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Steven Spurrier October 2010 column

The Douro’s 2010 vintage will bear witness to the evidence of a revolution in the region’s wine industry from which there will be no return, so positively will it affect this historic region. This sea change, which has been gathering pace this past decade, is based on better vineyard management, the emergence of Douro wines alongside Port, and tourism.

With 44,000ha (hectares) of vines planted at between 300 and 800 metres, the Douro is the largest mountain vineyard on earth. It’s staggering to see the terraces hewn out of solid schist rising from the banks of the Douro River; the concept of terroir magnified by myriad elevations and exposures, with many vineyards north-facing – a rarity anywhere. Such vineyard individuality is a given even before considering the wide selection of grapes still planted.

David Guimaraens, head winemaker for the Fladgate Partnership (Taylor, Fonseca and Croft) picks out three reasons why this worked, and still does: physical (the different extraction of juice and colour); chemical (some grapes are high in tannins, some low); and flavour (the minor varieties adding complexity). In recent plantings, he has moved from five varieties to 10, planting in separate blocks, but co-fermenting – the decision of which varieties to co-ferment made on the day of picking. Port therefore begins as a vineyard blend before becoming a blend of different vineyards. Not even Champagne, hitherto the triumph of the blender’s art, can claim such complexity.

The 37,000 farmers in the Douro have always lived only from vines. Houses like the Fladgate and Symington groups have shared the knowledge of their sustainable viticulture programmes, creating an information boom.

The second revolution concerns (unfortified) Douro wine, unimaginable a generation ago, but which has opened the region up to different, more demanding consumers. Unique among its peers, the Fladgate Partnership does not make table wine, which Guimaraens describes jokingly as ‘Port for diabetics’. But he readily admits the strength of the category.

Sophia Bergqvist claims her Quinta de la Rosa was the first to start making red wine in 1990 from a newly planted vineyard, even beating Dirk Niepoort, founder of the Douro Boys (Port producers who’ve brought attention to the region’s non-fortified wines). She says table wine has enabled many small producers to survive and flourish, something which would have been difficult just making Port, which is still brand dominated. Thus, historic quintas like Crasto, Vale Dona Maria, Vallado, Vale Meão and her own would have continued to struggle and such wines as Chryseia, Pinta and Poeira would not have existed.

Wine has brought new blood into the Douro, new viticultural and winemaking practices and a more scientific approach to Port production. Sorting tables and small barrels now share the cellars with the huge, often still foot-trodden, lagares. Even Guimaraens says that ‘the Douro is now the New World of the Old World’.Christian Seely, in charge of Quinta do Noval for AXA-Millesimes and Quinta da Romaneira for himself and other investors, says: ‘Noval is a Port house making a bit of wine, while Romaneira (with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon recently planted) is a wine house making a bit of Port.’ Hard to imagine elsewhere.

But the biggest revolution will be the growth of wine tourism. EU funds have bought more bridges and expressways and soon a tunnel to reduce the journey to Pinhão (the Beaune of the Douro). Hotel and tour boats regularly plough their way up the river. Quintas are open for tastings and many are converting or extending the family home to create guest houses in the heart of wine country.

Yet this is nothing compared to what is happening at Vila Nova de Gaia, on the other side of the Douro from Oporto, a UNESCO World Heritage site, home for centuries to the cellars (known as lodges) of the Port trade. Planning restrictions on Vila Nova’s historic centre were lifted in 2006, leading some shippers to consolidate their warehouses and others to move their maturing and bottling to the Douro, where huge new cellars are being built. Renovation and redevelopment is gaining pace, but nothing will match The Yeatman, the 82-room luxury hotel opened in July by the Fladgate Partnership, a wine-themed project built to a grand scale, complete with a Caudalie vinotherapy spa and a butterfly house to underline its environmental credentials.

The Robertson family of Fladgate is not new to hotels, having created the superb Vintage House in Pinhão in 1998 (since sold), the first quality hotel in the Douro. Fladgate managing director Adrian Bridge has ambitions of making The Yeatman ‘a quality reference for Portugal and for wine hotels all over the world’. He may not be beaten on his home turf, but he’ll be followed.

Written by Steven Spurrier

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