It has become almost a journalistic cliché to hail the development of Douro table wines over the last two decades. In this essay I will try to delve behind this assertion and look at the history of the development, the nature of the wines produced so far, the relationship behind the continuing production of Port and the table wines, and the prospects for the future.
The history of wine making in the Douro is long and complicated but it started with table wine consumed locally which was then followed by appreciation abroad. A key step was the discovery of the value of fortification in the seventeenth century, allowing wines to be transported in good condition, thereby creating a new and success style. Overproduction in the following century led to the Marques de Pombal’s world-first with the delimitation of the Douro area and the making of a distinction between good and bad sites. It was, however, only in the middle of the twentieth century, 1944, that Fernando Nicolaur de Almeida (Ferreira) laid down the challenge of producing great table wine in the shape of Barca Velha, following an inspirational visit to Bordeaux. This was something of an isolated event until, in the 1970s, work was done to isolate the top indigenous varieties for red and white wines. At Ramos Pinto work was done to chose from 83 different varieties to come up with a short list of 5 reds and 3 whites which have since been planted on 25,000ha across the Douro. By 2002 Jamie Goode could claim that the ‘trickle’ of quality wines had become a critical mass of producers who are passionate about producing the best wines, co-operating and spurring each other on to greater achievements. This has led to the situation today where the production of table wine, the combination of DOC Douro (1.3m cases) and Duriense regional wine (2.2m cases) is broadly the same as Port production (3.5m 9-litre cases).
As with other countries making new strides in wine, for example the Italian Super Tuscans, Portuguese producers have flirted with international varieties before deciding to concentrate on their own incredibly rich catalogue of unique varieties, red and white. This has led to broadly two styles of red, one featuring bold, extracted, primary, black fruit flavours and a second which has balanced this feature with greater elegance and the increasing subtle use of French oak (and indeed French expertise such as Bruno Prats). An example of the former is Niepoort’s Battuta, a field blend of 70-100 year-old vines which is macerated for 35 days, creating a wine of ‘intense colour from the dominant grape Tinta Amarela and balsamic, bitter-cherry richness’. By contrast, Vallado produces a 100% Touriga Nacional from short maceration to preserve freshness, resulting in a wine with ‘crushed-velvet perfume of violets and black and red fruit weaves vibrantly through the palate with fine long tannins supported by a compassionate blend of new and second-fill oak’. Even more intriguing are the top quality whites now being produced, again from local grape varieties. Charles Metcalfe comments on the complete transformation of the white wine scene over the last 30 years. He now lists five Douro whites in his top ten Portuguese whites, headed up by Wine & Soul Guru Vinho Branco Douro 2011, again a field blend headed up by Vosinho and Rabigato, ‘complex … very lean, with high acidity and good, Burgundian minerality’. In short, Portugal is now providing unique wines of high quality based on its own grape varieties and reflecting its distinctive soils and terroir.
With the growth of the success of table wines, Douro producers now need manage the relationship with its fortified wines. At one level the reputation of Port can be used to encourage consumers to try the table wines, but there are still difficult issues to tackle. The Port market itself is undergoing structural change with long term decline in volumes being nearly compensated for by selling higher cost lines. At Ramos Pinto the strategy is to use the wines which cannot be used for Port (due to fluctuating restriction of volumes through the beneficio system) to boost volumes of table wine, wines which would otherwise have to merely go to the distillery. Paul Symington states that while the top end of the Port market has a future, this is not necessarily the case for standard Port due to longterm decline in old markets such as France and Belgium. In this situation, Port is still the standard bearer for the Douro (and the 38,000 mainly small growers who depend on it for income) but revenue from Douro DOC wines (and investment in them from local and foreign sources) is helping to make the transition to a lower volume, higher profit Port sector. As yet the Douro table wines are a long way from making up the losses in value of Port to small farmers’ incomes but in the meantime the reputation of the table wines is being made. This is reflected in the most recent figures showing a 10% rise by volume in the first six months of Portuguese wine into the UK.
The prospect for Douro table wines is decidedly positive. This is despite the challenges of a difficult economic situation (both at home and in worldwide markets), strong competition from other emerging wine countries and the big task of educating consumers about the table wines. A decade ago Jamie Goode could list the positives of special soils, climate, local varieties, the scale of available vineyard and untapped potential; now we can replace ‘untapped potential’ with the Douro having a track record of producing good and great table wines on which it can build. Not surprisingly Paul Symington is a proponent, arguing that Douro wines need a champion to promote them to a prominent place in the world of wine. And after that there will be a story to tell about Douro sub-zones (Rio Torto v. Pinhão valley; Douro Superior v. Alto Douro; North-facing v. South-facing). These objectives indicate how far Douro table wines have travelled in the past two decades.