Inventing The Possible: Considering the Dry Wines of the Douro Valley
*The content of this article is based on a sponsored trip to Porto and the Douro valley paid for by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto.*
From a young age, most of us have been taught to see potential as something inherent in us that we must strive to possess, our inherent possibility to become externally great. So the young are repeatedly reminded to “live up to their potential” and the old are measured by whether they did so. After a certain amount of living, some of us rightly understand this perspective as misguided.
What does it mean to ‘live up to your potential’? Is possibility derived from an inherent quality or can it be created from nothing, without precedent? Is possibility genetic in demeanor, or is it conceptual, that is, spontaneous?
The story of dry Douro wines has been largely structured around the traditional narrative of possibility – the inherent potential for great dry Douro wine. My observations in the valley have suggested otherwise. The best Douro wines are re-inventions of the very scope of the possible rather than realizations of a previously defined or understood potential. Indeed, this is the unique character of the region: it offers attentive winemakers the opportunity to discover a new potential that did not previously exist. The question for Douro winemakers thus becomes not whether they can live up to the valley’s potential but whether they are willing to take a risk and redefine consumers’ expectations rather than wait for an epiphanic moment of discovery.
Identity is not contained in the past. Our real potential lies in re-defining the bounds of the possible and creating a moment that shifts the perspective from which all new actions will be considered. Potential is our liberation from and not our determination by inherence. But this step requires us to overcome our sense of comfort and easily demarcated identity. To truly realize our potential we must let go of what we thought that potential to be. So it is with the dry wines of the Douro.
The Old Possible
Most of the Douro’s history is the growing of grapes for port, which, though once dry, was never made in a style focused on freshness and fruit, but rather on preservation and longevity. Previous to port, Portugal’s dry wines did not garner international attention. Thus it used to be that dry Douro red wines were measured against the expectation that the Douro makes grapes for fortified port wine. The early pioneer Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira saw the potential for fine dry wine in the Douro and established the benchmark for dry Douro red in 1952: Barca Velha. Being the first wine to use more modern vinification techniques, such as cold fermentation (which was made possible by trucking in ice from Porto, half of which would melt by the time it made it to the winery), Barca Velha redefined quality. This wine single handedly made the reputation for Douro reds, but also by that reputation became the only well known dry wine from the Douro for many years. Thus did Barca Velha both demonstrate that the Douro could be more than port wine, but also dominated the discussion of the category, with other dry reds being either overshadowed or measured against it as a benchmark. As important as Barca Velha was, it would take a new approach to re-define how the region was perceived, something that has only started to happen within the last decade or so.
Ferreira’s holdings were eventually broken apart and sold mostly to the giant company Sogrape. However, the original vineyards for Barca Velha remained in family hands and are now owned by Quinta do Vale Meao. They continue to be one of the Douro’s standard bearers for dry red wine. The vineyard is unusual for the Douro in that it lies on a geological fault at the eastern-most reaches of the Douro Superior, near the border to Spain, on land that is much flatter than the rest of the valley. This part of the Douro Superior is also essentially a desert, seeing very little rainfall. The vineyard was originally not part of the Douro, but brought into it through the efforts of Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira.
The soils at Vale Meao are schist, granite, and alluvial, and have very high Ph compared to the rest of the Douro (8 vs. 5). The vines’ root systems can reach down as deep as 5 to 7 metres. These days the blocks are planted to single varieties, harvested separately and then blended later. Tasting through experimental bottlings of individual varieties taught me that the granite and schist soils produce markedly different wines from the same grapes. Most consumers will not experience this directly, however, as the final wines at the estate are blends of the individually vinified blocks. This approach is relatively modern, with the traditional approach being to co-plant numerous varieties, harvest them at the same time and make a field blend via co-fermentation. Today there is much debate about which is the better approach and which of single varietal wine or blends 1. makes the best wines and 2. is the most marketable. My personal observation over the trip was that blends definitively made better wine. The jury is still out on whether field blends or blends created by separately vinified blocks make better wine. My impression is that both approaches can succeed and depend on the particularities of the vineyard.
The original winery building at Vale Meao is 120 years old and is still used today. Originally everything was done by hand without much by way of modern technology. All the pressing was by foot treading in traditional lagares and the winery gravity fed. Foot treading was valuable because it is quite gentle and allows full extraction from skins but not from the seeds of the grapes. It also prevents over-extraction. For these reasons, foot treading is still used by Vale Meao today, with robots used only after the initial pressing in order to gently turn over the cap after fermentation has commenced.
The winery makes two red wines, its entry level Meandro meant for early drinking and the flagship Vale Meao, a powerful, structured wine meant for ageing. There is also a small quantity of white Meandro produced, which is superb, but difficult to find. The wines, which in good vintages are exceptional, do not remain stuck in tradition, but are subject to owner and winemaker Francisco Olazabal’s passion for experimentation and learning. In this way Vale Meao is perhaps the best example of the ‘old possible’ available today in the Douro. But, Vale Meao has its feet half in tradition and half in modernity. It is the second half that is more emblematic of the rest of the valley and much of what other producers are doing. To fully understand the push to modernity, we need to look further west.
The New Possible
The 1990’s and early 2000’s saw a revolution in Douro dry wine making. The “Douro Boys” group of producers (formed in 2003 by Quinta do Vallado, Niepoort, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale D. Maria and Quinta do Vale Meao) were very successful at making high quality, modern style wines and opening up new markets such as the U.S., Canada and the UK. Quinta do Crasto, for instance, located in the Douro’s middle region known as the Cima Corgo, has been in the British Columbia market for at least a decade and regularly shows up at the Vancouver International Wine Festival. This dedication to new markets has paid dividends and perhaps paved the way for a wider range of these new modern dry wines to enter foreign markets.
To understand why dry Douro wines are exciting one must understand the complex geography of the valley itself. Though pictures of the valley are dramatic and beautiful, real understanding is hard in the abstract. It was only when I was cruising down the Douro river through the Cima Corgo and looking up at an inimitable cascade of near-impossible terraces that I finally understood. The number of aspects is nearly futile to count, with different vines in a single row potentially facing anywhere in a range of 180 degrees. The plots are small too, with few producers owning large amounts of vines. Those lucky enough to do so purchased the vines over a long time and even still will have small gaps in their holdings that belong to growers unwilling to sell. Rows may comprise half a dozen grape varieties, each battling to find water in the porous schist soils while simultaneously basking in the valley’s intense heat.
Given these dramatic variances, it is not realistic to classify the Douro as a single region with a single style, nor is the three region division of Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and the Douro Superior particularly helpful. Each bend in the river has the potential to reveal a new terroir, each with unique challenges. Producers are only starting to understand the valley’s nuances.
Old systems can also obscure. For instance, because of the risk of malaria in the past, many vineyards were planted high up the hillside away from the river. Now these represent some of the oldest vineyards in the Douro, but they are not necessarily the best sites for all types of grapes. Producers are now exploring alternative planting locations closer to the river, the banks of which have also changed as a result of hydro-electric dam projects in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Further, the IVDP’s quality classification for vineyards (a scale from Grade A to Grade F) is based on the best sites for grapes that are used to make port wines, but these sites are not necessarily the best for dry wines. Western publications also lack subtlety in that many classify top dry wine years based on the top years for port; but this is often not a fair comparison. A good year in one part of the Douro Superior could very well be a bad year in a specific nook of the Cima Corgo, and good years for port grapes are not necessarily good for dry wines. Because of the valley’s dramatic variation, vintage differences for dry wine are better understood on the micro rather than macro level.
White wines have even less of a baseline, really only starting to become serious within the last five years. Now there are good whites being made in a wide variety of styles from serious and weighty, to off-dry and fruity, to bone dry and zippy. The number of very good whites is only increasing.
While the best producers are starting to dial in their wines, there remains those pursuing suspect practices, including unwanted additions. For instance, I witnessed a large bag of tartaric acid on the floor of a winery that will remain unnamed – certainly acidification is not a practice Portugal should be pursuing. On the other hand, the best young producers have no interest in these sorts of practices and are passionate about sharing their knowledge with each other (something that is not true in many up and coming wine regions). It is this passion for sharing that will be the greatest impetus for improvement.
The biggest achievements of what I call the “new possible” winemaking of the Douro is increasing attention to site detail, improved planting and harvesting, and clean wine making. The unique flavours of a particular place are starting to come through in the wines, and as such the “new possible” producers have redefined the Douro away from the dominance of Barca Velha (one great wine for the region), to numerous sub-gradations of quality wines.
On the other hand, I sensed that the “new possible” was still being held back somewhat by an adherence to modernism; or, more precisely, to making easily understandable wines in an international style. The tension created by this perception of internationalism was palpable in the debates I witnessed over whether the Douro needed a signature grape.
Proponents of this philosophy inevitably chose Touriga Nacional as the standard bearer for Portugal, mostly because U.S. wine publications seemed to give wines with high percentages of Touriga Nacional the highest ratings.
Opponents argued that the real tradition in Portugal’s Douro valley is field blends, and that Touriga Nacional is, in itself, a boring grape that can rarely produce wine of interest alone. The Douro’s geology and climate lent itself better to blends where winemakers can choose the components they need to make a complete wine.
In my view, the proponents of the single variety approach to the Douro are heading in an ill-advised direction. Portugal is not New Zealand or Oregon. Focusing on a grape such as Touriga Nacional will only limit quality and is not emblematic of what the Douro has to offer. It also risks playing into the vagaries of market trends. Focusing instead on producing a product of very high quality that is unique to the Douro and that will develop a passionate following of informed wine lovers is a better route to sustained success.
Another example of how internationalism is keeping back some producers from reaching greater heights was what I perceived to be a narrow view of what ‘greatness’ in wine was. Nearly every producer I talked to saw ‘greatness’ as age worthiness. This is an overly limited view of greatness and misses what, in my view, is the most important component of great wine: site expression. By site expression I do not mean a dogmatic image of terroir, but rather the confluence of a unique place, geology, soils, climate, farming techniques, and vinification choices that produce a product that is uniquely expressive and cannot be replicated elsewhere. Focusing on this would lead producers to spend more time considering traits such as elegance, lift, lively aromatics, and perhaps finding ways to reduce alcohol levels and heavy oak influence, both of which obscure site expression. Not that all producers’ wines have these faults – many do not.
There are also inevitable marketing mis-steps, with some wineries making far too many wines and providing inconsistent messaging (making both single varieties and blends and claiming blends are best – begging the question why make single varietal wines?). Other wineries are embracing social media to mostly good effect, though I think some take the idea of ‘fun’ with wine too far and make a few mis-steps. For instance, though done with good intentions one winery poorly named two of its wines “milf” and “lolita”, which for many women would be gross or even offensive.
The fact wineries are taking risks and that these debates are happening, however, bodes well for the future. There are certainly an increasing number of wineries that are focused on elegant, site expressive wines rather than a more boring, even keeled international style. Given the passion and tenacity of the best producers in the Douro, the growing pains of the region will likely sort themselves out, which is all the better for us consumers as there is much potential that remains to be invented and the best wines are yet to come.
I provide a selection of examples of the best wines of this ‘new possible’ at the end of the article.
The Future Possible
The potential of a region is not necessarily defined by where it has been or what it is. New regions that understand this are more likely to find a voice. As much as there are objective constraints on potential, the scope for redefinition and expansion is often far greater than conventional wisdom teaches. Our ‘innate’ intelligence does not determine the intelligence of the contributions we can make to society; our brains are not limited to remaining within pre-defined parameters; and our choices do not have to conform with our past.
The best of us invent our potential. That power gifts us with the capacity to see the shafts of light breaking through the fissure between what is and what could be.
There are some in the Douro who are ready to invent. The two most exciting wines during my time in the Douro were not wines we might traditionally classify as ‘great’. They are not capable of decades of aging; they do not have the longest finishes or the most complex mid-palates. Rather, what they offer is a glimpse into the future with a voice that rises out of the cacophony.
The first was a wine from the young producer Conceito that was made from Bastardo, a grape also known as Trousseau, that has only been used for blending in a minor capacity, mostly in port wines. As far as I know Conceito is the only winery in the Douro making a single varietal wine from this grape. Why is it important? Because the wine is very fruity, easy drinking, aromatically expressive and varietally true. It is food wine – that is, wine that goes with the everyday food that most of us eat, which these days is lighter, less meat-heavy and higher in acidity. In fact, I found most of Portugal’s producers would benefit from a broader food palate, eating widely of the world’s cuisines, including asian food, as these influences are significant in the cuisine of the markets into which Portuguese wineries are trying to sell their wines. The Conceito Bastardo understands this trend and also lets a grape without any prior identity speak. The wine shouts that the Douro is about more than powerful red wine.
The second was a wine from Alves de Sousa that was made using grape varieties that traditionally become white port. Rather than making that sweet fortified wine, Alves de Sousa decided to produce a dry, skin-fermented white that is absolutely voluptuous but also spot-on elegant and clean. The wine’s importance lies in its embrace of new techniques, its re-interpretation of what certain varieties have to say and its fearless encounter with oxygen (the winery performs hard pump overs and hyper saturation of the juice with oxygen). It is a remarkable wine with vision. It, too, redefines the potential of the Douro Valley.
In sum, the Douro is one of the most complex up and coming regions in the world. It layers perspective and possibility in a way that I’m unsure other regions could replicate. Its past is long and storied, its present exciting though with rough edges, and its future broader than most would even comprehend. With luck, in the next couple decades we will see the Douro blossom into a pluralism of possibility rather than a singular and limited “internationalism”.
The future is waiting to be invented.
A Selection of Wines
- Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande 1997 (Very Good+)
- Quinta do Vale Meao 2005 (Excellent)
- Quinta do Vale Meao 2012 (Very Good+)
- Passadouro Vinho Tinto 2012 (Very Good to Very Good+)
- Casal de Loivos Velha Geracao Grande Reserva 2011 (Very Good to Very Good+)
- Quinta das Tecedeiras Reserva 2005 (Excellent)
- Pala Da Lebre Vinho Branco 2013 (Very Good)
- Quinta do Popa Vinhas Velhas 2008 (Very Good to Very Good+)
- Duas Quintas Reserva Tinto 2011 (Very Good+)
- Bulas Reserva Branco 2012 (Very Good+ to Excellent)
- Bulas Grande Reserva Tinto 2010 (Excellent)
- Quinta da Gaivosa 2009 (Excellent)
- Conceito Bastardo 2012 (Very Good+)
- Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal Branco 2006 (Excellent)