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)
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.
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.