The Douro – the birthplace of Port wine
August 15, 2016
It alternated torrential rain and sunshine the day I travelled into this, the world’s biggest mountainous vineyard area, totalling 45,000 hectares. The landscape was lush and green and it was hard to imagine the scorching temperatures that can sear the earth in summer, leaving the unwatered vines no option but to root a long way down to find whatever water they can.
Rising 1,400 metres above sea level, the imposing Serra do Marāo and sister mountain chains protect the Douro region from the Atlantic winds and rain that lash against the twin coastal cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia downriver, so I was unlucky with the rain. It seems that, as elsewhere in Europe, summer 2016 has been wetter than usual in this area. Winemaker Fernando José Sampaio at the Quinta de Tourais winery told me it was too soon to tell whether the damp conditions would have an adverse effect on this year’s crops.
This is an area marked by quite extreme temperatures – up to 45°C in summer and below freezing in winter. It’s a tough life for a grapevine, especially with the ban on irrigation.
Half of the vineyards are on slopes of 30% or more and every one of the terraces hugging these hillsides has been built with great effort. The people who originally worked this land first had to manually break up the schist (friable, slate-like rock) and hew out the terraces before they could plant the vines.
There have been a number of different terrace systems over the years. The oldest was the socalco, narrow terraces with stone retaining walls. The newer type of socalco is wider, with 10 or more rows of vines between each wall.
In the 1980s, many socalcos were destroyed in favour of patamares, terraces with earth banks. Hailed initially as a huge success, they proved to have a number of drawbacks. Some suffered from erosion and collapsed. But the biggest problem was lower vine density, which led to excess vigour.
Nowadays there are a number of solutions in use. Narrow patamares on very steep slopes; the newer style socalcos, some with little patamares in between the retaining walls. And vinha ao alto is being used a lot, where the planting is vertical rather than horizontal.
The soil is very poor and acidic, so yields are low, averaging just 4,000kg a hectare. And, because the slopes are so steep, most of the work has to be done by hand. What with low yields and manual labour, the average production costs are €0.77 per kilo in the Douro, making these among the most expensive grapes in the world.
You could be forgiven for wondering why the growers persist under such adverse conditions. The answer is clear: this is the only place in the world that produces the fortified wine known as Port. What is less well-known is that it is also home to some very interesting still and sparkling wines, as I discovered during my trip.
How Port wine is made
The process begins with the harvesting of the grapes. Over 100 black and white varieties are permitted for use in Port but in 1981 a team of experts identified the top five black varieties: Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo) and Tinto Câo. Nowadays, when growers renew their plantations, they tend to plant these varieties.
Mostly hand-picked from small plots of land, the grapes arrive at the winery, where they are usually destemmed.
Traditionally the grapes were poured into lagares, open, square-shaped granite pools with knee-high walls and foot-trodden for hours by teams of workers. As the temperature increased, the fermentation would start naturally, using the yeasts present in the grapes and the atmosphere.
Nowadays, some Ports are still foot-trodden but there are a number of other techniques available, such as robotic lagares, where rubber plungers imitate the action of human treading or autovinifiers.
Whatever the method used, the objective is to extract colour and tannins from the grapes as quickly as possible. This is because, whereas the normal process in winemaking is to ferment the must until the yeasts have converted all the sugar into alcohol and CO2, a process which can take a week to ten days, in the case of Port, the idea is to stop the fermentation whilst there is still a certain level of sugar left – often after just a few days of fermentation. The sugar level and time varies from one producer to another and also depends on the style of Port.
So once the sugar level is right and the wine has an alcohol level of around 5-6% ABV, it is removed from its skins and mixed with distilled grape spirit to bring the alcohol level up to around 19-22% ABV. The yeasts cannot survive at this level of alcohol, so the fermentation stops.
All Ports spend their first winter maturing in large stainless steel or concrete vats or wooden barrels in the Douro region. Traditionally, in the spring, the Port was put in 550-litre wooden barrels called pipes and carried by boat down to the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia to mature in the more moderate, humid conditions on the coast. Nowadays, it is more often transported by road in tanker trucks. And some Port shippers have invested in air-conditioned wineries in the Douro valley and mature the wine right there.
Bibliography: Mayson, Richard, 2016, Port and the Douro. Oxford: Infinite Ideas Limited. This book was a tremendous help in terms of research and information when I was preparing for my trip.
Tasting at Fonseca’s Quinta do Panascal
2 year-old – bottled unfiltered
Deep lemon with a nose of almonds and savoury notes. Off-dry with high acidity, medium (+) body, medium (+) intensity and notes of almonds.
Bin 27 Ruby Reserve
Medium (-) ruby with a medium (+) nose revealing notes of raisins, sultanas, prunes and tea. Sweet with high levels of tannins, which were a little astringent but well-rounded. High acidity, notes of dried fruit (sultanas, raisins, prunes) and a long finish.
See also: Douro still wines from Quinta de Tourais. Details of a visit to a small winery in Cambres, in the westernmost part of the Douro, the Baixo Corgo.
Coming soon: continuing the journey of Port wine downriver to Vila Nova de Gaia and its sister city Porto.