On the Road with Joanna Locke MW

Digital analyst and keen wine student David Mitchell gives his first impressions

This was a first-time visit for me and nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of the region. The landscape of the Douro is breath-taking. That this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is not surprising - the meandering river, steep-sided terraced vineyards and undulating hills and side valleys, and different aspects these offer for grape growing are mind boggling.

View from Quinta do Bomfim's vineyards

In order to be able to work the steep hills, growers had to cut stepped terraces out of the schistous rock. In places, the angle of the slope is so steep that there's only room for one row of vines. There's only one way to farm such land and harvest the grapes and that's by hand: back-breaking, brutal work.

It certainly brought it home to me how labour-intensive making wine in this environment is and what good value for money the wine is in the light of this.

Remote location

Getting around this vast region is easier said than done too!

A road and trainline take you all the way up the Douro Valley, but both can take a long time and the twisting route (for the road at least) is not for the faint-hearted!

A huge road-building scheme has helped to open up communications for some of the more remote parts of the Douro. Great sweeping motorways took us north and into Spain before coming back down to visit our Exhibition Douro supplier in the Upper Douro.

See the route >

This at least, gave us a great excuse to pay a visit to one of our vinho verde suppliers, Quinta de Soalheiro.

Overlooking Spain

Quinta de Soalheiro & vinho verde

This part of Portugal, where vinho verde comes from, is well-known for its high rainfall but Luis Cerdeira told us that where they are situated, in the sub-region of Monção e Melgaço, right in the very north of the country and close to the Spanish border, they benefit from a special micro-climate.

'We are protected by the mountains and get less rainfall than those vineyards nearer the coast. We get just the right amount of sunshine here to ripen alvarinho; this is what attracted my father to plant alvarinho grapes here in the 1970s. Our name - Soalheiro - means 'sunny place"

Luis Cerdeira

Vinho verde grapes

Though vinho verde can be a blend of a several grapes (alvarinho, loureiro, avesso, arinto, azal and trajadura), here it is the alvarinho that dominates. Alvarinho is the same grape as albariño across the border in Galicia.

Luis aims to keep the grape's freshness but also to show its apricot-kernel flavour. It was fascinating to see how wines made from the same grape could taste so different. Luis explained that some of his wines are fermented in stainless steel and those from older vines are fermented and then aged in oak vats - not that there was a trace of oak on the palate - they just had a more complex, rounded character.

The wines were an eye-opener to me; much rounder and more complex than I thought they would be, not really what I had expected vinho verde to taste like; probably more akin to white Burgundy in their complexity and rounded flavour but with the characteristic zestiness you associate with alvarinho.

Find wines from Quinta de Soalheiro >

Read more about vinho verde >

People power

You don't realise just how remote parts of the Douro can be unless you go there. With the younger generation moving to the towns (and even abroad), you can see that the quintas may struggle with manpower issues.

Hand-picking is still the norm for most quintas. Some still foot-tread their wines in traditional stone lagares (at Quinta do Vale Meão, for example) too. Attracting skilled cellar workers to work in the wineries can also be a problem.

Grape-picking cannot be automated throughout most of the Douro, but many quintas have adopted technology within the winery to help them produce better wines.

João Vasconcelos of Symington's explained:

'With foot-treading wine in the traditional granite lagares, it is very difficult to maintain temperature control - in the old days, they even shipped blocks of ice from Oporto to the quintas to help with this. Can you imagine? By the time it got there, half of it was gone and it only brought the temperature down by two degrees!'

João Vasconcelos

Now many of the wineries are using modern temperature-controlled stainless steel lagares and some of the traditional stone lagares are now fitted with some form of temperature control.

Stainless steel lagares at Quinta do Bomfim

Robotic lagares with silicone, rather than human, feet are also widely used now, the silicone 'feet' mimic the action of the traditional foot-treading process, gently pressing down on the grapes. The reason for crushing grapes in this way is that the human foot does not crush the pips in the grapes. When the pips are crushed they release bitter oils into the wine. Careful application of pressure is needed to do this whilst extracting the maximum amount of juice from the grapes.

The influence of people on the wine

Dirk Niepoort The irrepressible Dirk Niepoort - loosely captured on camera!

Perhaps this observation will seem a rather obvious one, but I was struck by how much personality of the grower can have an influence on the wines being made. I am sure that this is true throughout the winemaking world but in the Douro, where winemakers are in effect coming up with new styles and boundaries are shifting all the time, this is perhaps more in evidence.

All the winemakers we met had their own ethos in terms of their approach to making wine, some favoured the traditional approach, others were more scientific, some favoured field-blends while others championed specific grapes.

Dirk Niepoort

Many of the winemakers would say that they were experimental and none more so than Dirk Niepoort at Quinta de Nápoles.

When we arrived at the quinta in the early evening, we noticed a large shipping container in the car park with a refrigeration unit attached to it. Dirk had decided to try and make eiswein! He has been experimenting with riesling since 2003, arguing, logically, that the Douro's terrain is not dissimilar to the Mosel. He has also made a small quantity of trockenbeerenauslese with some overripe gewürztraminer and trialled ageing reds in clay amphorae rather than wood.

Over dinner, Dirk brought out a bottle of one of his favourite wines - Château Gruaud-Larose 1982 from Bordeaux's left bank which he served blind. Throughout the meal we tasted a range of his wines, and for me, the claret was the least interesting. The Douro wines seemed to have so much more complexity and depth to them.

Even Dirk's ports are terroir-driven, in contrast to some of the big port houses, but I suppose that being a family business gives you greater freedom to experiment more widely, or even wildly!

Find Niepoort's wines >

Where to go next?

The power of the blend >

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