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Published:  23 July, 2008

Renowned for its Port, the Douro Valley has been slow to make the grade as far as table wines are concerned. But, as Jamie Goode reports, a new generation of like-minded winemakers is helping to establish it as Portugal's most dynamic wine region

The Douro valley in northern Portugal is one of the world's most spectacular wine regions. Its twisting, steeply sloped valleys, with their contour-like terraces, are breathtakingly beautiful. And as a region, it has everything necessary for the production of world-class wines: warm, dry summers; schistous soils; lots of old-vine vineyards; and a brilliant set of grape varieties. What more could you want? The fact that so few top-class Douro wines have emerged thus far has been because of the economic success and dominance of the Port trade. Table wine has always been made here but, with a handful of notable exceptions, it has been grim stuff, usually badly made from low-quality grapes that were surplus to the Port producers' requirements. Things are changing though, and rapidly. The recent expansion of Portugal's affluent middle classes has been a key step driving the evolution of its premium wines, creating a domestic market that is prepared to pay for quality, where before it had largely been interested in quantity. Now that premium Douro reds can attract the sort of prices previously only attained by the leading Ports, there is an incentive to divert some of the top-quality grapes towards table wine production. In a relatively short period of time, the Douro has established itself as Portugal's premium wine region. As Charles Symington puts it, These are exciting times for the wine trade in Portugal as it feels very much that the trade has just about gained critical mass on the premium side.' In fact, it is hard to overstate the scale and pace of change that is currently taking place. The history of quality table wines in the Douro is a short one, beginning in 1952 with the first vintage of Barca Velha. It wasn't until the mid-1970s that this was joined by two more estates focusing on wine: Montez Champalimaud with its Quinta do Ctto Grande Eschola and Ramos Pinto's Duas Quintas Reserva. This trickle, however, failed to make a stream, and things only began to move again in the 1990s, with the emergence of wines such as Dirk Niepoort's Redoma (first vintage 1991) and Quinta do Crasto's Reserva (first made in 1994). Now, however, there is an explosion of small, quality-minded producers, and the Douro has rapidly become the most dynamic wine region in Portugal. There's a buzz to the wine scene, with a recent infusion of young winemakers all keen to push back the boundaries and make the very best wines that their terroirs will permit. A pivotal figure in this revolution has been Dirk Niepoort, who has acted as a catalyst by getting people together to taste wine, discuss it and spur each other on. He has also been an ambassador of Douro table wines on his frequent travels. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the new movement here is how well everyone seems to get on. The fact that there is so much co-operation and cross-fertilisation between people who are technically competitors is extremely encouraging, and bodes well for the region's future.

My mixed dozen: producers and wines to watch

Niepoort Dirk Niepoort's impressive stable of table wines now includes four premium reds: Batuta, Charme, Redoma and Quinta de Npoles, with the first two being made in tiny quantities. All are brilliant examples of what the Douro is capable of. Dirk also makes a complex, minerally white Redoma Reserva from elevated old vineyards, which is arguably the region's best. The 1999 Batuta - its first vintage - has already reached trophy wine' status in the domestic market, and the first release of Charme, the 2000, may well go the same way. Dirk says that he likes wines with extremes'. He wants his wines to be as rich and tannic as possible, but they have to have harmony'. Charme is a fascinating wine. Dirk's aim here is finesse, finesse, finesse', and the experimental 2000 vintage is a fascinating wine. In many ways it's Dirk's homage to his favourite red wine style - great red Burgundy. The wine is foot-trodden in larages with the stems, which contribute some structure and a feel of acidity', as he puts it. It's a mid-weight, harmonious wine, full of interest. Look out for the 2000 release of Batuta, which is a hugely concentrated, complex wine destined for greatness. A barrel of the 2001 that I tasted from seems equally compelling, even though it is from a more difficult vintage.

Quinta do Vale Meo Vale Meo is a 270-hectare (ha) estate in the hot upper Douro that has enjoyed a pivotal historical role in the development of Douro wines. As a property of Ferreira, this was until recently the source of the grapes for Barca Velha. It is now owned by the former president of Ferreira, Francisco Olazabal, and he runs the estate with his three sons, one of whom, Francisco Jr, is the winemaker. First vintage was 1999, and this quickly attained cult status, with bottles changing hands in Portugal for barmy prices. Francisco reckons that the 2000 vintage is more complete and more balanced' than the 1999. It is a brooding, intense wine with lots of tight-knit, complex fruit. Second wine, Meandro, is also impressive.

Chryseia Paul Symington isn't trying to hide his ambitions for his family's new premium table wine: We want to make a wine that will be seen as one of the Douro's (and Portugal's) best.' He adds that the climate and grape varieties in the Douro are capable of producing an outstanding wine'. First vintage of Chryseia was 2000, and 35,000 bottles were produced. This project is a 50:50 partnership between the Symington family and Bruno Prats of Cos d'Estournel fame. Unusually, the wine is being sold only through the Bordeaux negociants. The inaugural vintage is pretty good, and with the Symington's high profile and polished marketing, it is likely that Chryseia will do very well. Only a few months after release it had already become one of the new Douro cult' wines on the domestic scene.

Quinta do Vallado This well-situated estate with 64ha of vineyards (more than half of which are new) is owned by the sixth generation of the Ferreira family. The team here includes winemaker Francisco Olazabal Jr (of Vale Meo), general manager Francisco Ferreira and Christiano van Zeller, who is responsible for the commercial side. While the regular Vallado white and red wines are interesting, it's the lush, rich-textured Vallado Reserva that has caught the attention of the critics. The 1999 is very good, but the soon-to-be released 2000 is even better.

Pintas Young husband-and-wife team Jorge Serdio Borges and Sandra Tavares already have day jobs (with Dirk Niepoort and Christiano van Zeller respectively), but have established their own venture at Vale de Mendiz, named Pintas. 2001, the inaugural vintage, was still in cask when I visited in June, but a tasting of several barrels showed that these are serious, concentrated wines in a full-on yet expressive style. This could be one of the new Douro cult wines in the making, especially when you bear in mind that 2001 was a tricky year in this region.

Poeira Jorge Moreira, a talented young winemaker with six years' experience at Real Companhia Velha, has his own project in the Pinho valley at Quinta de Terra Feita de Cima. He purchased the estate in March 2001 and now has 3ha of old vines, plus another hectare planted this year, predominantly on north-facing slopes. He says that his goal is to learn to manage the natural power of Douro wines and produce something elegant: I want to make something that will age gracefully and gain a bouquet instead of just keeping fruit.' The first vintage was 2001, and it seems to be on the right tracks. The cask sample of Poeira I tasted is currently showing quite a bit of wood, but still has lovely poise and elegance, together with good concentration. Lots of potential here.

Crasto This beautifully situated estate is making an impressive range of Douro table wines that have already had a high profile in export markets. It will be interesting to see what impact highly regarded new winemaker Susana Estban has on the house style here. Look out for the two new single-vineyard wines, Vinho da Ponte and Maria Theresa, as well as the concentrated, intense 2000 Reserva.

Lavradores de Feitoria This is an interesting, forward-thinking new venture that brings together 15 independent estates under one marketing banner. Each year an affordable red, Tres Bagos, will be made, together with separate bottlings from the best-performing quintas, selected by a blind tasting panel. In addition, small quantities of a flagship wine, labelled Grande Eschola, are made. Early results are very impressive, and these wines offer good quality at an affordable price.

Quinta do Vale D. Maria Christiano van Zeller has been involved in the Douro for a long time, and was owner of Quinta do Noval, which he sold to AXA in 1993. He is currently involved in a number of projects in the region, including one with JM da Fonseca, but his own estate, Quinta do Vale D. Maria is his main focus. The property has been in the hands of his wife, Joana Lemos's, family for over 150 years, but from 1973 until 1996 it was leased to Graham's. Joana and Christiano took it back and bought it from the family in September of that year and have since been concentrating on making table wines and Port from the property's 10ha of old vines. Progress has been ongoing, and with the 2000 vintage a decision was made to skew production to favour table wines over Port. Quinta do Vale D. Maria 2000 combines concentration and elegance, with the expressive herby fruit meshing well with prominent new oak. The 2001, tasted from several barrels, also looks promising. Van Zeller thinks it would be a great mistake for the Douro to set a standard of style'. He points out that the Vintage Ports all have their own unique styles, and that this should be the way forward for the table wines too. Sandra Tavares, who is in full control of winemaking here, is married to Jorge Serdio Borges, Dirk Niepoort's number two.

Bago de Touriga This is a joint venture between Joo Roseira of Quinta do Infantado and young winemaker Lus Soares Duarte. Since the first vintage in 1997, the style has moved around a little, but new releases are consistently good, with a concentrated, mineralic white Gouvyas Reserva, and vivid, intensely fruited 2001 varietals from Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional.

Kolheita de Ideias A high-quality, small-scale negociant operation established in 2001, Kolheita de Ideias is a collaboration between Lus Soares Duarte, Francisco Ferreira and Rui Moreira. Kolheita 2001 is an impressive effort in a modern mould, with multi-layered spicy fruit, toasty oak and a lush texture. Second wine, Esboo, is forward, expressive and good value.

Grantom Reserva Real Companhia Velha is the biggest property owner in the Douro with almost 600ha of vines. Well known already for its Evel Grande Escolha, it has recently resurrected its Grantom brand, which used to be a blend from the Do and the Douro. The 1999 Grantom Reserva isn't yet released, but is a big, concentrated, ripe wine with some tarry richness: lots of character here, in a semi-modern mould. Unusually for the Douro, there is some Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend.

The future Simply making great wine should be enough, but it isn't. These days marketing is crucially important, and this is something the Portuguese have traditionally been spectacularly bad at. The problem is made all the more acute by signs that the bubble has burst in the domestic market, and it is not clear whether there is room for it to absorb too many more highly priced Douro wines. While I was in the region, it became evident that many of the new band of producers are pinning their hopes on cracking the tough export markets of the UK and US, but they lack any real sense of how they are going to achieve this goal. Paul Symington thinks that the Douro has a very good future', but adds some caveats. We need to keep in mind the high costs of building vineyards in the Douro, their high maintenance and the low yields. These have to be some of the most expensive vineyards in the world. This fact has been masked by low labour costs, now rapidly disappearing. We cannot compete at all with high-volume, low-cost New World producers. I am afraid that these real facts are not realised by some producers.' One other problem standing in the way of the development of top-notch table wines in the region remains the stranglehold that the major Port producers have on the best grapes. Paul Symington explains: No Quinta in the entire Douro has full "authorisation" to make Port. So we have a lot of table wine grapes, particularly if we are to keep our best farmers.' Naturally, a lot of table wine in the Douro will continue to be made from these unwanted grapes, and it is more or less inevitable that the wines made in this way won't be as good as those made by producers whose focus is on using only the very best. To use a rather crude analogy, it's akin to Burgundy producers only being able to use the village-level vineyard sources, with the grapes from the premier cru and grand cru sites being skimmed off for use elsewhere. Dirk Niepoort says he expects that some of the current crop of Douro estates that have turned to making table wines may end up returning to supplying Port grapes. Despite the current antagonism between the Port producers and those focusing on wine, he doesn't think that Port is at risk. While wine production is currently booming, it will inevitably reach a plateau. But for now, it is still a tremendously exciting phase in the development of Douro table wines, and it will be exciting to see the progress made by this band of pioneers over the next few years.