The descent into Porto began with a bolt of lightning and a thunderclap. I know that airplanes can survive lightning strikes, but I still wonder. It’s an inauspicious beginning to my third trip to the Douro Valley of Portugal.
I’m curious as to how many of you have tried a Douro red. I imagine just a few, but I may be wrong. If you have, I’d be interested to know what you think of them. In my blogs over the next week or so, I hope to give you an insight into this fascinating and fast-evolving region.
My first trip to the Douro was in 2002, the second in 2005. Each trip has been a fascinating adventure of discovery exploring the unique grapes and winemaking of this beautiful and rugged region. My first trip was truly to a terra incognita. I stumbled around like a newborn calf—awkward and inexperienced.
But I came away entranced with the magnificent gorge cut by the Douro River, which flows out of Spain where it is known as the Duero. The valley is steep, 1,000 to 2,000 feet deep with vertiginous slopes terraced with tens of thousand of acres planted to Portuguese varieties. The most important are reds such as Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa, but there are at least 30 others that are important, including unique white varieties that are virtually unknown to this day.
The first vintner I meet this trip is the gregarious and articulate Cristiano van Zeller. His family sold the famed Quinta do Noval estate in 1993 for financial reasons, and peripatetic Van Zeller has been involved in a variety of groundbreaking projects since then. But now he has settled into an impressive groove at his own estate—Quinta do Vale Dona Maria in the Rio Torto, a tributary to the Douro near the unofficial capital of the region, the small village of Pinhão.
Our first stop is not at Dona Maria but at Quinta de Roriz. Cristiano's cousin, his elder by almost 20 years, is the dapper João Van Zeller. He is full of pride now that he fully owns the estate after purchasing the shares of his former partners, the prominent Symington family, in 2006. The estate lies in a steep bowl on the south side of the Douro. I’m glad Cristiano is a patient driver because my previous trip here in 2002 was a white-knuckled trip punctuated by bouts of nausea up and down, and up and down, the narrow twisting roadways that dominate the Douro. Today, the valley glows an emerald green—the result of several weeks of rain that has brought the slopes alive with wildflowers, but has vintners worried about outbreaks of mildew and disease.
The 110-acre estate vineyards are in immaculate condition. João has been active in upgrading the property since 1999 when he first took an ownership interest. “This is a very interesting business if you don’t need a lot of cash [income],” he says with a chuckle.
Cristiano and his winemaking team, headed by the talented and beautiful Sandra Tavares, will begin working in the Roriz cellars this vintage. I’ve always been impressed by Roriz’s wines: A bottling called Prazo has always been one of my top Douro values, and the Roriz Reserve has uniformly shown outstanding quality—and has been a steal at just $30 a bottle.
The just-bottled 2007 Prazo has fresh red fruit flavors with cream and spice accents; I would rate it 90 points, non-blind. The Reserve 2005, which is 80 percent Touriga Nacional and aged 10 months in new French oak, shows a crystalline structure with a Côte-Rôtie-style intensity. It will be released at the end of this year. A barrel sample of the 2007 shows big-time potential with intensely rich kirsch flavors with pepper and spice notes: 92-94 points, non-blind. Plans are to introduce a higher-end reserve wine with Roriz's 2008 vintage.
The next stop is Dona Maria. Cristiano has recently relaunched a line of wines called Van Zellers, which will offer value-priced reds and whites. He also makes a wine called Casa de Casal de Loivos. But his and Sandra’s primary core interests are the Dona Maria wines and a reserve bottling called C.V. (short for Curriculum Vitae and made from a selection of the oldest vines at the estate).
Of the last three vintages, the ’07s of both labels are showing profound potential, though the ’05s are impressive as well. While the ’06s are also of high quality, their yields were cut dramatically by June hailstorms. The ’07 Dona Maria is delicious and muscular, with intense flavors of dark red fruit and spice: 93-95 points, non-blind. The C. V. is even more powerful—intense and rich with well-integrated mineral, pepper, rich dark fruit flavors and dark chocolate. It's potentially classic quality: 95-97 points, non-blind.
“I think ’07 in general is one of the best years in the Douro since 1970,” Cristiano says. 1970 was a great Port year, but Douro table wines back then weren’t even on the table.
Today, the Douro revolution continues with the new generation of table wines, such as those from Roriz and Dona Maria. And 2007 shows the potential for really putting all the pieces together and becoming a turning point in the history of the region’s table wines. It’s a history that is essentially just a decade old but that is racing ahead at lightning speed.