The Douro is undoubtedly Portugal's most imaginative wine region. Its nature is impressive, the man-made wine terraces equally so. Moreover, the world-famous port wine has been produced there since the 18th century. The importance of this fortified sweet wine immediately explains why the Douro has only recently gained recognition for the quality of its unfortified white and red wines.
However, because the project of unfortified wines is quite young, there is a lot for enthusiasts to enjoy. New exciting wines are added with every harvest, and the seemingly endless richness of the Douro - both in terms of grape varieties and variation in soil and climate - means that this will not end anytime soon.
The Douro DOC coincides with Porto's production area and extends north and south of the Douro and some tributaries. The vineyards start just west of the town of Regua and run to the Spanish border in the east. They are protected from the cool and humid Atlantic winds by a mountain range. Winters are cold and summers are very hot and dry. The heat makes the southern slopes ideal for producing port. For wines, people are increasingly seeking the northern flanks or concentrating on higher areas.
The (recent) history
Long before the Marques de Pombal laid down the first rules for the production of port wine in 1756, wine was being produced in the Douro. It was not until the 18th century, spurred on by a trade agreement with the British (The Methuen Treaty), that this wine was shipped en masse to England and it was discovered that the addition of alcohol made it more resistant to transport by boat. Thus 'port' was born and systematically almost all wine in the Douro was fortified from then on.
The huge success of port meant that no one paid attention to the unfortified variety anymore. That only changed in the mid-20th century when winemaker Fernando Nicolau de Almeida created his first Barca Velha in 1952. He was employed by the porto house Ferreira and, after a visit to Bordeaux, he managed to convince his employer to embark on a new and ambitious project. Nicolau de Almeida was convinced that he could make a wine in the Douro at the very highest level. In 1952, the first grapes were harvested for this purpose and, four years later, the first Barca Velha* appeared on the market. In no time, the wine was recognised as extraordinary and would become the inspiration for other initiatives.
From the 1980s, new producers entered the scene. In 1990, Dirk Niepoort, who had just taken over the eponymous porthouse from his father, produced his first Robustus. Niepoort's initiative was by no means the only thing worth mentioning, but in the following years he would play a very decisive role. Not only did he himself increasingly produce red and then white wines in the Douro, he would also pull a whole generation of new winemakers in his wake.
When we ourselves arrived in the Douro in 2000, it was a very exciting time. Young winemakers were springing up everywhere. They decided to stop selling the grapes from the family vineyards to the Port wine producers and make their own wine from them. Thus, new wines emerged year after year.
In the absence of tradition, there was plenty of experimentation. The zeitgeist was right, because at the same time there was an atmosphere of innovation in Italy, Spain, southern France, .... Not everything was an instant hit but a number of bottles from the pioneering years still bear witness today to the potential that Nicolau de Almeida saw for his Barca Velha more than half a century ago.
By now, winemakers in the Douro have the necessary harvest experience under their belt, have embraced and mostly renounced the overuse of new wooden barrels like their counterparts in the rest of the world. Spurred on by journalists like Robert Parker, they sought power and concentration to mostly end up with a more refined, lighter wine style. New techniques in the cellar were tested. The best innovations, such as the use of inox and digitized temperature control, became commonplace. But at the same time, old traditions such as fermentation in open granite vats were also maintained.
The dream ingredients for a top recipe
With each harvest, knowledge of the vineyards grows. As a winemaker in the Douro, you have a tough job with that. 300 years of port wine production have left a huge patchwork of vineyards. Today, as many as 80 different grape varieties are recognised within the Douro DOC.
Most of these are indigenous. Recent plantings over the past 15 years have often opted for a handful of recommended varieties (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, ...), but some producers still try to maintain the variety found in the old vineyards. There you find the mixed planting where up to 30 different varieties are planted interchangeably. The different ripening times this entails do not make the management of the vineyard any easier, but the diversity does seem to benefit the complexity of the wines
The landscape in the Douro is particularly erratic due to geological activity. Slate dominates the soil, but granite takes over on the edges and higher up. Differences in altitude are considerable. You can find vineyards up to 800m high. This has a big impact on the temperature there and thus on the speed at which the grapes ripen. 3 major subregions are recognised (Baixa Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior) each with their own climatic characteristics.
All this makes for a lot of variables that can be combined. Consequently, wines with very different characters are produced in the Douro.
That variety of flavours and styles will increase with the experience of each new harvest. So for the adventurous wine lover, there is always something new to find.
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