The singular table wines of the Douro

On my first trip to Portugal’s Douro region, I was struck by how improbable it was that someone way back when thought it was a good idea to grow wine grapes in a landscape that was so dramatically steep, rocky, dry and, in summer, crazy hot. Happily, it turned out to be a good place for Port, the fortified wine for which the Douro has been known for at least a couple of centuries.

The steep, terraced vineyards at Quinta da Boavista. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

More recently, though, the area has been gaining a reputation for table wines. For many of the region’s wine producers, especially the smaller ones, table wines made sense for several reasons. First, the Port trade is dominated by a few large companies, and it was hard for smaller vintners to compete. Second, Port can be a hard sell, though demand remains good for higher-quality Port.

The viticultural area for both Port and Douro table wine straddles the Douro River, which runs from Spain (where it’s called the Duero) to the Atlantic. The designated area for Douro grape growing starts about 45 miles inland from the city of Porto. Vines hug the contours of the steep hills above the river and along a number of its tributaries. About half of the region’s vineyards have a slope of 30 percent or more, so farming here is laborious and expensive.

The area is also stunningly beautiful. There’s a new view around every curve of the region’s narrow, winding roads. The Douro is such a singular place that it’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The table wines can be singular, too, made from the same grape varieties as Port – chiefly, touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta roriz and sousao, although there are dozens that are permitted. There’s no question that Port can be a wonderful thing. But its sweetness and the alcohol added during fortification can mask the nuances of the wine, even in single-vineyard Port. The best table wines of the Douro let the vineyard speak, loud and clear.

A view of the Douro landscape from one of Wine & Soul’s vineyards. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

That’s the case at Wine & Soul, where Sandra Tavares da Silva and her husband, Jorge Serodio Borges, produce a delicious assortment of wines, including a couple of stunning single-vineyard bottlings.  “Our philosophy was to search for the vineyards to make the wines we like,” Tavares says. For them, that meant vineyards with old vines, which Tavares calls “the treasure of the Douro Valley.”

The first vineyard they bought was the 7.5-acre Pintas vineyard, with its 80-plus-year-old vines. It’s the source of their flagship wine, also called Pintas. The vineyard, like many old plots in the Douro, is a mix of multiple varieties – Tavares says there are at least 40, and they’re still identifying some others. The 2015 Pintas ($100) has warm, dark fruit, some spiciness, a whisper of bay leaf, tremendous concentration and silky tannins. The concentration, Tavares says, “is because it’s old vines. … We plant now, and we have to wait 30 years, at least.”

Wine & Soul also makes a more fruit-driven wine from plots around the Pintas vineyard called Pintas Character. The 2015 Pintas Character ($30) displays dense, dark black fruit with firm structure, a hint of licorice and a slight note of dried herbs.

More recently, they took over a property that had been in Borges’ family called Quinta da Manoella, which is a mix of old vines and younger plantings. The 2015 Manoella ($20), made from younger vines, is fresh, fruity and elegant, with red and black fruit, a hint of licorice and fine tannins, while the 2015 Quinta da Manoella Vinhas Velhas ($100), made from the old vines, is elegant yet mouthfilling, a little wild and very distinctive.

Although the couple is known for their table wines, Borges’ family was in the Port business, and the Manoella property came with a large stock of old Port that’s still in the casks. A 70-year-old sample drawn from one of the casks was nutty but still very fresh and almost fruity. Stunning. Tavares believes in the future of Port but says they started with table wine because of the difficulty of establishing a small Port business these days.

Quinta da Boavista is a small and relatively new project on a historic 19th century property. The property, which includes a lovely old manor house and dramatic bowl-shaped, terraced vineyard, sits just above the Douro. The 2014 Boavista Reserva ($73) is bright and nicely balanced, with warm berry, some oak spice, a hint of pencil shavings and medium tannins. The 2013 is currently available in the States.

Boavista is owned by Brazilian Marcelo Lima and Briton Tony Smith, who own another Douro estate, Quinta das Tecedeiras. That winery’s 2014 Flor das Tecedeiras ($22), an unoaked wine made from north-facing vineyards, is lively and approachable, with bright berry and a hint of licorice.

The Quinta Nova estate dates to the 1700s and has been owned since 1999 by Amorim, the world’s largest cork company. Amorim has renovated the property, opening a hotel and restaurant. The wines are good, too, and quite affordable. The 2015 Quinta Nova Pomares Tinto ($16) is bright, plump and easy to drink., while the 2015 Quinta Nova ($21) is bright and pure, with flavors reminiscent of cherry pie (but without the sweetness) and medium tannins.

Quinta do Vallado is another property that has embraced hospitality, with a small hotel and guided winery visits. The wines are also very good. The 2015 Quinta do Vallado Douro Red ($23) displays lively red fruit, a hint of licorice, medium weight and tannins. The 2015 Field Blend Reserva ($65), a blend of 45 grape varieties, including 100-year-old vines, is more full-bodied, with red and black fruit, a hint of white pepper, some baking spice and firm but approachable tannins. There’s also a single-variety bottling, the 2015 Touriga Nacional ($60), whose fruity aromas give way to ample dark berry flavors and a slight leafy note.

In a remote part of the upper Douro, near the border with Spain, there’s an ambitious project called Duorum. The area is hotter and drier than the main part of the Douro, so the vines are irrigated for more consistent quality. The property is about 250 acres, and about 100 are currently in production, with some vines on slopes and others on a flatter part at the top of the hill. “All of this was done from zero,” co-owner Jose Maria Soares Franco said as he took me on a bumpy drive through the vineyard. The first vintage, 2007, was made from rented vineyards and purchased grapes.

The different reds come from different parts of the vineyard. The 2015 Duorum Tons Tinto ($11), from the flatter part at the top, is easy to drink, with bright berry fruit. The 2015 Colheita ($20) – half of the grapes come from the slopes, while the other half are from the top of the hill – is dark and dense, with ample black fruit, some spicy notes, nice freshness and fine tannins.

The 2015 Reserva Old Vines ($45), made from 90-plus-year-old vines, is ripe yet fresh, with concentrated black fruit and firm but approachable tannins. It’s still quite tight at this young age.

A lot of table wine producers make a little Port, too. And some of the major Port producers have gotten into the act with table wines. For example, Symington Family Estates, one of the biggest Port producers (its brands include Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s), has made a big commitment to table wines and recently announced plans to build a winery dedicated to their production.

Symington has a bargain-priced table wine brand, Altano; the 2015 Altano ($12) is fresh, fruity, spicy and easy to drink. Also part of the table wine lineup are the 2015 Vale do Bomfin ($13), which has lively, spicy red berry fruit and some drying tannins on the finish, and the 2015 Pombal do Vesuvio ($24), which is dense and lively, with dark berry fruit, a hint of licorice, a wet stone note and firm but approachable tannins.

The Symington family also has a joint venture with Bruno Prats, former owner of Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux, called Prats & Symington. Their top wine, Chryseia, sells for around $75, but there’s a much less expensive, easy-to-drink wine, the 2015 Prats & Symington Prazo de Roriz ($15), which is a little peppery, with bright berry and medium tannins.

Ramos Pinto Port has a good table wine brand called Duas Quintas. The 2015 Duas Quintas Tinto ($15) shows plenty of bright berry fruit with a hint of spiciness and some structure, while the 2014 Reserva ($40) has more body, weight and complexity. The 2013 Churchill’s Douro Red ($18), from another Port producer, is made in a fairly modern style.

I’ve devoted a lot of space to the reds, but the Douro is home to some excellent whites, too. In many cases, the whites come from higher-elevation sites, which are a little cooler and preserve acidity in the grapes. The best examples are quite racy and fresh – remarkable, considering how hot the Douro is.

In addition to its outstanding reds, Wine & Soul makes the delicious 2016 Guru Branco ($40), which is creamy, complex and very fresh, with racy citrus, white peach and green apple flavors. A more affordable option from Duas Quintas is the very tasty 2016 Branco ($15), which adds a note of dry honey. The 2016 Duorum Tons Branco ($11) is very floral, with some minerality. And the 2015 Quinta do Vallado Prima Moscatel Galego ($25) is also quite floral, with racy white fruit and lime flavors. (Note that unlike some moscatels, this one is dry.)