Portugal is a country that, to us has connections with Goa. They made some beautiful churches, and supposedly left behind certain traditions, including one around the Port wine. For a history of Port refer to another blog, or just view it somewhere online, but suffice to say that while Port was a wine destined for transport, the Goan Port is only meant to make one journey: to the deepest darkest abysses of a dustbin! To truly understand this country and its wine, nothing short of a visit will suffice. Sure you could attend some tastings, as so did I, but unless one has seen first-hand the slopes and gauged their steepness while trying to climb or descend one, one can never entirely comprehend the scale of difficulty that is involved in making wines here.
If geography isn’t lenient, neither is the climate: with hot summers and cold winters, continental climate. In such weather, acidity
can often fall and the proximity to the river (Douro) can mean a scare of maladies. And yet, in spite of the odds, this group of winemakers, lightly christened the Douro Boys, make some fantastic wines. Now not once does this mean that others don’t make good wine, or, for that matter, that these boys are too young to be considered men. They are men indeed, with experience aplenty, and they make some fab wines, the kind that don’t lack flavour or acidity, the kind that respect tradition and yet portray a lovely contemporary side of Portuguese winemaking.
My recent voyage entailed visiting all five of the group. Here are my scribblings; some are tasting notes, others less technical rants. Either ways, if you plan to head there, or don’t, this should give you a good idea of what to expect. Oporto, is a small town of 300,000 people; in India we call that extended family. The city is on the banks of the Douro river, the very mouth actually, as it empties into the Atlantic. Staying at The Yeatman hotel, sort of puts you on the side that looks onto Oporto (complete with the old bridge and the new-fangled cable car) and is a short walk down to the river. A short but steep walk. Get ready to burn calories, both ways.
For the physically less active, here are some salient features of Port wines delievered straight to your recliner:
1. Lagars: I honestly thought that nobody crushed grapes under their feet anymore and I couldn’t be more far from the truth. In Portugal, the best wines are not only crushed under the feet of a dozen dancing men or so (OK, not exactly dancing), they are even often fermented in the Lagars – so much for reducing oxygen contact. But Joana, the winemaker from Vila Dona Maria said that it was never a problem, and Dirk reiterated how this oxygen actually endows longevity to the wine. Also, the way the feet rub against the berries, gently crushing them against the not-too-uniform stone surface, the result was a soft extraction rather than a coarse, cold one.
2. Field Blends: Portugal lives on with its ancient vineyards, where the ancestors planted a variety of grapes side by side. Some, like Dirk and Manuel (from Crasto), believe that this was for a deeper bigger reason, one that escapes us for the moment, but there are others, like Vito from Vale de Meão, who say that the ancestors were clueless and hence this is not so good an idea. Harvest happened all at once and sure some grapes were more ripe than others (the thin-skinned ones before the thicker-skinned varieties) but all went into the vat together
and in the end, things holistically enough, balanced out. the vines back then were always tended to by hand and hence were also planted closer whereas today the trend is to set them much wider, all to facilitate those tiny tractors to pass through. the best part were the walls which were an art form in themselves, a skill that is harder to find (and execute today) than ever before. these walls were great at ensuring that not too much soil got eroded and whatever did, could always be collected at the bottom and redistributed. Today, it is more common to fewer vertical walls that defined terraces and more graded sandy slopes, a new practice to control soil erosion, but minus the expensive walls. Pretty walls too.
3. Although the wine is called Port(o) and the town is called Oporto, the real town of this famous fortified wine is Vila Nova de Gaia, for that is where all the warehouses are located. An ancient
rule taxed wines more if they were stocked in Oporto, thereby encouraging shippers to build warehouses across the river, on the other bank, aka Vila Nova de Gaia (VNdG). Those lovely picture postcards that you can see with the different Port house signs and the ‘rebelo’ boats lazing up front – the whole picture postcard stuff – well that’s VNdG. Sorry if that broke your heart. Porto is where you stand if you wish to click this magnificent view.
4. Another cruel law that existed decree that, only those houses which had a warehouse in VNdG could export their Port wine and others had to sell it locally. This pretty much paved the way for the giants to dominate the export market, which explains why so many small houses either ceased to exist, or eventually got swallowed by the mammoths of the trade. Today, that rule stands abolished so Port from Douro is making its way into international waters. But it was only in 1986 that this rule was abolished so, not all that long ago really.
5. And while on that, Port is perhaps the only classified wine (DOC level, equivalent of an AOC in France) where the vineyards are so far away from where the wines are made (2 hours drive away!). Interesting how history and precedence can over-rule legislation. Thank God for that! 6. Douro is the world’s first appellation, in the sense that it was well defined and demarcated back circa 1750s by the Marquis of Pombal, who went as far as to designate vineyards from ‘A’, down to ‘F’ categories. These were logically drawn out (well for that time anyways but they are still given due respect and consideration) after analyzing exposure, soil type, inclination, location, temperature and precipitation quotients, and also the grape varieties planted. Based on the classification, the winemaker could only harvest a fixed amount of crop annually (aka Beneficio).
6. As far as valleys goes, I am yet to see something so ginormous and so steep. Looking up at the slopes is truly an imposing sight
and to imagine just how these slopes are worked all year round is mind-boggling enough to tire not just one’s imagination but also their physical resolve. The meandering river, now dammed up like a Beaver-colony, is calm and placid like a lake and the way these stoney slopes rise from this serene expanse is truly a magnificent metaphor at some poetic level. Wachau and the Mosel are similar, but they are much smaller; a Bonsai of a growth compared to this stretch of 40,000+ hectares. (The Mosel covers about 9000 Ha, and Wachau, a boutique 1500 Ha.)
And now, something about the super Douro Boys.
Dirk Nieeport hails from a Dutch family that settled here long ago for, what most believe, the textile trade. Other more imaginative reasons have been proffered. They are a traditional Port house and today own almost 60+ hectares of their own land from where they also make some fantastic table (non-fortified) wines. Dirk can appear quite the paradox, a man who makes wines
which are very elegant and modern in his very modern-looking winery but he respects nothing more than tradition. Oh wait there are two things he respects more: natural acidity, and grapes that are not over-ripe. In fact, he has a (healthy) obsession for both. Crasto wines, on the other
hand, are quite a different breed. The winemaker determinedly pursues consistency and desires to make wines that are great and free from the influences of a (bad) vintage. Then you have Quinto do Vale Doña Maria where the team is younger, but ably headed by the owner Van Zeller, a man with experience aplenty, acquired pursuing studyies in the US as also working at one of the biggest names in the Portuguese wine industry which was family business back then (we are talking
Noval here). That was sold off and somewhere along the Rio Torto (called so because it has so many twists) he and his wife Joana took to this estate which had been in Joana’s family for some time now. He is also one of the most enthusiastic components of this Douro grouping. Quinta do Vale do Meao is perhaps the oldest of the lot, in the sense that the vineyard was owned and established in the family much before the others. It is definitely farthest from the group in that it is more much further down the river from them; where the hilly terrain, although persistent, is less intense and the slopes are a tad more gentle. Their philosophy was interesting to note in that Vito doesn’t do mixed plantings in his vineyards and much prefers to vinify grapes separately. At the time of visit, a new winery was being constructed to accommodate the growing business. A trip through the vine parcels was extremely invigorating,
what with near-70 degree slopes, all conquered in a very sturdy and reliable jeep. The view from the top was amazing and the Douro river appeared like a small stream. But Vito assured me it was well over 200 metres wide and he knew that because, being an avid golfer, he knew how far he could drive and was yet to get one across the river!
Finally, at Vallado, relatives of Vito and
Chito, we find their cousin Chico, who is doing wines with some signature twists. For example, he is bottling a single-varietal Sousão grape wine. Few houses use this in blends, leave aside to make a solo-style wine so it is a unique endeavour. From the taste of things, it seemed like a smart move and a delicious one too, for it paired very well with some rich meaty preparations. In short, Portugal is a unique mix of the old and the new. It is a region that is seeped in tradition and yet refreshingly showered with new ideas and concepts, and never is one nominated at the cost of sacrificing the other – you still have lagars with grapes tried by foot but they also have the ability to have a punch down with a robotic arm (or is that foot?) – and it is this eclectic mix that will stamp the image of Portuguese wines in the future.