Portugal’s Douro Valley is one of the world’s youngest wine regions, for table wines, at least. Although it was the first to receive international demarcation — in 1756, for fortified port wines — only in the early to mid-1990s did wineries there begin making dry, unfortified table wines. In that way, the Douro’s table-wine industry is newer than, say, Virginia’s current wine renaissance.
Of course, the established port houses that decided to make table wines were not starting from scratch. They had thriving vineyards on prime soils, and they had decades, if not centuries, of viticultural experience. So it should not be surprising that Douro red wines, made from the same grape varieties that go into port, can be stunningly delicious.
And there’s good news for consumers. When I first wrote about Douro table wines in this space (“Portugal’s Douro Valley departs from port,” July 15, 2009), my recommendations averaged $23 in price, with a range from $9 to $43. This year, my recommendations average under $13, and two wines that are in both lists are less expensive than they were two years ago. The Douro, with its steep, terraced vineyards and labor-intensive viticulture, is becoming a source of bargain wines.
Several factors account for that, not the least of which is the international economy and Portugal’s financial troubles within the European Union. The wine industry is maturing, with more wineries making unfortified reds. Vineyard plantings have continued to expand to the eastern Douro, near the Spanish border, meaning more wines are available. Those are good trends for wine lovers.
One negative factor persists, however. Because Portugal and Douro are not on the A-list of wine regions, these products can be distressingly hard to find on retail shelves. There’s only one way to correct that problem: Consumers need to ask for these wines. Even my best bargain find — the $8 Lello red — is not as widely available as it should be, given its value.
Here’s why Douro wines are attractive, aside from their increasing quality-for-the-price: They are blends of various grapes rather than single-variety wines. Blending gives greater complexity and variety. The main grapes in Douro reds are Tinta Roriz (tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional, with minor grapes such as Sousao occasionally playing supporting roles. The melange varies from wine to wine, depending on the winery and often on the winery’s need for grapes for port. That makes exploring these wines all the more interesting, and delicious.
Another reason to be excited now: The region has experienced a string of good vintages. For some reason, the Douro seems to do better in odd-numbered years; 2007 was terrific, and most of the wines now on the market are from the excellent 2009 vintage. Miguel Roquette of Quinta do Crasto said the recently completed 2011 vintage “may be the best vintage ever for table wines” in the Douro. Then he added, “Of course, we’re only talking since 1994.”
Quinta do Crasto is a leading producer of Douro table wines, and its entire line is worth seeking out, from the entry-level 2009 Crasto at $15 to the 2009 reserva at $50 and the single-vineyard 2005 Maria Teresa at $150, arguably the Douro’s ultimate expression of terroir in a non-fortified wine.
The good news: You can taste the Douro for $8, experience Crasto for $15, and explore the region’s variety without breaking your budget. Except maybe on the gasoline to go from store to store searching for these wines. Talk to your retailer.