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Compelling Quaffs and Vistas of the Douro Valley

After our stay in Porto, we felt compelled, COMPELLED!, to head up the Douro River to seek out the sources of all of the port wine we saw being aged in the warehouses in Gaia. We were not disappointed by the visit, neither by the Port, we tasted, nor the stunning views the Douro Valley affords. Such are some of the benefits of our roving retirement.

Drive to the Heart of the Douro Valley

The main town in the Douro Valley is Pinhao, there are trains from Porto several times a day. By car, the 2.5-hour journey winds through the countryside, often along the river. Since we were traveling with friends, we chose to all pile into our sedan and head east on the highway. This cut our travel time to 1:45 hours and permitted a stop in Lamego, which happened to be having a fete that weekend.

Because of the fair, the food vendors were out in force. So, we stocked up on wine, cheese, bread, and dry sausage (like salami) for a picnic later on. We even got the seller to open our bottle of wine (we had left our corkscrew in Porto!!).

Pinhao is Where You Arrive, but the Vineyards are the Destination

Despite being the center in the Douro, Pinhao is still quite small. The action really happens in the vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms of the region. The wine estates are called Quintas. The central feature of Pinhao seems to be the train station, which, despite being small, is packed with beautiful blue and white tiles with scenes of growing grapes, caring for the vineyards, harvesting the grapes, and transporting the wine. Of course, you can barely go a block in Portugal without running into a similar tile display, but they do all look nice.

We boarded a riverboat for an hour-long cruise along the Douro river. It was packed so I’m glad we had reservations. We whipped out our picnic only to realize no one else had planned ahead for this. We got some lusty looks as we munched on lunch and so I turned away to enjoy the wine in peace. It was satisfying even if we only had dixie cups for the occasion.

The views from the water are stunning, up and down the valley. Hills rise sharply from the river, above 2000 feet. Visits to Quintas high up the slopes gave great perspective. We happened to be visiting at harvest time and it can get very congested in town with tourists, buses, grape trucks, and tanker trucks all vying for the road. Harvest is great, but it’s a busy time to be there.

Our Hotel

We chose to spend the night nearby so we had more time to explore. Our hotel was WAY up one of the hills and it provided an expansive view. There were vineyards all around us. It’s a good thing we had the car because it would have been impossible to get there any other way.

Our room was quite small and the bed was too soft, but it was acceptable since we were only spending one night. They are building more cabins out of repurposed shipping containers.

Terroir

The Douro became a declared wine appellation in 1756, the first appellation in the world. There are 3 distinct sub-regions, starting with the Baixo Corgo area in the West, with decreasing precipitation and increasing heat as you proceed east in the Valley. These micro-climates allow for some very different grape juice and give the winemakers a wide range of juice to blend to form the desired style.

The soil is slate, which retains heat and water. The heat keeps the grapes warm at night via radiation. The dryer eastern Douro stresses the vines, creating a more intense flavor but less yield. Some vineyards are hotter because they get sunlight reflected off the river.

The Vines

Acreage is controlled. To prevent flooding the market, no additional acres can be planted in the entire valley. So, if you want to plant new vines, you have to remove other ones. Vertical vineyards are denser and more productive but also more subject to erosion, so many vineyards are forced to be terraced, which can be an expensive proposition. Some old vineyards are changed to olive trees and the acreage is used elsewhere, often higher on the slope where there is more sun and heat.

Over 100 varietals are grown in the Duoro, but most port is made from only a few types of grapes. Old vineyards often had a random variety of grapes planted. These random vineyards are slowly getting replaced with single grape vines once the original vineyard gets too old. Watering is only allowed for the first 3 years of a vineyard, long enough for the roots to go down 2 meters. Most plants have roots 6 to 16 meters into the ground.

Closeup of vertical and terraced vineyards

Ruby Port

For most wines, grapes are harvested by hand on the steep slopes then brought in and immediately destemmed mechanically. Stems and reject grapes are reused for fertilizer in the fields. The best grapes are sorted for vintage port or even single vineyard tracks, lesser grapes go into standard port.

Grapes are then crushed by machine (two or three times) or by foot for over 3 hours. Fermentation goes for 36 hours, then distilled neutral wine, 77% alcohol, is added to raise the ABV of the port to 20% and stop fermentation, thus keeping most of the sugars and sweetness intact in the wine.

Ruby port is aged for 3 years in a very large, old cask with low surface contact with the wine, minimizing barrel influence on the port. Samples are then sent to a government panel to see if the port can be considered vintage. Once classified, the port is bottled.

The standard port doesn’t change much after bottling. However, Vintage port can darken and thin a little, but won’t change much over decades. Late Bottle Vintage is better than normal, but not quite good enough to be vintage. Vintage years happen roughly 3 times a decade. Individual wines can achieve vintage status. Port should be served chilled and consumed within 1 month of opening because it starts to oxidize.

Tawny Port

Tawny port is treated like a ruby port for 3 years, then it is put into smaller, new oak barrels, with higher surface area. The oak imparts flavor and color, which make it tawny-colored. Vintage tawny ports are declared in a similar fashion to rubies. Non-vintage tawny ports are held in the barrel for 5 to 60 years. Twenty-year-old tawny ports are actually a blend of ports using ports that are 15-30 years old with an average age of at least 20 years. Each port must meet government standards for what a 20-year-old blend looks and tastes like. Tawny is usually sweeter than ruby due to concentration from evaporation, which doesn’t change the sugar content.

Most port production involves shipping the fermented juice to Porto for storage and aging because the climate is more stable. Until the early ’80s, this was required by law. After the law changed, storage and aging can occur in the winery, enabling smaller producers. Originally shipping was done on the Rabelo boats, now it is done by tanker truck.

Filling the tawny barrels

Quintas

Each Quinta (winery) does its own juice production, even if it is part of a larger group like Sandeman. Large producers still buy juice from local farms to make some of their products. There are hundreds of Quintas in the Douro, so it can be hard for the layperson to tell which grapes go in which bottle. Factoid: Quintas were historically farms that were let out for rent of one-fifth of its produce, hence they became known as Quintas (one-fifth in Latin).

Quinta do Bonfim

Quinta do Bonfim is within walking distance of the train station. We went there after our boat ride and it was our only tasting that day. They make Dow’s, Graham’s, and Warre’s ports, which we were able to taste. Of those, we liked Dow’s most, then Graham’s. Warre’s wasn’t really up to snuff for us. We had arranged for dinner at Bonfim, so we went over to the restaurant and enjoyed some good vittles before heading high up the hill to our hotel.

Quintas do Seixo

Sandeman was our first stop the next day. The tour was mainly about marketing but got real later. They also use dirt and water to maintain the climate in the barrel houses, similar to what we saw in their sherry operation. The brand was taken over years ago by the Sogrape group, which also makes Mateus, whose bottles are shaped like canteens from the Great War. Their tasting room is halfway up the hill and has a great view. As with sherry, Sandeman port was our favorite.

Quinta de la Rosa

Our final stop was at Quinta de La Rosa, a family-run winery. Unlike most producers, they age their port at the winery, not in Porto. We arrived too late for lunch so we settled for decent tapas. Learn before going about doing a foot stomp at night. They also make nice still wine, we happened to enjoy a bottle in Porto earlier in the week.

Which do you prefer: Ruby, Tawny, or Silver (Bullet)?

One Comment

  1. Definitely prefer Tawny, but happy with Ruby too!
    When I took the Sandeman tour down in Porto, they said they intentionally expose their port to oxygen (eg, uncorked for periods) while in the smaller barrels for the express purpose of forcing them to oxidize into a golden-brown color.

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