Thursday, November 5, 2009

Douro! Douro! Douro!

Why not shout about the wines from the Douro (rhymes with Toro) Valley in northern Portugal? They are surprising, exciting, unique.

I’ve just returned from two days in the region. The landscape includes a meandering river, sweeping valleys, terraced vineyards, and winding roads that aren’t for the faint of heart (especially when driven by Portuguese bus drivers, who love to tailgate).

Port wine, a fortified beverage that is often aged for years, has been produced in the area since the 1600s. But table wines are babies – they’ve only been made for 15 years! There are some white wines produced in the Douro, but it’s the reds that play the leading role.

When young, the red wines of Douro can be too much for many palates- certainly mine. The acidity makes the side of your mouth tingle, the fruit is powerful, but rough, the tannins are sometimes out of control, and there can be bitter flavors and stalky vegetable notes that don’t work. However, when in the hands of a skilled winemaker and when given a few years to mature and a few hours to decant, the wines are delightfully approachable and always food friendly. In fact, I believe that drinking them without food does them a disservice. I found that when I was eating – whether a full meal or a few marcona almonds-- the wines uniformly tasted better. The very high acid in the wines makes them great matches with many foods.

One of the controversies in this very young wine region is what to grow and how to blend it. Touriga Nacional is a popular grape variety that produces a full bodied, inky dark red. Many Portuguese wine makers are making single variety wines with it. However this is a departure from tradition in the Douro, where field blends are commonly fermented. I was unfamiliar with this practice, but learned that older vineyards have a huge variety of grapes--as many as 50 or more--mixed together in the fields. In those vineyards, the winemaker waits until everything ripens then ferments it all together.

Many winemakers are getting away from that tradition in an attempt to serve a market that expects to see grape varieties listed on the label. They’re replanting old vineyards with five common varieties in order to make new style wines. When I met Cristiano Van Zeller from Quinta do Vale dona Maria, he said this was a mistake. His field blend wines are gorgeous, so he makes a good point. Personally, I think that the tradition of field blends is one of the aspects that makes Portuguese table wines unique.

It will be fascinating to watch and taste the development of this up-and-coming wine region. Just remember to decant!