I’m heading upriver in an old wooden boat through the arid, rugged frontier territory of the Douro Superior. It’s a Heart of Darkness journey in the scouring heat of a mid-August afternoon; smoke from forest fires twists in the near distance as we follow in the wake of Baron Joseph James Forrester, who was the first to map the region over 160 years ago, and who met his fate in the treacherous waters of the Valeira gorge, which we are currently navigating.
Admittedly, the river today, with its network of dams, offers far gentler passage, and rather than a leaky, flat-bottomed rabelo, I’m cruising in Pipadouro’s gorgeously restored 66ft Royal Navy mahogany yacht “Friendship I” built in 1957, and enjoying truffled-scallop sashimi, duck ham and eucalyptus soup with renowned chef Rui Paula while sampling mature vintages of the Douro’s finest wines. A connection to the wilder past is maintained, however, by the presence of Quinta owner Francisco Javier de Olazábal, whose three-times great grandmother Dona Antonia Ferreira, the pioneering grande dame of the Douro, survived the capsize that fatally took Forrester to the depths, because her crinolines kept her afloat. Also on board is artist, Douro expert and fellow wine scribbler David Eley, whose stunning new map of the region a five-year labour of love and the first since the Baron’s cartography, is the inspiration for my visit.
We are into the third day of a trip that had begun back in Porto at the entrance to the Palacio do Freixo on a fine summer evening. Dressed appropriately but coincidentally in Gatsby-esque cream linen, I am ushered into the back of a 1930 Model A Ford, courtesy of Classico Porto and whisked (or rather jolted) away to Cafeina in Foz for dinner with owner Vasco Mourão and members of the Douro Boys assembled to taste their 2011 vintage ports together for the first time.
Cristiano van Zeller, owner of Quinta Vale D Maria and a specialist in curating older vineyards, confirms that 2011 is the finest vintage in the Douro since 1994, and will arguably surpass that superb year. His port is one of my favourites – blind-tasted it has a whiff of forest floor as well as forest fruits, at once Bacchic and tobacco-ey with a succulently cedar palate – Black Forest gâteau pulled into focus by a zesting of citrus.
Dirk Niepoort’s 2011, meanwhile, is quite beefy but more reticent on the bilberry-dense nose, leading in to a chalk-underpinned punch of ripe berries, kirsch and currants. Quinta do Vallado is more open and sweeter, well defined with prunes, Asian spices and mocha. More savoury, raw and darker-edged, Quinta do Crasto moves back to the forest fruits, adding liquorice and a hit of framboise, while Quinta do Vale Meão 2011 is pure and silkily charming, seemingly lighter in weight and elegant with plums, anise and cinnamon.
Dinner is a lively affair, and Vasco’s modern take on Portuguese classics includes marinated sardines with smoked-tomato soup, grilled tuna and olive sauce, and confit black pork – the perfect foundation for the flow of wines and increasingly heated debate over the relative merits of single-variety wines versus blends of grapes. Although the Douro’s non-fortified wines are compared to the British weather – reliably unpredictable (in style if not quality), the general feeling around the table is that the best of them should embrace the history of port and be viewed as progressing the tradition.
After an eyebrow-raising triple espresso (I had forgotten that Portuguese coffee is the most powerful in the world and could be used to fuel rockets), various members of the party pile into the Model A in a scene reminiscent of The Keystone Cops, and we clatter off into the night on a thankfully short-lived bar crawl, the Douro Boys now being Douro Men – with earlier starts and longer recovery times.
The next day we head out of town to Vallado, one of the oldest quintas, once owned by Dona Antonia and now by her descendants, whose vineyards lie either side of the River Corgo, a tributary of the Douro. João (Ferreira Alvares Ribeiro) and his son Jorge show us round the original buildings, restored after a hundred years of dilapidation and now boasting a high-tech new winery and boutique hotel built in slate and designed by architect Francisco Vieira de Campos. We sit down for an extensive tasting of the Douro Boys’ premium range, starting with our host’s own wines, all from 2011, apparently as impressive for table wines as their fortified cousins. Vallado prefers shorter fermentations to maintain freshness and avoid any soupy characters. Their 100 per cent Touriga Nacional is an excellent introduction to this noble grape, which for most is the Douro’s defining variety. Its crushed-velvet perfume of violets and black and red fruit weaves vibrantly through the palate with fine long tannins supported by a compassionate blend of new and second-fill oak. By comparison, Vallado’s single-variety Souzão (the Petit Verdot of the Douro) is more intimidating: opaque and powerfully structured, with a naturally occurring pH of 3.4, it shows sour cherries, juniper, liquorice, tobacco leaf and polished leather. It is a savoury wine that doesn’t back down from a fight, and is impressive but monolithic – it needs a decade of mellowing before being introduced in polite company.
After Vallado’s two promising but youthful field blends (Reserva and Adelaide), the two wines from Quinta do Vale Meão are up next. Firstly, Meandro 2011: lively, juicy and spicy with impressive grip, this has to be one of the best-value wines of the region. Then follows the Quinta’s eponymous flagship from some of the very best vineyard sites in the Upper Douro, whose grapes formed the building blocks of the region’s table-wine revolution, when, under previous ownership, they were bottled under the Barca Velha label, the first great Douro red. The 2011 from vineyards replanted in the 1980s, largely with Touriga Nacional, is dramatic, the schist, granite and alluvial soils oozing out of the grape juice like liquid pebbles – a real tour de force and definitely another wine for the long haul.
The 2011s from Vale D Maria are all charming and seductive. Vinha da Francisca (named after Cristiano’s daughter) from younger vines (eight years old) is vivacious yet pure, offering precise bright fruits and soft perfume – wisps of lavender and white pepper. It is beautifully defined in the manner of a young northern Rhône syrah, so I’m amazed to learn that it is 15 per cent and has a healthy dose of Souzão in the blend. The Quinta bottling, 100 per cent foot-trodden, from exposed south-facing vineyards, and thus picked early to maintain freshness, is more polished, with cherry-pie and vanilla flavours and a slicker, richer feel in the mouth. The Vinha do Rio from 1.5 hectares of 100-year-old vines is a blend dominated by Touriga Franca – perhaps the Douro’s Cabernet Franc – and shows great elegance and style with ripe-red fruits, cacao and a minty leafiness.
Running out of time before lunch we race with almost indecent haste through Niepoort’s top reds, among the most extraordinary and distinctive in the Iberian Peninsula. Batuta, a field blend from 70-100-year-old vines, mostly north facing, has remarkable extract and power, as one might expect from 35 days of maceration, intense colour from the dominant grape Tinta Amarela and balsamic, bitter-cherry richness. Charme 08 is practically burgundian by comparison: not only is the colour the most delicate of all the reds so far (fermentation is concluded without skin contact), but the lack of burly Souzão allows more vibrant red-berry, herbaceous and medicinal characters to shine. Apparently an excellent accompaniment to the traditional baccalau salt cod, I could see this sitting well with mild, tomato-based curries, too.
Robustus 08 is the final wine before lunch and the name says it all. With only 30 per cent de-stemming, 50-day maceration and four years in 2000L vats, this wine treats modernity with contempt. Varnish, damson jelly and dried flowers, with more than a whiff of roasted-meat juices and thyme, hit the olfactory passageways, and the palate is chewy and chalky, meaty and savoury, but with rich red-fruit tannins. So largely unevolved, this wine would alone make the case for considering Douro reds with due gravitas.
Lunch on the terrace overlooking the Corgo river is another lengthy affair, with various winemakers and guests of the Quinta joining us. Now it’s time for older vintages and it is interesting to see how Vallado’s Field Blend Reserva (05) and Adelaide (07) have rounded out after some bottle age: softer sinews, more compote fruit, a highly digestible balance of rich spice and earthy berries.
The highlight of the day (and arguably the whole trip) appears as the cigars go round: Adelaide Tributa, a very rare tawny port from pre-phyloxera wines barrelled in 1866. Already an unusually exceptional wine and stored perfectly in the cooler Cima Corgo region of the Douro, it required no adulteration before its recent bottling. It got a 99-point scoring from the Wine Advocate – if such things matter to you – and only 1,300 bottles were made at about £2,500 each. It’s hard to describe such a wine, as comparable experiences occur insufficiently frequently, but one can discern characters of black treacle, layers of wood varnish, caramelised brazil nuts and lemony beeswax, while a more general melange danced across the synapses – the aromas of Christmas, a Hindu temple and the spice markets of Zanzibar rolled in to one long inhalation.
Check back on November 1 to see how WineChap rollicks through the next few days of his Portugese vinous adventure.