The Wines of Gold from the Douro Valley: a global perspective

My motto is “Discover the world and savor the classics.”  The catchphrase encourages consumers to explore all the wines of the world but to never forget the classics.  One cannot truly appreciate wines without having benchmarks to compare them to.  One of the most classic of these benchmarks is Port, the sweet fortified wine of the Douro (“Golden”) Valley in Portugal.  The region has been making wine since Roman times.  Its wine history is interwoven with Portugal’s illustrious past as New World explorer and global trader.  The Douro Valley’s terrain is so unique that UNESCO deemed it one of only 66 cultural landscapes in the world.  And the region’s emphasis on quality was so high in 1756 that then Prime Minister the Marques de Pombal demarcated the region’s boundaries, the first controlled appellation of its kind.

Port, as well as the dry wines from the same Douro region, are worthy of elevation in consumers’ minds but compete with a proliferation of global brands claiming a unique proposition.  How to capture their attention?  Put the wines in perspective with the world’s greatest wines.

Steep Terrain

The controlled or regulated appellation of the Douro (aka Denominação de Origem Controlada or DOC) is in the valley of the Douro River, a continuation of the Duero River of Spain on whose banks lie the powerful red appellations of Ribera del Duero and Toro.  It is a deep valley with slopes as steep as Cote-Rotie in the Northern Rhone or the Mosel in Germany.  It is so steep that most of the Douro Valley must be worked by hand, with clusters subject to severe selection at harvest.

Harvesting grapes on steep “ao alto” slopes at Quinta do Infantado

Rare Soils

The soils in the Douro are primarily schist soil based on metamorphic, stratified rock also found in Cote-Rotie and in Priorato in Spain.  The schist formation fractures mostly vertical here, allowing vines to penetrate deep in search of water in this hot climate and for nutrients in otherwise shallow, 12-18 inch soils.  In the Douro, the schists are of ancient Cambrian origin and the blue schist in particular say João Brito e Cunha, consultant and winemaker at Quinta de S. José, is the best for minerality in the wine.

Blue schist at Quinta de S. Jose

Indigenous Grape Varieties and Typicité

Old vines at Quinta de Gricha

Like the greatest red wines of Italy – Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone della Valpolicella and Barolo – Douro DOC and Port wines are made from distinctive, mostly indigenous grapes varieties that are not widely planted elsewhere.  There are about 80 red grape varietals in total, however, five represent the majority of plantings:  Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesca and Touriga Nacional.  The older vineyards are mixed plantings of different grapes which add complexity and typicité to the wines co-fermented from them.  Newer vineyards are generally planted by grape varietal for precision winegrowing since ripening times can differ by as much as four weeks according to Christian Seely of Quinta do Noval.  The grapes are then harvested, vinified separately and blended.


Vineyard Classification

Like Burgundy, vineyard terroir is classified by local DOC regulators, in this case the Port Wine Institute (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto).  Individual vineyard plots are ranked based on a formula of factors including altitude, yields, soils, vine training, location and grape varieties.  Because temperatures in the quality growing areas can easily exceed 100 degrees during the summer, higher altitude with its cooler micro-climate is the most important factor, followed by low yields.

The many facets of Douro terroir

Low Yields and Concentration

The poor, acid and shallow soils, mostly dry-farmed, result in some of the lowest yields in the world, on average about 30 hectoliters per hectare.  In some of Symington’s quintas, yields are as low as 15 hl/ha, says Co-Managing Director Rupert Symington.    By comparison, yields for top Bordeaux estates in the Medoc averaged 40 hl/ha for the excellent 2010 vintage, a year marked by very low yields.

Ultimate Expression

Some of the world’s greatest wines are made with the gentlest embrace of the grapes in order to preserve terroir expression, like Chardonnay is pressed in Champagne.  For thicker-skinned red grapes, one of the most gentle but effective means of extracting quality color, flavor and tannins is by treading the grapes versus “pumping over” juice over the skins.  Treading minimizes the breaking up of bitter pips in the grapes.  Some wine producers like Marco Eguren in Rioja manually tread Tempranillo for their ‘La Nieta’ wine, but it is still a practice unique to the Douro for the finest Port and dry red wines.   According to Symington, treading results in more “voluptuous tannins.”  Traditionally, treading is done by foot in low, wide granite lagares, but now, many producers use customized robotic treaders that press grapes at the same rate and pressure as the human foot.

Robotic lagares at Quinta Vale D. Maria


The Art of Blending

Various size vats at Pocas in Vila Nova de Gaia

Like Bordeaux, most Douro dry wines and Port wines are blends of different grapes vs. single varietal wines.   Like Bordeaux grapes in the blend, each variety complements each other.  Touriga Nacional is the creme de la creme, a small, thick-skinned and aromatic grape that brings color, power and longevity to the blend.  Touriga Francesa (officially known as Touriga Franca since 2000) is highly aromatic with berry flavors and supple tannins.  Tinta Roriz adds spice and red fruit to the blend while Tinta Barroca adds body.  Tinta Cao makes concentrated wines with firm acidity but is not widely planted due to extra-low yields.

In addition to blending grape varieties, Tawny Ports are intricate blends of Port wines from different vintages such as Sherry.  But in the blending of Port wines, unlike Sherry’s fractional blending, the winemaker controls the shots every step of the way.  Port wines are aged in varying sizes of wood casks for long periods of time to develop specific character.  These wines then receive their final blending a few months before bottling to achieve a “House style.”