Traditionally, the Douro’s best grapes have always been kept for port, but producers are starting to use them for their table wines, writes Giles MacDonogh.

Port was a historical accident. We all know how English merchants, at the end of the 17th century, ventured deep into the Douro Valley to find wine to send to Britain; how the wine was dark, strong and ropey; and how they learned to add brandy to preserve the fruit in the wine and make it stable enough to survive the sea journey north.

The process, however, wasn’t created in a day. Even at the beginning of the 19th century port shippers had yet to learn the precise moment when to add the brandy and it was another generation before port shippers tamed the wild wine, adding fermenting must to about a quarter of the quantity of spirit to stop the fermentation and preserve the sugars in the port. In the meantime occasional pleas were entered for the continued production of Douro table wines. In his History and Description of Modern Wines of 1833, Cyrus Redding asked why ‘Englishmen should not have the benefit of the best wines of the Cima do Douro in a pure state, without adventitious mixtures?’. Portuguese critics were more ferocious: the novelist Camillo Castelo Branco referred to port as a ‘killer wine’, and the result of ‘English bestiality’.

Fortified wine won the day, however, due to the superior quality of those great 19th-century vintages. In the previous century it had been little more than a coarse, alcoholic tipple for rustic whigs who believed that, by drinking Portuguese wines, they were depriving the hated French of their livelihood – akin to drinking Australian wine today, perhaps. The European Union is the godfather of properly made Douro table wine. Portugal’s admission to the Club in 1986 provided the incentive to limit port production and foster the making of natural wines, but there had been a revival of interest in table wines in the post-war years and those early pioneers created the models for the Douro table wines of our own time. The greatest ‘prehistoric’ example is, of course, Barca Velha, created in 1952. The wine was the invention of Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, whose job was to make port for Ferreira. Stationed at the Quinta do Vale de Meão he allegedly grew tired of the drinks on offer. After visiting Bordeaux he returned with a bee in his bonnet about making a claret-style wine in the Douro Valley. He achieved this by sagely blending wine from the high country with that from the valley floor, and keeping it cool by using huge blocks of ice. For the first time in hundreds of years, a non-fortified Douro wine had been made which would justify the high price demanded for it.

Fernando’s son João was the next pioneer. Through his study of the best grape varieties for the valley and the reforms he instigated in the nature of terracing, Duas Quintas was born, a wine which, in its Reserva version, would prove a rival to his father’s creation. There were other forerunners besides: Grande Escolha (or ‘Grand Selection’) from Quinta do Côtto is a near contemporary of Duas Quintas, and in its rather more hot-country, leathery style, it remains one of the Douro’s best reds. At Quinta de la Rosa the Bergquists started making table wine in the 1980s. Their guru was the Australian, David Baverstock, who designed another great Douro red, the reserve wine from Quinta do Crasto.

From his base in the Alentejo, Baverstock is utterly convinced of the potential for great unfortified wine in the Douro Valley: ‘It can rate as the best wine in the world – certainly the best in Portugal.’ But before that can be brought about, a great Douro wine needs the right varieties, altitude, low yields and good vineyards; and the chief impediment to progress is port: if there were no port, there would be a great many more quality grapes to play with. Baverstock is not alone in his view. Frenchman Pascal Châtonnet makes the wines at Quinta do Portal (once Quinta do Confradeiro). ‘The region has enormous potential’, he told me, ‘but it is deceptive in its way, due to the historical position whereby table wines were considered as supplementary.’ Like Dirk van der Niepoort, Châtonnet maintains that you can’t use the same grapes for the two wines and so no one has yet been able to measure precisely how good Douro table wines could be: ‘Port wine vineyards are made up of many different grape varieties, unmixed plots are rare. And the grapes used for port are not ideal for table wines.’

Another problem is the beneficios system, which limits port production to three tons per hectare, setting aside any extra yield for table wines. Not only does this reinforce the view that table wine comes second and should use up leftovers, it also prevents producers from looking at the land seriously to decide which plots would best suit table wines and which would be better limited to port production. Niepoort, for one, is adamant about this. For him there are only a handful of people who examine the various terroirs of the Douro to work out what sort of wines they should be making: he names Bruce Guimaraens, until 1994 winemaker at Taylor-Fonseca, and Johnny Graham of Churchill. It is significant that Niepoort, Graham and Guimaraens all represent firms where the chief vocation has been to make port. Table wine is, after all, in its infancy. Almost all port companies make table wines now, but there is still resistance to the idea of using the best grapes on the part of the old port firms and Taylor’s, for example, still won’t countenance the idea of making non-fortified wine at all, even if Fonseca makes a little white, sold only in Portugal.

The other bastion of tradition has fallen. The Symington family who owns Graham, Warre, Dow and Quinta do Vesuvio (to name just four) has recently changed its minds. After humming and hawing for decades, they released Altano last year. It is a decent, inexpensive red, the equivalent possibly of Cockburn’s Tuella. Much more exciting has been the recent appearance of Chryseia – Symingtons’ collaboration with Bruno Prats of Bordeaux. This is a serious wine which tilts at the very top of the market. It doesn’t wish to be sweet and porty and shuns the leathery aromas that predominate elsewhere. It leans towards a Bordelais notion of elegance, but is richer and fuller than any of Châtonnet’s wines. There are plenty of Douro table wines to choose from now and some are very exciting indeed. A serious list would have to take in not only the examples named above, but also Niepoort’s Charme and Battuta, Quinta do Vale de Meão, Barca Velha’s present base, Evel Grande Escolha, Vinha do Fôjo, Quinta da Covelos and the new reserve wine from Quinta do Vallado. The question remains, however, whether we have yet to see the real potential of table wine in the valley. The table wine producers are still fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. To produce something of great quality they need access to the best grapes which continue to be awarded for port. It may be that when this vinous Messiah arrives, it will come from within the bowels of the port industry, which still controls much of the best land. Attitudes are changing, but there is a long way to go before they change for good.

Giles MacDonogh is the author of Portuguese Table Wines (£25, Grub Street).

Written by GILES MACDONOGH