© Wines of Portugal |
Portuguese whites, let alone those produced in the Douro – much like the Rodney Dangerfield line – don’t get any respect. They don’t get much ink, shelf placements or respect, either.
Part of their problem is that they are made from impossible-to-pronounce grapes, in a region best known for reds, in a country that believes its best whites are made in the northern region of Vinho Verde. Those are a lot of hurdles for an emerging category to confront.
Well, don’t be put off by this; some of them are spellbinding, incredibly food-friendly and so affordable. I just got back from a few days in the Douro and the bad news is that many of them are not yet available outside of Portugal.
In the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in tourism to the Douro Valley – and the city of Oporto – as travelers realize how affordable the country is to visit. The number of visitors so far this year is up by more than 20 percent over the previous year, according to the local tourism board.
Many producers and hoteliers during my November visit also said they had seen a big jump in the number of visitors since the multiple acts of terrorism occurred in France, as tourists considered the country a safe haven.
So, for a variety of reasons the area is finally getting the attention it deserves. Wine production here is believed to date back to Roman times, and the Douro Alto has been a Unesco heritage site since 2001. It is believed to be the oldest demarcated and regulated wine region in the world, dating to 1756. It is home to 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of vineyards – according to the Douro Boys, a local group of outspoken producers – that are finally producing red and white wines as good as its Ports.
The fact that a growing number of charming, small restaurants and rooms with beautiful views are popping up at wineries –called quintas here – from Vallado to Quinta Nova; along with the region’s first super-luxury hotel the Six Senses, has also helped to drive wine-savvy tourists to the region. A charming old train chugs up a slow, but beautiful, route up the Douro River from Porto and guests can arrive by boat or car at trendy restaurants like DOC right along the river.
It probably also didn’t hurt that the Douro Valley was elected as one of the eight best places to visit in 2016 by Condé Nast Traveler and that USA Today named Oporto as Best Under-the-Radar Romantic Destination in 2015.
Despite a history of quality wine production Portugal has been struggling to get dry wines on the retail shelves as it has long been seen – and stereotyped – as «only» the homeland of Port. «The Douro is better known for Ports first and red wines second,» says Lou Capitao, the president of the Redwood City, California-based wine importer Touchstone Wines, who specializes in Portuguese wines.
While challenging, it was easier for the region to make a segue to producing good red wines with the same grapes that were already well-known for Port production. Those same red field blends fueled the dry-wine revolution that ensued in the region over the past two decades.
The same can’t be said for the area’s whites. While White Port is made here, it is practically unknown on the export market as it is not considered a high-end product. What is more the grapes used in its production – such as Códega, Malvasia Fina and Viosinho – are even less widely known than the reds.
«It took a few vintages of white wines to show that the Douro could go a step further,» says Francisca van Zeller, the wine director at the Six Senses. The hotel features a number of Douro whites on its list, along with tasting flights and food pairings in its Vale de Abraão Restaurant.
«White grapes are also quite scarce in the Douro Valley,» according to the Oporto-based Yeatman Hotel’s wine director Beatriz Machado. «And lately white wines are increasing value,» she adds. The hotel has a wine list with 1200 Portuguese wines, which is likely to be one of the largest in the world.
The current crop of Douro whites, according to Carlos Carriera, owner and wine director of the San Jose, California-based Portuguese restaurant Adega, has more balanced fruit and fresher acidity, and less oak. The restaurant is the first Portuguese restaurant on the West Coast to receive a Michelin star and carries 22 whites from the Douro Valley.
The main grapes used in whites – like Rabigato and Arinto – don’t roll easily off the tongue. «No one knows or understands them,» laments Capitao.
What’s more the best whites from the Douro tend to be blends that are not easily understood on export markets. «People looking for varietal wines are going to be disappointed,» confirms Evan Goldstein, a master sommelier and president and chief education officer at Full Circle Wine Solutions Inc., a wine consulting group based in the Bay Area. He encourages enjoying them by «forgetting about the label and enjoying what is in the glass».
© Alem do Vinho/Wines of Portugal | Changing the game
Thanks to climate change, growing consumer sophistication, and some seriously improved winemaking techniques, these wines are coming out of obscurity. The arrival of great Portuguese dining destinations and hotels in the Douro – and abroad – has further served to showcase them. A string of recent good vintages in the region has had a positive affect as well.
As consumers get more accustomed to field blends in their glass, they are starting to appreciate the luscious, rich, stonefruit-driven flavors of Portuguese whites. A hot growing season that can hit the low to mid 40s C in the summer provides for wines that are lush and full on the palate, whereas good winemaking keeps the alcohol by volume on the south side of 13 percent for the most part.
As one of the world’s oldest wine growing regions, the Douro whites benefit from sage use of its ancient vines for production of its whites as well. Given the age of the vines and an attentive winemaking approach, Douro whites can age up to 10 years according to a handful of producers.
«The flagship wines and the worldwide players come from old vines and show the diversity and immense complexity that can only be found in old vineyards,» says van Zeller.
The latest move that Douro winemakers have undertaken with the current crop of whites to produce them in a fresh, lively and food-friendly style. While van Zeller says that one unified style among these wines is hard to define, «there is a great focus on freshness, wines with good-aging capacity and less evidence of oak as finer toasts are being used for barrel fermentation and aging».
Given the huge success of Moscatos, both still and sparkling, on the US market, many producers in the Douro are giving a new and unexpected dry spin to these wines. Vallado’s 2015 Prima, so called because it was the first grape variety to be harvested, is very aromatic with balanced acidity.
The wine is made from 30-year-old vines and has honey and stonefruit flavors. Francisco Ferreira, the winery’s owner and a Douro Boy, adds that he choose to produce it as a single varietal because the grape is too assertive in blends. It is one of the few single-varietal whites produced in the region.
Ferreira adds that the evolution of whites in the region has occurred recently as a result of producers’ better understanding of how to vinify whites as well as when best to harvest the grapes. He says that the current white winemaking style focuses on «lower alcohol and bigger acidity».
Another favorite is the 2015 Planalto Reserva, made with Malvasia, Viosinho, Gouveio and Côdega, among others. It has great minerality and lush stonefruits on the palate. It also costs about $12 at retail according to Wine-Searcher.com.
Given the region’s hot climate, keeping alcohol levels balanced in these wines can be a challenge. Their fresh acidity, and stonefruit notes, often resemble white wines from the Rhône Valley. While the grape varieties at play are totally different the intense, oily viscous structure is present in some of the best Douro whites.
Goldstein confirms that the whites of the Douro can easily hit high alcohol levels, making them structurally resemble Rhône whites, in terms of texture and aromatics. Capitao agrees that some of the region’s wines can be similar in style to the white Rhônes, although «they are not as big as Rhône whites and are more delicate, fragrant and lighter».
Niepoort’s 2015 Redoma white blend is another favorite of mine. It is made from 40- to 100-year-old vines and has lovely floral, mineral and stonefruit notes on the palate.
Current family brand ambassador Dirk Niepoort has long been making some of the best dry wines in the region for some time. The quinta also makes a refreshing Riesling and the phenomenally successful Twisted label – made with Rabigato, Códega do Larinho, Gouveio, Donzelinho, Viosinho and others – and created exclusively for the US market. It is fresh, easy drinking and citric and sells for the easy-to-hand price of slightly less than $20.
What few complex and refreshing Douro wines can be found on the export market are true gems. One can only hope that smart producers will continue to give them time and space in the vineyard and that consumers will continue to try to experiment with and appreciate them on the export market.