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Some Thoughts about Douro Red Wines

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It is now nearly nineteen years that I have been responsible for looking after Quinta do Noval, and eight years since with a group of private investors we acquired Quinta da Romaneira. Although I am based here at Château Pichon-Longueville Baron in Bordeaux, I lost my heart to the Douro a long time ago, and return there whenever I can. The Douro Valley is one of the world’s great vineyard regions that has found a sublime expression in great Vintage Ports and old Tawny Ports, and I think it would be hard to find any one who loves these wines more than I do.

However, a love of Port does not mean that one cannot also find the development of the new Douro red wines over the past few years very exciting. One of the remarkable things is how recent the phenomenon is, and the extent of the progress that has been made in such a short time. We launched our first red wines at Quinta do Noval, and also at Quinta da Romaneira, only in 2004. We are currently selling the 2008s and just beginning with the 09s. The pattern is similar for many of the new Douro wine producers, with one or two having started a little earlier, one or two a little later, but generally it is all very recent, and yet these wines are already beginning to be noticed and to establish themselves as serious wines meriting the attention of wine lovers all over the world.

When we started our red wine project, we posed ourselves a number of questions, the answers to which have been evolving with time. The first concerned the grape varieties to be used. Of the many authorised red grape varieties in the Douro, the Tinta Roriz, generally considered to be the same as the Spanish Tempranillo (though we have our doubts about how similar it in fact is) had already proved itself a little further upstream on the Spanish side of the border in Ribeira del Duero, and most of our first experiments were with this variety. However we were never totally convinced by the results we obtained from Roriz on its own. This is perhaps either a result of the conditions in the Douro being very different to those in Ribeira del Duero, or because the Tinta Roriz is not exactly the same thing as Tempranillo, or maybe both.

Tinta Roriz. Douro
Tinta Roriz. Douro

Although we do use some Roriz, particularly in the Cedro blend for Noval, and also in the Sino blend for Romaneira, we have concentrated more on the Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca grapes, and to a lesser extent Tinto Cao. Also, perhaps controversially, we have planted some Syrah, and we use this both in blends with Portuguese grape varieties (for the Cedro of Noval), and also to make very small volumes of single varietal wines, both at Quinta do Noval and at Romaneira.

Here are all the grapes concerned.
Here are all the grapes concerned.

Among the many questions to which we are slowly evolving answers are the following:

Is it more interesting to make single varietal wines in the Douro, whether from Douro varieties or from others, or are blends the way forward?

Among the Douro varieties, which ones might be suitable for single varietals if one decides to pursue that route?

Given the richness and diversity of the Portuguese grape varieties, why bother to plant a French varietal such as Syrah? Do such varietes have any place at all in the future of Douro wines?

What vinification methods should we use? Do we tread the grapes in lagares, as for Port, or do we vinify in vat? What sort of extraction methods are appropriate? What sort of policy should we adopt regarding oak?

What should be our aim in producing Douro Red wines? Are we making fruit driven early drinking wines on what might a while ago have been called the “New World Model”, or are we in the old world trying to make terroir based wines that may require ageing to reveal their full personality?

Having posed these questions here, I will try to give some answers which will indicate the direction in which we at least are going. This is obviously an individual view, based on our experiences at Noval and Romaneira, and also inevitably on personal preferences. There is a lot of exciting experimentation going on in the Douro, and you will find many different answers to these questions. Part of the fun is that different people with radically different ideas will give you different answers, but may be making very exciting wines with entirely different philosophies. There is a lot of individuality and character in the Douro: in the terroirs, in the varieties, in the people, and this shows in the wines.

To return to our questions.

1) Is it more interesting to make single varietal wines in the Douro, whether from Douro varieties or from others, or are blends the way forward?

2)Among the Douro varieties, which ones might be suitable for single varietals if one decides to pursue that route?

Regarding single varietals or blends, my clear answer is that we like both, and so we make both. So far we have only made Touriga Nacional as a single Douro varietal, at Noval and at Romaneira, but I am sure there will be others in the future. What I particularly like about Touriga Nacional as a single varietal for red wine is its wonderful delicate floral aromatic quality. At its best, and with a few years of bottle age, Touriga Nacional will develop a delicious aroma redolent of wild Douro roses. We discovered this almost by accident at Noval when we made a small experimental volume of Touriga Nacional in 2004 and set it aside to age in bottle. It was only a couple of years later when we opened it that we realised this: it had been pretty closed up at the beginning when we bottled it: time was required to reveal its potential. It is still getting better, although alas we only have a few bottles left of that first wine. We do not yet know what will really be the ageing potential of these wines: our experience is too short.

But there is also a lot to be said in favour of blends. We particularly like a blend of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. Touriga Franca has the characteristic of rarely reaching more than 12.5 degrees potential alcohol, which makes it an excellent element in a blend in the Douro, where high sugar levels in the grapes and this high potential alcohol levels (see previous blog on this subject) need careful management. For our top blended wines at both Noval and Romaneira in recent years, we have gravitated to a blend of mostly Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa, the Francesa element adding freshness and balance, and very often we round out the blend with a small element of Tinto Cao, an eccentric grape variety, very late ripening, and not much planted, but capable of producing very high quality, and which for some reason seems to add something to the Touriga blends.

3) Given the richness and diversity of the Portuguese grape varieties, why bother to plant a French varietal such as Syrah? Do such varietes have any place at all in the future of Douro wines?

This is a tough one. Quite a few people have posed me this kind of question, assuming that because of my love for the Douro and its wines I would buy into the argument that with all the different grape varieties already existing in the Douro, there is really no point in trying other grape varieties in the region. Of course I understand this point of view, and the majority of the wines we make at Noval and at Romaneira are made from 100% Douro varieties such as Tourigas Nacional and Franca; Tinto Cao; Tinta Roriz. However, I think it is perfectly valid to experiment with other grape varieties as well: if the result is a success, then of course we continue. And if it isn’t, we stop. Two varieties that illustrate this approach are Syrah and Cabernet, which we first planted in 2000. Both thrive in the Douro, but in different ways. The results we have had with Cabernet are perfectly decent wines, but dominated more by the varietal character of Cabernet than by the terroir of the Douro. In fact the wines we have made so far from Cabernet in the Douro are more like hot country New World varietal wines than anything else. Since this is exactly what we do not want to do, we are discontinuing Cabernet in the Douro and have grafted the vines, usually with Touriga Franca. The Syrah on the other hand seems to adapt perfectly to being in the Douro, and the resulting wines are an expression of the Douro terroir through the Syrah grape. For this reason we are very happy with the results of this experiment and intend to continue. The only drawback is that since Syrah is not yet an authorised Douro variety, any wine that contains Syrah, such as Noval’s Cedro (around 30%) Noval’s Labrador (100%) or Quinta da Romaneira Syrah (100%), has to be labeled as “Vinho Regional Duriense” rather than DOC Douro. I think this is a bit of a shame, as these wines are entirely Douro in personality, but customers do not seem to mind one way or the other. As is so often the case, the intricacies of local regulations are very interesting to introspective producers or regulators, but not very relevant to the people who really matter, who are the ones who buy and drink the wines.

Other varietals we have tried in very small experimental plantings include Petit Verdot, which gave a very encouraging first result last year at Romaneira, and I think will merit a single varietal bottling, and Mourvedre, which does not seem so far to like the Douro as much as we though it would.

So my answer to the question is that I think it is worthwhile to make such experiments, always with the aim of discovering the key to making great red wines in the Douro valley that are authentic expressions of their terroir, and I believe that when these experiments are successful, as they have been so far with Syrah in particular, then there is a future for these varieties in the Douro, either on their own or in a blend with other Douro varieties.

Of course there are purists who insist that wines from the Douro should only be made with existing Douro varieties, and we make many wines that satisfy the most demanding of purists, such as the Quinta do Noval red wine, or the Quinta da Romaneira red and Reserva red, all of which are made only from noble Douro varieties, but I think one also has to keep an open mind to the possibility that other grapes might be capable of making authentic Douro wines. In any case, grape varieties have historically travelled long distances until they have found their current homes: the Douro was not created on the Third Day with all its existing grape varieties in place– they are there because human beings planted them there. This is an ongoing process, and I feel that we are part of it in trying out new ideas from time to time.

What vinification methods should we use? Do we tread the grapes in lagares, as for Port, or do we vinify in vat? What sort of extraction methods are appropriate? What sort of policy should we adopt regarding oak?

With regard to this question, I can only give the answers that we have evolved so far, without in any way suggesting that they are definitive ones. Many friends and colleagues in the Douro make wines that I love using quite different methods to ours. I don’t think there is necessarily a right or a wrong answer to these questions, even if we adopt a way of working because we believe in it for our wines. So, regarding lagares, we don’t use them for red wine either at Noval or Romaneira. Our reasoning is that many of the Douro varieties are naturally very tannic, with small berries and thick skins. This is fine for making Port, where strong tannins are both desirable and pose no difficulty because of the residual sugar in Port, which balances the tannins. However, I believe that one of the keys to making serious red wine in the Douro is careful management of tannin, and the very extractive nature of foot treading in lagares makes this difficult, so we vinify our red wines in temperature controlled stainless steel vats, with the aim of having as light a hand as possible in our extractive methods. Regarding wood, our approach has definitely evolved since the beginning, when we used more new oak than we now do. Douro wines can be quite easily strongly marked by wood, and today we use a varying proportion of new oak, perhaps 30% for the Quinta reds, and the rest barrels that have had one and two wines in them, some the result of our previous activities here, and some bought in from Bordeaux (from Pichon in fact).

Finally:

What should be our aim in producing Douro Red wines? Are we making fruit driven early drinking wines on what might a while ago have been called the “New World Model”, or are we in the old world trying to make terroir based wines that may require ageing to reveal their full personality?

On this one I feel the answer is clear: we are obviously in the old world, in one of the great historic vineyard regions of Europe, whose terroir and whose grape varieties have long since proved their capacity to produce wines, in the form of Vintage and Tawny Ports, of great depth complexity and finesse, capable of revealing wonders through long ageing. I am convinced that the Douro can also produce great unfortified red wines, capable of long ageing and capable of taking their place among the great wines of the world. This does not mean that we cannot make very seductive wines that can be ready to drink early: there are quite delicious Douro reds ready for drinking now from the 2008 and 2009 vintages. But I am confident that as time goes by we will discover the full potential for ageing that these wines possess. As I said at the beginning, the extraordinary thing about the Douro wine phenomenon is how recent it all is and how exciting the wines are that have so far been produced in this short period. There are already great things to be discovered among the new red wines of the Douro, and the next few years are sure to reveal some thrilling discoveries.

About alcohol levels in wine: A great red Bordeaux should be fresh, balanced, fine, delicate and aromatic.

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I am often asked to comment on the issue of alcohol levels in wine, and so I thought I would take the opportunity to put down some thoughts on this question. I can only really comment in the context of the vineyards that I look after, and it seems to me that the issue is relevant to two regions in particular: Bordeaux and the Douro Valley.

To take first the subject in the context of Bordeaux, it is true that in properties like Château Pichon-Longueville Baron and Château Petit-Village, average natural alcohol levels are higher than they used to be. I would stress that higher acohol levels are never our aim, but rather the logical consequence of the way we work in the vineyards today, which has evolved considerably compared to how it was twenty or more years ago.

Some of the more vociferous objections to the levels of alcohol in Bordeaux wines today tend to come from older generation wine experts, whether writers or in the trade, often from the UK. The general argument seems to be that Bordeaux has somehow lost its soul in the pursuit of ripeness, and that “true Claret” should be more like the wines of yesteryear, with lower alcohol levels, wines of the kind that were often unapproachable for years, even decades, only to reveal their true greatness after a very long period. This is something of a caricature, but it is still a point of view one hears, though increasingly rarely.

I think it is important to realise how much the way that we work in the vineyards has changed in Bordeaux. In former times yields per hectare were far higher: twice as much as today, and sometimes more. Selection today is much stricter, both in the vineyard, and when the grapes arrive in the chai. Selection is also far stricter in the blending room, when it comes to selecting the lots of wine for the Grand Vin. The aim of all this endeavour, which amounts to being strict with oneself, and limiting production, is to achieve higher quality. It goes without saying that the elimination of less than perfect grapes before vinification, leads to greater precision and more finesse in the wines – you only have to look at the end of the day at what has been rejected at the sorting table to realize that it is better that this matter was not included in the wine.

But above all, the acceptance of lower yields – within reason –enables us to achieve far more regularly phenological ripeness of the grapes, with the result that today it is relatively rare to taste young red Bordeaux of Grand Cru quality with the green unripe hard tannins that could in the past be a characteristic of cooler years. Such wines are lamented only by a few, and the vast majority of wine drinkers appreciate the fact that high quality can be achieved in most years today. An example in point is the 2007 vintage, which in former times would have probably produced under-ripe grapes, but which in fact produced some lovely wines, very approachable today. This has been achieved at the cost of a lot of hard work in the vineyards and the sacrifice of quantity.

A side effect of this trend however, has inevitably been that average alcohol levels have risen somewhat. At Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, our wines have regularly been at 13 degrees for some years, and at Petit Village, where there is obviously more Merlot, we sometimes rise to 14. I can only stress that these slightly higher alcohol levels are not the aim, they are the consequence of the unrelenting pursuit of higher quality. Above all, the central point seems to me to be that the wines should taste balanced and harmonious. If one notices the alcohol then that indeed is regrettable, but if the wines are as they should be, then all one notices is the wine itself, which is what we are aiming for.

It is important to understand that the effect of achieving more regularly greater phenolic ripeness is not just to achieve higher sugar levels and so higher potential alcohol levels, but also, crucially, riper and finer tannins. We choose the date of picking based on our tasting of the grapes, but also on our analyses of polyphenols and IPTs which usually indicate the optimum phenolic ripeness a couple of days after the desired sugar levels. Sugar levels are not the only measure in other words. The result of picking at the optimum moment – and it is equally important both to wait for the right moment, and also not too wait too long, as over-ripeness must be avoided – is to achieve tannins that are full round, ripe and silky, and it is this, together with the natural acidity in the grape, that balances out the alcohol level, and ensures that the overall impression is one of equilibrium and harmony.

I am a wholehearted subscriber to the idea that great red Bordeaux should be fresh, balanced, fine, delicate, aromatic, the kind of wine of which one can drink with pleasure a few glasses with food, and arise from the table feeling refreshed and clear headed. I think the best wines of recent years triumphantly achieve exactly this, even if their natural alcohol levels may be a degree or so higher than in years gone by.

If one takes the specific example of Château Pichon-Longueville Baron, the quantity of Grand Vin produced in recent years has been half the amount produced previously. But quite obviously the purpose of this radical reduction in the quantity of wine produced is to make the most beautiful Château Pichon-Longueville Baron possible, and a slightly higher average alcohol level is just a consequence of what we are doing, and not the aim.

The second place where the issue arises, and where the situation is rather different, is the Douro Valley. One of the most exciting developments of recent years in the Douro has been the appearance of high quality red wines vinified usually from the noble Port wine varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, or Francesa, Tinto Cao, Tinta Roriz etc.. At Noval we have now been making high quality red wines since 2004, and I am so enthused by the potential for these wines that with a group of private investors we acquired the historic vineyard of Quinta da Romaneira a little further uo the valley with the primary purpose of making Douro red wines, although we also make small amounts of high quality Port wines, both Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage and aged tawnies.

Of course the Douro has much more sunshine than Bordeaux, and grapes can often attain high sugar levels, which translate into high alcohol levels in the wine. With Port, this is not so much of a problem: if you are going to fortify the wine during fermentation, it is not much of an issue whether the potential alcohol of harvested grapes is 14 or 15 degrees. With red wine the situation is clearly different, and we have certainly produced wines of 14.5 and sometimes a little higher.

Again, I think that the most important thing is how the wine tastes: if you notice the alcohol level when you taste the wine, then that is undesirable. But usually, if you have a powerful spicy aromatic Douro red, with great fruit and all its elements in balance, my experience is that you do not notice the alcohol when tasting the wine, at least not as a negative element. Naturally the drinking experience is slightly different than for a classic Bordeaux wine: the simple answer is just to drink a little less if the alcohol level is high. However, having said that, we have noticed that Touriga Franca or Francesa very rarely, even in Douro conditions, rises above 12.5 degrees potential alcohol, and so we are blending more of this grape variety in our Quinta do Noval blend than previously, and one of the principal reasons is this variety’s ability to lower the average alcohol level in the final blend. It also happens that its fine aromatic qualities marry very well with the Touriga Nacional to make a great wine, so the outcome is successful in every way. In recent years we have been both planting and grafting more Touriga Franca/Francesa in the Douro for these reasons.

In conclusion, I don’t think higher alcohol levels in wine desirable, and we try to avoid them, but sometimes they inevitably come about, whether it is from a policy of lower yields and stricter selection in Bordeaux, or because of higher levels of sunshine as in the Douro. I believe that the important thing is that when you do have wines with higher alcohol levels there is no perception of this on the taste: as long as the wine is harmonious and balanced then I do not see it as a problem. Naturally if one sees a high alcohol level on the label of a bottle you need to adjust the amount you might decide to drink accordingly, but that is just common sense. I cannot say it is something that I worry about very much in my personal drinking: what matters to me is how the wine tastes: if you have a great glass of wine in front of you at 13 or 14 degrees, and that level is the result of all the complex factors that went into making the wine what it is, I think you just have to accept that, and enjoy the wine, which is the sole purpose of everything that we do.