Douro Valley
26 March 2020

Articles included in this series:

  • Douro Stories, fact and fiction
  • A selection of Douro wines to enjoy this winter
  • Why the Douro is such a special wine region
  • Excellent Douro wines to drink this summer

Douro Stories, fact and fiction

Marquês de Pombal

The Douro is often considered the world’s first demarcated wine region, although Chianti, in Italy, and Tokay, in Hungary, sometimes claim to have got there first, in the early decades of the eighteenth century. What is not contested, however, is that the demarcation of the Douro, in 1756, created an extremely precise geographical area for the production of Port wine.

The man behind all this, the autocratic Marquês de Pombal, had, the previous year, played a leading role in overseeing Lisbon’s reaction to one of Europe’s worst ever earthquakes.

To safeguard the Port wine trade and improve its organization, Pombal had 335 stone pillars set up to delineate a protected region. One third of these marcos pombalinos are still standing. A limit was set to the planting of new vines, with strict production quotas and fixed prices, to protect the financial wellbeing of grape growers and provide an incentive for efficient vineyard management. With the region demarcated, the revenues from Port could contribute to rebuilding the country’s economy.

The energetic Marquês also created the Douro Wine Company which presided over a points system for the classification of vineyards (from A-F). The first of its kind in the world, it is still in existence today.

Baron Joseph James Forrester

The enterprising Joseph James Forrester was another innovator in the history of the Douro. Born in Hull of Scottish parentage, Forrester arrived in Oporto in 1831, aged twenty-one, to work for his uncle James Forrester, a partner in the firm of Port shippers Offley, Forrester and Weber. Forrester was to remain in Portugal for the rest of his life and, in his day, he was one of the most influential and best loved members of the English Port wine community.

Considered as the ‘Protector of the Douro’, Forrester was an active defender of the interests of Portuguese wine growers. In 1844 he published anonymously a controversial pamphlet ‘A Word or Two About Port Wine’, which dared attack the Douro Wine Company for its stifling monopolistic control over the Port wine industry, commenting that the Douro’s best wines were ‘natural’, that is to say unfortified, an extremely independent point of view in those days.

Forrester employed his deep knowledge of the region to create the first maps of the Douro River and its wine country. These maps, objects of great beauty and considerable value, can sometimes still be discovered on the walls of the Douro’s most prestigious quintas. In appreciation of this epic cartographic project, the Portuguese monarchy titled Forrester a Baron.

In addition to shipping Port, promoting the concept of terroir in his writings about the wine industry and viticulture, and mapping the Douro, ‘Barão’ Forrester owned vineyards at Quinta da Boavista in the Cima Corgo (today owned by Lima & Smith and producing outstanding wines).

On a recent visit to Boavista, Tony Smith described Forrester as a ‘Renaissance man’. In the final decade of his life, Forrester painted sensitive drawings of the River Douro and its mountainous surroundings, and equally took some early photographs. Some of these drawings hang in the reception area at Cockburn’s Port wine lodge, in Vila Nova de Gaia. A wealthy man through his Port shipping, he fitted out a luxurious rabelo boat, manned by elegant staff, on which he entertained his friends.

One friend was wealthy widow and vineyard owner with a powerful personality, Dona Antonia Ferreira, owner of the great Quinta do Vesuvio, today a jewel in the crown of Symington Family Estates. Some people in the Douro claim that the two had a relationship, others that Forrester was only Dona Antonia’s ‘financial advisor’. In 1861, the boat carrying the two friends became swamped and capsized as it negotiated the dangerous rapids at the Cachão da Valeria gorge. Forrester always wore a money belt and, with the weight of the gold sovereigns it contained, drowned. Dona Antonia survived, kept afloat by her crinoline skirt.

Eça de Queiros

Often compared to Dickens and Balzac, and even Tolstoy, Eça de Queiros was Portugal’s greatest nineteenth century novelist.

After fifteen years serving as a Portuguese consular official in England, where he commented on “the indecent manner of cooking vegetables,” Queiros, in 1888, was appointed consul to Paris. It was here that he wrote one of his most endearing novels, ‘The City and the Mountains’, published in 1895. The City and the Mountains opens in Paris. The hero, Jacinto, lives in a mansion on the Champs Elysee, surrounded by all the latest tech gadgets, but bored stiff by his empty existence (a familiar twenty-first century malaise!).

Summoned to the Douro by his estate manager, Jacinto gradually discards the tedium of this sophisticated life for the simple rural pleasures of the Douro, finding purpose in a new connection with the local people and throwing himself into projects to improve their lives.


A selection of Douro wines to enjoy this winter

Here are a few Douro reds I recommend… warmly. They showcase the exceptional diversity and complexity of the world-class wines made in this mountainous region with its multitude of micro-climates.

 A selection of Douro wines

Três Bagos Grande Escolha Tinto, Douro DOC 2014, Lavradores de Feitoria

Três Bagos wines are emblematic of the Douro region. ‘Baga’ is the Portuguese word for berry, and the wines are made from three grape varieties, from three vineyards, across the Douro.

With Três Bagos, Lavradores de Feitoria’s winemaker Paulo Ruão showcases the complexity it is possible to achieve in the best Douro wines.

The Grande Escolha is a characteristic Douro field blend, made from vines over sixty years old. Vinification takes place in traditional granite ‘lagares’, with the wine aged for 14 months in French oak. The 2014 has intense notes of cassis, mint and blackberry, and an appealing finesse on the palate.

This powerful and elegant wine is ready for immediate drinking, although it will certainly continue to improve in the bottle.

Pintas Character Tinto, Douro DOC 2016, Wine & Soul

Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorge Serodio Borges, owners and winemakers at Wine & Soul, have made field blends one of the hallmarks of their outstanding wines. Pintas Character Tinto is a field blend made from old vines and more than 30 different grape varieties. The grapes are foot trodden in stone ‘lagares’ and the wine aged for 18 months in French oak. With notes of raspberry, black cherry and plums, this rich and powerful red, full of freshness and ripe fruit, offers a lingering velvety finish, with beautifully integrated tannins.

The 2016, already very enjoyable drinking, will reward you with a few additional years in the bottle.

Bastardo Tinto, Douro 2017, Conceito

An attractive red, made from 5 hectares of the early ripening Bastardo vine, planted 50 years ago in the Douro uplands by the grandfather of Conceito’s owner, Rita Marques. Foot trodden in granite lagares and aged for 10 months in stainless steel vats, this comparatively light wine for the Douro at 13% of alcohol has spicy aromas and a round, glycerine mouth, making it a perfect accompaniment for Asian foods.

The 2017 is already drinking well.

Charme, Douro DOC 2016, Niepoort

The aptly named Charme, is equally elegant and balanced: the trademark of Niepoort wines.

Charme is made in traditional stone lagares from a blend of mostly Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca grapes from very old vines in Vale de Mendiz on the banks of the Pinhão River, one of the Douro’s tributaries. With subtle notes of game and cherry, Charme is aged in old oak barrels, with light wood and delicate tannins.

The 2016 is already excellent drinking and shows promising ageing potential.

A tip for serving Port

Could there possibly be a better way to end your meal than with a glass of Port? Please remember Port is best served slightly chilled. The alcohol will be less apparent and the flavours more pronounced. Take care not to over chill though, as the wine will struggle to release its full panoply of aromas and flavours.

If in doubt as to your choice, why not go for a Croft 20-Year Old Tawny, a superb accompaniment for crumbles and cheesecakes or for a glorious Stilton cheese.


Why the Douro is such a special wine region

The Douro is the world’s largest mountain vineyard and its grapes are grown on slopes that often have startlingly steep gradients.

 

Grape picking in the Douro Valley

Douro is the world’s largest mountain vineyard and its grapes are grown on slopes that often have startlingly steep gradients. With extremely low yields per hectare, this is the last major wine region in the world where the grapes are still entirely hand-picked. The cost of producing a kilo of grapes is consequently high.

Not only is the climate in the Douro extreme, scorching hot in summer and cold and wet in the winter, the soil is also poor. The vine, however, is a hardy plant that can thrive in regions where most agriculture is impossible. Despite these unpropitious conditions the Douro, home to Port and Douro DOC table wines, is now considered one of the world’s great wine regions.

What is it that makes the Douro so special?
A huge mountainous area, the Douro spreads out on either side of the River Douro, the “golden” river which runs from its source in Spain across Portugal to Porto where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. For centuries the Douro was remote and inaccessible, however wine has been made here since the Romans and, to this day, grape growing and wine production constitute the region’s economic lifeblood.

Produced from the end of the seventeenth century onwards, Port was the world’s first branded wine. The best grapes went into its production, with the economic importance of the Port trade acting as a disincentive to the development of table wines. In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal created the world’s first system of control of origin, demarcating the Douro area, and regulating cultivation sites and quality, thereby creating a long-term protective framework for the lucrative Port business.

Influential families, many of them English, established their “lodges” in Vila Nova de Gaia, the town on the banks of the River Douro which faces the city of Porto. The wine was transported from the vineyards down the river in flat-bottomed Rabelo boats, aged in the lodges and then shipped to overseas markets, the most significant of which was England.

In the 1960s, a series of dams made navigation of the River Douro less dangerous. Then, in 1986, Portugal joined the European Union, benefitting from substantial funding for road infrastructure that opened the country’s more remote interior regions. Now more accessible, the Douro gradually began to catch up with the modern world.

New laws permitted producers to age and export their products directly from the Douro, rather than via the city of Porto. In the 1990s, the World Bank initiated a vineyard replanting program and, in 2001, the Douro was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. New generations of winemakers began sharing information to produce quality table wines that were soon surprising the world. In terms of quality, the Douro had traveled a long way since 1956 when Fernando Nicolau de Almeida created the first Barca Velha, after studying oenology in Bordeaux. Port`s pre-eminence in local wine production was gradually being diluted, and tradition was giving way to innovation.

The world’s most extensive mountain vineyard, the Douro has more than 43,000 hectares under vine, over twice the area of the Napa Valley. The Douro is spectacularly beautiful, rolling in every direction as far as the eye can see. Many of the wine farms clustered around the lost-in-time villages include elegant houses. A growing selection of good restaurants, such as Castas e Pratos in Regua, now offer increasingly confident menus of contemporary Portuguese gastronomy to accompany the region’s exciting new wines.

Protected by four mountain ranges, the Douro is extremely hot and dry in the summer and tends to be cold and rainy in the winter. The western Serra do Marão mountain range shields this inland region from the wet Atlantic weather. Temperatures vary according to elevation, with the warmest vineyards located close to the river, and cooler growing conditions higher up that are better suited for making white wines.

The Douro has an unusually high number of grape varieties, all of which are specific to Portugal, with the exception of the Tinta Roriz, the equivalent to Spain`s Tempranillo. The star variety is Touriga Nacional, used in both Port and dry red blends. A couple of decades into the Douro table wine “revolution” the best winemakers, such as Dirk Niepoort or Jorge Borges, are now capitalising on the Douro’s extraordinarily varied terroir to make outstanding wines that are achieving top international rankings. Winemaking is not so often the slightly hit and miss affair which used to result from field blends, and increasingly a rigorous process that creates lighter and more elegant wines, with less pronounced oak.

With its three sub-regions (Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior), the Douro has a multitude of microclimates. The soil is frequently poor, covered in porous schist or slate that allows the vine roots to penetrate and dig deep in their search for water. These difficult conditions favour the most resilient grape varieties and the creation of the intense flavours that produce fine wine.

The steep slopes of the Douro are terraced to stabilize erosion and create the platforms on which vines can be planted. Not only is grape picking done almost entirely by hand, the cost of labour has risen substantially over the last generation and yields are low in this dry, hot climate. The cost of growing a kilo of grapes in the Douro is therefore high, an uncompetitive 90 euro cents, compared with 40cts in France or 30cts in Spain. With this high raw material price, it will be difficult for production of low value table wines to remain sustainable.

The Douro still has 21,400 grape farmers and most of these smallholders are very underequipped. As older farmers retire, and many of their children leave the land to seek better-paid employment in the coastal cities, or in tourism, there will inevitably be a degree of consolidation and an increase in the efficiency of wine farms.

The Douro’s new generation of talented table winemakers is now facing a steep marketing slope which they must climb if they are to be successful in repositioning their wines. The market needs to perceive the true value of the best of these wines, reflecting their current outstanding quality, rather than a reputation for mediocrity that is no longer founded. The future direction for Douro wine is likely to be in the development of high-quality Ports and high-quality dry wines that can command appropriate premium prices, comparable to those of other leading wine regions.


Excellent Douro wines to drink this summer

Only a few years ago, you might have been considered an oeno-masochist for contemplating imbibing a Douro wine in the summer. Quality whites hardly existed, so the reaction would probably have been “you don’t mean one of those heavyweight reds?!”

Douro river in the fall

Today, not only are more and more Douro wines playing in the top league, these wines are also easier to find in specialist stores outside Portugal. The reds have become lighter in alcohol and more elegant, and an increasing number of talented, often innovative, producers are making some outstanding whites and roses.

As the temperatures begin to rise, in this first week of summer, particularly in Europe, here are a selection of Douro whites and roses to taste.

First, a couple of wine properties in the remote and arid Douro Superior:

Quinta Vale d’Aldeia, near Meda

The Grande Reserva 2014 Branco, made from Viosinho, Rabigato, Gouveio and Malvasia Fina grapes grown at an altitude of 550 metres, has intense aromas of tropical fruit and notes of wood, with a long and persistent finish.

Quinta dos Castelares

The lady in my local wine store in Porto recommended this Alto Douro producer who practices organic farming. The 2017 white proved to be excellent, with intense fruity and floral notes. Incredible value at 6 euros!

Lavradores de Feitoria

I recently tasted a range of Lavradores de Feitoria wines at Casa dos Barros, in Sabrosa. A collective of Douro wine properties which banded together to combine their viticultural assets, Lavradores de Feitoria has been going from strength to strength in recent years, under the talented guidance of winemaker Paulo Ruão, a master blender. It could indeed be said that the best Douro wines are often blends that draw on the singularity of Portugal’s incredibly wide choice of grape varieties.

The Lavradores de Feitoria Branco 2017, the brand’s entry-level wine, is fresh and aromatic, with good fruit and excellent minerality. Very good value at around 6 euros.

Who would have expected a Riesling from the Douro? I can only say that the Lavradores de Feitoria Cheda Riesling is superb: delicate, complex, with subtle notes of lemon and excellent acidity. The wine is aged for 4-5 months in French oak casks before bottling.

Fragulho

This is a brand that deserves to be more widely known. Jose Morais makes small batches of outstanding wine at Casa dos Lagares, as well as scrumptious tawny Port!

Fragulho’s vineyards are located at Cheires, near the village of Favaios, reputed for its fortified Moscatel wines. No surprise therefore that Jose makes some delicious vinhos de Moscatel, wonderful aperitif or dessert wines. On a recent visit I tasted the Moscatel Reserva 2011, bottled in 2016 after 42 months in wood. It has delicate floral and citrus aromas, with a mere hint of honey.

The Fragulho Rose 2018, made from Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz grapes, is a lovely fruity example of a Douro rose closer to a red than a white.

Wine & Soul

This winemaker in the Pinhão Valley, in the Cima Corgo sub-region of the Douro, is now one of the stars of Douro winemaking, in the talented hands of the owners Jorge Serôdio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva.

The Guru 2011 Douro Branco is a blend of Gouveio, Viosinho, Rabigato and Codoga do Larinho grapes grown in fifty-year-old vineyards. The 2011 has delicate notes of grapefruit and excellent minerality. This is a finely balanced wine that leaves a long, fresh aftertaste.

Quinta da Covela

I cannot resist including in this selection, a special ‘on the way to the Douro’ winery. Covela, on the right bank of the Douro in Vinho Verde country, has in recent years been revived by the Lima & Smith partnership, and their exceptional winemaker, Rui Cunha.

At lunch at the quinta with Tony Smith in June, I tasted the Covela Escolha Branco, made from the estate’s flagship grape, Avesso, and blended with Chardonnay. This lovely wine has five to six years ageing potential.

The Covela Rose 2018 is also superb. Made from the emblematic Portuguese grape Touriga Nacional, it is a dry, gastronomic rose with notes of fresh red fruit.

So, lots to enjoy this summer… Grape Discoveries will soon be reporting on wine stores around the world which stock these fabulous Portuguese wines.