One of the keys to unlocking the mystery and ultimate potential of the Douro is understanding its rugged and unique winemaking geography. This is essentially a huge domain of mountain vineyards—except everything is, in a sense, upside down. The terraces descend to the river level, rather than ascending to the mountaintops. The best vineyards for Port production are usually the lowest altitude, and hence the warmest. Table-wine vineyards are better situated at higher altitudes, where the air is cooler.
The Douro usually bakes in the summer, with temperatures routinely exceeding 100 degrees F. But the native varietals, such as Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, are well adapted to such conditions. And then there is the rock: The Douro's geological profile is mostly schist with outcroppings of granite—dense and minerally. Newly terraced plantations have to be dynamited and bulldozed in a labor- and cost-intensive process that is truly mind-boggling.
Everywhere are the remnants and remains of the terraces, called patamares in Portuguese, which were hand-built over centuries of effort. Many today are abandoned and overgrown with scrub, but some of the best old-vine vineyards survive, some just barely, and can produce fantastic fruit. Vineyards 80, 90, even 100 years old are waiting to be rediscovered before they are ripped up and replanted in the rush to modernization. The sound of dynamite is thus a funeral dirge.
The Douro is deep and rugged. Until the early 1970s, when a series of dams and locks were built, Port was shipped downriver in small boats that had to navigate harrowing rapids and swift channels. Road transport was limited because of the steepness of the canyon. Even today, the best access to many of the prime quintas is by motorboat or via neighboring towns reached by a single railroad track that courses its way up the Douro along narrow river banks and through defiles of granite and schist. The harder the route, the better.
Leaving Vallado, I catch a train at Regua to go upriver. A 20-minute ride takes me to the small village of Ferrao where Miguel Roquette of Quinta do Crasto picks me up. If I had driven to Crasto, it would have taken an hour or more down twisting roads.
This is my third visit to Crasto, which is always inspiring and eye-opening. This beautiful quinta lies atop a steep ridge above the Douro, surrounded by prime old-vine vineyards and new plantings totaling about 170 acres. Modernization is a constant process here, and there are plans for a new white-wine winery and a restaurant at the quinta, explains Miguel.
We taste through a range of wines with his brother Tomas, who oversees the cellar. The just-bottled 2006s show high quality, and I am particularly impressed by the ’06 Reserva Vinha Velhas (old vines), which is a blend of the entire ’06 production of the Vinha de Ponte vineyard, lying a stone’s throw from the cellars to the north, and half of the production of the Maria Theresa vineyard. The wine is big and ripe, with intense kirsch flavors and smoky notes. I would rate it classic, non-blind.
Barrels samples of the ’07 show extraordinary quality, and Tomas says the quinta will produce four separate specialty bottles, which it saves for high-quality vintages: Vinha de Ponte, Maria Theresa, Touriga Nacional and the Reserva. The Vinha de Ponte is really up the quality ladder, showing intense mineral, red plum, meat pepper and spice flavors. I'd rate it potentially outstanding-to-classic, non-blind. The last Vinha de Ponte was bottled in 2004. “The market is waiting for another big Ponte,” beams Tomas.
Miguel and I take a train upriver near the Spanish border to the Douro Superior to visit new plantings at Quinta de Cabreira. This will eventually supply most of the fruit for Crasto’s regular Douro red and, when fully planted at almost 200 acres, will be bigger than Crasto itself. The terraces are huge, steep and almost bare except for thin ribbons of green vines that show vigorous growth. I’m amazed that such a massive planting can pay itself off given all the labor and energy for so few vines planted.