Fri 13 Nov 2015

Three Days in the Douro and Beyond

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When thinking of the Douro Valley, most will picture the steep walled vineyards and famous port quintas perched precariously above the meandering river below.

Douro vineyards

But a surprise to me was the extent of this wine region; I hadn’t realised that as well as the principal valley with its terraces, there are so many tributaries and side valleys with high plateaux and rolling hills, and vines seemingly everywhere.

This region is vast. The Douro vineyard area is divided into three sub-zones, Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior and there are more than 40,000 hectares in total. Compare this, say, to the whole of the northern Rhône, made up of just 2,700 hectares.

Buyer Joanna Locke MW and I had just two nights and three days in December last year to travel the length and breadth of the valley and beyond. The main aim of the visit was to go and see our Exhibition Douro suppliers, Quinta do Vale Meão at Vila Nova de Foz Côa in the Upper Douro (read more about this here), but we were also going to make a side-trip to the rather forgotten region of Beira Interior to visit Rui Madeira, catch up Rita Ferreira Marquès of Conceito and visit some prospective suppliers in an area known as the Douro Verde – vinho verde’s southernmost enclave, and we were to discover, the home of the avesso grape.

Douro – no longer just about port
Despite the region’s long history of making wines, port has dominated the trade until relatively recently, but the Douro is building a reputation for its table wines, with estates like Vale Meão at the vanguard.

Quinta do Vale Meão's Francisco Olazabal

Quinta do Vale Meão’s Francisco Olazabal

Douro table wine now accounts for 30% of sales from the region, compared to just 3% ten years ago. This proportion is growing all the time and with winemakers gaining better insight into the best grapes to grow where, quality is bound to improve, as Francisco Olazabal, winemaker and owner at Vale Meão says: ‘The best vintages are the most recent. Styles are changing, partly because of vintage differences and changes in weather patterns but also because we are getting to know our vineyards better and learning how to control alcohol levels better.’

Perhaps somewhat ironically it is the knowledge gained from site selection for table wines which is now feeding back into the production of port too.

Rui Madeira at Beyra Wines in the Beira Interior, on the other hand, wouldn’t change his field blends. His vineyards, some of Portugal’s highest, just 30kms from the Spanish border on the start of the meseta, are made up of very old vines, crucial for getting flavour and complexity into the wines.

Society buyer Jo Locke MW and Rui Madeira

Society buyer Joanna Locke MW and Rui Madeira

The Beira Interior area is known for its whites. In the past the wine from this region was sent in bulk west to Bairrada – the high natural acidity made it perfect for use as the base for sparkling wine production. But Rui, whose family is originally from this region, could see the potential for making high-quality wines from the old vines grown on schist, granite, clay and quartz soils.

Rui was brought up in Lisbon but had a bad accident while at university and came back to the family home to recuperate. While he was convalescing he helped to make wine at his friend’s winery and became smitten with the idea of becoming a winemaker and realising the potential of his home turf. He made his first wine here in 1987. In 2011, after travelling and gaining experience in wineries around the world, he was drawn back and bought the Vermiosa winery from his friend, completely refurbishing it.

Heading back to the Douro from Vermiosa

Heading back to the Douro from Vermiosa

This area is quite desolate. Many have left and those that are left are poor so there is no market locally for the wine, neither is there workforce for the winery. Rui is the main winemaker but lives in Porto (like many we met), and his cellarmaster commutes over from the Douro.

Because this region is little known, Rui has made a point of putting a map showing exactly where they are on his labels. It was also his way of making the point that this region still has a connection with the mighty Douro river.

Beyra's labels feature maps to show exactly where the wines come from.

Beyra’s labels feature maps to show exactly where the wines come from.

But it is the altitude and old vines (some as much as 120 years old) which make his wines really special. The freshness captured in the wines means that it isn’t just the whites that work well with fish as we were to discover when we retreated to a local rustic restaurant for lunch.

Hake, potatoes, eggs and greens washed down with the Beyra Tinto Beira Interior 2012

Hake, potatoes, eggs and greens washed down with the Beyra Tinto Beira Interior 2012

Presenting a different face to the world
A common theme that came up with all those we spoke to was the need to make their mark on what is an already crowded market place. This is something that Rita Marques of Conceito has undoubtedly achieved with her dramatic-looking labels (Conceito means ‘concept’).

Conceito's distinctive labels

Conceito’s distinctive labels

Rita is one of the new generation of winemakers. A protogée of Dirk Niepoort, she came back to the Douro in 2005 after travelling as far afield as South Africa and New Zealand learning her craft. After finishing her studies, Rita built a winery with the intention of making wines from vineyards owned by her mother and grandfather. Previously the grapes were sold on to producers so Rita is the first winemaker of the family.

Rita’s winemaking philosophy is quite straightforward: ‘You should always make wines that you like to drink.’ She then goes on to admit rather candidly that, at first, she didn’t like the Douro table wines finding them too heavy and powerful! But now she says that she loves them: ‘Wines are becoming more elegant… more people are making table wines in the Douro so we’re all getting to understand our region better and there’s more competition, so everyone’s improving.’

Rita del mundo! Rita still goes back to make wine in South Africa in February and Marlborough in March

Rita del mundo! Rita still goes back to make wine in South Africa in February and Marlborough in March

Returning to the theme at the start of this post, the land here is not what you’d immediately picture when thinking of the Douro. Despite the high altitude (300-400m), this is a land of gentle hills rolling down to the Teja valley, a tributary of the Douro. The mild micro-climate here means that grapes ripen more slowly here bringing freshness to the wines (her entry-level red Contraste, £11.95 per bottle and designed for early drinking, exemplifies this beautifully). And Rita is lucky enough to have access to some really old parcels of vines (the oldest around 80 years old with two hectares of pre-phylloxera vines at 600m).

From the Douro’s upland vineyards to the valley floor
Winding your way down from Rita’s winery to the valley floor of the Douro is an ear-popping, stomach-churning descent – even by night and despite the considerate driving!

Our next destination was in the southernmost vinho verde subzone of Baião, in what is called the Douro Verde and a stopover at Quinta de Guimarães to taste the fresh, nervy Cazas Novas wines based on the avesso grape.

Anyone for avesso?
Casas Novas AvessoI have to admit that I hadn’t heard of this grape before or realised that the vinho verde region came down as far as the Douro or this far inland. But as we were to discover, avesso is the grape of this area where it is increasingly bottled as a single varietal.

Quite unlike the other vinho verde grapes, avesso is low in acidity but is relatively high in potential alcohol and can have almost tropical-fruit like aromatics and a roundness to the flavour. To distinguish these wines from the more traditional vinhos verdes, the wines are often bottled in Burgundy bottles. Avesso in Portuguese, by the way, means ‘opposite’.

The avesso grape thrives in the warmer and drier climate here, planted as it is on south-facing slopes that run down to the Douro. Here the granite soils are also less fertile than those of the vinho verde subzones further north and west.

There’s a real excitement about this grape – and you can see why – it offers something a bit different while retaining that enticing freshness that makes all vinho verde attractive. Buyer Joanna Locke MW has shipped the 2014 vintage for members to try (£6.95 per bottle).

Cazas Novas has been in the hands of the Mourinho family for seven generations. Carlos Mouinho makes the wine in collaboration with Diogo Fonseca Lopes and winemaking super-stars Anselmo Mendes, and Vasco Magalhães. Carlos tells us that like many other families, they used to sell their grapes but noticed that the wines were winning awards and his father thought, ‘why not have a go ourselves?’

Carlos Mouinho of Cazas Novas

Carlos Mourinho of Cazas Novas

Much to the delight of his father, Carlos has stepped up to the plate. His father meanwhile, looks after renting out their beautiful old manor house Quinta de Guimarães. The house, built in 1720 and with its own chapel (which Carlos informs us is typical of this style of property), is used for weddings, holiday lets and bed and breakfast. ‘It’s one way we can continue to keep these old houses going,’ says Carlos and it would make a lovely first spot to stay on a wine tour up the Douro.

More and more quintas are opening up their doors to visitors, so if you’re thinking of taking a trip up the Douro, I’d recommend spending more than three days and researching the possibilities of staying where the wine is made.

Joanna Goodman
Communications Editor

Categories : Other Europe, Port, Portugal

Comments

  1. Zihni Imamzade says:

    How can we get information about going for a trip to Douro, please?

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