Drinks Atlas: Douro Valley, Portugal - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Drinks Atlas: Douro Valley, Portugal

Change is afoot in the world’s oldest designated wine region. Demarcated in 1756, northern Portugal’s Douro Valley is the first regulated DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) and celebrated globally for production of the sweet, fortified wine Port. Yet shifting trends and a growing number of independent producers are forging a divergent future for the historic DOC.

The Douro Valley is located approximately 60 miles inland of the coastal city Porto, and is divided into three subregions: Baixa Corgo, Cima Corgo, and Douro Superior. Famous for its terraced vineyards carved from schist and granite soils by hand and occasionally dynamite, the Douro produces an array of both Port and unfortified wines. This is due to the region’s diverse microclimates, caused by massive elevation changes in the topography and proximity to the Douro River, says Rachel Farah Miers, owner of boutique Portuguese wine importer Farah Trading Co.

And while Port may be Portugal’s most iconic beverage, the wine is in fact a British brainchild. “The development of the Port industry was largely conceptualized, then undertaken, by the English,” explains Miers. As the British increasingly relied upon Portuguese production during the 17th century, the wines—transported by ship—frequently deteriorated on the journey. Britain’s solution? Dose the barrels with brandy.

British influence remains felt in today’s Port industry. Since the 1700s, certified Port was exclusively bottled in the Porto suburb Vila Nova de Gaia, preventing Douro Valley producers from bottling on-site. As a result, large conglomerates continue to dominate the category, says Miers. However, in the 1970s and ’80s, as Portugal transitioned from dictatorship to democracy and joined the European Union in 1986, policies were liberalized, breaking up the region’s long-standing Port monopolies. Douro-based wine estates, called quintas, began bottling wines at origin, and new funding helped modernize agricultural practices and access to winemaking technology.

As Douro Valley’s independent-producer scene blossomed, global tastes shifted away from heavy regulation and cloying sweetness, causing a decline in Port sales. In response, nimble producers are exploring drier, less classic Port styles like rosés and whites; producing unfortified wines; and develop- ing the valley’s bourgeoning wine-tourism industry. “The traditional Port drinker you think of is the guy with the cigar, [after] dinner; that’s changing because people are changing and demographics are changing,” says Miers.

Fast Facts

*Portugal is home to approximately 250 indigenous grape varietals. “One of the big challenges right now is the impact of global warming,” Miers says. “There are certain grapes that—in the 1700s and 1800s, and even 20 years ago, did very well in the Douro—just can’t hold up to the heat. You’re seeing producers ad- just to try to make sure that the grapes being planted have a better tolerance of drought conditions and incredible amounts of heat.”

*The Douro was producing Port almost exclusively from the 18th century, but its first modern unfortified wine appeared in 1952. Such wines have become increasingly popular, and today they comprise roughly 50 percent of the region’s output.

*The tradition of winemaking in the Douro Valley began nearly 2,000 years ago with the Romans. In 2001, the region was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its display of humankind’s relationship with the natural environment.

5 Small Producers To Try

Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo Property of the Portuguese Royal Family until 1725, Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, located in the Cima Corgo subregion, has been an active site of vineyards, orchards, and olive groves since several years following the Douro’s demarcation. With a focus on unfortified wines—producing whites, reds, and rosés—the estate also produces Port and maintains a small on-site museum dedicated to the region’s history. quintanova.com

Quevedo Port Quevedo is among the new generation of small family-run operations in the Douro Valley. Grape growers prior to 1986’s legislative changes, Quevedo currently farms 114 hectares and is in the process of converting to organic practices. A female winemaker heads the team, which produces a range of Ports in addition to unfortified wine and gin. quevedoportwine.com

Quinta do Tedo Situated at the confluence of the Douro and Tedo Rivers, Quinta do Tedo
is a family winery dating back to the 1700s, with certified-organic vineyards still plowed by horse. “Very old-school,” says Miers. “[They are] known for Port, wine, and olive oil. Their Porto rosé is known as one of the best in the Douro!” quintadotedo.com

Quinta de la Rosa A historic, family-run property, Quinta de la Rosa relaunched production of Port, which remains their priority, in 1988 and soon after began making table wine. Today, La Rosa also puts out beers influenced by the estate’s winemaking. Miers recommends La Rosa’s white Port, which displays ripe fruit qualities and a dry finish. quintadelarosa.com

Quinta do Portal Prioritizing sustainability and integrated farm management, family-operated Quinta do Portal makes unfortified and Port wines, fortified Moscatel wine, and olive oil. The historic estate in the Cima Corgo subregion is said to be among the first generation of Douro winemakers to recognize the region’s potential for unfortified wines. quintadoportal.com

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