Portugal Diary: The Action Begins in the Douro Valley
The Douro Valley is the heart of the Port region and is so spectacular that I think every wine lover should plan on visiting the area at least once in their lives. I’ve experienced many wine regions and in my humble opinion there is no region as breathtaking and vast as the Douro Valley.
Our welcome dinner tasting was at Grahams Port House in Vila Nova di Gaia, across the river from Porto. Grahams is owned by the Symington Group and has a vast portfolio of wines, and a very interesting, historical facility.
We learned that the Douro Valley has 45,000 hectares of vineyards and is the largest area of mountain vineyards in the world.
Grahams itself has 7 million liters of Port aging in barrels and another 3 million in bottles in their
facility. We just learned that Symington declared the 2017 vintage. Read about it here.
It rained everyday we were in the Douro which was welcomed by the locals (not the tourists) because of near drought conditions. But the weather is not hospitable, with freezing Winters and Summer temps sometimes as high as 50 degrees C. Or as our guide phrased it: “9 months of Winter and 3 months of Hell.” (It rimes in Portuguese since the words for Winter and Hell sound alike.)
Port is a fortified wine that undergoes fermentation just like any other wine, except that the fermentation is interrupted by adding 77% alcohol (154 proof), which leaves a high amount of sugar in the wine, 80 grams/liter to be precise.
There are basically 3 types of Port: Ruby, which has little if any barrel aging; LBV, late-bottled Vintage which is really a Ruby bottled after 4 years; Tawny aged in barrels which theoretically can last forever since it has already been oxidized, and Vintage, which is bottle aged.
We got up bright and early the next day to head into the heart of the Douro Valley. Our first visit was Quinta de San José. Our rather large bus (we really only needed a small bus for 12 people but the bus company owner wanted us to be comfortable so he gave me the large bus at the same price) had trouble climbing the narrow road to the winery. Once we got there, winery owners Joåo and Sofia Brito e Cunho,
drove us in small groups in their 4 wheel drive vehicle down to the tasting room at the river’s edge. It was dicey and worse than the Amalfi coast but it gave immediate contact with the steep slopes and made you appreciate the work it takes to cultivate grapes in the Douro.
Joåo considers his winery as boutique since it only produces 80,000 bottles annually. He is a descendent of Doña Antonia, a strong-minded women who in the late 1800s had the foresight and courage to buy many vineyards when others were abandoning them.
San José owns 10 hectares and leases 4 additional hectares. He travelled throughout the world of wine to get experience and settled back in the Douro in 1995 which he claims is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world.
Our tasting: Flor de San José 2017, intense fruit aroma, a blend of 3 varieties: Viosinho (which adds the aroma), Rabigoto and Arinto; San José Tinto 2016, a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Touriiga Roriz, deep ruby red, redolent of dark berries, 12 months in used oak barrels, with good acidity and soft tannins, from a North facing slope which produces a very different wine than his neighbor who has South facing slopes, thus more sun and lush wines; José Reserva 2015, from 70 year old vineyards, Touriga Nacional 40% and 60% a field blend of 30 grape varieties, the grapes are foot trodden, deep ruby color, lean, austere, briary.
Our next visit was our lunch stop at Quinta do Vallado with a storied history dating back to 1716. Our lunch and tasting was at their boutique hotel facility.
Our lunch started with typical local appetizers and steak as the main course. During the meal we were served 4 wines: Reserva White 2018, a blend of 4 grapes: Arinto, Rabigato, Verdelho and Viosinho; Touriga Nacional 2016; Field Blend 2016, up to 40 grape varieties; Tawny 20 year
Our last visit was to a relatively newer winery: Alves de Sousa and their Qunita da Gaivosa. We were greeted by Catarina Sousa, whose husband Tiago and father-in-law Domingos run the winery.
The estate has been in the family for 5 generations and was started in 1970 with table wines. 70% of their
production is exported.
The grapes are grown on traditional terraces on 135 hectares, all their own;They produce 67% red,and the balance divided between white port and port. They plan to increase their focus on Port.
They plant 8,000 vines per hectare, so very dense, and roots going 20 meters deep. Tiago is considered a young expert and many of his ideas have been adopted by other Port producers, such as his pressing machine which mimics foot stomping.
Our tasting: Branca da Gaivosa Grande Reserva 2015, a blend of 4 white grapes-Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Arinto and Avesso, 12 months in new and 2 year old French oak barrels; Quinta da Gaivosa red 2015,100% Touring Nacional. elegant, soft tannins, spice aroma; Abandoned red 2015, only produced in exceptional years, from 85 year old vineyards and a field blend of 25 different local grape varieties, very fruit forward, strong tannins, minerality, aromas of eucalyptus, production is a mere 4,000 bottles; Quinta da Gaivosa 15 year old White Port, from 70 year old field blend, 10 years aging in old barrels, had skin contact in fermentation, hence the deep orange color, aroma of orange marmalade, honey, caramel; Quinta da Gaivosa 20 year old Tawny, from old vines, with 20 years aging in old barrels; Alves de Sousa Vintage Port 2015, a blend of Touriga Nacional, Sousåo and others, fruit forward, mature dark red fruits, tannic, chocolate .
I’m glad we visited Grahams first to experience a big producer, followed by our 3 much smaller producers, which gave us an appreciation of all the work that went into making and maintaining the terraces of this World Heritage site.