Thursday, 21 March 2013

Up the Douro

I've not been to the port region for far too long. Forgotten that here are the most spectacular vineyards of all. Even in March before the vines grow their leaves and all is brown rock they still amaze.

In the last five years the valley has seriously moved into making wine as well as port. Maybe 1/3 of production is now Douro wine. I sold Douro red wine in the 80's but it was then hard to find … and, if I'm honest, not all that good. But clearly, given these incredibly steep vineyards (think of, say, the Langdale Valley with every inch of slightly less-than-vertical slope, neatly terraced and planted with vines right to the top) there was always great potential.

Today there are stunning wines and there's masses of interest, not so much in port as in the wines – both red and white.  Clever investors like Jean Michel Cazes of Ch. Lynch Bages are pouring money into new vineyards; old vineyards are being 'converted'; and skilled port winemakers are learning a whole new set of skills.

They're loving it. Why wouldn't they? They have both the pleasure of grand old traditions AND a whole new category to create.

Fly to Oporto and now it’s just two hours up the motorway to the upper Douro Valley, Douro Superior, near the Spanish border (where the river is then called the Duero). It used to be seven hours up the old valley roads. Or three by train as we used to swank it when Taylor’s would have a private carriage hitched on the back, loaded with hampers and wine for groups of our customers.

Today, by the way, there are cruise ships on the river, including that great barge The Queen used during her jubilee river pageant. It’s here, now. I'm looking at it. But the train is looking threatened, sadly. One of the most spectacular train rides anywhere might just get the chop.

The new road avoids the winding valley and heads across a sort of moorland dotted with what looks rather like works by Henry Moore. Between these huge, eerie, voluptuous feminine shapes, where there is a bit of something like soil, are vineyards. Mostly white, for this is a cooler region at about 500 metres. A nice estate here called Quinta do Porrais makes a stony dry white which is having a lot of success with the more adventurous customers at the moment. Stony minerality is a characteristic of this region's wine, and that style is gaining ground over the juicy-fruit styles of southern Portugual.

Minerality!!! +++. Some wines we tried – but did not quite have the courage to buy – tasted half wine, half rock. Maybe should've bought one. Some customers love strong character wines that give you a bit of a slap! Maybe next year.

We then find our way down into the valley of the great river and Quinta do Vale Meão, where the first 'great' Douro red, 'Barca Velha' was born … though it is no longer made there.  It is just SO remote. The farm was built – as were many famous Quintas – by the remarkable Dona Antonia Ferreira in the nineteenth century. She overcame the disadvantage of a dissolute and spendthrift husband to amass the greatest collection of vineyards and create the biggest wine company in the valley. In those male-dominated days she must've been quite something. 

We arrive as darkness falls, for a quick cellar tour and long tasting with the lady's Great, Great, Great Grandson; 'Xito' - short for Francisco. He still speaks of her a lot, in awe. The fault line on which the estate sits causes the river to do a huge meander which encloses the estate almost like an island. It also blesses the place with a wide variety of soils; granite, schist, cobblestones and Lord knows what more. Thus every patch of vines here produces a different style. Add in the big variety of grapes types – eg. the Tourigas; Nacional, Roriz, Francesa or Franca, Barrocca and many more including some new and very promising Syrah – things get very complex. Wonderful. (Syrah might help tame some of the toughness out of the Touriga wines, but I hope the won't overdo it and internationalise these unique wines)  

With our tireless buyer Anne we worked through everything. Hopefully we'll end up with something spectacular. But the deal's not yet done. Dinner by the fire (chilly night), sound sleep in a bedroom full of family pictures, and wake to brilliant sun.   

Xito takes us in a mud-caked Land Rover past laden orange trees, ancient olive trees and almonds up into the steep, wild part of the farm. The track is barely visible among the white broom, clouds of buttercups, iris and many other wildflowers I can't recognise. There's lavender and cork oaks, pistachio trees and ample evidence of wild boar. There are foxes … just loving the red-legged partridge. And 'illegal sheep' … not supposed to be here in this Garden of Eden.

From the summit by one of Dona Antonia’s many chapels we look over a wild landscape of misty hills and winding rivers, almost unchanged since Wellington and his Portuguese allies fought through here long ago.

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