Wine: Portugal's Douro Valley Departs From Port
Portugal's Douro Valley is jaw-droppingly, thirst-inducingly gorgeous. The Douro River winds through mountainous terrain, flanked on either side by steep, terraced vineyards that bake in the summer sun. Houses and wineries perch precariously on stony hillsides or blend slyly into the landscape, their facades covered in the schist that makes up the terrace walls and flavors the region's wine.
The Douro is in one sense the world's oldest wine region. It was the first to be legally demarcated, in 1756, as an attempt to fight fraud by guaranteeing the authenticity of port. The sweet, fortified dessert wine is produced here and shipped to eager markets in Britain and elsewhere through Oporto, the city at the river's mouth that gave its name to the wine.
And yet the Douro is also one of the world's newest wine regions: Only within the past few decades have several wineries begun producing distinctive non-fortified wines, primarily using the same grape varieties found in port. These range in style and price from easy-drinking bargains to impressively structured, age-worthy wines to rival the reds of Napa Valley and Bordeaux. They resemble the tempranillo-based wines of Spain's Ribera del Duero region (Duero being the Spanish name for the Douro, which begins in Spain and flows westward), but Douro reds gain added complexity from other grapes in the blend. The main ones are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (the Portuguese name for tempranillo) and Tinta Cao, but more than 100 varieties of red grapes are allowed.
The history of port is replete with swashbuckling British barons, so it was perhaps natural that pioneers in red table wines would unite to glamorize their image and promote their wines. The self-proclaimed "Douro Boys" represent five family-owned wineries that are leading the table wine movement: Quinta do Crasto, Niepoort, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, Quinta do Vale Meao and Quinta do Vallado. The exact membership of the group is not always clear and not always male; its swagger shows a keen sense for modern-day marketing as well as winemaking. Some of the group came to Washington this past spring for a seminar and dinner sponsored by the Portuguese Embassy. (Unfortunately, their wines are not yet widely available in the Washington area.)
"We started as a group of five maniacs," explained Miguel Roquette, marketing director for his family's Quinta do Crasto. Although all five wineries have long ties to the port business and continue to make port, their focus is increasingly on table wines. They took advantage of new laws, enacted after Portugal joined the European Union in 1986, that liberated grape growers and small wineries from restrictions favoring the larger port houses. "We wanted to show the Douro can produce wines of high quality that express the character and typicity of the region," Roquette said. ("Typicity" is a wine term that basically means it tastes like it came from there.)
They have succeeded. Crasto's wines, many still produced by foot treading the old-fashioned way, exude power and concentration. Dirk van der Niepoort and his winemaker, Luis Seabra, eschew cultured yeasts and chemicals. Their wines under the Niepoort label are edgy and lively, as if they are somehow conducting an electrical current from deep within the Earth. Quinta do Vallado and Quinta do Vale Meao produce perfumed wines from vineyards in the Upper Douro, near the Spanish border, while Quinta do Vale Dona Maria's wines are polished and modern.
The Douro Boys are not alone in producing fine table wines from the region. Quinta do Noval produces a delicious and innovative blend with syrah. Symington Family Estates, maker of Warre's and Graham's, among other ports, chimes in with its Altano and Quinta do Vesuvio lines. (The Taylor Fladgate group -- Taylor's, Fonseca, Croft and Delaforce -- remains a holdout, determined to keep its attention and resources focused on port.) Cooperatives throughout the valley are also producing distinctive wines that often are great values.
Red wines from the Douro definitely have typicity: They conjure the rugged beauty of the place where they were born rather than some international ideal of wine. And they swagger.