It has been a long ambition of mine to visit the Douro Valley, the historic heartland of port. I have read so much about it and seen so many photos of its staggering landscape, but I needed to see it for myself. I finally got to do so and it exceeded even my greatest expectations. It is an astonishingly beautiful, spectacular wine region, vines dug into impossibly steep terraces all over the valley. Every curve in the narrow, winding roads brings yet another dramatic view few other regions can boast.
That beauty is indirectly responsible for some of the greatest and most individual wine in the world. The steep terraces, high-density planting, and extreme climate together bring an intensity and concentration to the grapes and wine that make port such a varied and potentially long-lived wine.
The beautiful sister cities of Porto and Vila Nova da Gaia are separated by the Douro river as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Porto is one of the wettest major cities in Europe, receiving 1,200mm of rain a year. From the coast, the land quickly rises into a mountain range called Serra do Marão, where it’s even wetter at altitudes of 1,400m. Then, the mountains fall into the Douro Valley, the great river that flows from Spain into Portugal and then into the Atlantic. This valley is surrounded by mountains which trap the warm air and make it much drier than the other side of Serra do Marão.
The importance of the Douro lies in transport. The valley was inaccessible by road until the 1970s, so the only way to transport the wines was by boat. That was a deadly occupation as the Douro has many competing currents, making the journey to and from Porto an extremely dangerous one. That journey would take 2-3 days; the return several weeks.
Transferring the wine wasn’t so that the wines could be shipped abroad, but so that they could be stored in the more moderate and humid conditions by the Atlantic. All port producers have their historical base in Vila Nova da Gaia, directly opposite Porto. The cool cellars there allowed the gradual ageing of wine, as opposed to the valley where any wines stored there had a baked feel. These cellars are certainly worth visiting. Populated by large old oak barrels and the musty smell of centuries of port production, they are large and layered to accommodate the required ageing. I visited Ferreira, where the tour starts level with the river and finishes 50m and several streets higher up.
The valley is split into three sub-regions. Driving from Porto across Serra do Marão, the first sub-region is Baixa Corgo. This is the wettest, still receiving some Atlantic influence, and the grapes for the simplest ports (basic ruby and tawny) are grown here, as well as for some good white wine.
The winding roads dip down into Cima Corgo, where the highest-quality grapes are grown. Here, the climate is firmly continental with 700mm of rainfall all falling during winter and spring, which bookend three bakingly hot summer months where temperatures can reach 45°C. The intensity of that heat is tempered by very cool nights, and the balance between heat and cold determines the quality of the vintage.
Going further inland towards Spain is the Douro Superior sub-region, where the climate becomes even more extreme. Days are even hotter, reaching 50°C, and this is the only area where irrigation is allowed. This is a relatively new area for plantings, as the Douro was very difficult to access until recently. It’s much flatter here and easier to plant vines so producers are exploring the potential, for red wine as much as fortified wine.
The first thing any visitor to Douro Valley will notice is the steep slopes covered with vines. These are incredibly difficult conditions for planting and nurturing vines, and growers have had to adapt the land to enable viticulture. There are three types of plantings and there is nothing like seeing them in person to make full sense of them:
- the traditional method is to use terraces held together by stone walls, which prevent erosion. These terraces are so tightly packed that it used to be possible only to plant one row per terrace. The density of plantings, especially for such a warm region, is high at 6,000 vines/ha, keeping yields low and quality high. The drawback is that they are extremely labour intensive and costly to farm. The natural beauty of the Douro Valley is increased even further by these terraces dug into the slopes, pointing to centuries of farming and the harmony between people and the land.
- in the 1970s, a new method of planting was introduced called patamares. This was based on the concept of the terraces, but instead of digging stone walls into the slopes, the plantings follow their natural contour. In appearance, they are much more flowing and integrated, rather than the jagged nature of the terraces. There are, however, two main disadvantages: density has to be lower otherwise the slopes would collapse and, in connection, erosion is an issue.
- another relatively new planting system is vinha ao alto, which I didn’t get to see as most of them are in Douro Superior. The vines are planted vertically instead of horizontally, and mechanisation is possible.
Holdings are very small, with tiny gardens behind a house encompassing a grower’s entire output. As in Champagne, this is why the big producers dominate as growers have to sell their grapes, although the opening up of the valley to road transport has allowed some smaller producers to compete.
The Douro was the first demarcated wine region in the world, its boundaries set in 1759. Over 200 years later, the boundaries are pretty much the same, following the schist soils in the valley. These soils are hard and rocky and, given that irrigation is only allowed in Douro Superior, the vines have to work incredibly hard and dig very deep to find underground water and nutrients.
So how do the wines reflect this stunning landscape? Well, most obviously through port. Any fortified wine reflects where it comes from more than is often recognised, though of course the style of wine and production method are vital as well.
Ferreira Dona Antonia Reserve White Port NV
Kopke White Colheita 2003
White port isn't especially well-known, but producers are trying to turn people on to the style - every winery I visited poured me a white port. Ferreira's was perhaps the best of the younger style: rich and nutty with tropical and dried fruits, but quite refreshing. Like most white ports, it's best used as a replacement for dry vermouth in a cocktail or drunk with tonic. ✪✪✪✪
Kopke's colheita white port (colheita meaning a wine that comes from one year, but isn't declared as a vintage) was completely different: incredibly complex, with layers of mature aromas of dried fruits, marzipan, walnuts, toffee, caramel, fruit cake, and leather, like a cross between sherry and madeira. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Graham's 20-year-old Tawny NV
Tawny is the only deliberately oxidised style of port, aged in 600L casks for years to allow oxygen to fade the colour and add nutty, dried fruit aromas. 20-year-old is the sweet spot, retaining freshness to balance the mature aromas. Graham's 20-year-old is outstanding: lots of dried fruits - figs, prunes, raisins, dates - and rich, developed, fudge, Christmas cake aromas, together with sweet spices, smoke, and liquorice, and a long finish. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Fonseca Bin 27 Ruby Reserve NV
Ruby is the simplest style of port, youthful and fruity. Fonseca's Bin 27 is the classic example, deep, dark, intense, full-bodied, fruity, spicy, and sweet. Fonseca date back to the early 19th century; their Quinta do Panascal is beautiful and well-worth visiting, particularly for their audio vineyard tour. ✪✪✪✪
Taylor’s Vintage Port 2009
Vintage port is the supreme representation of both port and the Douro. Only declared in the years that have the perfect balance between hot days and cool nights so that the fruits get fully but not overly ripe. 2009 was a very dry year, so not everyone declared it as a vintage. Taylor's, one of the oldest producers, did so and it's exceptional: really concentrated and tannic, with floral, expressive, red and black fruit aromas, fresh but developing dried fruits, chocolate, and coffee. Still young now, with decades ahead of it. ✪✪✪✪✪