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Above: the view from the top of Quinta de la Rosa's vineyards in the Cima Corgo

Spotlight on Portugal's Douro region
The New Douro

This is my second report on the new wave of Douro table wines. The first was prompted by a visit in June 2002. This visit, in May 2004, was a chance to catch up on whatís been happening since, so for context, it might be worth checking out the earlier article. Iíll begin here with a quick recap of what it is that makes the Douro such a special place for wine growing.

First, we have the soils. Schists and slates to be precise (see right). These are brittle metamorphic rocks which fracture easily, often forming vertical layers. Theyíre not much good for most agriculture, but vines love them. Why? Because they are free draining soils that allow the vine roots to penetrate deep to seek out a steady but moderate water supply. In the hot Douro summers this is vital. The relatively impoverished nature of these soils results in naturally low vigour, which is important for fine wine production. This slatey soil is unique to the Douro in Northern Portugal, which is mostly granitic.

Second, we have the climate. The Douro is, again, unique in Northern Portugal. Because it is protected by four mountain ranges (Serra de Alvấo, Serra de Padrela and Serra de Bornes in the North; Serra do Marấo in the west), it has hot, dry summers and very cold winters. In the summer it is often 15 degrees warmer than Porto on the coast. But it is more complicated than this. Within the Douro there are quite marked differences between different vineyards sites depending on the elevation (itís warmest down by the river), the position along the river (the closer to Regua the cooler, generally) and the exposure (not surprisingly, north-facing vineyards are coolest).

Third, itís the grape varieties. Loads of them. And with the exception of Tinta Roriz (which is the same as Spainís Tempranillo), they are uniquely Portuguese. Old vineyards will typically be mixed plantings of dozen of varieties, but more recently varieties have been planted in their own blocks, a move likely to result in higher quality because of even ripeness levels. 

Fourth, itís the scale of the place. The Douro is massive. Visitors canít help but be stunned by the size of this region, with many of the vineyards planted on the steep banks of the Douro and its tributaries (pictured left is a view down the Douro in the Baixo Corgo sub region). Altogether the three subzones, Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior, have 40 000 hectares of vines. Thatís a lot, when you consider that the whole of the CŰte RŰtie appellation is a little more than 200 hectares.

Fifth, itís the untapped potential. To understand this we need a bit of historical context. Wine grapes have been grown in the Douro since Roman times, but for a long time the vines were grown in the gaps of the stone terraces, with the flat parts reserved for agriculture. The Douro boomed when Port was discovered in the late 17th century, and demand for Portuguese wine in England soared as the English were at was with the French. The fortuitous discovery was that brandy addition during fermentation stabilized the wine brilliantly, leaving it with some sweetness, too, and the capacity to age. It was a hit. In the mid 18th century this success led to overproduction resulted, triggering a price collapse. The result was that the Marques de Pombal initiated the worldís first system of control of origin and regional classification, differentiating among good and bad cultivation sites and demarcating the extent of the Douro wine region. The next big change to sweet the Douro was the shift from Quinta production (wines produced and marketed by individual winegrowers) to shippers based in Vila Nova de Gaia (over the river from Porto). Effectively, what happened is that Port became the worldís first branded wine. In the 1850s James Forester mapped the Douro, counting some 79 Quintas. By the 1950s, these were no longer significant, and instead they had been replaced by 81 Port lodges in Vila Nova (a number which fell by more than half ins subsequent decades through mergers and acquisitions). Shippers worked differently from Quintas: they bought wines from growers in the Douro, shipped them down to their lodges, and blended them into their brands. A law was even passed making this maturing and storing of Port wines in lodges at Vila Nova mandatory. This effectively ruled out newcomers, and prevented Douro estates from marketing their own wines.

This changed with a new law in 1986 that opened up the field, allowing Douro producers to export their products independently. There were a few restrictions retained, which tried to stack things in favour of the established shippers who already had Quintas in the Douro, but there have since been a growing band of Quintas who have made and marketed their own Port wines. This new dynamism has undoubtedly led many to consider making table wines, too.

This brings us to the present. The development of premium Douro wines has been catalogued well elsewhere on this site. The revolution continues, and there are now at least half a dozen wines made in the Douro each vintage that could genuinely be considered world class; many more are almost there. The progress made in less than a decade has been staggering. The big glitch was the 2002 vintage, which was close to disastrous in many parts of the Douro. Only a few producers genuinely managed to harvest before the rains, which caused such problems. Fortunately 2003 was a very good, if hot year, and while 2004 looked to be problematic, a late burst of fine weather looks set to seal this vintage as a good one too.

Anyway, on to the winesÖ

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