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Douro Thunderclap

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 28, 2008 12:37pm ET

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.

Daniel Grotto
May 28, 2008 1:17pm ET

Hi Kim, I've tried maybe two dozen or so, mostly recent vintages (back to ~2002) from well-known producers like Quinta do Crasto and Quinta do Vale Meao. I've been very impressed at how distinctive the wines can be, with a Port-like flavor profile (minus the sugar, of course).

But I've also been put off by the weight of some of the wines, which to my palate at least makes it it difficult to pair them with food. Perhaps they need time in bottle to shed some of that baby fat, but I've never tried an older vintage.

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on how these wines evolve and any food pairing ideas.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  May 28, 2008 1:30pm ET
Its funny...I just had my first Douro red table wine this weekend at La Salette in Sonoma (very good BTW). It was the VALE do BOMFIM, Reserva Vinho Tinto Douro 2004 which you rated 88 pts (I did not know the score until the next day when i was researching the wine). It was very full bodied,thick with dark fruit profile and almost a chewy raisin flavor on the finish -- not unlike a vintage port without the extra ETOH and sweetness. It went very well with the pork and clam stew. All in all, I was impressed and would buy more at a retail of $13 if I could find it.
Christopher Livingstone
Montreal —  May 28, 2008 2:04pm ET
Fantastic introduction to the Douro Kim. I really think this is one part of the world that has been ignored or forgotten in the last 20 years. I have started collecting 5 year verticals from the Douro wether it be Quinta do Infantado, Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta da Leda and higher end wines from Quinta do Crasto and the Lurtons. Everyone I invite to these vertical tastings, are all pleasently surprised by what quality comes out of the Douro these days. I think that you can't find a better wine at this time for similar prices.Thanks for the blog.
Stephen Lima
Wakefield, RI —  May 28, 2008 3:55pm ET
Mr. Marcus,I am a chef who happens to be Portuguese and I want to thank you for your blog. For the past several years I have been trying to sing the praises of non-Port wines for years, and I am finally glad to see them getting some praise. I have had Carm Grande Riserva, Quinta do Vale Meao "Douro Meandro", Vale do Bomfim, and Aveleda Follies for years on my wine list. A previous post asked how they age, well I last visited the Douro in 2000, and I brought back a case of Carm Grande Riserva 1998. This yearI had a bottle on Mother's Day with my parents (it was also my Dad's birthday on that day), and it was fantastic. It was not heavy at all, and it still tasted fresh. The white grapes are also fantastic. The Arinto grape reminds me of being somewhere between a pinot grigio and a sav. blanc. I believe that generally, this grape is usually blended into vinho verde, but more and more is being used on its own, and they can and do indeed go well with lots of food. I believe that Portugal, has not been regarded for their table wines because a lot of the grapes they grow are not well known, and because the Ports are so good. Hopefully your blog will entice more people to try what I have known for years. That Portugal and the Douro Valley is more than Port.
Zachary Ross
Brooklyn, NY —  May 28, 2008 4:12pm ET
Kim,On another topic, thanks for the recent Madiran reviews. Could you please list the U.S. importer for these wines? Several of them are impossible to find, such as the Labranche-Laffont, Ducourneau, and "Le Serp" wines. I've looked all over for these and have utterly struck out. Are these in fact available in the U.S.? Please help.
Paul M Hummel
Chicago, —  May 28, 2008 5:32pm ET
Do not miss the wines of Luis Duarte of Herdade dos Grous in the Alentejo. The portugese vintners association has come to Chicago the last two years, and his wines are clearly superior.
Fabricio M R Da Silva
Niteroi - BRAZIL —  May 29, 2008 8:53am ET
I'm from Brazil and we have a wide array of Portuguese wines available here. Douro wines are fine all right, but IMHO the Alentejo region (roughly the southern half of the country) makes the really interesting and overlooked wines. For instance, if you can find them in the US, please try "Vinha do Mouro" or "Eugenio de Almeida - EA". Both are amazing values from Alentejo and pair very well with red meat.
Quinn Bottorff
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada —  May 29, 2008 4:11pm ET
Kim, with the rise of the Douro, do you think the Dao and other regions will catch up in quality? In the early '90s I used to really enjoy some Dao Garrafeiras (sorry about the spelling) but can no longer find them.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  May 29, 2008 6:09pm ET

Our tasting departments says the importers have told us that these wines are available in the country, but it¿s likely/possible the distribution is limited. You can contact them directly for more info:

Labranche-Laffont: Promex Wines, LLC 410-507-2428

Ducourneau & Le Serp: Daniel Callahan & Associates, Inc. 561-391-0348

Dana Nigro, managing editor, WineSpectator.com
Henry Shotton
portugal —  May 30, 2008 7:01am ET
It's great that wine writers like yourself actually come over to our country and see the Douro (and other winegrowing regions) first hand. I feel that, for the quality of wines being made here, we seem to be underpromoted. Hopefully, the coverage in magazines like the Spectator will help to really get the quality message out there. Just compare with the prices of Bordeaux to see that the top portuguese reds are a GREAT BARGAIN! Jo¿
Zachary Ross
Brooklyn, NY —  May 30, 2008 1:36pm ET
Dana, thanks much for the information. These wines are so hard to find as a general rule that listing the importer really would be a great help -- otherwise there seems little point of reviewing the wines, if no one can obtain them.
paul doble
New Bedford, MA —  October 28, 2010 7:10am ET
Stephen, Thanks for your kind words regarding the CARM Grande Res. 1998. We import the CARM wines into the US and I would love to dine at your restaurant sometime. Where are you located, please?

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