Portugal's Dão Wine Region: There and Back Again

I've borrowed J. R. R. Tolkien's famous subtitle because it so perfectly illustrates the history of Portugal's Dão wine region – a journey from small vineyards to large cooperatives to individual quintas. 

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In early centuries, Dão's wine history took the path common to so many Mediterranean regions.  Phoenician traders and Roman invaders brought wine and grapevines to Portugal, correctly assuming the grapes would do well.  Cultivation flourished even through the period of Moorish occupation.  After the Moors left Portugal, Christian monasteries continued to cultivate the vineyards and make wine.  In the 1800's Dão produced most of its wines for the export market; Dão wines were sent to parts of Europe hit hard by phylloxera.  In time, phylloxera came to the Dão region; after recovering from this crisis, many growers shifted away from planting touriga nacional, Dão's traditional red wine grape, and experimented with other varieties.

Small Vineyards, Large Cooperatives
Dão's wine production history diverged from the Mediterranean norm at the end of the 19th century.  As phylloxera invaded and wine growers were forced to make changes, Dão growers focused on higher-yielding grapes.  Traditionally, Dão growers owned very small plots of land.  (In The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal, Portuguese wine expert Richard Mayson compares the size of these plots to a typical back yard.)  Amazingly, in most parts of the Dão DO, this is still the case.  If you visit the region, you will notice tiny vineyards placed between cultivated fields and tucked into unlikely spaces.  Only five percent of the DO's land is actually planted in wine grapes, so you will also see forests and vine-free mountains.

When Doctor António de Oliveira Salazar took over Portugal's government in 1932, he set about reforming agriculture, including the wine industry.  For the Dão DO, the changes were dramatic.  Salazar's government decreed that Dão growers could only sell their grapes to cooperatives, which boxed private wineries out of the Dão market.
This situation did not change until Portugal joined the European Union and changed its agricultural laws in accordance with EU mandates.  Due to those changes, private firms may now own wineries in the Dão region.  In reality, though, most grapes are still sold to local cooperatives.

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Because of the emphasis on cooperative wineries, Dão growers have had less incentive to exploit the many terroirs in their DO.  Happily, this situation is changing; individual winemakers are now focusing on making the most of the unique microclimates, soils and locations within the region.  Today Dão winemakers produce not only the DO's well-known reds, but also whites, rosés and sparkling wines.

Geography, Soil and Climate
The Dão wine region is surrounded on three sides by mountains, which protect the vineyards from the harshest weather.  Even so, winters in this DO are cold and rainy, with an average rainfall of 47 inches per year.  Summers are hot and dry.  The area's rivers, the Dão, Alva and Mondego, flow through valleys, changing microclimates and soils as they flow toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Dão's soils tend to be poor, consisting of coarse sandy soil over granite or, in some areas, schist.  Most vineyards are planted between 1,300 and 2,300 feet above sea level.

The Dão DO is divided into seven sub-regions: Alva, Bestairos, Castendo, Serra da Estrela, Silgueiros, Terras de Azurara and Terras de Senhorim.