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Chipping at Port’s pedestal

Douro's unfortified red wines are increasingly coming out of port's shadow says, Richard Mayson, who looks at latest launches from the valley
  • The indisputable father of today’s revival of Douro red wines is Ferreira’s Fernando de Almeida.
  • Not to be out done by the founding father and son, a number of other port shippers have now jumped on the bandwagon.
  • Much of the recent success among Douro reds results from the triumph of technology over tannin.
  • Since the early 1990s, the emergence of single estates dedicated to Douro reds has given a huge fillip to the overall quality and status of the region’s wines.

It was Evelyn Waugh who observed that ‘the heavy port drinker must be prepared to sacrifice some personal beauty and agility’, and I can think of one or two people to whom this comment might reasonably apply. In the Douro region, where you need the agility of a mountain goat to walk among the vines, port has traditionally been considered the be all and end all of wines. Stately lunches at port shippers’ premises in Vila Nova da Gaia were frequently accompanied by a modest glass of rather weedy red from somewhere in Portugal with all the serious talk reserved for the decanter of vintage port at the end of the meal. Happily this scenario is virtually no more and the serious talk increasingly surrounds one of the growing number of unfortified red wines from the Douro Valley as well as port.

In fact port started out as a dry red wine. Until the early 18th century most of the wine exported from the region was fermented dry with or without the addition of fortifying spirit. At this time ‘Red Oporto’ as it was known was something of a hair-shirt wine made specifically for Englishmen whose patriotism prohibited them from drinking claret during the war with France. Following James II’s expulsion from England in 1688, the Jacobites would toast ‘the king over the water’ in claret while the Whigs raised their tankards of Red Oporto to King William and the glorious revolution!

The practice of adding brandy to the wine (thereby producing the now familiar port wine) became commonplace only towards the end of the 18th century. Even as late as the 1860, there were those who continued to advocate port as a dry red wine. Baron Forrester, a bluff Yorkshireman who was by no means beautiful or agile, described contemporary ports as ‘intoxicating and vulgar’ and considered the addition of brandy an adulteration of the wine. His opinions died with him when he was drowned in the rapids of the Douro in 1861, and the region’s unfortified red wines languished unnoticed for nearly a century.

The indisputable father of today’s revival of Douro red wines is Ferreira’s Fernando de Almeida. Back in 1950 when the Douro was a much more remote place than it is now, Nicolau de Almeida took himself off to Bordeaux to study production techniques. At first he could not possibly conceive how the locals trod the grapes in huge wooden fermentation vats but quickly found out that the Bordelais made their wines using softer, more gentle extraction methods. He returned to the family quinta at Vale do Meao high in the Douro Superior and began to put their ideas into practice, rigging up a Heath Robinson system of temperature control with blocks of ice shipped up from Oporto. First produced in 1952, de Almeida’s wine Barca Velha has become a legend in Fernando’s own lifetime and is treated as Portugal’s uncrowned ‘first growth’.

After an apparent dip in quality in the mid-1980s, Barca Velha is well and truly back on form with a tight, powerful 1991 which has the capacity to last. I recently had the opportunity to compare it with the 1966, still big, firm, concentrated and upright with the long sinewy finish which has become Barca Velha’s hallmark. Made only in the finest years, wines from lesser vintages are declassified as ‘Reserva Especial’. A 1980 Reserva Especial tasted recently was undeniably impressive showing a similar build to Barca Velha but without the first growth cachet and price. Ferreira has recently broken with tradition by launching a dense, fleshy varietal Touriga Nacional from the small but successful 1995 vintage.

Fernando Nicolau de Almeida’s son João is endeavouring to take over from where his father left off. Apart from his claim to have ‘almost been born in a barrel’, his background could not be more different, graduating in oenology from Bordeaux University and joining the family port shipper Ramos Pinto in 1976.

Occasionally bearing the countenance of a mad professor, João Nicolau de Almeida has an insatiable thirst for experimentation and recently brought varietal samples of what he proudly called ‘unpleasant white wines’ to show in London. His white Quinta de Bons Ares, however, is far from unpleasant, a generous amount of grassy Sauvignon Blanc giving lift to the ripe flavours of local grapes. The red Duas Quintas, first produced in 1990, is the principal result of Nicolau de Almeida’s continual trial and error. Blended from two Douro quintas, it combines the heady, almost overripe fruit of Quinta da Ervamoira high in the Douro Superior with the firmer, leaner structure lent by grapes grown in the heart of the region at Quinta do Bom Retiro. The 1992 Duas Quintas Reserva even manages to include a hint of the New World with intensely ripe, almost minty aromas and the dense tannic structure offset by lingering berry fruit.

Not to be out done by the founding father and son, a number of other port shippers (some of whom were decidedly sniffy about Douro wines a few years ago) have now jumped on the bandwagon. Quinta do Noval recently launched a new red named Corucho; Cockburn boasts a robust red known as Tuella; Burmester has a firm-flavoured oak-aged red from own property called Casa Burmester, and the Symingtons have entered the market with their own red wine, Vale do Bomfim.

In fact the Symington family (owners of Dow Graham and Warre) has been stashing away a few bottles of its own reds for some years. Peter Symington showed me a wine made at Quinta do Bomfim in 1970 which still retained its deep colour and hugely powerful, sinewy structure despite turning leathery with nearly 28 years of bottle age. It must have begun life as a modern-day equivalent of the tannic 18th-century Douro reds known derisively as blackstrap!

Much of the recent success among Douro reds results from the triumph of technology over tannin. Some producers continue to make wines in the time-honoured fashion, extracting as much as possible from grapes grown in the poorer D, E or F rated vineyards. It shows up in reds which are mean, lean and astringent without the vibrancy and generosity of flavour that is fast becoming the hallmark of the Douro. This is not, however, meant to cast aspersions on those who resolutely adhere to the best of Douro tradition and combine this with meticulous selection of raw material. One such winemaker is Dirk Niepoort whose dark, dense Redoma red is surprisingly well-balanced given its size and could easily rise to challenge the first growth hegemony of Barca Velha.

Among many of the larger shippers, however, port still exerts first call on the best grapes from A and B grade vineyards, and in years where fruit is in short supply (like 1998) Douro wines still tend to be overlooked. Yet since the early 1990s, the emergence of single estates dedicated to Douro reds has given a huge fillip to the overall quality and status of the region’s wines.

At a Decanter panel tasting earlier in the year, contrasting single quintas both deservedly won five star awards for two reds from the 1995 vintage, a year wanting in quantity rather than quality. With a duo of Australian winemakers, Quinta do Crasto sources fruit from its own vineyards to produce a modern, enticing, approachable style of wine that captures all the vibrancy of Douro fruit. Made from grapes grown in old, mixed vineyards and partly foot-trodden in open stone lagares, Quinta do Crasto’s 1995 Reserva combines the best of the Old and New Worlds, with a soft, sweet, oaky character, dark intensity and dense blackberry fruit. A slightly lighter 1996 follows. In complete contrast, Quinta do Cotto, with its strong Portuguese lineage, produces wines that are at once tight and concentrated (lacking the immediate appeal of Crasto) but with powerful damson-like fruit underneath. It is perhaps as a result of Quinta do Cotto’s rather restrained approach to winemaking that I have tended to rate its basic wine more highly than its somewhat unyielding Grande Escolha in recent years.

A relative newcomer in the Douro may be setting the shape of things to come. Brother and sister Margarida and Jorge Serodio Borges recently took over two prime quintas in the Pinhão Valley from their grandfather, and Margarida (‘Gui’ for short) has resolutely started to make her own Douro red wine. Her family has been selling wine to port shippers in Vila Nova da Gaia for nigh on 200 years, recently supplying ports of potential vintage quality to both Churchill and Morgan.

With no new-fangled varietal plantings to rely on, Gui Serodio Borges ferments the Douro’s omnium-gatherum of grape varieties in traditional granite lagares without recourse to temperature control. In 1997 temperatures went out of control and a proportion of the vintage was spoiled. However, her 1996 Quinta do Fojo – launched this autumn – is a real bruiser of a wine with hefty, yet supple tannins offset by an underlying concentration of vibrant fruit. If Evelyn Waugh rates port as a wine for vile bodies, perhaps Douro reds like Fojo are the alternative for today’s beautiful people.

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