Zooming down the Douro River at 35 knots provided relief from the noon-time heat. Vintner Joao Ferreira Alvares Ribeiro powered the boat across the placid water, sparing us the the twists and turns of the roads that curve through the valley. Whoever planted the first vines here must have been a sadist and a masochist as well as a hedonist: elaborate terraces for vines that represent generations of work now score the vertiginous hillsides on either side of the river.
The mighty Douro wends 600 miles from its start in the middle of Castilla-Leon in Spain (where it is known as the Duero), across northern Portugal and down to the city of Porto where the river opens into the Atlantic. In a different era, the river was narrow, fast moving affair with rapids. Now, since five dams have been built on the Portuguese side, it is languid and wide, making for our great boat ride. Indeed, our ride was symbolic of the fast pace of changes in the region.
As with so many wine regions in the world, a qualitative revolution is underway. But instead of exchanging quantity for quality as is the usual story, the Douro’s change is from sweet to dry. For three centuries or more, the grapes of the Douro have gone into port, a sweet fortified wine. So popular were the wines of the region in 18th century Britain that Adam Smith even pointed to the port-for-wool trade as an early example of the advantages of specialization in world trade. Indeed, legislators in the two countries also saw the significance and bound the countries together with favorable trade regimes.
But port wine is no longer what it was in Adam Smith’s day. The market for port is declining while the market for dry table wines is growing in countries like the UK and the US. Grape growers and port wine makers have seen the market shift and started to adjust accordingly.
The resulting table wines are often rich and concentrated reds that avoid the global trap of simply being carbon copies of the world’s great wines: Tourigua Nacional hasn’t quite had the impact on the vineyards of the world as Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyards have a seductive lush quality to them but also a local distinctiveness, thanks to the arid terroir and the distinctive local grapes.
The recent trend toward table wine can trace its roots back to 1986. When the region’s grapes went into ports only, they had to pass through “shippers” in the city of Porto to be exported to the world. However, a law dating from May 8, 1986 reformed the market for exports and allowed upriver producers to send their wines abroad directly. A new product therefore became commercially viable.
With 33,000 growers and about 40,000 hectares, plots are small but the opportunities for new exports are large. So far a group of about 18 producers have grouped themselves under the banner of “New Douro,” which includes Chryseia, the collaboration, between Bruno Prats (fromerly of Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux) and Symington ports. In fact, practically the sole port house not to take the plunge into table wines is Taylor’s.
But the hard core of movers and shakers seems to be the group-within-a-group of five “Douro Boys.” They include Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta Vale Dona Maria, Dirk van der Niepoort of Niepoort, the Roquette family of Qunita de Crasto, the Olazabal family of Quinta do Vale Meao, and our helmsman on the river trip, Joao, and his Quinta do Vallado. This group put together a press trip last week and I was able to join and taste the wines and visit the quintas. The Douro Boys are an extremely affable bunch, as was on display they cracked many jokes during a tasting of their wines at the new hotel Aquapura in the Valley last week. More tales and tasting notes to follow in a brief series.
One note on price: many of these wines are the best coming out of Portugal today and have great aromatic intensity and the charm of place, which often involves traditional foot-treading in lagares. As a result this character and often limited productions, they have been priced according to the international market, which is to say that they are more likely splurge wines rather than everyday wines.
Related: Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto
(image #1 is of the Rio Torto, a tributary to the Douro)