Can Douro Do Grand Cru?

The search for serious greatness in Portugal’s grandest wine zone
May 6, 2014

PINHÃO, Portugal—When you stand in the vineyards of Jorge Sêrodio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva, the 40-something, married winemakers who own the oddly named but oh-so-serious Douro estate called Wine & Soul, you can’t help being impressed.

After all, their century-old vines are, impossibly, growing out of rock. There’s no soil. It’s just a matter of whether the friable schist that composes much of the Douro zone is in large jagged pieces or has crumbled into something smaller. “It’s like prison work,” laughs Borges. “You’re just breaking larger rocks into smaller ones to create something that might resemble soil. Really it’s just rock. No dirt.”

The Douro zone is famous for Port wine. For several centuries this improbably vast vineyard zone, which comprises numerous steep-sloped river valleys that feed into the central spine of the Douro River, has been incised with rock-walled terraces. These walls are painstakingly crafted, one slab of flat, jagged schist piled on top of another without even the conjugal blessing of mortar, to create a landscape of curvaceous stair steps on which one or two rows of grapevines can ascend the steep hillsides.

Installing such terraces on just one hillside seems formidable; doing so on nearly every undulation of the enormous Douro Valley boggles the mind.

There’s a reason why the Douro has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a monument to madness. Who in their right mind would grow grapes in rock and then labor to tend such tenacious vines in an implacable summer heat that regularly reaches as much as 110° F?

Yet that’s precisely what passes for normal in the Douro's Pinhão Valley, as well as everywhere else in this wine zone that now embraces a stunning 45,000 hectares (111,000 acres) of vines. That’s more than four times the size of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, and more than three times all of Napa Valley’s vineyard acreage.

But despite the area’s considerable history and the deep, tacit knowledge of the landscape that generations of grapegrowers have acquired, there’s really never been a search for true wine greatness in the Douro until now.

The reason is simple: The very wine that brought this wine district into being, that paid for it and maintained it over centuries and continues to do so today (if less so with every passing year), is simply not a medium that reveals the voice of the land. Port is, compared to world standards of wine refinement, a crude vehicle.

After all, Port is a simplistic wine: Very ripe grapes are harvested, allowed to partially ferment, and then forcibly halted by a potent dose of brandy, creating a fortified wine of more than 20 degrees alcohol with a considerable residual sweetness courtesy of the prematurely stopped fermentation. That the best Vintage and tawny Ports themselves offer a level of intrigue tells you something about the intrinsic—if yet to be fully revealed—potential of the Douro terroir.

Only in the past 15 years or so have we begun to get a glimpse of what can only be called the grand cru possibilities of the place. Only now is the Douro in possession of a vehicle—a dry table wine that seeks to reveal the voice of the land—that allows even Douro producers themselves to get a sense of what those rocks really have to say.

Not least, the very real prospect of first discovering, then refining and finally delivering grand cru–level wines extends not just to the reds, but (and this is surprising even for the locals) to the white wines as well. After all, Burgundy does grand cru, to use a phrase, for both reds and whites. Can Douro do it too? I think it can—and is on its way.

The proof lies in such single-vineyard expressions as Wine & Soul’s Quinta da Manoella and Pintas bottlings. Previously, grapes from these 80- to 100-year-old vines, field blends of a dozen or more indigenous Douro grapes such as Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca and many others, were destined for Port.

Like delicious droplets of water on a vast window pane, the rivulets of wine from thousands of small sites were merged to create the blended wines that are the craft and pride of the famous Port producers whose “lodges” line the banks of the Douro River in Vila Nova de Gaia (which faces the city of Porto on the other side of the river), a hundred or so of miles downstream from the vineyards themselves.

But now we can finally get a sense of possibilities. Take Wine & Soul’s Quinta da Manoella, a 38-acre vineyard that Jorge Sêrodio Borges inherited from his family. Until the beginning of the 21st century, its grapes disappeared into Port wine. When you taste the intense, seductive, mulberry-scented red wine and savor its elegance, you cannot help but wonder: What other potential grands crus are out there waiting only for a speaking role on the Douro stage?

Wine & Soul, for its part, offers yet another contender, named Pintas (pronounced peen-tahsh). My colleagues at Wine Spectator recently awarded the Pintas 2011 a score of 98 points, which is the highest such score this publication has ever bestowed on a Douro table wine.

Pintas is dramatically different from Quinta da Manoella. Where the latter is perfumy and surprisingly gentle for a wine of such scale and depth, Pintas is a wine of dramatic intensity, with a you-can’t-forget-it characterfulness. The wines are a brother/sister pairing that in two separate sips show a sort of greatness that has been until now unrevealed.

Further proof of this comes when Mr. Borges offers you a taste of their 2011 Pintas Port. He’s proud of this wine. After all, Port wine runs in his family, and he and Ms. Tavares have inherited multiple casks of old family Ports that are still aging in decades-old barrels in an old wood barn on their estate. They both love Port and look upon their Pintas Port with beaming parental pride. Yet it has to be said: Good as Pintas Port is, it nevertheless lacks the articulateness, the precision, the you-can’t miss-it profundity of the table wine Pintas.

Although an exceptional producer, Wine & Soul is more emblematic than unique. Comparable efforts are now echoing across all of the valleys of the Douro. With only a little (admittedly fanciful) imagination, you can practically hear the sounds of a kind of modern Gold Rush.

This new ambition to find the long-obscured grand cru possibilities of the Douro also extends to dry white wines. That this has surprised the locals is understandable. For centuries, the Port-infused Douro wine culture saw white wines as intrinsically lesser. Real wine was red.

So why did they have white grapes at all? High elevation. White grapes were grown where it was deemed too cool for the preferred red grapes. The indigenous variety white grapes that have long grown in Douro’s highest elevation sites (between 350 and 700 meters, or about 1,150 to 2,300 feet) were seen as an afterthought, if not an outright problem. What to do with these creatures? So white Port was invented, which nobody, then or now, seems to regard seriously, a wine version of a crazy aunt in the attic.

That’s all changed. Douro is demonstrating a vocation of place for really fine dry white wine. It’s not everywhere, to be sure, because of the need for high elevation to ensure crisp acidity. But in the best sites, the results—almost invariably crafted from field blends of indigenous grapes such as Gouveio, Viosinho, Rabigato and Côdega do Larinho, among others—are stunning in their austere, schist-scented minerality.

Two recent vertical tastings of dry white Douro table wines grown at high elevations showed not only the superb characterfulness of these wines, but also their capacity to age and evolve.

A tasting of Duas Quintas Branco, a white from famous Port producer Ramos Pinto, going as far back as the 1994 vintage (practically Paleolithic by Douro table wine standards), persuasively demonstrated not only these whites’ capacity to age, but the desirability of aging them.

While the 2013 Duas Quintas Branco was certainly pleasing, when you rang the changes back to the 1994 vintage, the transformation was apparent. The older wines offered a pleasing waxy note, and the minerality that is only whispered in the young wine grew almost operatically powerful in the older ones. Oxidation was barely, if at all, noticeable. Worth mentioning is that these wines saw little oak influence, either during fermentation or in aging.

In comparison, the dry white table wines created by Cristiano van Zeller, simply labeled VZ, are 100 percent barrel-fermented and subsequently aged in small French oak barrels. This approach seems, at least to this taster, to be the ticket. No oakiness was present thanks to the density of the fruit, yet another level of flavor is clearly teased out by the technique.

Again, freshness was nothing short of remarkable, with the 2006 VZ Branco barely different from the newly released 2012 in brightness of color or youthful fruitiness. Time served only to magnify the minerality, making the older wines progressively more dimensional.

The VZ white wines, along with Wine & Soul’s benchmark white called Guru, are among the finest white wines I’ve tasted this year from Douro or anywhere else—and yes, I’m including Burgundy in that sweeping declaration.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? If that sort of excitement, a this-is-really-something emotion, occurs when tasting a wine, you know that you’ve discovered a potential grand cru, don’t you think?

Portugal Opinion

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