Where do you go to see a bottle opened with scalding hot tongs, grapes planted on steep stone terraces, and barrels called pipes? Answer: The Douro region in Portugal. The Douro is home to Port, one of the most beloved fortified wines in the world. This northeastern Portuguese region runs alongside the Douro River (which is a continuation of the Duero River from Spain). It’s an incredibly diverse climate just east of the Marao Mountains which protect it from Atlantic sea breezes making it the only hot mountain viticultural site in the world. And hot it is. The Douro relies on rain during winter and early spring to sustain it through summer and fall. Summer temperatures are regularly over 100 degrees and continue to increase due to global warming. How do grapes survive this dry and arid heat? By growing on steep slopes at altitudes of 500-1300 feet and by being some of the most unique and heat-resistant grape varieties in the world. These are unusual grapes you rarely see elsewhere and include Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Cão among others. These varieties are used for Port wines but they are also made into exceptional red wines which I’ve long been a fan of.
Douro River and Region
The Douro trip was another Masters of Wine sponsored event in conjunction with the executives of Taylor Fladgate, Symington, and Quinta do Noval companies – all world renowned Port houses. It was an exceptional opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Port is made. The Douro is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is one of the most fascinating and beautiful wine regions to visit. We started off with an over-the-top stay at The Yeatman hotel in Porto. The Yeatman is the brainchild of Adrian Bridge (CEO of Taylor Fladgate) and is thoroughly unique in being a luxury hotel but also a museum and almost shrine to Port as well as Portuguese wines in general. It does a remarkable job of educating the visitor through regional wine maps posted subtly throughout the long hallways, a mini cork display (most of the world’s cork also comes from Portugal), and a phenomenal wine shop in the hotel that has incredible wines from all over Portugal. It also has the only wine bar I’ve seen with 82 wines by-the-glass (Portuguese of course) enabling people to try many things they’ve never even heard of before. I can’t say enough positive things about this hotel and my only regret was not being able to stay there longer. The rooms were spectacular as well – there are only 82- and each is named after a Portuguese wine. I was in room number 2 (Vale dos Ares) which had an expansive patio overlooking the Douro River. It was one of the best hotel experiences I’ve ever had.
Porto itself is a charming town situated right on the banks of the Douro River with steep inclines every which way you turn (think San Francisco but steeper). The buildings are bright white with rust colored roofs and paint a striking backdrop to the ambling river (very wide at this point) and nostalgic barcos rabelos boats that used to transport Port from the Douro region to Porto to age. These are distinctive vessels with great history – the earliest references to them dating from 1200. Their flat bottoms and long oars enabled them to pass through the highly turbulent, narrow, and at times shallow obstacles of the dangerous Douro River. Countless sailors died over the years bringing Port to lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia (where The Yeatman is located) and the place where Port has historically been blended, aged, and bottled due to its humid and cooler climate. The Port lodges are still visible along the river and are still used although Quinta do Noval is currently aging their Ports onsite in the Douro region now that temperature control and more modern technology exist.
Part of what makes Port so special are the grapes used to make it. All are indigenous to Portugal and seldom seen elsewhere. The grape grown most is Touriga Francesa which adds structure and an exotic floral note to wines. Touriga Nacional is possibly the most renowned grape and adds tannin, color, and structure to wines due to its small thick-skinned berries. It is a low yielding grape and doesn’t like heat as much. Winemakers there compared Touriga Franca to Merlot (more feminine) and Touriga Nacional to Cabernet Sauvignon (masculine). Tinta Barroca prefers cool north facing sites and adds more color than tannin to a wine. Tinta Cão is the most heat resistant grape of all and contributes a velvety texture. Another indigenous grape, Sousão, is being grown more and adds acid as well as an exotic note to Bomfim wines. Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Barroca typically make up the majority of a Port blend.
Another reason that Port is special is the way the wine is made. The grapes are harvested and then foot-trodden in granite lagares (wide shallow tanks) or modern steel tanks. Harvesters hop in up to their knees and walk back and forth over the grapes in order to provide a gentle grape extraction without breaking the more tannic seeds or pips. As much fun as this sounds, it is hard work and the workers do this for 4 hours a night over 2-3 weeks as the grapes come in. Fermentation kicks off the next day when yeast is added to the grapes. Normal table wines are fermented all the way dry which means the yeast used in the fermentation eats up all of the sugar and converts it to alcohol. The difference with Port is that a grape spirit of 77% alcohol is added to the fermentation while there is still sugar left. This fortification halts the fermentation due to the high alcohol which kills the yeast and preserves the sweetness that is a trademark of Port. After a few months of settling, a determination is made based on tannin and structure levels if the wine is best suited for a Tawny, Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage or Ruby Port. Based on this decision, the wine will be aged differently and for different lengths of time.
Rubies are the youngest, fruitiest, and intended for early drinking (also the cheapest Ports). Reserve Ruby Port is a higher quality version of the Ruby and is typically made by blending a variety of vintages with an average age of 5-7 years. They are still fruit-forward Ports but have more complexity and structure than a Ruby due to the extra time in cask.
Tawnies are aged the longest in neutral, old wood and become tawny in color with aromas of nuts, dried apricot, and marmalade from oak aging. These wines will often be labeled 10, 20, 30, or 40 years old. This age designation is not the age of the wine but the average age of the wines in the blend. We were told that Tawnies are made by the winemaker while Vintage Ports are made in the vineyard. The art of blending a Tawny is extremely difficult and takes years of experience to master. A related wine is the Colheita which is a Tawny Port from a single vintage and aged at least 7 years in oak. Pipes (average size of 550L) are used to age most Tawnies. These look similar to typical French barriques but hold twice as much and have slightly pointed or tapered ends. Tawnies are ready to drink upon opening as they are filtered and fined during the winemaking process. They will last several weeks after opening as they are more resistant to air.
Vintage Ports, the holy grail of Port, are those made in such exceptional years that the Port houses agree to “declare” a vintage. All of the grapes will come from that year and these Ports are aged two years in oak with the remaining time in bottle (20-50 years worth). Long bottle-age gives these wines a deep purple ruby color, intense freshness, more concentrated fruit flavors, and rich complexity and depth. Late Bottled Vintage Ports are aged in wood 4-6 years and then bottled. They are similar to Vintage in color and some flavors but much less complex. Vintage Ports need to be decanted as they are unfiltered and unfined (will have sediment). Vintage Ports will only keep about 2 days after opening as they are not used to air and oxidize quickly. These are rare animals with high prices; however compared to other famous wines like Burgundy and Bordeaux, they can actually be great deals for the quality level. The 2011 was the most recently declared vintage and is already difficult to find. Other recent declared vintages were 2009, 2007, 2003, 2000 1997, 1994, 1992, 1985, 1983, 1980, 1977, 1970, and 1966.
We tried many Ports and it was amazing to taste the differences in house style among them. Taylor Fladgate owns Fonseca, Croft, and of course Taylor Fladgate (the most famous for long-aged Tawny Ports). Symington owns Dow’s, Graham’s, Warre’s, and Cockburn’s. Quinta do Noval is famous for their same-named Ports and particularly those of the famous Nacional vineyard.
From my perspective, if you’re comparing Vintage Ports, I find Fonseca’s style the sweetest and richest followed by Graham’s. Dow’s is the driest style with Warre’s and Taylor Fladgate somewhere in the middle. We got to taste the 1978, 1988, 1998, and 2008 Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim which were fascinating to see the age evolution. Oddly enough I found that I liked the 1988 and 1998 the best. The 1978 was almost over the top in complexity and spice and took more concentration to drink. Taylor Fladgate is also well known for their supremely complex Tawny Ports and I’ve always loved them. 10 year old Tawnies are usually good but for the minimal uptick in price, a 20 year old delivers much better quality and overall value. Quinta do Noval has a thoroughly unique style that seems to have an attractive vein of minerality running through many of their wines. They are exceptionally well made and world renowned as well. Some of my trip favorites were: Warre’s Quinta do Cavadinha Vintage 2001, Warre’s Vintage 2000, Dow’s Vintage 2007, Taylor’s 20 year old Tawny, Graham’s Quinta doc Malvedos Vintage 2004, Quinta do Noval Vintage 2007, Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim Vintage 1988, Graham’s Vintage 2011, and Taylor Fladgate Vintage 1970.
One of the many highpoints of the trip was getting to stay at the Quintas (means “farm” in Portuguese). We stayed at Quinta do Bomfim in the Cima Corgo (middle region of the Douro) and Quinta do Vargellas in the Douro Superior (furthest east region of the Douro). Both of these were spectacularly beautiful and there’s nothing like waking up to stunning terraced vineyards dotting the landscape. At Vargellas, I was also treated to blooming orange trees, wisteria, and lemon trees right outside my window. The smell of orange tree flowers is truly intoxicating. Grapes are grown on old stone terraces called socalcos which took incredible amounts of human labor to establish hundreds of years ago. They are nostalgic structures yet expensive to maintain as well as erosion prone. Because of this, many vineyards are using a planting system called vinha ao alto now which means “vertical planting” where the vine is literally planted in a straight line up the hill. You can see these vineyards right next to the socalcos. Vertical planting helps with drainage and erosion which are both huge concerns in this area. We also saw patamares which are modern terraces but not edged with stones. These are made by bulldozers but also present erosion problems. Schist soil dominates with some clay and huge craggy boulders dot the landscape. This stone was used to build the socalcos years ago.
Vertical planting at Bomfim
At Vargellas we also experienced tonging which was a first for all of us. Traditionally, Port was opened with long tongs heated in a fireplace. We tried this on a 1987 Quinta do Vargellas Vintage Port and a 1977 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port. The two- foot- long iron tongs are placed in the fireplace for about 20 minutes making them really hot. Then the tongs are placed around the neck of the bottle about 2 inches from the top – snugly but not too tight. After about 30 seconds, if it’s done right, you hear a clink like when two people toast glasses and the bottle top shears cleanly off. If it’s not done correctly, like our second bottle, you have to keep trying and pray that you’re not ruining a classic Vintage Port! We finally got the top off the second bottle after three tries and great anxiety. I would not recommend trying this without experienced help. Incidentally, both of these Ports were among the best of the trip, particularly the 1977, which is also a favorite vintage among connoisseurs. This Port was perfectly integrated with dense black fruit, wafting violets, earthy minerals, and spice notes. It had explosive flavor yet was highly elegant with haunting layers of complexity that lingered persistently on.
Tonging and Vargellas
The same grapes used to make Port are also made into dry (not sweet) red wines of exceptional quality. Taylor Fladgate has chosen not to make dry wines and focuses solely on Port production but Symington and Quinta do Noval make dry reds. From Symington, one of my favorites is Chryseia and its lower priced sister, Post Scriptum. These are etheral wines with great complexity, depth, and concentrated black fruit and mineral flavors. Binnys has both from time to time. Symington also has the excellent 2012 Quinta do Vesuvio as well as a lovely white wine called 2013 Altano. This is a beautiful blend of 4 Portuguese white grapes – Viosinho, Rabigato, Malvasia, and Gouveio – which is a crisp lively wine that would appeal to anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc or unoaked Chardonnay.
While Taylors doesn’t make dry red wine, they do distribute wine for other wineries. We tried several fantastic ones from their collection including the 2013 Crasto Superior Douro, 2011 Quinta Pessegueiro, and 2011 Grainha Reserva. The latter is a touch fruitier than the Pessaquero but I loved them both. At The Yeatman wine bar I also really enjoyed the 2008 VT Douro Tinto and the deeply complex 2010 Quinta do Crasto. If you’re a Pinot Noir fan, you should try the 2012 CARM Reserva as it has some similar flavors.
As you can see, there are many beautiful reasons to visit the Douro. Wine tourism is still relatively young there but you can visit several of the lodges in Porto as well as several quintas (including Quinta do Bomfim and Fonseca’s Quinta do Panascal) in the Douro. A friend of mine used the tour company below to set up a Douro day tour and was very happy with the experience. The folks at the Yeatman can also help plan tours if you start there. By the way, if you go, make sure you pass the Port (and anything else edible) to the left otherwise you may be referred to as the “Bishop of Norwich”. Legend has it that the Bishop used to famously fall asleep (or pretend to) when the Port got to him enabling him to keep more for himself.
Quinta do Noval