Quinta do Vale Meão started life as one of the shrewd acquisitions of Doña Antónia Adelaide Ferreira (owner of 30 quintas by the time of her death). In 1877 she purchased 270 hectares of land near Vila Nova de Foz Côa in Douro Superior, and established a quinta and vineyard; several generations along, it’s now owned by Doña Antónia’s descendant, Francisco (Vito) Olazabal.
The Meão Quinta occupies a deep loop (meander) in the upper Douro. Effectively a headland, there are multiple soils and aspects beneath a hilltop forest replete with wild boar (as depicted on the Meão coat of arms). The estate has 62 hectares of vines on three different soil types: slate, granite and alluvial gravel. The Touriga from granite tastes fresh like that of the Dão, whereas from schist it’s richer and fuller. The vines are planted in varietal blocks: Touriga Nacional 40%, Tinta Roriz 30%, Touriga Francesa 15%, Tinta Amarela 5%, Tinta Barroca 5% and Tinto Cão 5%. From 1998, Meão’s old cellar was renovated and turned into a modern winery, but retaining the old granite lagares. Table wine grapes are still foot-trodden in lagares, but finish fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless steel. Port grapes are trodden and fully fermented in lagares until spirit is added to stop fermentation and fix residual sugar at the desired level. The first Meão Tinto and Porto releases were from 1999, and met with great critical acclaim.
AA Ferreira is a wine business owned by descendents of Doña Adelaide Antonia, as is the Meão estate, and for a long time, Meão sold its fruit to Ferreira, principally for Port wine production, but from the 1950s was also the source of fruit for Ferreira’s radical attempt to make quality dry red wine in the Douro. Antecedent to contemporary attempts at great Douro red wine was a Douro Superior expression known as ‘Barca Velha’ (the ‘Old Boat’). Inspired by the great wines of Bordeaux, and hoping that the Douro was capable of making fine dry red wine, the management of AA Ferreira sent their head wine-maker on a study trip to Bordeaux in the early 1950s (almost exactly paralleling the story of Penfolds’ red wine pioneer in Australia, Max Schubert). Nicolau de Almeida began working with the fruit of a Ferreira-controlled estate, Quinta do Vale Meão, as source material, and Barca Velha has been intermittently produced since a first, experimental wine from 1952. Very expensive, and stylistically curious, it is nevertheless the precursor to the exciting wines emerging today from the vineyards of the Douro Valley. Back in the 1950s, Almeida had to resort to using blocks of ice protected in a sawdust covering and brought by boat up the Douro from Porto in order to cool his must! For much of the history of Barca Velha, the current owner of Meão (Vito Olazabel, as mentioned above) was also president of AA Ferreira. In 1998, Vito retired from Ferreira, in order to make his own wine from Meão, together with his son (also called Francisco, but known as Xito). Some fruit from Meão is still sold to Ferreira so that Barca Velha (and its second wine, ‘Ferreirinha’ … the affectionate diminutive nickname given to Dona Antónia) would still have a base in their historical source.
Nowadays the Meão estate’s table wine range comprises two pairs of allied expressions:
These are gorgeous wines of licorice and bluebells fossilised into a cool lignite mineral essence, with satin tannins and outstanding freshness given the warm climate.
Quinta do Vale Meão 'Meandro' Douro
30% Touriga Nacional, 30% Tinto Roriz, 30% Touriga Franca, 5% each Tintas Barroca and Amarela. Named in celebration of Meão’s situation within a meander of the Douro.
Meandro has coal briquette aromatics in which purple fruit pastilles nestle; these replicate in the mouth, where luscious fruits sit deep and down in an intensely earthy palate glinting with dark minerals. There’s a little glyceric gloss, lovely spice, fine tannin and natural acid nerve.
Quinta do Vale Meão ‘Meão’ Douro
55% Touriga Nacional, 35% Touriga Franca, with Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca. Foot trodden in lagares for 4 hours, then vinified in temperature controlled stainless steel vats. Grape varieties are vinified separately, then blended and aged in Allier barriques (2/3 new).
Meão follows ‘Meandro’s’ themes, with a purple fruit spectrum of baked cherries and India ink, blue flowers, boysenberry and lavender held deep in dark-spiced flashing Douro minerality. It’s a fabulous wine of marvellously controlled lushness.
Quinta do Vale Meão ‘Vinha dos Novos’ Touriga Nacional
This is a single vineyard varietal Touriga. Vinha dos Novos is a granite-soil vineyard.
After being crushed, the grapes were cooled down and trodden by foot for four hours in granite ‘lagares’, then transferred to old french oak vats and fermented for 10 days with controlled temperature. The wine was matured for 15 months in used Allier barriques. The name, ‘Novos’ refers to this vineyard’s location near to the recently built (‘Novo’ = new) winery on the property, rather than the old Barca Velha bodega further along the river.
Vegetal-floral in the way of Touriga Nacional, with bluebells, violets and beet flowers, tobacco and delightful hits of black fenugreek and fragrant juniper skins. The tannin base is of lush, ripe, thick skins, broadly, deeply leathery, bursting to life with red spice and a trace of peppermint. Remarkably soft for Touriga, the siltily earthen palate affects great elegance with very fine acidity.
Quinta do Vale Meão ‘Vinha do Cabeço Vermelho’ Tinta Roriz
A single vineyard varietal Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo, more-or-less). The fruit is destemmed, fermented in old wood, racked for the first 8 days for extraction and aeration. The wine aged in used barriques for 20 months. Grown in alluvial sands. The name ‘Cabeço Vermelho’ means “top red”, referring to the ferrous alluvium in the surface layer of this vineyard’s soil.
Varietal as heck, the nose leads off with briar and cola in a dark, scrubby register ... the briar is both the wiry herb you would imagine, but also a ‘briar’ ... an old, well-used tobacco cob (pipe). Darkly earthy, with sweet, soft alluvium underneath, the nose is open, inviting and has good energy - no slumping density. Crystalline minerals rim a round palate finishing gently earthen and lightly spiced. The tannin is ripely vegetal and savoury, both structuring and presenting the fruit (Howard Hughes would be proud).
It’s Tinta Roriz, for sure; it’s absolutely Douro, and utterly Meão. It’s cool.
Quinta do Vale Reserve Ruby Port
What the label says is ‘reserve ruby’. What you are getting is effectively very high quality late-bottled VP. It’s one of the great value wines going around! Lightly filtered, it’s stable in open bottle for a couple of weeks fairly easily.
The red note boysenberry/blue-note sarsaparilla fruit has lovely tannin definition, depth, complexity and absolutely maximum drinkability. An utter bargain!
Quinta do Vale Meão Vintage Port
60% T. Franca, 25% T. Nacional, with Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Sousão and others.
An explosive sweet licorice, herbs and blackcurrant pastille nose with sourberry thrills. The sweet, ripe-fruited palate opens to an amazing top’n’tail of spice and chocolate. A wine of great fleshy-velvety volume, with integral tannin-acid framing. Incredibly precise, profound and restrained.
Even more than Spain, Portugal is a wine country recovering from 20th Century devastations:
Post-phylloxera, political upheaval, military dictatorship, poverty, loss of confidence, an era of complacent, under-reaching co-operatives and the ongoing waning of quality and local authenticity are just now being overcome. Thanks in part to the EU, a renascent industry of delicious, and unique wines is among us!
The best wines of Portugal come from the VRs (regional zones) of Minho and Beiras. This spans most of Northern Portugal, starting just below River Minho (Miño in castellano) and extending a couple of hours south of Porto; and from the Atlantic coast to the mountains of the inland border with Spain. Within these zones are a half dozen appellations, which, for us, break down into four places that matter: Vinhos Verdes and Douro (in Minho); Dão and Bairrada (in Beiras). South of Bairrada, towards Lisboa and ultimately the Algarve, the climate is too hot for quality viticulture, with most wines requiring artificial acidification.
Portuguese wines can be official at any of 3 levels: firstly, quality protected place-specific DOCs (Denominaceo de Origem Controllada). DOCs are governed by a CVR - Comissão de Viticultura da Regiã, equating to the Consejo Regulador of a DO in Spain. There are currently 31 such appellations, covering 29 actual places, since the Douro Valley and Madeira house overlapping table and fortified wine appellations. There are a further 14 broader GIs, whose wines are labelled as VR (Vinhos Regionais, regional wines). Then generic country wine, or Vinho de Mesa.
The Douro Valley is the last wine place on a long river journey, which commences near Soria in remote north-eastern Castile. From here, Rio Duero flows roughly west and configures DOs Ribera del Duero, Cigales, Rueda and Toro, then Arribes del Duero at the border, then it gets a badge change and continues as the Douro for its final stretch, from the Portuguese border into the Atlantic. The area demarcated as Douro commences 60km upstream from the coast’s dual cities (Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia), and ranges east 90 km further towards the Spanish border.
The Douro Valley is home to both DOC Douro and DOC Porto. There are three Douro sub-zones:
The Douro Valley is an amazing place, facts alone don’t cut it …
The Douro itself is massive, imposing and impressive: strong, slow, deep, broad, winding. From its banks, steep hills reach up and away to a high, wide sky. Mostly, there is just river-and-hills, then sky. No room for townships and little place for roads, save for a narrow, treacherous flange carved alongside the river, into which the road up the valley is wound. It’s a crazy, tight, winding drive; many hours are needed to get to the Spanish border. It is possible to take a ferry or train from Porto to the Douro: safe and scenic, for sure. However, you almost certainly should hire a manual Audi and fang it on the tight bends all the way up river.
The valley is very humid. The heat-sink effect of the river causes fog to plume into the morning clouds low on the river, extending a smoky, hazy overhung affect deep into the morning. And then there is the soil. Well, actually there is no soil. The hills are layers of smoky mineral schist, which join with the grey river and clouds in a menace lowering towards midday, then the heat burns off the clouds and it’s all shiny metal slate glinting into the far away sky. Smoky, sultry Douro, glinting majestic.
Douro has long been home to ‘Port Wine’: big, strong and sweet, and fortified for the past two centuries. It has only recently been somewhere that ‘Dry Red Wine’ has been attempted, and these have only been successfully achieved since the early 2000s, although there is a significant historical antecedent to the idea of a Great Douro Red.
It’s hard to overstate the scale and pace of change that is has taken place in this spectacular wine region since the 1990s. The steeply terraced vineyards contain wonderful terroirs, but due to the economic dominance of the Port trade (and the socio-economic struggles of Portugal during the 20th century), it is only recently that Douro vineyards have been afforded the investment (of money and curiosity) needed to produce premium wines. Table wine has long been made here, but has been grim stuff in the past, usually badly made from low quality grapes, surplus to the requirements of Port producers.
Traditional Douro vineyards, whether for Ports or Douro Tintos are planted to a host of varieties which were traditionally inter-planted, co-harvested and co-fermented. These are known as ‘field blends’. Of late, there has been a trend towards planting varietal vineyards, particularly of Touriga Nacional and Tinto Roriz. Traditional handling was to foot tread, macerate and ferment in ‘lagares’ – open, shallow stone/concrete fermentation vats, and then to age wine in larger, older wood. Lately, there is more stainless steel, new small oak and other international technology in place. Such modernity is a mixed blessing here, as elsewhere, though ... today, you will find a mix of Douro expressions. You’ll see ‘high concept’ wines that taste like they do everywhere else in the world – stupid, ego-expressive wines of massive fruit and massive oak in heavy glass bottles, that really taste of nothing and/or nowhere. You’ll find straight varietal bottlings, field blends, varietal blends, and quite a few delicious earthy-textural whites, by the way. Of the reds, more-and-more we can find subtle wines expressing place with balance and grace. Mostly, the blends are best.
Antecedent to recent attempts at great Douro red wine was a Douro Superior expression known as ‘Barca Velha’ (the ‘Old Boat’). Inspired by the great wines of Bordeaux, and hoping that the Douro was capable of making fine dry red wine, the management of AA Ferreira sent their head wine-maker on a study trip to Bordeaux in the early 1950s (almost exactly paralleling the story of Penfolds’ red wine pioneer in Australia, Max Schubert, and the evolution of ‘Grange’). Nicolau de Almeida began working the Ferreira-controlled estate, Quinta do Vale Meão, as source material, and Barca Velha has been intermittently produced since a first, experimental wine from 1952. Very expensive, and stylistically curious (they can be quite thin, eucalpty-woody and oxidised), it is nevertheless the precursor to the exciting wines emerging today from the vineyards of the Douro Valley. Back in the 1950s, Almeida had to resort to using blocks of ice protected in a sawdust covering and brought by boat up the Douro from Porto in order to cool his must! There’s a second label, Ferreirinha.
Nowadays, we have the pleasure of Douro reds which avoid ‘Portiness’ (high alcohol, jammy fruit, low acid, thick and heavy extract). Various factors have helped reach this point. Most importantly, a critical mass of like-minded winemakers has emerged, utilising advances such as temperature-controlled crush-and-ferment, de-stemming and so on. Perhaps more important has been exploration of specific sites, aspects and soils to produce fruit better suited to table wine elegance. The chief locus of these pursuits is a group known as The Douro Boys, inimitably led by Cristiano van Zeller, maker of astonishingly good-and-good-value wines as Quinta do Vale Dona Maria. As well as working on his own project, since the mid-1990s Cristiano has also laboured long helping the other ‘Douro Boys’, Vallado and Meão in particular.
While the quality of contemporary Douro table wine is good overall, a variety of contradictory styles is emerging, in a similar fashion to the complex changes seen over the past couple of decades in Spain and Italy. Despite mono-varietal plantations, the introduction of new French oak, Inox fermenters - the panoply of technical possibilities - the most interesting wines retain a connection to varietal blends and the use of lagares. Of less interest are varietal Touriga Nacionals produced in accord with contemporary international-modernist orthodoxy, which tend to the heroic and monolithic.
The historical handprint of one Great Woman of Wine underlies this story. Adelaide Ferreira’s initials are those of the company which owned Quinta do Vale Meão when the Barca Velha project commenced. Meão nowadays makes Douro’s greatest red wine under its own label; the property is owned and the wine is grown and made by Adelaide’s descendents, Vito Olazabel and his children. Likewise, the Olazabal’s cousins, the Ferreiras of Quinta do Vallado in Cima Corgo are also descended from Doña Adelaide, and Vito’s son Chito (Francisco) makes the Vallado wines as well as assisting his father with the Meãos.
AA (Adelaide) Ferreira’s is a riveting story of a strong, determined and ultimately wealthy and powerful woman in the 19th century. Born in 1811, she was nicknamed Ferreirinha (little Ferreira), and the second wine of Barca Velha honours her in its naming. AA Ferreira itself, the Port house established by her father in 1751 has since been sold off to the giant Sogrape business. At the time of her death in 1892, she had gathered an empire of 29 discrete Quintas (wine estates). But she was far more than a fierce, successful businesswoman.
During the ravages of phylloxera, for example, rather than laying off her employees, as most other houses did, she invested heavily in parallel projects to employ her people until the vineyards and wine businesses were re-established. She was instrumental in the Douro’s recovery from the vine louse, traveling widely to study remedial techniques and innovating vineyard and winery practises in the process. For example, in 1868, she bottled the first ever Single Quinta Port from Quinta do Vesúvio.
Somewhat a ‘Wine Socialist’, during the down years after phylloxera, she began purchasing failed Quintas. This was not ‘Vulture Capitalism’, but a protection against that very thing: fearing British merchants preying on economically ruined family ventures, Adelaide purchased many properties and protected them while the families recovered, later selling them back at nominal prices.
Famously, she hid her 12 year old daughter in London in order to avoid the girl being married off to the Duke of Saldanha’s son. The wealthier she got, the more Adelaide invested in the poor, building hospitals and assisting the unfortunate and needy. It’s exceedingly appropriate that the finest wine of Portugal today, Quinta do Vale Meão Douro Tinto is her legacy.
Port wine, simply defined, is fortified wine from the Douro Valley, and is recorded as a commercial export from Porto since 1678. In truth, it’s a wee bit more complicated than that!
For starters, fortification has only been the norm since early in the 19th century. The title of this section quotes the Scot, JJ Forrester whose 1844 book, “A Word or two about Port Wine” took aim at those who ‘tampered’ with natural (ie dry, unfortified) Port. Forrester died in a boating accident on the Douro (Adelaide Ferreira was his companion, but survived, as her giant hooped skirts trapped air and kept her afloat!). Anyway, Forrester perhaps anticipated in spirit the Single Quinta movement and the move to dry, elegant unfortified Douro wines. In the meantime, there is a 200 years-strong tradition of adding ‘aguardente’ to Port, in a 115-to-435 litre ratio to fill a standard 550 litre Port ‘pipe’ (wooden barrel). Port is roughly 1/5th of 77% abv spirit. This is erroneously termed ‘brandy’ in much writing about Port, a term which more properly refers to the 95% pure alcohol spirits added to Sherry, Madeira and Australian fortifieds. This spirit is usually exogenously sourced (much of it from France, these days).
Next, there are two distinct streams of Port:
This distinction is in need of nuance: an LBV can be aged in cask for as much as 6 years and be classed as bottle-finished, whereas a Ruby could be bottled with only a year or so of cask maturation, yet be called a ‘wood’-finished wine. The strength of definition comes from delineating how each wine gets to be “ready to drink”: all those classified as ‘wood’ types are fully mature, stable and ready to drink when put into bottle, whereas (even with significant wood maturation prior to bottling) Vintage Ports will continue to mature, hence the bottle is the origin of their ultimate state. Late-bottled Vintage Ports can be classified as either type (see definition below).
Port production commences with fruit sourcing and fermentation in the Douro Valley, of course, but ageing has historically taken place in Vila Nova de Gaia – the twin city of Porto on the south bank of the Douro at the coast. Traditionally, the large Port houses based themselves in Gaia – a centre for ageing, blending, marketing and exportation. Recall the old imagery of Port workers rolling barrels down the Douro river to Gaia? No longer exactly how it’s done …! Some of the newer Single Quinta houses (such as the Douro boys) now do all of the cellar work on their estates up in the Douro itself. Many continue to make their Ports in Gaia, and some do both. Vila Nova de Gaia is a spectacular site for wine tourism - the south bank of the Douro is festooned with giant Port house branding just before the river breaches into the Atlantic.
Traditional Douro grape-growing has been on terraces (Socalcos) carved out of the steep schist slopes rising up from the river. Vineyard work was done by man and mule, and planting density was very high – around 6,000 vines/hectare, reducing vine vigour and promoting quality. In the 70s, many vineyards were re-planted to broader ramps (Patamares) allowing small tractors access, at the cost of reducing densities to 3,500 vines/ha. Recently, plantings called Vinha ao Alto running upslope allowed mechanisation and density around 5,000 vines/ha. (The latter two are only possible on less steep slopes).
Making Port starts with a relatively short, vigorous process of extraction and fermentation. Roga (gangs of foot-treaders) extract colour, flavour and tannin by treading grapes in shallow stone lagares before a short fermentation of just 2-3 days, after which fermentation is stopped by the addition of 77% a/v aguardente (fortifying spirit), leaving the requisite residual sugar in the wine. It is then racked to barrels and allowed to ‘fall bright’ over winter, with sediment and tartrates dropping into the bottom of the vat.
BOTTLE-MATURED PORT STYLES
Vintage Port is sort of a “that’s not a Wine, THIS is a Wine” opportunity!
VP is the finest quality level of Port, and heroically concentrated. It’s a red wine which finds balance and harmony at heightened levels of: picking ripeness, fruit richness, residual sugar, tannin formation, alcohol content and barrel influence. All that input aside, since they do in fact balance extremely well, VPs can be remarkably elegant and drinkable, and not just imposingly, demandingly concentrated. VPs are made from fruit entirely of a single harvest and are aged roughly two years in 550 litre wooden barrels known as Pipes. The wines do the majority of their maturation in glass - the classic thick, black port bottle.
Vintage Port may be bottled anytime until July 30th of the third year from harvest (ie, they can see up to 30 months in oak, roughly). Most VP need upwards of fifteen years before they are ready, and may last for decades more. It is important to note that VP suffers a flat spot about 5 years from harvest, and unlike other drinks which suffer similarly (Riesling, for one), the ‘dip’ period can be 10 years or more of surly adolescence. Drink them less than 5 or more than 15 years from harvest is a simple rule of thumb to observe.
A ‘declared vintage’, broadly interpreted, is one in which the majority of major houses release a VP. There is no ‘official’ process, nor existence of an objective list of declared vintages: releasing, or declaring a vintage is the purview of each shipper, and the ‘list’ is effectively retrospective, when it is clear that most producers have declared and successfully so. However, the whole process is changing very quickly, due to changed ideas and aspirations, particularly the advent of the Single Quinta of Origin Producers, such as The Douro Boys. Now, it will be common to see good-to-great VPs released most years, as these producers aim to reflect their estate’s vintage variation successfully and faithfully (albeit in tiny quantities compared to the ‘Big Houses’). However, the SQOOPS are not the only meaning of the Single Quinta term in Port wine marketing. The Big Port Houses typically have several quintas in their ownership, and even more from whom they purchase fruit. These various quintas are typically blended to make Big Brand Name Vintage Ports, released in better years at significant asking cost. Big Port Houses use their Single Quinta proprietorial names as second labels, and release SQ Vintages more cheaply in lesser years to preserve the ‘brand’.
Garrafeira VPs: The so-called Garrafeira Vintages are a specialty of Niepoort. These ports from a single year age for decades, firstly in wood, then for a long time in special small glass ‘demijons’ (7 to 11 litre glass balloons in the form of old apothecary’s bottles). These Demijons are no longer produced, so Niepoort use and re-use ancient glass in a secluded, very quiet cellar in Vila Nova de Gaia. Note, as with Madeiras and also Colheita Tawnies, the aged character of a Garrafeira VP is a function of both the year of harvest and the year of bottling. A given vintage aged in Garrafeira may well be bottled several times at different effective ages over many years as different demijons are decanted-and-bottled.
Late-bottled Vintage Port (LBV) is a VP-variant and also from a single year. The wine is aged longer though, spending 4-6 years in wood, and are more mature when bottled than regular VPs.
LBVs are earlier, easier, cheaper VPs, typical, delicious, and really good value wines.
There are 2 distinct styles of LBV:
These are, of course, considered bottle-matured Ports.
WOOD-MATURED PORT STYLES
Ruby Port is fresh, relatively young and fruity, bottled after 1 to 3 years ageing in ‘bulk’ (large concrete, wooden balseiros or steel vats). The fruit is selected more for its soft red fruits than for tannin. It’s an excellent value drinking style and much preferable to Tawnies without indication of age.
Tawny Ports at their best are residually sweet Douro reds aged in oak for a long time, resulting in a faded tawny colour, reduced fruitiness and vinosity, with developed spirit. Affecting a deep, mutually-conditioned marriage of matured red wine and characterful spirit is the aim. This takes at least 10 years to begin, and ‘completes’ after 20 years. Sounds great, heh? However, there are also a plague of Tawnies labelled without indication of age. Tawnies that do not declare they are matured 10 years or more, are inferior to honest young Ruby Ports (even though these are less expensive). Often, they are only marginally older than Ruby ports, the fruit has suffered some oxidative fading without balancing mature depth developed in the spirit component. While brash, fruity Rubies wrap around the brash young spirit, weak Tawnies jar with raw spirit.
Cask or barrel size is a variable in ageing Tawny, as is duration of maturation, and also location. Coastal cellars at Vila Nova de Gaia have moderate, stable temperature (thus less annual evaporation: 1-2%) compared to those up in the Douro. Douro-aged wines experience higher, more variable temperatures with more annual evaporation (3%). These exhibit more ‘vinagrinho’ (a volatile vinegar tickle), and what can be an attractively complexing ‘Douro bake’ character, if quality control is good. Many components of different age and origin are blended to construct house-style Tawnies of 10, 20, 30, even 40 years.
Colheita Tawny Ports are single year wines, bottled and labelled according to their ‘Colheita’, or year of harvest (avoid the word ‘vintage’ in this context!). The minimum age requirement is 7 years, with no maximum, but these wines mature more quickly and broadly than blended Tawnies. Also note that Colheita bottlings carry 2 dates: that of harvest and also the bottling date. It’s possible for the same Colheita to be bottled with relatively little or comparatively great cask-aged development.
White port is made from white grapes: Malvasia, Viosinho and Gouveio most commonly. The juice is fermented as a white wine until fermentation is stopped by the addition of grape spirit. This allows for a range of resultant sweetness styles, depending on how far towards dryness the fermentation goes before being stopped. White Port is a relatively heavy aperitif wine, sometimes lightly, but more usually quite sweet, with a hint of oxidation. The worst are short-aged in epoxy-lined concrete, or stainless steel, and can be jarringly phenolic. Better wines spend time maturing in large wooden vats or even in proper Pipes (550 litre oak barrels). The phenomenally good White Ports of Niepoort age more than 3 ½ years in Pipes!
Sugar (a final note): one of the truly fascinating things in wine is the relativity of sugar. To the ‘average’ palate, table wine is dry at 4 grams/litre residual sugar or less; fizz at 12 g/l or less, and Madeira at below 60 grams! What then is sugar in Port? Here are a few numbers: Niepoort ‘Dry’ White Port, 51 grams/litre; Niepoort White Port, 110 grams/litre; Niepoort Ruby 103; Vallado Tawny 110, Niepoort LBV 100, Vale Dona Maria Vintage Port 100 g/l.
The list below is only of the most prominent and high quality varieties – there are dozens more. Also note that the list of names is not exhaustive, but to give all details would be exhausting. For example, in Extramadura, Tinta Roriz-Aragonez-Tempranillo is called Abundante; however in Alentejo, the name Abundante is used for Garnacha! The list of synonyms applied with no genetic consistency across dozens of appellations will easily do your head in …
Alfrocheiro is native to Dão (locally called ‘Pé de Rato, or mouse paw), but also grows in Bairrada, Alentejo and other parts. Its genetic origins are not clear, but there are strong links to the French variety Trousseau (also planted in small quantities as Bastardo on Madeira). Alfrocheiro is a high quality grape, but its small bunches of small berries are highly susceptible to rot and oidium. It yields well and ripens early, helping to avoid disease. Alfrocheiro gives bold-coloured wines of intense blackberry aroma and flavour, with spice-anise-mint relief. It has dense but sleek tannins and good acid freshness.
Alicante Bouschet is pink-fleshed as well as pink skinned, of bold flavour and structure. Best as blending material to provide oomph, it’s naturally rustic and fairly soupy in terms of tannin structure.
Baga is a small berried, late-ripening red variety grown in Bairrada, with plantings also in Dão, Estramadura and Ribatejo. When goblet trained (bush vines) and grown in well-drained soils with good sun exposure Baga can produce dark, lusciously perfumed wines capable of bottle ageing. Wines from fertile soils tend towards being lighter in alcohol and have a harder acid structure. With a high skin-to-juice content, managing the fierce tannins of Baga is the key, as the wines can be green and astringent, and de-stemming is essential.
Bastardo is found in many old vintages of Port wine. Known as Trousseau in France and Cabernet Gros in Australia, it contributes a full-bodied wine with sweet, date-like aromas. Pale in colour and fades quickly to onion skin - hence a useful contributor to Tawny Port styles. Also a rare Madeiran variety.
Jaen thrives in the cold granite soil of the Dão region (this grape is the same as Spain’s low acid Mencía). It adds sweet fragrance and good balance to some blends, but is rarely noble.
Sousão is a red-fleshed grape, now at home in the Douro. It forms the backbone of Noval’s legendary and expensive ungrafted single vineyard VP, Nacional. Mainly useful for colour, it has a tendency towards rasping astringency.
Tinta Amarela Also known in Portugal as Trincadeira (and as Espadaira in Alentejo), it is a Niepoort specialty. With its susceptibility to disease (it rots at a glance when in contact with humidity), and ability to “go from green to gone” in no time at all, it is “worse than Pinot to grow” according to former Niepoort winemaker Luis Seabra. Only Niepoort take it seriously and are committed to retaining it in the forefront of the blend for Batuta and Redoma, as it is the predominant variety in the field blends of Quinta do Carril. On exposed, dry soils it yields fine, poised, fragrant wine of great balance.
Tinta Barroca is a popular Douro variety. Thin-skinned and prone to shrivel and raisining, Tinta Barroca responds best to cooler situations and brings good yields of fragrant cherry-plum wine to fill and soften Port blends.
Tinta Cão - the Red Dog is not widely grown, but graces some Port wine blends with its wildflower aromas and bilberry fruit. Late ripening, of relatively low yield and low alcohol, it is a quality Douro varietal, albeit a delicate and tricky one.
Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo) is common in most Port/Douro blends, enriching both with dark, softly tannic fruit. In the South, its name changes to Aragonez, but in regions such as Alentejo it suffers from the heat and fails to attain the nobility it achieves in the blends of the Douro. Well-suited to the climatic cycles of the Douro, Tinta Roriz flowers late to avoid Spring frosts, and ripens early to avoid Autumn rain.
Touriga Franca (aka Touriga Francesa): there is speculation that Franca is either a recent mutation of Nacional, or the result of a varietal cross with Nacional (Franca is not recorded pre-phylloxera). It brings violet florals, wild herbs and red fruit to many Port wines. It’s the most heavily planted variety in Douro Port vineyards. Touriga Franca flourishes in the warmer Douro sites and south-facing slopes. High yielding and able to produce full sugars, deep colour and supple structure. TF has a marked earthy-rustic tendency, hence it remains a blender, virtually never bottled alone. (Elsewhere in the world, including Australia, wherever a variety called ‘Touriga’ is grown, it’s equally likely to be Franca or Nacional).
Touriga Nacional is now considered by many the best of Portugal’s native varieties. Surprisingly, it’s only the 8th-most planted of Douro varieties. After the ravages of phylloxera, TN was less favoured during replanting than may have been the case, on account of its uneconomic yields: it’s a poor performer on rootstocks, with less than half the natural yield of Touriga Franca. Now, many Quintas are re-planting old field blends as mono-varietal stands of Touriga Nacional. Its rich-coloured wines are intensely fruity and tannic, but velvety, and age very well. Floral aromatics of violet/bergamot can be haunting. Despite these positives, it produces texturally boring wines as a straight varietal, especially in a modernist regime (high and even levels of ripening, temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation and ageing in new small barrels).
Alvarinho (aka Albariño in Spain) offers wines with a fruity essence and well-balanced flavours. Virtually only grown in the far north of Portugal, just below the River Minho (the border with its Spanish home). Alvarinho grapes have a high pip ratio giving texture to fruit accented with apple, jasmine, orange blossom aromatics.
Arinto (aka Padernã) makes a fresh, steely white – sometimes overly so in Vinho Verde, where it can retain formidable levels of natural acidity and is prone to expressing in a highly vegetal register. Most often blended with Loureiro and Trajadura to make balanced Vinho Verde.
Bical (bee-kahl) is typically found in the Beiras region, in Dão and Bairrada. In the Dão it is called “Borrado das Moscas” (fly droppings) because of small specks on the skin. An early ripener, Bical has naturally high acidity; it is also rot resistant, but is very sensitive to powdery mildew). Bical can make wonderfully scented peachy, textured wines with crisp finishing acidity.
Cerceal: is grown across Portugal, under several guises: Cercial (or Esgana de Cão) in Douro and Dão, Cerceal in Bairrada, but it is not the same as Sercial on Madeira. Cerceal is characterised by delicate aroma and good acidity, yet as a mono-varietal wine it can be lacking and is usually blended with other white varieties such as Bical, Malvasia Fina and Sercialinho (a cross of Sercial from Madeira with Alvarinho, bred to improve acidity.)
Códega is the most-planted white in the Douro, and also goes by the names of Síria, Castelo Rodrigo or Alvadurão elsewhere in Portugal (and is the same as Spain’s Doña Blanca). Light-skinned, and aromatic, Códega yields well and produces soft, low acid fruit, delicate and elegant melon/peach in tone.
Encruzado is at home in the Dão, and is a promising variety of the future. As with Albariño, changing philosophy and the advent of appropriate technology is helping to develop new possibilities for flavoursome, balanced, stylish wine. Encruzado naturally achieves excellent sugar-acid balance and ages well for 5 years or so. It also responds well to barrel fermentation.
Esgana Cão - don’t let the translated name “dog strangler” swear you off this grape. It’s an important acidic addition to white Port blends.
Gouveio as it is called in the Douro (elsewhere in Portugal it is referred to as Verdelho), is probably Godello, just to confuse things! With good ageing potential and yields, Gouveio produces wines characterised by their excellent structure, intense aromas and balanced acidity.
Loureiro “loo-ray-ro”: Literally, “smelling Louro-ish” – Louro being the Atlantic coastal name for the Laurel, or Bay tree. Loureiro wines are floral and smell deeply of lemon and bay. The basic characteristic is a linear, racy and acid wine with low levels of both grape sugar and phenolic material. Loureiro differs significantly from Albariño (with which it is often blended) in its terpene character (the same compounds which inform the aromatics of Riesling and Semillon). When young, the nose presents a complex bouquet of lemon aromatics (leaf, pith, juice and flower) with laurel (bay leaf) florality. With age, complex toasty aromas (similar to developed Eden Valley Riesling and Hunter Semillon) also become apparent. Loureiro ages really well. It is occasionally referred to as Dourada – the golden one.
Malvasia Fina (Boal on Madeira) is one of the oldest white wine grape varieties and delivers full-bodied dry to sweet wines, ripe, honeyed and nutty, perhaps somewhat shapeless. Malvasia Fina is most commonly blended with other white grapes to produce white Ports but can been found in Douro and Dão table wines.
Rabigato At home in the Douro, the ‘cat’s tail’ has elongated bunches, hence the name, and yields well with good acidity at higher altitudes. Mainly used in white table blends, Rabigato adds subtle floral, vegetal and mineral aromas.
Trajadura (aka Treixadura in Rías Baixas, Spain) is popular in Vinho Verde, particularly in the far North. Trajadura yields natural alcohol well above the norm and has relatively low acid, therefore is useful to fill out skinny Loureiros and Arintos.