Douro Valley, Portugal

As the weather cools, I thought it pertinent to focus this week’s piece on the ultimate winter warmer wine; Port. Port can only come from the Douro region of Portugal, a baking hot series of steep vineyards that sit directly over the Douro River (which is known as the Duero River where it originated in Spain) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The region is split into 3 sub-regions; the region closest to the Spanish border is the Douro Superior, which due to its distance from the ocean, is the hottest and driest sub-region. Near the dead-centre of Portugal is the Cima Corgo, where the best vineyards and highest quality Port is sourced from. The steep vineyards and rocky granitic-schist soils are difficult to walk through during harvest, but the rewards are clear, as anyone who has tried a top-quality Vintage Port will confirm. Baixo Corgo is the most westerly of the sub-regions and is cooler and wetter than its neighbours due to its proximity to the ocean. The vineyards here are much more accessible, and the area is best suited to the production of table wines, which actually consist of 50% of the Douro Valley’s production. The earlier-drinking robust dry reds from this area provide a much-needed injection of finances to the port houses as their top-level wines reach maturity in barrel, which can take years.

Some of the oldest-run wine companies on earth exist in the Douro Valley, such as Taylor’s (est. 1692), Warre’s (est. 1670) and Quinta do Noval (est. 1715) just to name a few. In addition to this, the Douro DOP (Denominacão de Origem Protegida- the regional designation of quality) was first established in 1756, making it one of the world’s oldest delimited wine regions. This rich history is a fantastic sales tool, however comes with a few complications; Over 100 indigenous varietals can be found in the Douro region, and about 80 of these are allowed into the blend of Port. Seeing as the region dates back to long before genetic identification of vines was possible, many vineyards are a crazy mess of different varieties, all planted next to each other- and each one ripens slightly differently depending on the vintage and tastes different. For today’s modern Port producer however, only a handful of varieties really matter, and many vineyards (known as Quintas here) have been replanted to these higher-quality varieties.

Touriga Nacional is recognised as the highest quality indigenous variety, and has even found a new home in some of Australia’s warmer regions such as the McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley. Other varieties recognised as higher quality are Touriga Franca, Tinto Cão (translates to ‘red dog’), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz, which only a few years ago was actually discovered to be Tempranillo. There are even a few white varieties in the higher, cooler Quintas, used to make White Port. This wine is not often seen outside of Portugal, and is the popular local beverage, usually added to tonic over ice to create a refreshing summer drink. Over the past decade, some growers have tried their hand at more globally recognised varietals in an attempt to create a more approachable, modern style of Portuguese wine, as well as to increase their production, as these native varieties have incredibly low yields- especially older vines. The Douro usually holds the unenviable record every year of lowest recorded yields per vintage- usually a whole vine only produces between 500g to 1.5kg of grapes! These new arrivals to the region include Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, however there is great interest in varieties you would not think would survive well in this mostly hot, dry region such as Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer. I’m sure they’d be interesting to try!

So, what makes Port wine so individual? Port first rose to fame during the 17th Century where England and France were at war, and trade embargoes forbade the importation of French wine to England. This created a problem for thirsty Brits, who looked to other shores to fill their cellars. The Douro Valley is a bit further away than Bordeaux or Burgundy however, so to survive the long, hot journey down the river, around the Bay of Biscay and up the Thames, wine merchants would add a measure of brandy to the finished wine to stabilise them- this high-alcohol spirit would kill off any bacteria in the shipping barrels and provide the wine with some protection against oxidation. Over time, the merchants realised that by adding a spirit before the ferment finished, they would still retain the protective abilities of the spirit, but also keep a percentage of natural grape sugars in the wine, which provided much-needed balance to the highly tannic and alcoholic wines. Over the decades, the competing families have constantly tried to re-invent the wheel and create a “new style” of Port. Some have been a great success and introduced a new group of drinkers to Port, others less so. Styles of Port found in today’s market range from the earlier drinking and lighter Rose Port, Ruby Port, pre-aged and ready-to-drink Tawny Port, then the more serious Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port, Vintage Port and then the incredibly rare Single-Quinta Vintage Ports.

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager