In today's fast-paced, high-tech wine world, the low-tech serenity of Portugal's remote Douro River Valley is an intriguing tableau of natural trompe l'oeil. Savage beauty is one way of describing the Douro Valley, with its vast terraced vineyards climbing up the steep slopes of the river that slashes through the sparse countryside. A first impression is that the Douro is a throwback to a more traditional time, at least in terms of grape growing and winemaking.
But don't believe it. Behind the walls of the traditional quintas, perching precariously amongst the river's many turns and inlets, there is a modern wine industry producing one of the world's great fortified wines. Traditionally, the heart and soul of the Douro is Port, the iconic fortified wine of Portugal. Although it may not seem so at first glance, the region and the wine have seen many changes since Port was created in the mid 19th century. Over the years, Port houses have witnessed a complete revision of their fortified wine and the adaptation of the classic Port varieties to make a non-fortified version that offers a new and refreshing impression of Douro Valley wines.
The history of Port encompasses many noted houses, but one stands out for its contribution to what we know of today as Port wine. Joao Nicolau de Almeida, winemaker and managing director of Porto Ramos-Pinto, is a charming man with twinkling blue eyes, who has a thought-provoking theory on the origin of Port. "In 1820, a very ripe vintage in the Douro produced very sweet wines. Prior to that time, Port wines were dry, but fortified to make them travel better. It is my belief that in 1820, the Port houses simply fortified their sweet wine and a new style of Port wine was created."
Understanding the genesis of Port was essential to Nicolau de Almeida's mission as a Douro winemaker. For more than 180 years, Port producers had a mind-boggling collection of 60 red varieties and 20 white from which to choose. In the mid-1970s Nicolau de Almeida and his uncle, Jose Rosas, undertook an extensive vineyard experiment that would narrow the choices down to a more manageable number of grapes. And Nicolau de Almeida further broke with tradition when he planted separate varietal blocks of the new varieties, in vertical rows, rather than the traditional horizontal terraces. By planting vertically, Nicolau de Almeida says he was able to increase vine density by 50 percent and overall vineyard management efficiency.
Progress is slow but deliberate in the Douro River Valley. It took the de Almeida family five years of intensive investigation to settle on the final five grapes, from a group of ten varieties chosen earlier by a select panel of Port experts. In 1981, these varietals were officially adopted by the regional authorities, although other varieties are still in use: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and Tinta Cao. The group of five became known as "the top cinco" and was ultimately adopted by nearly all Port houses. And the results of his effort have resulted in a stellar selection of top-end Ramos-Porto Port wines that include Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), Vintage, Tawny and a white and red table wine.
Curiously, as Richard Mayson points out in his comprehensive book, "Port and the Douro," 60 years earlier Dick Yeatman, of Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman, had identified the top cinco among a small group of varieties he had selected and planted in an experimental Douro vineyard. Progress does seem to move at its own slow pace in the Douro. "I belong to a committee that is tasked with reducing the number of types of Port wine, now at 11, to a lower number," notes Nicolau de Almeida, with a grin. "We have been working on the problem for 27 years and it is still the same."
Much of the vineyard experimentation was carried out at Ramos-Pinto Quinta do Bom Retiro and Quinta da Ervamoira, the latter the first quinta in the Douro to plant vertical vine rows. Ervamoira is set in a shallow valley near the River Coa. Approaching the site in early spring, over a teeth-jarring road, the panorama is vertical rows of green vines, accented by wild lavender, red poppies and yellow asters, all set against a vivid cloudless blue sky. For Nicolau de Almeida, Ervamoira is a port research station and the center of production, starting in 1990, for Ramos-Pinto's Duas Quintas table wines. It was at Ervamoira that the de Almeida family conducted their vineyard experiments. More than 90 percent of Ervamoira is planted to the five red Port varieties with the remaining acreage set aside for native white grapes.
In the 1980s, the Portuguese government announced the construction of a dam on the Coa River, which when completed, would submerge much of Ervamoira under water. But provenance ruled with the discovery of Paleolithic rock etchings in the valley, saving Ervamoira from destruction. In 1997, Ramos-Pinto opened what may be the most remote museum in Europe, dedicated to the rock etchings, grape growing and winemaking in Ervamoira.
The Port wines of Ramos-Pinto have been described as medium-weight, compared to others from the Douro River Valley. Nicolau de Almeida respects traditional Douro winemaking practices, such as the use of granite lagares for the foot-trodding of about 30 percent of the grapes, while utilizing modern techniques, like new vineyard trellising and the use of stainless steel tanks. "My philosophy is to always blend the scientific with the empirical in my wines," he notes.
The results strike me as a true expression of the select Douro grapes, with sufficient body and texture for present drinking and aging when required. Although the table wines were first released in 1990, Duas Quintas and Duas Quintas Reserva add a new and exciting dimension to the emerging class of Portuguese table wines.
All of these ports and table wines were tasted recently in Portugal and may not yet be available in your local market.
Ramos-Pinto, Torto River Valley (Portugal) Porto Reserva "The Collector" NV ($21, Maisons Marques & Domaines): This unfiltered vintage character Port is made from a blend of grapes grown at Quinta da Urtiga, in the Cima-Cargo subregion of the Douro Valley. It has a very deep black-red color and a rich plumy nose with spicy back notes. The textured flavors are complex with layered fruit and balanced sweetness. The Collector has all the depth and character of an LBV, but at a more affordable price. 89
Ramos-Pinto, Douro Valley (Portugal) Late Bottled Vintage Porto 1998 - 2002 ($24, Maisons Marques & Domaines): The inviting deep purple ruby color in this group of wines leads a very fruity aroma, with hints of Christmas candy and ripe plums and raspberries lent by the Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo). The flavors are rich, fresh and full, and it is nicely integrated with the fortifying spirit. Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Barroca grapes were trod by foot and macerated in the traditional lagar.
Ramos-Pinto, Douro (Valley Portugal) Vintage Porto 2004 ($83, Maisons Marques & Domaines): This excellent vintage Port is made from a traditional blend of mostly Touriga Nacional, with Touriga Francesa and Tinta Roriz and was aged for 20 months in oak and chestnut barrels. The color is deep and inky, while the nose displays plenty of up-front ripe fruit and spicy back notes. It's a big and brawny Port with layers of baby fat supported by refined tannins and good balancing acidity. The finish is youthful, but showing great potential for up to 30 years. Joao de Almeida says that 2004 is one of the top recent vintages. 94
Ramos-Pinto, Douro Valley (Portugal) Fine Tawny Porto NV ($16, Maisons Marques & Domaines): This entry-level tawny is bright and fruity with hints of dried fruits and roasted nuts. The color is a brilliant tawny with ruby hues. Moderately sweet, the well-balanced flavors are like plump raisins. Made from a blend of Tinta Roriz and Tino Cao and aged for four years in traditional wooden pipes, it is a pleasant introduction to more complex aged tawnies. 88
Ramos-Pinto, Coa River Valley (Portugal) Quinta da Ervamoira 10-Year Tawny NV ($41, Maisons Marques & Domaines): Quinta da Ervamoira is in the Douro Superior, at the junction of the Cao and Douro rivers. The wine is an almost even blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Francesa. This delightful Port has a rich deep tawny color with fading red pigments. It is aromatic and spicy with ripe fruits, figs and hints of rancio. It finishes with rich, deep flavors and great balance. 90
Ramos-Pinto, Torto River Valley (Portugal) Quinta do Bom Retiro 20-Year Tawny NV ($75, Maisons Marques & Domaines): The color is bright and richly tawny with no hints of red. Up-front ripe dried fruit, with traces of iodine and rancio mark the aromatic nose. The flavors are richly textured, high-profile fruit, smooth and supple that carry through to the length finish. This 20-Year Tawny is the perfect choice between the more youthful 10-Year and mature 30-Year. 95
Ramos-Pinto, Douro Valley (Portugal) Tawny Porto 30-Year NV ($100, Maisons Marques & Domaines): This is an elegant blend of varietals from Ramos-Pinto's best estate vineyards that was foot trod and fermented in lagares, then aged 30 years in oak, then several more months before release. The color is a deep burnished bronze and the bouquet is still fresh with dried fruits and spice. There is a trace of caramel and dried figs on the palate and plenty of rancio character from extended wood aging. This is a beautifully balanced tawny for those who like the well-aged wood character in their ports. 90
Ramos-Pinto, Douro Valley (Portugal) White "Duas Quintas" 2005 ($13, Maisons Marques & Domaines): This fresh and fruity white is made from three traditional white Douro grapes: Arinto, Rabigato and Viosinho. It has a pale gold color and bright focused fruity aroma that hints of citrus, mineral and floral accents. The flavors are crisp and fruity and nicely balanced through the finish. A fermentation regime of half stainless steel and half new oak gives the wine texture. 86
Ramos-Pinto, Douro Valley (Portugal) Reserva "Duas Quintas" 2003 ($37, Maisons Marques & Domaines): Based on Touriga Nacional, the grapes are from Quinta da Ervamoira and Quinta dos Bom Ares. Aging was 18 months in new oak. The color is deep and inky and the nose is distinguished by elements of dark fruits and sweet spice. It has great texture and depth of flavor, showing ripe berry and anise notes. This is a bright wine with a firm tannic backbone that should age well for 10 to 20 years. 92
Ramos-Pinto, Douro River Valley (Portugal) "Duas Quintas Reserva Especial" 2000 ($61, Maisons Marques & Domaines): Drawn from the same two quintas as the Reserva, the Reserva Especial is made from the best grapes, a blend of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Barroca. This is a big, dark, brooding wine of great depth and character. The aromatics are dark ripe plums and blackberry, while the dense flavors are richly textured, layered and very nicely balanced. Finished at 13.5% alcohol this is a wine of substance that drinks nicely now but will age gracefully. Note: Older vintages of the Duas Quintas Reservas, tasted in Portugal (1983, 1992, 1994, 2000) show the full potential of these wines. 94