Douro Valley: Portugal's Best-Known Wine Region

If your local wine shop is like mine, you've noticed that the Portuguese wine section grows larger every month.  Wines from Portugal are becoming more and more popular.  At the heart of this surge in popularity is the Douro wine region, known for centuries as the home of Port wines.  Today, the Douro Valley is also famous for its excellent unfortified wines, particularly reds.

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History
Wine and the Douro region have been linked together since Roman times.  As in the rest of western Europe, medieval monks expanded wine production in the Douro, planting vines on the area's steep slopes.  The Douro's history changed forever in 1703, when the Treaty of Methwen, or Methuen, was signed by Portugal and England.  This treaty gave Portuguese buyers access to English textiles at preferred duty rates.  In return, English Port wine importers received similar preferential treatment.  In 1756, the world's first regional wine classification system was developed for Port wines.  This classification system divided the Douro wine region into three subregions, Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior.

Much has been written about the rise of the Port shippers, the impact of oidium and phylloxera on Port wine production and the growth and consolidation of the Port wine industry.  These events definitely affected all of the growers and producers in the Douro, but the development of individual wine estates, or quintas, and the entry of Portugal into the European Union (then the EC) in 1986 have had, perhaps, the largest impacts of all on the development of the Douro wine industry.

By 1880, the Portuguese wine industry was almost completely devastated by oidium (powdery mildew), phylloxera and bad science.  The government did not permit replanting with New World rootstock until 1883, when it was painfully obvious that other methods of eradicating the destructive phylloxera aphid did not work.  This delay in replanting put Portugal at a disadvantage and demand for wine fell accordingly.

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At this time, the famed Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira began buying up wine estates in the Douro River region.  By the time she died in 1896, Dona Antónia owned 30 quintas and was the guiding force behind Ferreira Port, the company that bears her name.  Today, most of Dona Antónia's wine estates have been sold to individual owners, and many of them are operated by her descendants.  (Ferreira Port is now owned by Sogrape, Portugal's biggest wine producer.)

Many Douro wineries still crush at least some of their grapes using the traditional method – treading them underfoot in large vats called lagares.  While most wineries have modernized and now use state-of-the-art equipment, this particular tradition will no doubt endure for many decades to come.

In 1991, the Alto Douro region was named to the UNESCO World Heritage List because of the area's long tradition of wine and Port production, which fostered the development of towns, cities, churches and infrastructure.  Wine has always been the life's blood of the Douro.

Geography, Soil and Climate
The Douro River runs from the Spanish-Portugal border to the coastal city of Porto.  The river flows through a valley lined by steeply sloping hills.  At first glance, the grapevines seem to run right down into the river, but, of course, there are also roads and a single-rail train line at the edge of the river.  The Douro region is protected by mountain ranges to the north and west.  The western mountains, the Serra do Marão, block the flow of moist air from the Atlantic Ocean.  As a result, the Douro Valley is very hot in the summer months, with temperatures that routinely reach the 100-degree (Fahrenheit) mark and sometimes spike as high as 120 degrees.  In the winter, temperatures can drop to freezing.

The soils of the Douro region are primarily schist or slate.  This makes the area uniquely suited for growing wine grapes because the rock fractures vertically, permitting roots to establish themselves.  Dust is the natural byproduct of slate or schist soils, and in the dry summer months, dust clouds are a common sight in the Douro.

Grape Varieties
Portugal's Instituto da Vinha e do Vinho (Institute of Vine and Wine), or IVV, recognizes 341 grape varieties, according to Portuguese wine expert Richard Mayson.  Within the Douro wine region, however, three varieties reign supreme – Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Francesa, sometimes called Touriga Franca.  All of these grape varieties are used to create red wines.  White and rosé wines, while not as common, are also produced in the Douro region.  White wine grape varieties planted here include Rabigato, Viosinho, Gouveio and Codega.

The Douro Boys
Douro continues to moveahead with new winemaking and marketing endeavors.  The New Douro group, consisting of over a dozen local winemakers, banded together several years ago to promote their wines.  It's the Douro Boys, however, who've made the biggest splash.

The Douro Boys aren't boys at all, of course.  In fact, they're five winemakers from some of the Douro's top quintas.  Part innovation and part regional marketing, the Douro Boys are all about quality wine.  The Douro Boys are Dirk van der Niepoort from Niepoort Vinhos, Cristiano van Zeller from Quinta do Vale Dona Maria,  João Feirrera Álvares Ribeiro from Quinta do Vallado, Miguel Roquette from Quinta do Crasto and Francisco "Vito" Javier de Olazabal from Quinta do Vale Meão.  The Douro Boys' publicist, Dorli Muhr, has put together a creative marketing campaign that focuses on the region's quality, tradition and modern style.  The Douro Boys have been instrumental in putting their region on the world wine map.

Visiting Douro Wineries
As in many European wine regions, it's best to contact the winery you'd like to visit before you arrive.  Some wineries in the Douro are well-equipped to handle visitors, while others are smaller and less accustomed to tourists.  It's a good idea, too, to learn a few courteous words and phrases in Portuguese before you visit.

The Douro Valley has experienced a surge in wine tourism, and hotels and restaurants are being built to accommodate the influx of wine lovers from around the world.  Quinta do Vale Dona Maria has a guesthouse on-site; Quinta do Vallado has four lovely rooms and one suite available for overnight guests.  You can also dine at Quinta do Vallado, even if you don't spend the night; reservations are mandatory.

If you'd like to taste Douro wines, your best bet is to contact your winery of choice well in advance and ask about booking a tasting.  For example, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria offers tastings for small groups only; reservations are required.

Whether you prefer traditional Mediterranean architecture or modern style, you're bound to find a Douro winery that pleases you.  You can take in the breathtaking view from Quinta do Côtto's ochre-hued winery or glimpse the future of the Douro in Quinta do Portal's ultra-modern winery and guesthouse.  Wherever you look, you'll feel the weight of tradition and the exuberance of innovation.  That's what the Douro is all about.