Aboard an elegant wooden boat, WineChap is nearing the end of his sailing trip through Portuguese frontier wine territory…
With the sun dipping and the smoke rising (forest fires are common in the hotter months), we put in at Ferro pier and are met by Tomàs Roquette from Quinta do Crasto, the last stop on our tour. Crasto’s casa, uniquely styled on the Brazilian colonial tradition, also boasts one of the most famous pools in the country, an optically illusory Eduardo Souto Moura-designed trapezoid that’s south-facing, for excellent exposure to the sun. After all, it’s not just grapes that benefit from such thoughtful positioning.
Crasto is undergoing significant expansion – it is one of the largest exporters of Douro table wines – and the most fun development is the construction of an entirely black cellar with a black racking system, which will create the illusion that the barrels are floating in midair. When they are finished, I can well imagine Tomàs gleefully showing it to his guests with a flourish.
Crasto has an extensive vegetable garden and olive groves, and dinner on the terrace showcases the most remarkably fresh, ripe produce alongside a thorough exploration of the estate’s premium reds. A keen sporting gun, Tomas has been largely responsible for the contents of our slow-cooked partridge stew, and it proves the perfect foil for a number of older vintages, which we taste with head winemaker Manuel Lobo de Vasconcellos.
First up is Roquette & Cazes 2008, a successful venture with friend Jean-Michel Cazes from Lynch Bages, clearly a believer in the region’s potential for quality reds. Described as “a Bordeaux made with Douro grapes” and aged in the same new French oak barrels as Lynch, it shows polish, reserve and an international élan without losing its sense of place: the sophisticated cosmopolitan brother who still mucks in when returning home. Next comes a fascinating 100 per cent Tinta Roriz from 1997. Roriz is Spain's Tempranillo but is planted less extensively in the Douro, as its strutting, aristocratic, highly strung sensibilities are less tolerated in this harsh land. But here it shows beautifully – all resin, menthol and varnished raspberries. By comparison, Touriga Nacional 2004 shows the sweetness and acid of the local bull’s heart tomatoes with a nose of salted caramel, roasted beets, a whiff of schist and the medicine cabinet.
Crasto’s Douro Reserva is as accessible an introduction to the Douro’s reds as you will find, being slightly softer, sweeter and more supple than some. The 2001 shows further integration and complexities, with key notes of balsa, sandalwood, camomile and cherries in dark chocolate. We then move up to two of the greatest reds of the trip, wines that would be highlights of any excursion to the Douro. Vinha da Ponte 2004, less than two hectares of grapes foot-trodden in a single lagar, is a “goosebump” wine: it was a warm night but the hairs on my arms were duly raised on first taste. It is a wine you feel in your cheekbones; my notes recall coffee bean, prune, lemon thyme and – inevitably from a 100-year-old field blend – one’s notion of the taste of schist.
Vale D Maria’s Christiano van Zeller had previously told me that the Douro is like Burgundy, with all its subtly different small sites (90 per cent of the vineyards are a single hectare) but with more grapes. In addition, no less than Romanée-Conti's Aubert de Villaine (another recent visitor to Crasto) had suggested that Ponte could be the Douro’s DRC. Manuel observes that field blends are what give this unique character and there is nothing textbook about Ponte; it is neither perfect, nor does it easily answer questions. To paraphrase Mirabell in Congreve’s The Way of the World: “One must love her not just with her faults but for her faults.” It is the wine’s edges, its idiosyncrasies, that allow us to engage most fully, and Manuel observes that it has become a common mantra when attempting to explain the appeal of this wine simply to repeat “Ponte is Ponte”.
Finally is Vinha Maria Teresa, an east-facing four-hectare vineyard producing one of Douro’s most prestigious table wines, which also has its own clinic of vines planted elsewhere to replace those dying, in order that its exact DNA can be maintained. Its 2007 – a little fresher than Ponte, with higher-toned fruit, more lead pencil, a sweeter core and slightly more bite – is gorgeous, all graphite and cherry and irresistible seduction. We are the first to taste 2011 (a week from being put into tanks prior to bottling) and, although in this nascent stage, it will clearly be a must for any serious collector.
The next day, after a morning swim, I watch the sun slowly coming to bear on Ponte’s southeast-facing vineyard while musing less reverently on the differences between wine regions in terms of dress code: Bordeaux requires suits; Burgundy prefers jacket, no tie; Bolgheri shows off crisply laundered shirts (often monogrammed, usually powder blue), jacket optional. But the Douro’s regulation uniform is polo shirt tucked into chinos.
While still pondering whether attire translates into wine styles, the helicopter arrives to take us back to the city. No more vintage boats or cars but, as on previous trips to wine regions, the best way to piece together the area is unquestionably with an elevated aerial view. With all its grapes, the Douro is a puzzle – and from the air it clearly looks like one, a jigsaw of different terroirs and microclimates, the terraces a sliding millefeuille of potential vinous pleasure. The landscape is more reminiscent of the Northern Rhône, as variously elevated vineyards fold around a twisting river, creating even more permutations of differing ripeness and freshness.
I like to think that as it was a map that inspired this visit, it is only appropriate that the journey should end as if looking directly down onto a living one. But I’ll settle for fortunate.