Passagem, a joint venture between the Bergqvist Port family and Jorge Moreira, Douro Superior, DOC Douro, Portugal, 2009
The background to Douro table wines
The popularity of port, whilst not as badly off as sherry, is not as it was. Douro’s red table wines are a necessary diversification for the region, as much as any business needs to diversify these days. Table wines have always been made in the Douro, but not of any quality, until comparatively recently that is. Things have come full circle from the early 18th century when most wine was dry but with a little spirit added to stabilise wines for export, through the popularity and slow decline of fortified Port, and back to table wine, but now of good and improving quality, at pretty much all price points.
The permitted varieties for table wine are the same as those for Port, that is tinta barroca, tinta cao, tinta roriz (aka aragonez and tempranillo), touriga franca, touriga nacional, and many others; there are also whites from moscatel galego (aka muscat blanc a petit grains), gouveio, rabigato and viosinho. Most wines are blends, benefiting from experience gained with Port, though there is a trend for varietal touriga nacional. Cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay have been planted, but if included in a blend the wine is classified as regional rather than DOC.
Barca Velha is Portugal’s most famous and expensive table wine, created after a study trip to Bordeaux to study vinification methods, by Ferreira Port’s technical director in 1950, with first vintage in 1952. Other producers followed in the 70s and 80s, but production methods were unsuited, being those for Port, with excessive tannin extraction of the native varieties and no temperature control. In 1979 the Douro region was awarded a DOC for table wine.
After Portugal’s entry to the EC in 1986, wine quality, table and Port, was given a boost, with funding available to re-equip with stainless steel and temperature control. But there was no major rush to produce table wine, as the supply of grapes to Port was more economically rewarding, and so these wines were only made when there was a harvest glut.
The first DOC wine of what is called the New Douro, was a Dumas Quintas red of 60k bottles, which was an immediate success, with the same producer launching a white in 1992, based on arinto, rabigato and viosinho.
Dirk Niepoort, of the eponymous Port house, has been in the vanguard and the main driver in the development of quality table wines, encouraging other producers to follow suit, and more recently some major Port houses have created table wines. It has been commented that the since the emergence of quality table wines, the quality of Port has improved, no doubt from a resultant increase in quality of raw material, as grapes find their way to optimum destination – Port or table wine.
Which areas of the Douro suit table wine production? Most come from schistous soils in the temperate regions of the Baixo Corgo, with most rainfall and highest fertility, producing the lightest Ports, where margins for good quality table wine from C or D grade vineyards are similar to that for LBV Port; schistous soils at mid-slope 300-400m in Cima Corgo with less rainfall and low fertility, and from mixed soils in the hotter and drier Douro Superior, which gives the most robust – full-bodied, concentrated, tannic, yet rounded wines.
The 5 main varieties used in table wine, with descriptions adapted from Passionate about Port, are:
- touriga nacional – the finest quality Port, giving intense concentrated wines, with a nose of violets and bergamot, and flavours of raspberry, cassis and mulberry, with potentially high levels of tannin.
- touriga franca for acidity, fruit and perfume, showing a floral nose of rose and violet, with notes of red fruits, blackberry and bergamot.
- tinta roriz (aka tempranillo and aragonez), the most planted variety in Portugal, provide tannins, body and length. A spicy nose, with notes of mulberry, cherry and blackberry.
- tinta cao for sweetness, pepper and spice.
- tinta barroca for sweetness and structure.
These varieties whilst providing perfume and aroma to die for, do not, for table wines, need the high level of tannins required for the long maturation periods of some Ports. Taming of the tannins and increasing acidity to give a softer wine, is achieved by planting on north facing slopes at high altitude (avoiding the summer heat of up to 40C) , earlier picking, destemming, gentle pressing, gentle extraction by careful management of pre-fermentation maceration times and temperature, and lower fermentation temperatures than for Port, shorter fermentation times for wines for early drinking and less overt use of oak.
Quality New Douro reds are aged in new oak pipes of 630l for 6 years, at which point the majority of oak based flavour compounds and tannins have been leached out. The organoleptically neutral pipes are then turned over to Port ageing. Thus far New Douro reds have yet to achieve venerable age to be able to assess their ageability.
The best whites seem to come from the Baixo Corgo at high altitude, where acidity is better retained.
Table wines now make up more than 50% of the Douro’s output.
Which producers are involved now? Some red examples, with most showing full body with high alcohol of 14-14.5% abv, rich concentrated aromas and flavours, and a 5-10 year drinking window:
- Ferreira, owned by Sogrape, produce the iconic Barca Velha, for example the 1995 vintage fetches about £400. Just 17 vintages have been made since 1952, the latest being 2009, at £260.
- Niepoort, produce Redoma, a black fruited balsamic wine, 13.5%, €30; riesling is also produced; and Quinta de La Rosa Reserva, intense and concentrated nose of mocha, back cherry, raspberry, blackberry, violet and herbs, 14%, at £40
- Symingtons, who own many Port houses. Table wines start at about £8, with for example a tinta roriz/touriga franca blend, showing a deep hue, warm, ripe, spicy fruit and rich, velvety tannins, at about £14; also Chryseia, created in partnership with Bruno Prats of Cos d’Estournel, aged in French oak barrels of 400l, giving restrained oak and a soft fruity palate, at about £35.
This wine: Natural cork closure, 14% abv, available UK, £12
WSET style tasting note
Appearance: clear and bright, deep intensity ruby, showing tears.
Nose: clean on the nose, of pronounced intensity, developing, with lightly high-toned aromas of black cherry and over-ripe black berry, a whiff of kirsch, stewed red cherry, a red floral note of peony, whiffs of peppery spice, and woody nuances.
Palate: a dry wine, with medium acidity, ripe medium (+) tannins, medium (+) alcohol and a full body, with a smooth texture, a medium (+) intensity, with aromas of black cherry boiled sweets, sweet ripe black plum juice, black berry, black fruit jam, and a woody nuance. A medium length with a clean moderately grippy black fruited finish.
Quality: a good quality wine, with a good acidity-tannin balance, in tune with alcohol and flavour intensity. A wine showing some complexity, with a good level of fruit concentration, and lots of residual fruit, but a disappointing length.
Readiness for drinking/potential for ageing: ready to drink now, well-balanced and showing signs of tertiary development, with spicy, kirsch and spicy notes, there is potential here for further development with cellaring over 2-3 years.
- Portugal’s wine regions
- Douro terroir
- Mayson, R. (2003). The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal, Mitchel Beazley Classic Wine Library
- Magalhaes, N., Barros, A., et al. (2011). Francisco Girao 1904-1973, An innovator in viticulture in the North of Portugal, Vol.2. Published by Fund Francisco Girao.
- Ahmed, S. (2012) Douro red, Decanter magazine panel tasting, May 2012.
- Passionate about Port – Port grape varieties