A Douro wine odyssey: the conclusion

The sun sets on the final leg of WineChap’s boating bacchanal along the Douro

Image: David Eley

Aboardan elegant wooden boat, WineChap is nearing the end of his sailing trip throughPortuguese frontier wine territory…

Withthe sun dipping and the smoke rising (forest fires are common in the hottermonths), we put in at Ferro pier and are met by Tomàs Roquette from Quinta do Crasto, the last stop on ourtour. 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 excellentexposure to the sun. After all, it’s not just grapes that benefit fromsuch thoughtful positioning.

Crastois undergoing significant expansion – it is one of the largest exporters of Dourotable wines – and the most fun development is the construction of an entirelyblack cellar with a black racking system, which will create the illusion that thebarrels are floating in midair.  When they are finished, I can wellimagine Tomàs gleefully showing it to his guests with a flourish.

Crastohas an extensive vegetable garden and olive groves, and dinner on the terraceshowcases the most remarkably fresh, ripe produce alongside a thoroughexploration of the estate’s premium reds. A keen sporting gun, Tomas hasbeen largely responsible for the contents of our slow-cooked partridge stew, andit proves the perfect foil for a number of older vintages, which we taste withhead winemaker Manuel Lobo de Vasconcellos.

Firstup is Roquette & Cazes 2008, a successful venture with friendJean-Michel Cazes from Lynch Bages, clearly a believer in the region’spotential for quality reds. Described as “a Bordeaux made with Dourograpes” and aged in the same new French oak barrels as Lynch, it showspolish, 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 isSpain's Tempranillo but is planted less extensively in the Douro, as itsstrutting, aristocratic, highly strung sensibilities are less tolerated in thisharsh land. But here it shows beautifully ­– all resin, menthol and varnishedraspberries. By comparison, Touriga Nacional 2004 shows the sweetness andacid of the local bull’s heart tomatoes with a nose of salted caramel, roasted beets,a whiff of schist and the medicine cabinet.  

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Crasto’sDouro Reserva is as accessible an introduction to the Douro’s reds as you willfind, being slightly softer, sweeter and more supple than some. The 2001shows further integration and complexities, with key notes of balsa,sandalwood, camomile and cherries in dark chocolate. We then move up totwo of the greatest reds of the trip, wines that would be highlights of anyexcursion to the Douro. Vinha da Ponte 2004, less than two hectares ofgrapes 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 firsttaste. It is a wine you feel in your cheekbones; my notes recall coffeebean, prune, lemon thyme and – inevitably from a 100-year-old field blend –one’s notion of the taste of schist.

ValeD Maria’s Christiano van Zeller had previously told me that the Douro islike Burgundy, with all its subtly different small sites (90 per cent of thevineyards are a single hectare) but with more grapes. In addition, no less thanRomanée-Conti's Aubert de Villaine (another recent visitor to Crasto) hadsuggested that Ponte could be the Douro’s DRC. Manuel observes that fieldblends are what give this unique character and there is nothing textbook about Ponte; it is neither perfect, nor does it easily answer questions. To paraphraseMirabell in Congreve’s The Way of the World: “One must love her notjust with her faults but for her faults.” It is the wine’s edges, itsidiosyncrasies, that allow us to engage most fully, and Manuel observes that ithas become a common mantra when attempting to explain the appeal of this winesimply to repeat “Ponte is Ponte”.

Finallyis 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 vinesplanted elsewhere to replace those dying, in order that its exact DNA can bemaintained. Its 2007 – a little fresher than Ponte, with higher-toned fruit,more lead pencil, a sweeter core and slightly more bite – is gorgeous, allgraphite and cherry and irresistible seduction. We are the first to taste2011 (a week from being put into tanks prior to bottling) and, although in thisnascent stage, it will clearly be a must for any serious collector.    

Thenext day, after a morning swim, I watch the sun slowly coming to bear onPonte’s southeast-facing vineyard while musing less reverently on thedifferences between wine regions in terms of dress code: Bordeauxrequires suits; Burgundy prefers jacket, no tie; Bolgheri shows off crisplylaundered shirts (often monogrammed, usually powder blue), jacket optional. But the Douro’s regulation uniform is polo shirt tucked into chinos.

While stillpondering whether attire translates into wine styles, the helicopter arrives to take us backto the city. No more vintage boats or cars but, as on previous trips towine regions, the best way to piece together the area is unquestionably with anelevated aerial view. With all its grapes, the Douro is a puzzle – andfrom the air it clearly looks like one, a jigsaw of different terroirs andmicroclimates, the terraces a sliding millefeuille of potential vinouspleasure. The landscape is more reminiscent of the Northern Rhône, asvariously elevated vineyards fold around a twisting river, creating even morepermutations of differing ripeness and freshness.

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Ilike to think that as it was a map that inspired this visit, it is only appropriate thatthe journey should end as if looking directly down onto a living one. But I’llsettle for fortunate.

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