A Douro trailblazer – James Mayor interviews winemaker Jorge Moreira
14 August 2019

In a region where winemaking is often a family tradition, Jorge Moreira is an exception. After school, where he admits to being a shy and reluctant pupil and finding the experience “almost as tedious as church,” Moreira fell into an oenology course at Vila Real practically by chance. On graduating, and not yet passionate about the profession, Moreira went to work for his brother-in-law who owned a wood-burning stove business.

In the end, Moreira’s father, who had funded his oenology course, persuaded him to experience a grape harvest at Real Companhia Velha. As the venerable giant of Portuguese wine was not prepared to take on grape pickers without a grounding in the business, Moreira accepted a full-time job.

Guided by American consultant, Jerry Luper, Real Companhia Velha was in a transitional moment, using knowledge acquired from making vintage Port to create a fine wine division and produce elegant and balanced wines. Moreira recalls, “I fell in love with the job.”

The young oenologist had another lucky encounter, this time with a neighbour, Dirk Niepoort, the descendent of a Port wine dynasty just beginning the dry wine experiments that would make him a Douro legend. Jorge Serodio Borges (who subsequently founded Wine & Soul with Sandra Tavares da Silva) was at the time working for Niepoort, and the three men met frequently to taste wines from the New World, France and Italy. Their ambition was to produce fresh and elegant wines, with good acidity and the capacity to age; wines of character that would best tell the story of their terroir.

Despite being the rising star of the Real Companhia Velha oenology department, Moreira was not entirely satisfied. How, he wondered, could he be a great winemaker if he had no experience of vineyards? The answer was Poeira, a three-hectare prime vineyard above Pinhão where, in 2001, he made his first own label wine.

The following year, Moreira had an opportunity to exercise his talents at a larger wine property, the neighbouring Quinta de la Rosa, with its fifty hectares of vineyards extending from the River Douro up to an altitude of 500 metres.

Today, Moreira is still the chief winemaker at Quinta de la Rosa, and with his different ventures, makes an impressive sixty wines each year. He says he does this through “listening to the vineyards”, and that the “diversity in the Douro is unbelievable.” He believes in a better-informed, more curious consumer market, this diversity will in the long-term be to the Douro’s advantage.

Moreira explains the Douro’s strength lies in its unique grape varieties which provide limitless winemaking possibilities. He is emphatic that it is pointless to use a winemaker’s talents to replicate wine styles produced elsewhere in the world: “we need to preserve the character, flavour and structure of our own grape varieties.”

When I ask Moreira what oenological peak he would like to climb now, he replies he is enjoying rediscovering old Portuguese varietals, in a wine region where he considers almost everything possible. The challenge is to retain the rich complexity and exuberance of a hot wine region, capable of deep maturation, with the freshness, acidity and tension of a cool wine region.

Unlike some of the Douro wine producers I have talked to recently, Moreira is not over-concerned by climate change. “We are particularly well prepared for global warming here. The Douro was always hot and dry. The schist soil allows the vine roots to go very deep to find moisture. The older vines do not need irrigation, although admittedly the younger ones suffer.” Climate change is affecting production though, down by 30% in 2017. Despite the last three vintages, 2016 – 2018, being exceptionally hot, it has still been possible to make some outstanding wines.

Moreira is concerned about the price of Douro wines. “We need to sell wines at a price that allows us to make money.” The Douro is a region in which the yield per hectare is extremely low, and when you factor in the impossibility of mechanized harvesting, and international markets that react negatively to even the slightest price increase for entry level wines, producers have very little margin for manoeuvre.

The tourism boom currently enjoyed by Portugal is providing stronger recognition. Portugal is now a robust brand and visitors are returning to their countries enthusiastic about the wines they have tasted.

This year Moreira released a 2009 Poeira. He is convinced the way forward for Douro wines is to demonstrate their potential for ageing. This will make it possible to position vintages alongside Bordeaux, Burgundy and the best Italian wines, to gradually permit the rise in prices and make winemaking in the Douro more sustainable.