Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Reportage on Douro wines (1st part - Introduction+Quinta Vale Dona Maria)

During the last harvest I took the opportunity of a visit to the Douro region to explore the area that has been promoting during the last years a new image of Portuguese wines in the world: the valley of the Douro river.

The Douro valley is of course not new to wine, as it has been producing and exporting for centuries that magnificent example of fortified wine that is the Port wine. All grapes used for producing port come from the Douro valley, and in particular from an intricated system of terraced vineyards that is a pleasure for the view but of course a challenge for the wine growers.

But this year I was coming there not for tasting port wine, even if I actually tasted some of them that I will report here, but mainly for visiting wineries that are producing some of the most interesting "Vinhos de mesa" (literally "table wines", even if this simply serves to reflect the difference with port wines since these wines fall under the denomination "Douro").

This area has been in fact leading the renewal of interest for Portuguese wines in the world market and its wines have been largely rewarded by the main wine guides and critics notably in the US. This "new wave" of Douro wines is largely due to the capacity of a number of growers, first of all Dirk van Der Niepoort (Niepoort family has already been producing outstanding port wines for centuries), to start on the one side to invest strongly also on dry red wines and not only on port wines and to experiment winemaking techniques, and on the other side to spend more energy on the promotional side of Portuguese wine, notably abroad (I remember that I get the best overview on Portuguese wines during an excellent Wine fair organised in New York by ViniPortugal some 2 years ago).

The result of this intense work has been in fact extremely rewarding since the interest for Portuguese wines in the biggest export markets, US and UK, has been growing in such a way that the key wines of some leading Douro wineries, such as Niepoort, Quinta do Vale Meao, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale Dona Maria... are now quickly sold out.

But the best way to discover this world is not in a wine fair but there, in the Douro valley, notably during the harvesting period, when the colour of the valley changes during the day with the inclination of the sun, and the rare roads of the area are filled with small trucks charged with people or grapes.

The Geography of the Douro

First of all, when coming to the Douro area, one should be aware of the peculiar geography of the place. The wine area, which starts from Regua (Peso da Regua), some 100 km from the sea coast and the key city of Oporto, is dominated by the Douro river, about 200 mt large there. The river is literally dominated by lusciurious hills entirely planted with terraced vineyards. Only part of the left bank, between Regua and Lamego, has space enough for a solitary road, while on the right side of the river the road is dominating the river and is following the up and down of the hills. The only possibility to cross the river is either at Regua or at Lamego some 20 km north. Reaching the "upper Douro" valley (Douro Superior) requires a large detour even if the panorama is splendid.

But a good way to visit the river is the train, which is following the right bank and takes you all along the river and let you discover this great scenery without being obliged to drive up and down. I would suggest to try a bit of both, but when visiting the wineries you should either have a car or arranging for a pick up at the train station.

In any case, the first element to take into consideration when coming there is understanding that the distance on paper and in reality are rather different. Better to coordinate the visits to the wineries fairly well on the basis of a detailed map.

Of course...this is not what I did...but I enjoyed my mistake.

When planning my visit I decided to visit the wineries that have been at the forefront of this "new wave", since I wanted first of all to understand how this movement was born, under which conditions, constraints and opportunities. I had to leave for a next occasion the visit to less known wineries, knowing that I want to explore also that side of the Douro world.

Quinta Vale Dona Maria

On October 8th, I was heading towards Quinta Vale Dona Maria, the first winery on my list, one of the five members of the so-called "Douro Boys", a group of some of the highly acclaimed wineries that has joined efforts in successfully promoting Douro wines. In fact, the Douro boy of this Quinta (Quinta= farm in Portuguese, but often refers to a countryside mansion) is in part a woman, Sandra Tavares da Silva, the enologist who is following the Quinta owned by Cristiano Van Zeller, helped by a newly arrived young enologist, Joana Pinhão, who has been my perfect guide during the visit.

Quinta Vale Dona Maria is located on the valley of the Douro tributary Rio Torto a few km from the Douro river, on the left bank, just after Lamego in direction north. My meeting was in the morning and I was admiring on my way from Regua the morning scenery of the Douro with the water condensation creating an even more heavenly panorama and sensation.

The steep road for the winery allowed me to admire the careful planting of the vineyards to reach even the more remote areas and profit from every single piece of land.

The Quinta is a rather recent acquisition by Cristiano van Zeller in 1996, even if belonging to his family's wife for several centuries. This is a common aspect of the Douro, where large part of the land has not changed ownership and where several families are linked with parental links to the very popular (an almost mythical) Dona Antonia, a woman who in the XIX century owned immense properties and was of key importance for saving the industry of wine in the Douro at the moment of the Phylloxera invasion.

Cristiano Van Zeller has turned the quinta in a few years into producing two of the most appreciated wines of the Douro: "Quinta do vale Dona Maria" and, more recently, "Curriculum Vitae (C.V.)". The quinta covers about 21 hectares, planted with old and new vines, with south-south-west exposure. As it is the case in all the douro, old vines are planted with dozens of different grape varieties, in a way that makes impossible separating them (Joana told me that they have counted more than 40 varieties in old vines there). Single grape wines are in fact a recent experiment for wineries, and only based on new vines.

In addition to the two wines described above, the Quinta produces also a number of Port wines (Vintage, LBV and Reserve) and under the brand "Van Zeller" (V.Z.) a white wine and a red wine that form the basic line.

I have only tried in this occasion the two wines of the basic line, and I appreciated the good acidity and freshness of the V.Z. white and the easiness and freshness of the V.Z. red.

The two upper line reds, Quinta vale Dona Maria and C.V. , after foot treading spend a few days fermentation in the lagares (the open stone or concrete tanks traditionally used for the fermentation of grapes for port wine), then are moved for further fermentation in steel tanks. They then age for 18 months in French oak barrels with light toasting. I appreciated the organisation of the winery, where all is arranged on a vertical basis partly due to space constraints but also to facilitate the different phases of the production.

The Quinta, in addition to the winery, has also developed a rural tourism area with a small swimming pool dominating the valley. A good place for relaxing and also learning about the life of wine growers.

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