TRAIPSING THE DOURO: Highlights from the most dramatic wine region in the world (Part 1: Back to Ba
The infinity pool at Quinta do Crasto. I had all I could do to resist jumping in.
My goodness I love my job. I have recently returned from a five day ‘press trip’ to the Douro Valley in Northeast Portugal. I was taken around, with another journalist, to some of the region’s top wineries. We stayed in fantastic hotels, and ate and drank like gluttons. On the last day, in the city of Porto, I presented in some online videos for the Port Institute (IVDP). I highly recommend working in the wine industry. It is a splendid profession.
View from my room at Quinta do Pégo. Not too shabby.
Don’t get me wrong, the trip also involved several very early mornings, waking up at 6:45 in the morning after rather boozy late nights, and clamouring around steep vineyards, frantically scribbling notes in an already full notebook, and tasting wines from 8:30 in the morning onwards. But I shouldn’t complain for fear of receiving hate mail for the next week.
A WHITE Port circa 1917 from Niepoort. We tried this blind at an incredible dinner at Niepoort’s quinta and we all thought it was a tawny and no more than 40 years old. How wrong we were!
The Douro Valley, apart from those in the know, is still relatively unknown. However, it’s most famous drink is both heard of and loved across the globe, particularly in Britain. Let me give you a clue: it’s named after its closest city, Porto. Yep, you guessed it. The Douro Valley is the home of Port. Traditionally (although it is changing), this beautiful fortified wine starts its life up in the quintas (aka wineries), and finishes it in oak casks in the Port houses lining Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto.
The boats that used to bring the barrels of Port to their respective houses to finish ageing. These days it’s all done by trucks.
I’d always naively thought that the hills of the Douro were just a stone’s throw away from the city of Porto, but quickly discovered that the Douro Valley is over two hour’s drive inland from the city, not far from the Spanish border. With its giant hills that sweep upwards from the Douro River, and steeply terraced vines, the stunning Douro Valley has captured the hearts of many a wine lover, and there has been much written about the region and its wines.
The mighty Douro River
But if you really want to sound like a wine know-it-all, forget the endless pages of tasting notes you’ll find on many a blog or article. Go out and start drinking (I’ll give you a some of my recommendations in the next post). And learn a few important facts so you truly sound like you know what you’re talking about.
A very brief but spectacular trip across the river on Quinta do Crasto’s boat
Six Things to Know about the Douro Valley and its Wines:
1) Although it is home to Port, the Douro actually makes as much table wine (aka unfortified, ‘regular’ wine) as it does Port. And some of it is delicious. They make some whites from grapes at higher altitudes, but this is mainly red wine country.
Table wines from the Douro 4 U group. My first time doing a tasting in a lagare!
2) Douro’s wines and Ports are made from grape varieties native to Portugal and often solely found in the Douro. With around 100 different varieties (although only about 15-20 are well known), they’re all about blends here, so most wines consist of a combo of at least three grapes, each one imparting a different element to the wine. Most varieties have literally developed a thick skin to protect against the hot summers and cold, wet winters, so the wines can be big, dark-coloured, oaky beasts. However when in the hands of the most skillful winemakers, they can beautifully express the unique grapes and terroir of the Douro.
Quinta do Noval are one of the quintas who’ve moved all of their Port production up to the Douro. They’ve been making wine the same way for hundreds of years, and have the ancient cellar to prove it-no one even knows how to build a roof like that anymore! They also have their own cooper who hand makes the barrels, which can last for around 200 years.
3) They are old school in the Douro. Because of the steep vineyards and slippery schist soils (although some granite is found at higher altitudes), everything must be hand picked.
How many other crops can thrive in rocks like these?! (At Quinta da Gaivosa)
Much of the grapes are still pressed by foot in giant lagares (square tanks) because it’s believed this is the most delicate way to extract the juice. As romantic as it sounds, this is actually done with military precision, complete with a ‘drill sergeant’ figure who keeps time. It can last for up to 3 ½ hours with no breaks! Yowsers.
An empty ‘lagare’. During the harvest, this will be filled with grapes for foot treading.
4) Port is the oldest regulated and demarcated region in the world, dating back to 1756 when cheap imitations of the stuff were already cropping up. Therefore if it’s called Port on the bottle, rest assured it’s always the genuine stuff. Port is one of the most regulated beverages in the world, ensuring that the producers take no short cuts.
Corks being tested on wines at Taylors, who are very careful about their corks, and as a result have a very low level of cork taint.
5) Getting back to basics, Port is a fortified wine. That means that it’s wine with grape spirit (aka Brandy) chucked into the mix to stop the fermentation and keep natural sugars high. As a result, the alcohol is also high from the spirit, hence the 19-20% alcohol level (so drink in moderation people!).
A modern Ruby Reserve, an LVB, 10 and 20 year Tawnies, and a Colheita Tawny all from Quinta do Noval.
6) There are four different styles of Port, and different categories within those styles:
Ruby, in which you can get Reserve, LBV (Late Bottled Vintage from one year) that can be filtered or unfiltered (unfiltered will age in bottle longer but needs decanting), and Vintage (the big guy who’s only made a few times a decade when the year is declared a good one, and who you pay lots of mullah for but who can last decades and when opened is a beautiful specimen).
Tawny, a personal favourite of mine. Tawnies usually come with an indication age on the bottle–10, 20, 30, 0r 40 years old, which rather confusing is actually an average age of combined vintages to keep consistency throughout the years. But there’re alsoColheita tawnies, in which the actual age is on the bottle. Like Vintage Ports, these can age amazingly well.
White. Without a vintage on the label, it’s meant to be drunk young and over ice or sometimes as part of a ‘portonic’ with tonic water and a slice of lemon. There are also more rare Colheita Whites like the one pictured above, which can age as well as the rubies and tawnies and be equally as beautiful.
Rosé is a relatively new style. It’s made the same way as rosé wine but with the addition of grape spirit of course. It’s carnival pink, very fruity, and meant to be drunk young and not taken too seriously. Beware of the Rosé Port on a girl’s night out though. At that alcohol level, you’ll seriously regret drinking it in large quantities the next day.
And if all that info isn’t enough to have you sounding like a bonafide wine-or at least Port-snob, I don’t know what is. Look out for the next post (coming soon!) on some wine recommendations to go with all this new found knowledge. Class Dismissed.