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Can Douro Wine Find a Lighter Way Forward?

Historically known for both for port and for its powerful, heavily oaked red wines, Portugal’s Douro Valley has started uncovering its softer side. Simon J. Woolf on the producers offering an alternative aesthetic, and the challenges they face.

“We have to bottle it as a table wine,” explains Rita Ferreira Marques as we taste her light-framed, spicy bastardo. “The style doesn’t fit the Port and Douro Wines Institute’s parameters.”

Barely darker than a rosé, Marques’ eponymous take on the grape, which is better known as trousseau in the Jura, has more in common with a youthful vin de soif from the Loire than much of what comes from Portugal’s Douro region. But it symbolizes the work of a growing group of winemakers who are working to show that the Douro’s sunbaked terraces can deliver more than big, oak-driven reds (and, well, port).

For those well-versed in the pleasures of the Douro’s softer side, it may come as no surprise that Marques cites her first mentor as Dirk Niepoort, a pivotal figure in the region, famed not only for his family’s venerable port business, but as one of the first to show what nuance looked like in a place that has, for centuries, favored power. Niepoort’s Charme, a stem-fermented blend from high altitude vineyards near Pinhão is meant as an homage to his beloved Burgundy, and has been produced since 2002.

Marques is part of what one might dub the “second wave” of winemakers pursuing a similar path by looking to higher elevation plots and picking earlier to preserve acidity. At her Conceito estate, in the Douro Superior heading east towards Spain, she produces a range of wines from the accessible Contraste blends (the red and the white are both picked early and only partially oaked, to maintain freshness) to Unico, a thrilling old-vine white field blend. But the bastardo grape has arguably become her calling card—not only for its stylistic grace, but for its clear challenge to the prevailing Douro template, and endorsement of the region’s climatic variety.

“People underestimate how diverse it is here,” says Marques. “They think the whole of the Douro is hot and dry, but actually where our vineyards are [at 1,300 feet to 1,600 feet], it’s pretty cool.”

Closer to Porto, the lower lying, temperate Baixa Corgo receives some 35 inches of rainfall per year. Further east is the hotter, higher Cima Corgo, gouged with its extraordinary slate and schist terraces signifying its importance for port. The Portuguese side of the valley ends in the arid savannah of the Douro Superior—a more desolate landscape that exists on less than 12 inches of rainfall per year, with granitic soils in addition to the slate and schist of the Cima Corgo.

Understanding just what these terroirs can yield for table wines is a fairly new proposition. “Until 25 or 30 years ago, almost all production here was for port,” says Manuel de Novaes Cabral, president of the the Port and Douro Wines Institute, or IVDP, the region’s governing body. Douro wine’s childhood spanned the 1990s, an era when it seemed as though the port industry’s favored production methods—massive extraction, ripe grapes and long aging in wood—were perfectly in tune with the Parker zeitgeist. Surely Douro could hitch a ride on the same train?

It’s this aesthetic heritage that is at the root of the struggle that winemakers like Marques face. Port’s credentials are ingrained into the region’s very fabric; the Douro’s parcels are classified in gradations, from A down to F, with a plot’s ability to yield concentration and high sugar levels prized above all else. But Douro winemakers have had to learn that the same qualities are not always so welcome in still wines.

“Douro and elegance might not seem to go to together,” says Marques, “but everyone’s moving to a lighter style now. You see that in the grape varieties they’re choosing and the higher altitude sites that people are planting.”

Douro Valley Portugal

The slopes of Portugal’s Douro Valley.

This move ever higher up the steep terraces of the valley is crucial to preserve freshness, and signifies an ongoing parting of ways between port and Douro wine. And yet the bureaucracy for port and Douro’s still wines are still joined at the hip. As Jorge Alves, the winemaker for Quanta Terra says, with a slight note of cynicism, “They basically made a copy-paste of the existing port tasting panel for Douro wines.”

I sense a similar irritation from Stéphane Ferreira, owner of Quinta do Pôpa, when we discuss his newly released Douro white, a lees-y but electric blend from a 65-year-old parcel in the Cima Corgo, partially fermented and aged in a mix of new and used barriques. “I submitted it to the IVDP as a reserva [a higher quality demarcation], and it was refused with the comment that there wasn’t enough oak influence,” he says. Rather than alter the wine, Ferreira declassified it, naming it Black Edition in an effort to signify the wine’s pedigree.

Despite some 116 cultivars still authorized by the IVDP, there’s been increasing focus on touriga nacional and tinta roriz (tempranilo), long considered to be the best port varieties. But in a wine-growing region that stretches almost 125 miles, such homogenization is counterintuitive. “The last thing I’d plant here would be touriga nacional,” says Ferreira’s Cima Corgo colleague, Tiago Sampaio of Folias de Baco. “It’s a myth that it does well everywhere.”

Sampaio farms 20 hectares of vineyard at altitudes of more than 2,000 feet. His wines, made from indigenous varieties such as tinta francisca and touriga franca, are typically low in alcohol and full of lively acidity. Consider his latest bottling, Renegado 2016, produced from an ancient field blend of both red and white grapes—perhaps the most venerable tradition of Douro valley vineyard planting. The wine has the spicy, pungent notes of Douro fruit, but delivered in an un-oaked, thirst quenching guise at a mere 11.5 percent alcohol. But, as the IVDP forbids co-fermenting of red and white varieties, the wine is ineligible for any quality classification. Not to mention, its lack of oak influence would have likely been an issue as well.

Many producers, including Sampaio, Ferreira and Marques, have identified the IVDP as having a preference for heavily oaked wines in the reserva and grande reserva categories. The IVDP’s technical director, Bento Amaral, admits, cautiously, that in the panel’s blind tastings, “it is easier to give high marks to a wine with some wood influence, as it adds complexity.” But he politely insists that there is theoretically no requirement to use any oak to gain the reserva classification, and concedes, “We are trying to become less focused on oak.”

Although teasing out problems with classification systems is common to many emerging regions, the IVDP has a double-bind in its role as both gatekeeper of the port tradition and referee for the fast-developing Douro wine sector. Routinely denying classification to wines that offer an alternative aesthetic for the region is neither in the producers’ best interest, nor the IVDP’s, as the Douro hunts for a place on the world stage.

For her part, Marques prefers to focus on the task in hand. “Feeling is really, really important in winemaking, ” she explains. “I don’t really think about what the consumer wants; I just do what the vineyard needs.” Her implied focus on terroir rather than marketing perfectly sums up the change that’s unfolding as the new Douro winemakers create a fresh paradigm that no longer needs the baggage of port to justify its existence, or regulate its style.

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Simon Woolf is a British wine and drinks writer currently based in Amsterdam. A lover of obscure and characterful beverages of all kinds, he is most at home in Northern Italy, Slovenia and Portugal. Simon is known as an expert and critical advocate of natural, biodynamic and orange wines. His work features regularly in Decanter and other international journals.