Portugal: Is the Douro still King of the Reds?

The Douro put Portugal on the map for red wine, but is it the country’s only region worthy of attention?

Do you drink Portuguese red wine over £10? And no, not counting Port. Yes? From which region? That narrows it down a bit, doesn’t it? Douro is probably at the top of your list, maybe with Alentejo next. Perhaps Dão, then maybe Bairrada? And Terras do Sado? OK, maybe that’s stretching it…

The Douro has always had a head start in Portugal. Importantly for its global visibility, its wine producers have been aware of marketing. Why? Because of Port, the only fortified wine in the world that has grown its market share in the past 10 years. The Douro also has an historic knowledge of unfortified winemaking. But the few producers who do practise this have had a steep learning curve to make the wines some of us now know and admire.

Unfortified Douro wine used to be an unwanted by-product of Port production.

The reputation of the Douro had been made by Port, and Port was what sold. This was not the way Baron Forrester, of Port house Offley Forrester, saw the destiny of Douro grapes in the mid-19th century, according to António Agrellos, manager of Quinta do Noval. ‘Baron Forrester wanted to make red wines, not Port,’ he says. ‘He lost the battle, but he was right in thinking there was potential quality.’

The advent of good Douro had to wait another century, until Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, winemaker-to-be at Port house AA Ferreira, made a trip to Bordeaux. He saw how the Bordelais made wines and returned to Portugal brimming with French ideas. He tried picking grapes from different altitudes, and vinified different varieties separately. He had blocks of ice brought upriver from Porto, and cooled down the fermentation vat temperatures in the scorching autumn Douro heat by placing the ice around the vats. In 1952, he made the first Barca Velha, aged in barrels made from new Portuguese oak. It is still revered around the world as one of Portugal’s best reds.

The link with Bordeaux has continued, with established Port producers turning to the Bordelais for help with the new generation of unfortified Douro wines. In 1998, the Symington family (owner of the Dow’s, Warre’s, Graham’s, Quinta do Vesuvio, Smith Woodhouse and Quarles Harris Port brands) joined with Bruno Prats, former owner of Cos d’Estournel in St-Estèphe. The result has been silky Douro reds Chryseia and Post Scriptum. The Roquette family of Quinta do Crasto works with Jean-Michel Cazes (of Lynch-Bages) to make Xisto, and Jacques and François Lurton started their own Douro label, Pilheiros (left) in 2004.

New generation

So at least the savvy Bordelais clearly feel the Douro is the place to be in Portugal. There are compelling reasons to agree; the wonderful landscape; terroir; old vines; winemaking history; knowledge of marketing; and the young generation of winemakers. The latter has been led by Dirk Niepoort, fifth generation of the eponymous Port house.

Niepoort’s contribution to his family’s business has been the creation of a range of unfortified wines that has revolutionised Douro thinking. He looks for old vines of mixed varieties from high, cool vineyards – ‘grapes from vineyards others have not wanted, and varieties other winemakers ignore’. His quest has been for elegance and subtlety; the more expensive the wine, the lighter it gets. Charme, his top red, is a Portuguese version of a fine red Burgundy. It’s not made from Pinot Noir, but it might almost have been.

He has encouraged and persuaded the young generation along with him – not to copy him, but to believe that making fine Douro wine is possible. Winemakers such as Jorge Serôdio Borges (Pintas and Quinta do Passadouro), Jorge’s wife Sandra Tavares da Silva (Quinta do Vale Dona Maria and Quinta de Chocapalha – her parents’ estate in Estremadura), Jorge Moreira (Quinta de la Rosa and Poeira), Luís Duarte Silva (Perfil, Momentos and Kolheita de Ideias), Francisco Ferreira (Quinta do Vallado and Kolheita de Ideias) and Francisco Olazábal (Quinta do Vale Meão)… These guys snap up parcels of old vines if they have the means, or go into partnership with the vineyard owners, and co-operate on new wines and labels. No other region in Portugal has had the Bordelais vote of confidence, or a leader such as Niepoort.

Alentejo revolution

But that’s not to say there aren’t good wines being made outside the Douro. The Alentejo has a big advantage: its proximity to Lisbon and a huge market of drinkers there ready to enjoy its soft, fruity reds. The region’s technical development was set back significantly by the 1974 Revolution, and it took 10 years before some estates were restored to their legal owners. The legacy of the co-operative movement is still very strong here: many are among the best co-ops in the country – Borba, Redondo and Portalegre; others are still decades behind in almost every aspect.

Besides the co-ops, there are other excellent companies in Alentejo as well. Some produce large volumes of gloriously drinkable, well-priced wines (Esporão, J Portugal Ramos, Casa Santa Vitória, Herdade das Anforas, Herdade do Peso and José de Sousa) as well as top-quality reds that challenge the Douro’s supremacy. Other Alentejo estates, boasting talented winemakers such as Luís Duarte, Paulo Laureano and Rui Reguinga, already make some of Portugal’s best reds. Top estates are Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, Herdade do Mouchão, Quinta do Mouro and Fundação Eugénio de Almeida.

Some of these producers make their best wines out of small patches of ancient vines, others from immaculately maintained young ones. Most vineyards are planted with Portuguese and popular international grapes – Aragonêz and Trincadeira dominate, though Touriga Nacional (Portugal’s top red variety) is gaining vineyard space, as are Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon – but Alentejo is also proud of a few grapes disowned in their French homeland such as old-vine Alicante Bouschet and Grand Noir.

Array of grapes

Native varieties are responsible for most of Portugal’s top reds, often from very old

Alentejo stars: Rui Reguina (left) and Luís Duarte (right). Below: Xisto – a joint venture between Port house Quinta do Crasto and the Cazes family of Bordeaux.

Opposite (left): Bairrada’s Luis Pato and (right) JM Fonseca of Estremaduravines. It’s particularly true in the Douro and in Dão, the other superlative red- wine region. In Dão, Aragonêz (aka Tinta Roriz, aka Tempranillo), Alfrocheiro, Jaén and Touriga Nacional are the main grapes. The other big influence here is altitude, with the Serra da Estrela towering over Dão vineyards to the east. Higher altitudes and granite soils give a thrilling minerality and brightness to the best reds, from producers such as Alvaro de Castro (Quinta de Sães and Quinta da Pellada), Quinta dos Roques, Quinta dos Carvalhais and Dão Sul.

Baga is Bairrada’s grape – best or beast depending on the year. Its variability is such that in 2003, the powers that be changed Bairrada’s rules, and a flood of other varieties – Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, you name it – were allowed into the DOC (Denominação de Origem) wines. This has enabled top producers to concentrate on making serious Baga reds (in the good years) only from the most appropriate soils. Luís Pato is one.

‘Now I only have Baga on my best, chalky-clay soils,’ Pato says. ‘Where I can’t ripen Baga – on sandy soils – I grow Touriga Nacional.’ Other traditional Bairrada producers worth looking out for include Quinta das Bágeiras, Casa de Saima, Sidónio de Sousa and Caves São João. Best of the modernists are Jorge and Carlos Campolargo, who make good wines from a bewildering array of grapes. Modern-style Bairrada will take a few years to settle down while growers work out how best to use the new varieties.

Few of Portugal’s best reds are made from non-Portuguese varieties: Portugal has so many great indigenous grapes that incomers are mostly superfluous. But there are exceptions. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah contribute a few top reds in Terras do Sado and Estremadura. Joe Berardo’s Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal is based on the Setúbal Peninsula, south of Lisbon. His Palácio da Bacalhôa is a complex, elegant blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and sometimes Petit Verdot. And there are the Franco-Portuguese varietal blends of José Maria da Fonseca’s two top red wines, Hexagon (Touriga Nacional, Syrah, Trincadeira, Tinto Cão, Touriga Franca and Tannat) and FSF (Syrah, Trincadeira and Tannat).

Estremadura’s two best producers also use a blend of French and native grapes. Quinta de Chocapalha blends Touriga Nacional and Aragonez with a little Syrah for Chocapalha Reserva, its top wine. José Bento dos Santos of Quinta do Monte d’Oiro is a Syrah fan and uses this, often with a whiff of Viognier.

There are names other than ‘Douro’ to learn if you want to find the best reds of Portugal, but it pays to be producer-specific in your search. At the moment, there’s more choice and better distribution of good Douro reds than of anything else. But that shouldn’t stop you looking…