Portugal


The word Douro conjures one color: Red. As in Port. As in the table wines that Port companies and quintas have been producing for the past 10 or 15 years.

Yet in tasting the wines of the Douro Boys, I found the few whites wines that they make thrilling for their freshness and vibrancy, their spicy piquancy and beguiling floral character and frequently scintillating minerality. The grapes are little-known outside of the Douro Valley, and if you’re one of those steely-eyed devotees of the vine determined to make your entrance to The Century Club — you must have tasted wines from 100 different grapes — you’ll be gratified to know these the Douro whites are produced from such varieties as rabigato, codega, donzelinho, viosinho, arinto, gouveio and cercial. In other words, we don’t need no stinkin’ chardonnay and sauvignon blanc!

Unfortunately, these Douro whites are little found in the U.S., and I write about them today to provide a fuller picture of what’s happening in the Douro at present and perhaps to encourage enough interest that importers already bringing in the red wines and Ports of the Douro will latch onto the whites. (“White” in Portugeuse, by the way, is “branco.”) The one Douro white of this group that I know for certain is imported is the Quinta do Crasto Branco, by Broadbent Selections.

A number of these brancos were encountered at a tasting event for about 100 Portuguese winery people and wine sellers held in the new ultra-modern winery at Quinta do Vallado. This “Masterclass Tasting 2009″ went through all the 2007 red wines, including Ports, and the 2008 whites being released by the Douro Boys estates. Some of the wines I tried not only at this mammoth tasting but at the wineries too; I’ll include an amalgam of impressions in these brief notes.

>I tried the VZ Douro Branco 2008 at lunch at Quinta Vale D. Maria and later that afternoon at the “Masterclass Tasting.” At the second encounter, I wrote, “I could drink this forever.” Well, chalk that passionate response up to enthusiasm, but, still, it’s a reflection of how utterly engaging this wine is, with its beguiling touches of lime peel, tangerine and spiced lemon, its penetrating minerality, its zinging acidity and stony austere finish. The grapes are viosinho, rabigato and gouveio. VZ stands for van Zeller, as in Christiano van Zeller, of Quinta Vale D. Maria.

>The fresh and appealing Quinto do Crasto Branco 2008, which I also tried several times on this trip, offers lime and pink grapefruit flavors set into a package of tingling limestone and mouth-puckering acidity.

>Niepoort produces an intriguing range of white wines. The Tiara 2008 is earthy and minerally, with lime, grapefruit and roasted lemon scents and flavors display equal amounts of ripeness and funkiness wrapped around each other; a profound mineral elements, like wet gravel and dusty, damp roof tiles, exerts a broad influence, while after a few moments in the glass touches of celery, dried thyme and tarragon emerge. Loads of personality.
Niepoort’s Redoma Branco 2008 is made primarily from rabigato grapes with some codega and small amounts of other grapes; these are mainly 60-year-old vines, with three small parcels more than 100 years old. The wine is insanely floral and amazingly minerally, with the kind of substance, heft and depth one expects from old vine grapes, and with an authority of dry austerity, yet there’s a winsome attractiveness here too. A rather astonishing performance.
Finally, the Redoma Reserva Branco 2008 is even deeper, broader in scale, more demanding than its non-reserve cousin, with not only impressive but imposing minerality. It’s a white wine that deserves, nay, demands three to fives years’ aging.

>Quinta do Vallado also presented three branco wines.
The basic level Vallado Branco 2008 is made from rabigato, viosinho, arinto and verdelho grapes. The wine is aged 90 percent in stainless steel for five months, the remainder in new French oak barriques. The bouquet is a cornucopia of fresh and dried flowers with a cocktail of yellow fruit and berries; the wine is dry, crisp and spicy and delivers lovely body and substance. An irresistible aperitif.
Made completely in stainless steel, the Quinta do Vallado Moscatel Galego 2008 offers lime, nectarine and peach scents and flavors woven with honeysuckle, jasmine and crushed gravel for the mineral element. A hint of mint and white pepper on the finish alleviates a touch of bracing bitterness. Just lovely. (275 cases)
Finally, the Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2008 is fermented in French oak and aged in barriques for 10 months. Not surprisingly, the regimen lends considerable body and depth of spice to the wine, yet does not interfere with its enticing touches of dusty lime, almond blossom and roasted almond, vibrant acidity and resonant limestone-damp slate qualities. As the song says, “Lovely to look at, delightful to hold and heaven to kiss.” Well, you get the idea. (375 cases)
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At a long late leisurely dinner at Niepoort’s Quinta do Napoles facility, a sleek modern building that blends into its hillside, we drank magnums of Tiara 2008 with a variety of courses, including what I thought was not only the best dish I had in the Douro but one of the greatest dishes I have eaten in my life. No kidding! This was no nuanced feat of fine cuisine, but a peasant dish of cod tripe with white beans, a variation of the tripe with white beans that’s a specialty of the city of Oporto. Tripa de bacalao is actually the cod’s swimming bladder or maw; yes, it’s a tad rubbery and chewy, but marinated and simmered in a stew it comes out deeply flavorful, almost plush. The dish is question consisted of slices of the cod “tripe” with tender white beans and a small portion of a mild, very finely-chopped sort of sauerkraut. The rich broth that enveloped these ingredients was enlivened with minced carrots, red peppers and parsley; something, perhaps the red peppers, lent spicy heat to the dish. Long after my compatriots had moved onto the next course and the next wines, I refused to let my plate be taken; no, I sat there with a piece of crusty bread, soaking up all the juice that I could, sipping from my glass of crisp, refreshing Tiara 2008 that was the perfect accompaniment.
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The next night, that would be a week ago today — and isn’t it a wonder how quickly foreign travel recedes into the past? — our group, along with some of the Douro Boys and winemakers and their families, had dinner at the old Niepoort lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Oporto, not far from where the Douro debouches into the Atlantic. It used to be the case that shippers of Port were required to age the wine in casks in their lodges (large warehouses) in Vila Nova de Gaia rather than upriver at the quintas. Anyway, on the one essential occasion when I should have had my camera, Mr. Professional Journalist left it in his hotel room, thinking, “Gee, I’ve been carrying that camera for days. Maybe tonight I can relax.” The 150-year-old lodge, however, dim and dusty and cobweb-festooned, its vaulted ceilings blanketed with the mold of the ages, was a tremendously evocative and picturesque scene. Dinner was not memorable, but the wines were astounding, as Dirk Niepoort, a towering combination of generosity and chutzpah, opened bottle after bottle of rarities, ending with a pair of the company’s Ports from 1966.

But what I want to mention in particular is a couple of white wines, since that is that topic of today’s post. Dirk began by opening a magnum of a white wine from 1996, I’m not sure if it was Tiara or Redoma Branco, but the point is that this 13-year-old white wine — not chardonnay! not sauvignon blanc and semillon! — was remarkably fresh and clean and appealing, with pear and roasted lemon scents and flavors, bright acidity, a keen edge of damp slate; traces of honeyed orange rind and melon came into play, along with hints of almond and almond blossom over a reservoir of deeply spicy citrus. Amazing.

Before moving to the Ports, Dirk Niepoort said, “Do you want to try the first wine I ever made?” Dumbfounded, we all went, “Well, like, duh, yeah.” This turned out to be a dessert wine from 1987. One of my fellow wine writers, Sarah Ahmed from London, took a few sniffs and sips, made a note or two, and said, “Loureiro grapes?” Dirk replied, “Yes, mostly,” and I thought, “Holy shit, she is good!” Loureiro contributes the fresh, drinkable, brisk immediacy of Vinho Verde, but this 22-year-old sweet wine indicated that under some circumstances the grape definitely has a higher calling. First it was delicate, finely-knit, a delightful combination of mildly sweet pear and roasted lemon permeated by orange zest and cloves. While retaining that breezy freshness and cleanness and its flashing blade of acidity, the wine deepened in the glass, calling up toasted almonds, quince, a hint of green plum. The finish turned dry, a little smoky, yet still amazingly clean and vibrant. Lord have mercy!

It was one of those nights when you get back to the hotel at midnight, happy and sated, put in a wake-up call for 5 because a car is coming for you at 6:15, and then pack the bags.

Last Friday morning, our small group rode in the back of an open truck, driven by winery co-manager Francisco “Chico” Ferreira, up and up and up, through switch-back turns so extreme that the truck had to pass the turn, back around to the edge of the terrifying overhand — this is scary! — and then steer back into the angle, to the top of the vineyards of Quinta do Vallado, where the tinta roriz vines (the Spanish tempranillo) are 90 years old; a few vines of white grapes are scattered through the rows. At this altitude, about 400 meters (1,312 feet), the roots of the vines burrow 25 to 30 feet deep seeking water. The stalks are twisted and gnarly, like caricatures of grapevines, and hardly seem as if they could support life, not to mention grapes of extremely high intensity and character. The view from this height is spectacular, as I mention with each post about the Douro region, but the sublime landscape is inescapable.

After a bone-crunching ride back to the winery — Quinta do Vallado, by the way, was the home of Dona Antonia Ferreira (1811-1896), the godmother of the Douro — we assemble with Chico in the tasting room, attended by a young woman wearing a white laboratory coat, to try Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2000, 2003, ’04, ’05, ’06 and ’07. I’ll get to that portion of the tasting later in this post, but first I want to describe the event that will compel me to add the term Wine Consultant to my business card.

Chico set up a blind tasting of five cask samples of wine from the 2008 vintage: 1. Touriga nacional from nine-year-old vineyards; 2. touriga nacional from 20 year-old vineyards; 3. sousão grapes; 4. a blend of red wines from old vineyards; 5. another blend of red wines from a different old vineyard. Chico gave us three hints: The touriga nacional should be elegant with touches of violets; the sousão should have an intense color and fresh acidity; the old vine samples should show lots of complexity and structure.

So, we spent several minutes swirling, sniffing and sipping the wines, taking notes and so forth, and when Chico revealed which wines were which, I had only gotten two right. Hey, give me some cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir! I’ll show you how to taste blind!

Then, Chico said that we would assemble a theoretical blend for the Reserva 2008 from four of the wines left in our glasses, omitting the young touriga nacional, and he would judge which was best. Ah, now the competition heated up. I mean, here were six experienced wine tasters and writers vying to assemble a potentially great wine, each thinking that he or she, of course, knew more than any of the others about the balance of elegance and power. Like scientists, we used the graduated beaker to measure the proportions of the four samples, trying for the ideal of a young reserve wine.

My formula turned out to be 50 percent of the touriga nacional from 20-year-old vines; 10 percent sousão; and 20 percent each of the wines from the two old vineyards.

Chico went around the table, peering intently at each glass of the finished blend, swirling, sniffing, sipping. He performed this process twice, and then he stopped by my chair and again picked up the glass holding my creation. “This it is,” he said. “Fredric got the right aromas, the right intensity and flavor. He wins the prize.” And there actually was a prize, a magnum of Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2006 in a wooden box, which I brought back to the U.S., through three flights, wrapped in two plastic bags and then rolled up in two shirts, in my checked luggage. Sadly, I abandoned the wooden box — sorry, Chico! — as too big, heavy and awkward.

I wasn’t the only winner. Rebecca Leung, a writer from Hong Kong (Wine Is Beautiful, but she writes in Chinese), also won a magnum of Quinta do Vallado Reserva 2006 for guessing — or, I should say, professionally ascertaining with cool acumen — the correct components in the first blind tasting of cask samples.

Of the Quinto do Vallado Reserva wines that we tasted from 2000 and 2003 through 2007, Chico said, “These are made in my style of wine, tannic, with lots of structure.” He wasn’t wrong, yet the wines exhibited, in addition to bastions and buttresses of tannin and oak and minerals, lovely touches of fruit and flowers and herbs that wheedle their way into your heart. Well, some of them, anyway. The wines usually age 18 months in 70 percent new French barriques, 30 percent one-year old barrels. Occasionally one wants to ask: Is it only small French oak barrels that can make great wine? Are there not alternatives? Think of the glorious authenticity of Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino before the winemakers turned slavishly to the barrique. Oh, well, never mind.

Here are brief notes:

>2000. Dried spice and flowers, v. dark purple, deep solid structure, muscular, a little angular; intense, concentrated, shimmering black fruit flavors. Needs a steak. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Very Good+

>2003. Immensely aromatic, cedar, tobacco, black olive, granite and slate; blazing acidity for vibrancy and resonance; picks up fleshier fruit and exotic spice; dusty tannins lead to an austere finish. bring out another steak. Drink through 2014 or ’15. Excellent.
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The train ride from Pêso da Régua to Pocinho takes about an hour and a half. It’s a wildly picturesque route, with the tracks laid just at the edge of the Douro River and at the base of steep hillsides where terraced vineyards that seem impossible to cultivate alternate with massive granite outcroppings. Whoever conceived that grapes could be grown here? Yet the Douro is the earliest delimited wine region in Europe, its system of control and classification codified in 1756.

Pêso da Régua is the central town of Baixo Corgo, the lower part of the Douro growing region. The train lumbers east through Cima Corgo, the middle region, to Douro Superior, the driest, hottest and most sparsely populated area of the Douro. Rainfall is about 19.7 inches annually in Douro Superior, compared to 35.4 inches downriver in Baixo Corgo; the average annual temperature is 70 (degrees fahrenheit) compared to 64 further west.

Pocinho, about 20 kilometers from the Spanish border, is the end of the rail line. It’s about 10:40 a.m. when we jump off the steps of the railroad car, but the station clock unchangingly asserts that the time is 4:25. The heat is lavish, penetrating. The village is dusty, shuttered, ramshackle, like a set for the kind of Western movie that ends with everyone being sadder but no one being wiser.

High above, in the scrub-covered hills, however, lies an oasis, the Quinta do Vale Meão, founded in 1877 by Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, who, in the period of her greatest power, owned 30 properties in the Douro, making her the most important proprietor in the region. When Dona Antonia bought the property, the local saying was that she would better have bought land in Angola, because that African country was more accessible than Pocinho. “But then the railroad was built through, as she knew it would be,” says Quinta do Vale Meão’s present owner, Francisco Javier de Olazabal, the great-great-grandson of Dona Antonia. “That cut the travel from Porto to Pocinho from 12 days to five hours. Now it takes only four hours by train, so, you see, we improve by one hour each century.”

Francisco Javier de Olazabal is known as Vito, to distinguish him from his son, Francisco, the winemaker at Meão, who is called Xito; Xito’s cousin, Francisco Ferreira, also a descendant of Dona Antonia and the winemaker at Quinta do Vallado, is known as Chico. The close relationship between Vito, Xito and Chico merely touches the surface of the root structure of relatedness by family, marriage and quinta ownership that permeates the Douro and goes back generations. It is not uncommon in the Douro to be talking to a gentleman who happens to own this quinta and that quinta and used to own this other quinta — meaning an estate — but he sold it to his cousin, and then to talk to this gentleman’s wife and discover that she and her family own another quinta. A chart of the history of the families and quintas of the Douro would resembles a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Quinta do Vallado and Quinta do Vale Meão, along with Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vale D. Maria and Niepoort Vinhos, form the group rather exuberantly named Douro Boys, dedicated to advancing the quality and the image of the region, not only through port but through the increasingly important table wine segment, which, for these estates, dominates their production.

A bone-crunching ride in a battered pick-up truck takes us to a high point on the Vale Meão estate, 350 meters about the river, from which the view is stupendous. The hills recede from the Douro in its upper reaches (in Portugal) and the landscape broadens. “There are over 130 grape varieties in the Douro,” Vito tells us, “so there is always the potential for finding new things in what is already here. There is need to put much investigation into these grapes.” In other words, we don’t need cabernet and merlot, though, oddly, that night we taste fermenting pinot noir from the tank at Niepoort. The vineyards here, stretching down and around the hillsides, are planted to touriga nacional (50%), tinta roriz, known as tempranillo in Spain (30%), touriga francesa (15%), tinta amarela (5%), tinta barraca (5%) and tinta cao (5%). The vineyards are not planted as field blends, as used to be common in the Douro. “Everything is block planted,” says Vito, “because grapes are different and have different needs and act differently.” Eighty-one hectares, about 208 acres, are under vine at Meão, with 65 hectares in full production.

A few parcels are being picked in the noonday sun. Workers go through the rows, bending to their task, clippers in one hand, finding the cluster of grapes with the other and needing a third hand to push away the leaves and other stalks. They carry a pail for the bunches, and when the pail is filled, it is emptied into a plastic bin. Other workers collect the bins and load them onto the truck for transport to the winery and the sorting table. Pickers are paid 33 euros (about $52) for an eight-hour day, that is, two four-hour segments, beginning at 8 a.m., with a lunch break. The producer pays for the workers’ social security and insurance. Some work full-time at the estate, but most are seasonal workers who move from one region to another through a contractor.

For many years, Vito was president of the family company, Ferreira, but he resigned in 1998 to restore Quinta do Vale Meão. That task included a careful restoration of the 140-year-old winery, with its walls of double granite and its beautiful roof and ceiling of fine old chestnut beams. Though the winery is filled with modern steel tanks and a new office and laboratory, it retains the original rugged concrete legares, though somewhat smaller, and a sense of history compounded of the smell of oak and fermenting grapes and the record of a century and a half of vintages.

In the winery’s tasting room, we go through nine vintages of Quinta do Vale Meão Douro Red, 1999 to 2007. Here are brief notes on each wine:

>1999. “An experiment” — only 10 percent of the winery’s production in its first year — that turned out beautifully. Radiant, spicy, beguiling at first, then dense and chewy, a marriage of power and elegance; vibrant and resonant; black currant, plum and lilac, elements of moss and minerals slowly build, feels deeply attached to the earth; an ache of tannin at the back of the throat. Could age another five to seven years. Exceptional.
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