Alright, still (Douro Valley, Portugal – Day Two)

The shift of focus from fortified port wines to still wines could not have waited much longer in the Douro. The entire fortified wine market has been diminishing since the 1980s as more people have been drinking dry wines all over the world. The limitations of matching port with food don’t help with the accessibility of these wines as well, as there are only so many styles and they are generally sweeter and all more alcoholic. In the past fortified wines were one of the most popular categories – particularly port and sherry wines – and they were even produced as far away as the USA and Australia. The growth of still wine production of course has been seen all over the world to the unfortunate detriment of fortified wines. Thus in an effort to stay alive it was important for the producers of the Douro to explore the opportunities of still wine production, and in a sense it couldn’t have come at a better time. The climate is one of the biggest influences on the style of wine they can produce which is big, rich and red. This style of wine has been popular for about 20 years in a number of key markets around the world, thanks in part to the influence of US wine critic Robert Parker who loves this style of wine. Thus a confluence of factors has provided them a great opportunity into the future. The producers I visited on my second day are some of the most important producers of still wine in the region.
If it weren’t empty I would be making wine angels

My second day in the Douro started at my hosts for the previous evening, Niepoort. One of the most important and historic producers of port wine, Niepoort were different from the others I visited in Porto in the sense that up until the 1980s they didn’t own any vineyards themselves, and were merely a negociant producer. Each year they would travel up the river and purchase barrels of wine from smaller producers in the valley to then transport them back to Villa Nova de Gaia for the ageing and blending. Fortunately they had excellent suppliers and were able to make exceptional port wines to build their business enough to make a shift in the 1980s. Dirk Niepoort saw the potential for the production of still wines in the Douro Valley, but as no-one was really growing fruit for this purpose he made the bold decision to not only purchase his own vineyards but also wineries to vinify wines. The family now own two estates – one for port and one for still wines in different parts of the region – but they still continue to purchase wine that goes into the ports. One of the fundamental things that Dirk wanted to do was to experiment and try different things to determine what the best expression of their terroir was. For this purpose he built a winery that became the benchmark for the region, designed by an Austrian to be gravity-fed, completely sustainable and also harmonious with the environment.

Niepoort has quite a pedigree

Carlos, a recent addition to the winemaking team who I had shared dinner with the previous evening, took me to the port vineyard not far from Quinta do Noval. Here in the vineyard I found several interesting things. The first was a team rebuilding one of the slate terraces that I have subsequently found they are obliged to maintain, which supports the earth from erosion. This is pretty hard work, particularly in 40 degree heat as it was on this day. Secondly I found fruit on the vine that was actually beginning the veraison when they go from being green to picking up colour for the ripening. The third and fourth thing I had never seen before; sunburnt grapes, with the sides facing south black and the other side green; and oidium, which I was completely unfamiliar with by sight as I’m pretty sure we don’t suffer from it in Australia. Not far from this vineyard is the old winery that they bought from the Symingtons and is used for the production of the red port wines, complete with both round granite lagares and new stainless steel ones, and also large vats for the initial ageing of some of the ports.

Carlos checking the fruit

We then returned to Quinta de Napoles where the still wines and the white ports are produced. The estate is not on the Douro but up one of the many tributary valleys, and thus has a different aspect than the main valley. In the winery they are experimenting with some pretty cool things like fermenting in huge open amphorae, fermenting some white wine at low temperatures very slowly, and macerating reds in lagares with the stalks for a short period of time and then completing the fermentation in barrel. One of the interesting things about the still wines of Niepoort is the fact that they often use different bottle shapes for different wines, even within the white wines. The reason this is so unusual is because there are very few producers let a lone regions where they don’t have more uniformity in their bottles, such as the riesling bottle in Germany, or the burgundy bottle in Burgundy. The shape often is a reflection of the style of the wine, so for example the young crisp and mineralic white wine goes into a riesling bottle, whereas the barrel fermented textural white wine goes into a burgundy bottle. Carlos took me through a tasting from tank and barrel, before we joined all the staff for lunch with some more wines and a very impassioned conversation with the chief winemaker Luis. My notes from the various tastings can be found here.

Never noticed how much they look like darleks

Luis set me up to visit a very recent project which resembles a cooperative but is quite different. The Lavradores de Feitoria winery is located in the industrial area of Sabrosa where the wines are produced and packaged, but there are absolutely no vineyards. Over thirty investors came together to start the project, almost half of whom are vineyard owners and sell the fruit for the wines. For the first vintage back in 2000 a single wine was produced from each estate, but they soon realised this would be too complicated to communicate as the wines were not different enough to offer a varied and deep portfolio. Since then they have made wines in several tiers that are effectively blends, along with a few more premium wines that either come from single estates or have similar terroirs. Each parcel is treated separately which makes the vintage pretty challenging, but the difficult part is really in the assessment of each wine and the blending process. It shows how difficult it can be to commercialise this kind of project, but they are doing a pretty good job of capturing the essence of Douro whilst keeping the shareholders happy. There are a number of kinks to work out, most notably the fact that all they are working with is the fruit provided, not yet being involved in the viticulture. The wines I tasted were a mixture, but most showed excellent promise. You can read my notes here.

The new style of lagar

My third host of the day was also my host for the night. Quinta do Vallado shares something important with Quinta de Vale Meao from my first day, in the sense that they are also descendants of Antonia Adelaide Ferreira and this was another of the estates she owned in the past. With the money they received from the sale of Ferreira this branch of the family was able to establish their own business and they did so here at the mouth of the Corgo River where it joins the Douro. Slowly growing the business, they were finally able to complete their new winery a few years ago which took a great deal of time and care to ensure everything was not only extremely functional and the best quality, but looked and felt as holistic as possible. The interior of the winery is gravity-fed and built into the hill, with a combination of newly built granite lagares, stainless steel and oak fermentation vessels. Down in the depths there are some concrete vats and old barrels for the storage of port wines. On the exterior they use a combination of grey slate and a beautiful ochre paint the same colour as most of their labels. It makes quite a sight amongst the green vines sitting on the side of the hill. The existing buildings and newly completed hotel are also designed on this theme, although the interiors of the hotel are quite different. They find a perfect balance between it being modern but also homely and authentic.

Quinta do Vallado Hotel

I arrived in the evening and checked in and after a quick swim (very nice in 40 degree heat), I had a tour of the winery. I was then joined by Francisco Ferreira, who works with other family members in the running of the winery handling the winemaking. The idea behind the wines is fairly simple, just to make the best expression of the Douro Valley as possible. The modernity and technology of the facilities is simply a tool to observe and control without interfering or altering the character of the wine. The balance is between respectful and traditional wines with approachability and style. Viticultural practices like green harvesting are performed to reduce the yields and concentrate the quality of the fruit. Francisco works with his cousin Francisco Olazabal in the winemaking which combines the traditional use of lagares with the modern practice of maturation in  French barriques of different ages. As mentioned the hotel combines both traditional and modern luxe, and offers a range of wine related packages for guests to create a connection to the place, the defining characteristic of any wine. Like Vale Meao and Niepoort, Vallado is one of the Douro Boys who are creating such waves in the wine world for the quality of their still wines. During the evening I tried a range of the wines, some with dinner, and you can read my notes here.

Quinta do Vallado barrel cellar

Click here to see more photos from my second day in the Douro Valley, Portugal. After a visit to my final winery in the Douro I drove up to the Vinho Verde region on the following day.

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