Lighter life: How table wine is taking over the Douro

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

15 August 2019

Table wine is growing so fast in the Douro that its production could soon equal that of port. Chris Losh pays a visit to the valley to spend some time with the winemakers making the most of this non-fortified explosion

There’s no bigger figure in the history of wine in the Douro than Dona Antónia Ferreira. By the time of her death in 1896 she ran a formidable array of wine estates, some of which she’d inherited, some of which she’d bought, and some of which she’d planted.

Yet what’s less well known is that she spent two years in exile in London, on the run from a furious Portuguese politician. Apparently, the politico was determined to marry her (13-year-old) daughter. Dona Antónia refused him twice, so the third time he attempted to persuade her by arriving at her gates with an army.

As romantic gestures go, it wasn’t a success. The widow and her teenage daughter disguised themselves as workers and high-tailed it north until things had cooled down.

Visit the Douro now, and it’s tempting to think that little has changed from the days of Dona Antónia. It remains a place of striking beauty and tranquillity. Heat shimmers off the banked slopes that rear out of the ambling river below; two-metre-high black letters proclaim the names of famous wine estates on whitewashed walls; smoke drifts into the still air from chimneys and vineyard bonfires; silence is so complete that a dog barking a mile away sounds close enough to pat.

And yet, beneath this picture postcard majesty, things have changed significantly – particularly over the last 20 years. And probably the biggest change of all is the growth in table wines.

There has, of course, always been table wine made in the valley, but usually it was just produced from grapes that couldn’t be made into port. It was, as Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta Val Dona Maria puts it, ‘with a few exceptions, mostly very bad wine’.

New ‘boys’ on the block

The Douro Boys
The Douro Boys

Since the late 1990s, however, that has changed, with a growing number of wineries giving more weight to – or even prioritising – non-fortified wines over rubies, reservas, LBVs et al. Where table wine used to be 10% of the valley’s wine production 15 years ago, now it is 30% – and growing steadily. Should things continue as they are, in the next 10 years, table wine production will equal that of port. And at the forefront of this trend are the Douro Boys. A grouping of five wine estates, they came together in 2003 to promote the Douro, particularly as a table wine region. Not that any of them are looking to create vast quantities. In fact, when I visited them recently, the message across the group, perhaps unsurprisingly, was clear: the goal for the region’s wines has to be not to produce more, but to get customers to pay more for what they currently make.

It’s not an unreasonable plan. Those vineyards that look so spectacular clinging to the slopes for the camera (or the sunbathing magazine journalist) are a nightmare to work. Yields are low, mechanisation rare, labour hard to find and both creation and maintenance of the terraces expensive.

‘When our winemaking friends from other parts of the world come here, they say “you guys are completely crazy”,’ muses Tomas Roquette of Quinta do Crasto. Yet if you stand at the top of Crasto’s vineyards, looking down towards the river, you get some idea of the attraction for a winemaker, too. The multitude of hills, slopes and side-valleys gives 360-degrees-worth of potential vineyard exposures for estates to play with.

Our winemaking friends from other parts of the world think we are completely crazy

Tomas Roquette

Add different altitudes and a sizable array of indigenous grape varieties into the mix, and the combinations of flavours available to the winemaker are either stimulating or baffling, depending on your outlook.

There are some single-varietal wines here (mostly from the Douro’s star red variety, Touriga Nacional) but the majority of the wines here are blends. Nor, interestingly, are they necessarily grown separately then blended together in the winery; there’s no shortage of field blends (mixed plantings) that are harvested and vinified together. This is viticulture and winemaking that would have been familiar to Dona Antónia’s peers.

‘We know that if we grow the grapes mixed and ferment them together we get a better result than if we grow and ferment them separately, then blend them together,’ explains van Zeller.

This love of field blends is likely to be an easier ‘sell’ now than in the years around the millennium, when single varietal wines ruled the roost, and it allows the region’s winegrowers to reconnect with their traditional way of doing things.

‘That’s the character of the Douro – to mix all the elements together,’ explains Luis Candido da Silva from Niepoort. ‘We have to speak to the old people. They might not know why something doesn’t work in a certain place, but they know that it doesn’t work. We have to adapt science and technology to what our grandparents left us.’

Lagar louts

A key item bequeathed by previous Douro generations is the lagar – the shallow granite trough used for foot-treading grapes. Traditionally, it’s used for vintage ports, but it is striking how many of the Douro Boys also use it for table wine.

Wines would not necessarily be 100% foot-trodden. Human feet are highly efficient crushers of grapes, so if they’re trodden over a long period this would generate significant amounts of tannin, colour and extraction.

This might be okay for vintage port, which is designed to age for decades, but it’s not great for a wine intended to be drunk in a few years’ time.

As a result, the producers tend to do one or two days foot-treading, then follow this up with robotic ‘feet’ which can be programmed for a gentler extraction.

In fact, one of the most interesting elements of the table wines is their balance. It’s tempting to assume that because the Douro has such an unforgiving landscape, and because it’s the home to one of the most powerful wine styles in port, that the table wines will inevitably be the same. But in reality, many of these wines have a lift, even a light-footedness, to them that can be surprising.

Some of this is due to the fact that the naturally black-fruited, intense and tannic Touriga Nacional is utterly at home in the Douro’s climate. ‘It needs sun,’ says Francisco Olazabal of Quinta do Vale Meão. ‘It’s the last variety to shut down in the heat, and it doesn’t need a lot of water.’

Wineries are deliberately picking a little earlier and using less oak. This is seen at its most extreme at Niepoort

It helps, too, that Touriga Nacional is often blended with other less powerful varieties. Its relationship with the perfume- and acidity-providing Touriga Francesa, for instance, is like watching a perfectly honed double-act.

But the human factor is also important. Wineries are deliberately picking a little earlier and using less oak. This is seen at its most extreme at Niepoort, which claims it is the ‘first to start picking and the first to stop’ in the valley. ‘We want our wines to age on a backbone of acidity, not wood tannin or fatness,’ as winemaker Luis Candido da Silva puts it.

Other producers are not quite as extreme in their quest for acidity over fruit, but there is a common move in this direction across the group, from Vallado in Regua, to Quinta do Vale Meão near Pocinho in the Upper Douro. The wines here are not as big as you might expect, with silky elegance a more common characteristic than sheer size.

Nor should the whites be discounted. Many are planted above 500m, on the tops of the hills where it’s significantly cooler. But others, such as the magnificently named Rabigato (meaning ‘cat-strangler’) have such a naturally high acidity that they actively need sun and heat to be drinkable.

Rabigato means 'cat strangler'...
Rabigato means 'cat strangler'...

Brancos are a small part of the valley’s production at the moment – probably because whites have, for so long, been such a minority interest in port production – but as table wine volumes grow their numbers are likely to increase.

And so it should. I am not entirely convinced that these wines react well to oak, but there is a herbal, oily, pithy character to them that cries out for food.

It’s odd to think that the Douro could become better known for table wine than it is for port, but non-fortified wine’s growth is seen by most as a positive

Of course, it’s not all good news in the valley. Labour remains hard to find, and in an already extreme region, climate change seems to be making vintages ever more difficult to predict.

But while it’s odd to think that the Douro could, in 50 years’ time, be better known for table wine than it is for port, it’s true that the growth of non-fortified wine in the Douro is seen by most in the valley as a real positive.

Certainly, it’s to be hoped that things work out as well for the growers and producers as they did for Dona Antónia Ferreira. When she and her daughter returned to the Douro from London, the latter married the prince of Portugal.

Now that's a happy ending.

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