A Different Douro Bright new wines from centuries of battling the schist

Text and photos by Joshua Greene

 “A grower once told me, ‘Here we make wine with no help from God.’
And sometimes it feels like that.” —Christian Seeley, managing director of Quinta do Noval

At the turn of the century, the Port Wine Institute hosted a tasting of fortified Douro wines from the last 100 years. It was a demonstration that time is part of the making of great Port, a necessary condition to tame the power of the Douro’s heat and schist. Among the most memorable wines of the day was the 1970 Graham’s, the first vintage made by James Symington after his family purchased the historic brand and its vineyard, the Quinta dos Malvedos.
    That prime riverside estate, just upstream from the town of Pinhão, has been Graham’s headquarters since 1890, still at the heart of its vintage wines today. And the heart of the 1970 was going strong when I drank a bottle this past fall with James Symington’s son, Rupert. He’d come to San Francisco to meet with his importer, Peter Scott, and the three of us had decamped to Scott’s favorite Tenderloin Thai restaurant, Lers Ros. After a bottle of Quincy off the list, and one of the reds the Symingtons make with Bruno Prats (originally of Cos d’Estournel), Scott opened a 1970 Graham’s from his cellar.
    We eventually found ourselves pouring the last bits of sediment when the bottle was spent. The flavors had matured to a graceful murmur of Douro schist and the gentle red glow of fresh fruit. And it completely transcended any residual Thai or San Francisco Tenderloin spice.
    Since their acquisition of Graham’s, the Symington family has continued to buy vineyard land, including the Quinta do Vesuvio and Cockburn’s properties, so they now own more Douro vineyards than anyone else. But these days, Rupert Symington’s brow is more often furrowed, rarely as relaxed as it was that evening at Lers Ros. The Douro is in the midst of one of its cyclical crises, when all the regulations and legislation imposed on this vast river canyon seem to be working at cross purposes.

That crisis is as complex and layered as any great Douro wine. The small, elite trade in special categories of Port—particularly age-designated Tawnies and Late Bottled Vintage—is booming, while the volume side of the business is withering away. Brandy prices nearly doubled this past year, due to the general grape shortages in Europe. Demand for less-expensive Port has been trending down for decades, with Europe’s chain buyers looking for wine at ever-lower prices. Labor is in short supply, so the cost of producing grapes in the Douro’s extreme conditions has made farming a fool’s errand for anyone who doesn’t have a prime site. But whether or not farmers have prime sites, they have their beneficio, the authorization to sell a certain portion of their grapes for Port production—a factor that makes Port wine grapes the most expensive in the Iberian peninsula.
    It’s a bit of a perfect storm, with the thunder of politics and the winds of the market pushing Douro’s wines toward an uncertain future. Rupert Symington had proposed a solution, a change in the laws to allow for the voluntary sale and permanent transfer of the right to sell Port wine grapes (the beneficio) by lesser-rated sites so that top-rated vineyards could make more of their grapes into Port. But, he says, it was scuttled by a large producer of table wine, who might see grape prices rise under that scenario. (From the perspective of the major Port shippers, the price of table wine grapes is artificially low, subsidized by the right to sell Port wine grapes whether they are worthy or not.) Whatever change does come, Symington suggests, will be slow and incremental.
    And if current trends continue, it may well evolve out of the quality table wine business that has begun to thrive in the Douro after decades in the shadow of Port.

“In the Old World, the problem has always been that the top wine is great and everything else is just garbage,” David Guimaraens admits. As the director of wine­making for The Fladgate Partnership, Guimaraens oversees production of some of the Douro’s most coveted wines, including the Vintage releases of Taylor, Fonseca and Croft. Since returning from studies in Australia in 1990, he has also focused the team on building the middle range of their wines. “The big kick in the bum that the New World gave to the Old World is that wine has got to be good at all levels,” he says.
    The lessons he learned in Australia have helped as the firm shifted their emphasis toward aged Tawnies and strengthening their LBVs. While their vintage wines are all estate bottled, they now work with a smaller number of farmers with output sizable enough that they can influence the viticultural work. Without changing the traditions for Vintage Port, he’s also experimented with more affordable and effective ways to make these other categories—like developing robotic lagars to take the place of human feet for treading the grapes.
    While Guimaraens has been busy pumping up the mid-range of Port, others have been looking to fill the hole in the mid-range with table wine. There’s always been cheap Douro table wine, made from the surpluses left after a grower sells his grapes authorized for Port. And there are the table wines that masquerade as Port in their power and intensity, which can be great, but tend to be limited in production.
    Most table wines fell into these two categories—either cheap and cheerful or as expensive as Vintage Port—until the 2008 vintage shed a different light on the region’s terroir. The long, cool 2008 season was an unusual one in Douro, not bad for Port, but, as managed by savvy growers, one of the best for table wine in recent memory. In fact, it may prove to be an historic vintage as it may have opened an alternate path for Douro wines.
    Antonio Agrellos, the technical director at Quinta do Noval, makes both table wines and Port. As caretaker of the Nacional vineyard, six acres of vines planted on their Portuguese roots (without foreign rootstocks), he is as committed to tradition in the Douro as any of his neighbors. But on a recent visit, he made it clear that table wine holds a fascination for him. His Quinta do Noval 2008 Douro is as pure in its Douro expression as any great Noval Port, and quite different. It’s a limited production wine, but a stylistic departure from the past.
    Dirk Niepoort and his team are also equally committed to table wines and Port. He was, in fact, the first vintner I recall who was genuinely excited about the 2008 vintage. “It was more or less the only year we could pick the vineyards purely by maturity,” he recalls, “since we had all the time in the world to decide when to pick.” Usually he harvests the high, cool vineyards at the same time as the riper grapes, then ferments them together—“to get the balance right. In 2008, that wasn’t necessary.” Niepoort’s passion might have been expected, coming as it did from a notorious iconoclast. And though it was supported by the most ethereal and evocative young wine I have ever tasted from the Douro, Niepoort’s 2008 Charme, the evidence was thin, again based on a wine so extremely limited in production.
    But the evidence is mounting, as more recent releases of 2008s have uncovered other remarkable reds. This past summer, I tasted Niepoort’s 2008 Robustus with Luis Seabra, who’s in charge of table wine production for the firm.
    Like Charme (and like traditional Vintage Port), Robustus is vinified with the stems of the grapes, Niepoort and Seabra believing that the stem tannins lighten the expression of the wine. This wine included 70 percent of the stems, with 50 days of skin contact and four years of aging in large wooden vats. From the name, and from previous vintages, you might expect the wine to be as big as a Vintage Port, and yet it is anything but: As they do in great Burgundy, the stems give the wine its sexiness. The stem tannins also give the wine a numinous structure, the fruit glowing through it like moonlight and vespers through stained glass.
    What’s significant about wines like these 2008s is the influence their style has had on subsequent vintages. Consider several wines from 2010, when the conditions were completely different: A wet winter, abundant yields, a scorchingly hot August, which, in effect, delayed sugar production in the grapes and pushed harvest into October.
    Rather than wait, Seabra harvested his 2010 Bastardo early, then vinified it with all the stems and 15 days of skin contact. “With bastardo, you can’t do more,” he says of the maceration. “The wine would be too rustic, too funky to try.” Seabra describes it as a “vin de soif;” it’s bright, spicy and lively, nothing heavy about it. He had brought it to a tasting with other Douro winemakers, when everyone shared their top 2010 reds, and says most everyone thought it was the worst wine of the day. “They said, ‘What is this rosé wine here?’ Only one winemaker, Manuel Vieira [of Sogrape], thought it was great.”
    The 2010 Twisted is the first vintage of the wine that turned my head. It tastes like a Lapierre Beaujolais grown in the Douro—in this case, from the granitic highlands of the Douro, an area around Mêda not known for red wines. “That’s where the reds get this thinner character,” Seabra says, comparing the tannic structure to a St-Joseph. Whatever it is we’re both reaching to describe, it is not a traditional Douro style.
    I tasted another wine from Mêda, the Muxagat 2011 Tinta Barroca, with Mateus Nicolau de Almeida. It didn’t occur to me that both wines were from Mêda until I checked my notes; what tied them together for me was that they both tasted like Morgon, with vibrant raspberry and rose scents. “We associate Douro Superior with high ripeness, but in Douro Superior, there are some very high altitudes,” Nicolau de Almeida explains, pointing to the restrained ripeness in the wine.

“The Douro has a unique character,” Fran­cisco Olazabal says. “It marks all the wines.” He should know, as his family has been battling the Douro for centuries. Olazabal is the son of Vito Olazabal, once the president of Ferreira; he purchased Quinta do Vale Meão from his cousins. He’s the grandson of Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, who had based his now legendary Ferreira Barca-Velha on Vale Meão. And he’s the great-great-great-grandson of Dona Antónia de Ferreira, the Douro’s answer to Queen Victoria, who extended the family’s empire of vines deep upriver, commanding quintas from Vallado on the Rio Corgo to Vale Meão close to Foz Coa. Olazabal, or Xito as he is known, is as rooted here as any bastardo vine.
    “My grandfather didn’t like the way Douro wines aged,” Olazabal explains, regarding Fernando’s experiments that led to Barca-Velha. “He had tasted 10-, 15-, 20-year-old wines from the Douro made like Port wines. They were immense and very tannic at the beginning, but they dried out quickly.” Speaking as one of the Douro Boys, a group of friends who promote their table wines together, he adds, “That’s the character my colleagues and I want to fight.”
    One way to fight it is to make wines that are more accessible when young—and even recent releases of Vintage Port have followed this path. Another way is to find the terroirs in the Douro that offer distinctive expressions for table wine, in a completely different style than Port, creating drinkable wines that warrant a higher price and begin to fill in the middle of the market. These are not the icon wines; they are the Twisteds and the bastardos, many now coming from the high-altitude sites where farmers really should not be growing grapes for Port.
    Twisted, in fact, is the first such wine to gain significant traction in the market, with production now reaching 65,000 cases a year. Others are starting to follow, with wines that don’t mimic Port, but present a brighter variation on Douro terroir.