it is the group’s tasting panel that determines which will be marketed as Lavradores de Feitoria wines.
In the typical inclusive style that’s been adopted by these innovators, during our stop at Quinta do Infantado’s new tasting room, we met with the principals of several other wineries and tasted their new table wines together – Quinta de la Rosa, Poeira, Vicente Leite de Faria, Quinto Do Portal, Kolheita de Ideias and Vinha do Fojo. All of these young winemakers are making premium wine with some of the best fruit of the region, fruit that was once exclusively reserved for the best Port.
Another ad hoc group of young winemakers who have joined forces to spread the word about the fine table wines of the Douro are self-described “Douro Boys” of Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, Quinto do Vallado, Neipoort, Quinta do Crasto and Quinta do Vale Meao.
Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta do Vale Dona Maria says changes in 1986 in the Port production laws now allow growers to make and age their own wines at the quintas (rather than forcing them to sell them to blenders and shippers in Vila Nova de Gaia). This led to the current explosion in fine winemaking here.
“This change in the law created a new mood in the Douro, and producers decided to take their destinies into their own hands,” says van Zeller, who sold his share in the family’s Quinta do Noval in 1993 to concentrate on making fine estate wines at Vale Dona Maria.
“We are pioneers — we recognize tremendous potential in the Douro terroir and the fruit therein. We have not abandoned Port, but the challenge we are facing is producing top-quality table wines.”
Dirk Niepoort, whose Redoma Douro red is finding fans internationally, says the Douro’s isolation, both physically and due to decades of political dictatorship in Portugal, have protected the region from the kind of grape varietal globalization so common in other parts of the world.
“Chardonnay, cabernet and sauvignon blanc had great difficulty coming into Portugal, like McDonald’s,” says Niepoort, noting that most older vineyards in the Douro are mixed plantings of several different grapes, making single varietal wines from the region rare.
“There are 1,800 different grape varietals here,” he adds. Some of the larger Portuguese wine companies — including Caves Me sias, Quinta da Aveleda, Sogrape and Caves Aliança — are now making table wines in the Douro, too. They’ve joined together in a group they call the G7 to market all of their products, including DOC Douro wines like Aliança’s Foral Grand Escola and Sogrape’s Douro Reserva Red.
After generations of using the intensely flavoured and structured grapes of the Douro to make sweet, fortified wines, it’s a challenge for this new generation of winemakers to create the kind of big but balanced table wines that will appeal to international consumers. It’s also a challenge for those consumers — many weaned on fruit-forward single varietals — to understand these complex new products.
“We produce unique wine, not found anywhere else in the world,” says van Zeller, “and while that’s what makes it so interesting, it also makes it difficult to sell.”
The rapid changes in the Portuguese wine business may be a metaphor for the changes in Portugal itself. Since joining the EU, Portugal has been modernizing on all levels, and it’s clear that these forward-thinking winemakers are poised to make waves in the international wine world.
For despite their sometimes conservative and traditional demeanor, the Portuguese have always been enterprising and adventurous. Five hundred years ago, Portuguese sailors like Vasco da Gama and Magellan were pioneers in maritime exploration, forging the first trade routes to India, Africa, Japan and Brazil. They were also the first — with the sparkling Mateus Rosé — to engineer a wine that appealed to the entire planet.
Apparently, they’re onto something big in the Douro, too.