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Is Portugal's Douro Valley on Your Radar? It Should Be...
By Pam Roberto
Nov 1, 2023
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Portugal’s Douro Valley is one of the oldest and most historic regions in the world of wine.  Officially demarcated and regulated since 1756, UNESCO designated the region as a World Heritage Site in 2001 for its unique landscape and centuries-long history of viticulture.  It currently holds the title of European City of Wine for 2023, an annual award that celebrates local traditions and promotes tourism in places where wine is an integral part of the culture.  With its spectacular landscape, intriguing grape varieties, ancestral winemaking techniques, and exceptional quality wines, the Douro Valley is a one-of-a-kind region that wine lovers shouldn’t miss.

The terraced hillsides of the Douro Valley are an unforgettable sight.  Dizzying arrays of vineyards, interspersed with olive trees, create a patchwork mosaic across the precipitously steep slopes.  Bordered on the west by the Marão Mountains, the region is largely insulated from the cool, windy influence of the Atlantic Ocean.  Locals aptly describe the weather – cold and wet in the winter and hot and dry in the summer – as “nine months of winter and three months of hell.”

Long renowned for its production of sweet, fortified Port wines, the last 30 years have seen the flourishing of dry table wines from the Douro Valley, which now comprise nearly half of the region’s total wine production.  Nearly all Port producers have incorporated table wines into their portfolios and some newer producers focus on them exclusively.  Having recently returned from a trip to the region, I can say two things with confidence: first, that many of the Douro’s table wines are of superb quality, and second, that they are significantly underappreciated and undervalued in the market.

If you’re unfamiliar with Douro Valley wines, the region is best known for field blends: indigenous grape varieties grown side-by-side in the same vineyard, all picked and fermented together.  With 64 indigenous red grapes and 46 indigenous white grapes authorized for use in the Douro DOC, a single field blend can contain dozens of different varieties.  Common red grapes include Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo across the border in Spain), Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Cão, while white wines often include a combination of Viosinho, Rabigato, Códega do Larinho, Gouveio (Godello in Spanish), Arinto, and Malvasia Fina.

The Douro Valley also makes table wines from single indigenous varieties, as well as from international varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah.  International grapes and single varietal bottlings are a significant departure from the region’s long-standing traditions of Port production, but winemakers are hoping global consumers will find the familiarity of these styles appealing.  You’ll find single-variety wines made from indigenous grapes labeled under the Douro DOC appellation, but local regulations limit table wines made from international varieties to the broader Duriense VR regional appellation.

Most table wines from the Douro Valley are red, but white wines are rapidly growing in popularity, as are the increasing number of rosés, skin contact whites, and sparkling wines.  The best red wines strike a balance between power and elegance, with red and black fruit flavors that are ripe but not jammy.  Touriga Franca, Tinta Cão, and Sousão lend spicy and peppery notes to a blend, while Touriga Nacional and Tinta Barroca contribute distinct floral and earthy aromas.  Despite the hot climate, the wines are surprisingly high in acidity, and the alcohol levels are remarkably restrained.  The whites range from highly aromatic, light-bodied wines with fresh crunchy fruit aromas and flavors to more complex, fuller bodied styles fermented and aged in oak.  

Wineries in the Douro Valley combine traditional winemaking practices passed down through generations with modern technology.  Many still crush their grapes by foot for hours each day, in shallow granite tanks called lagares.  Others reserve manual crushing just for small batches of their top-quality wines and rely instead on machines with silicon “feet” designed to mimic traditional foot-treading.  Fermentation takes place in both old-fashioned granite lagares and modern temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks, and an increasing number of winemakers are experimenting with alternative vessels, including egg-shaped ceramic tanks and clay amphora.

The Landscape

For centuries, tenacious farmers have transformed the Douro Valley’s rugged hillsides into land suitable for planting and cultivating grapevines.  Part of what makes the landscape astonishing is its medley of distinctive vineyard styles.  But the contrasts between the vineyards are more than just visually striking – they also reflect the continuing evolution of viticulture in the region.

The oldest vineyards are the socalcos, stepped terraces with high stone walls constructed by hand, many of which date back hundreds of years.  Carved out of the steep hillsides like staircases, these terraces have vines planted in orderly horizontal rows across the bottom of each step.  Unsuitable for mechanization, socalcos are extremely labor-intensive and costly to manage.  This includes upkeep and maintenance of the UNESCO-protected stone walls, which vineyard owners must repair if damaged by heavy rain or landslides.  Because of their protected status, existing socalcos can no longer be torn down or converted to any other vineyard layout.  

Socalcos at Taylor Fladgate’s Quinta de Vargellas; Photo Credit: Taylor Fladgate

More modern terraces called patamares have grown in popularity since the 1970s and 1980s.  These curved terraces follow the smooth contour of the slopes and are supported by steep earth ramps rather than stone walls.  Although workers must still prune and harvest the vineyards by hand, patamares can accommodate small tractors, making them considerably less expensive than socalcos to construct and maintain.  A downside is that the earth-banked ramps take up a lot of space, which limits the number of vines farmers can plant.  

Patamares at Fonseca’s Quinta de Santo António; Photo Credit: Fonseca

Where the slopes are less steep, it is increasingly common to see vines planted in vertical rows perpendicular to the hillside.  Known as vinha ao alto, modern vineyards planted in this fashion are still largely hand harvested, but farmers can use machinery for most other vineyard tasks thanks to the wider spacing between rows.  Vinha ao alto vineyards can accommodate many more vines per acre than the patamares but this layout is only feasible in areas where the incline of the slope is less than 30 degrees.  

Vinha ao alto vineyards at Taylor Fladgate; Photo Credit: Taylor Fladgate

Concerns for the Future

Talk to any producer in the Douro Valley, and they’ll tell you one of their most pressing challenges is finding enough skilled laborers each year to cultivate and harvest their vineyards.  As younger generations flock to cities in search of better paying and less physically demanding jobs, the population of the valley is shrinking, and its remaining residents are aging out of the workforce.  

Anticipating that labor shortages may one day compromise their ability to harvest grapes, Symington Family Estates, the Douro’s largest vineyard owner, has spent the better part of a decade developing a machine harvester like those used on the steep slopes of Germany’s Mosel Valley.  Other large producers, such as Quinta das Carvalhas, hope to attract and retain labor by improving working conditions, including paying higher wages and bonuses, equalizing pay for women and men, offering transportation to and from the vineyards, and modernizing their facilities and infrastructure.

With virtually all its vineyards requiring hand-harvesting, production costs in the Douro Valley are some of the highest in the world.  Meanwhile, the average yields are among the lowest.  The region has an enviable number of very old vines – many exceed 50 years old – that produce extremely concentrated high-quality fruit, but in very small quantities.  The combination of low-yielding old vines, poor soils, and an extremely hot and dry climate results in average yields nearly 40% to 50% below those of France and Italy.

Compounding the problem of high production costs and low yields are the bottom barrel prices farmers receive for their grapes, particularly those used for table wines.  According to a recent article in the Portuguese newspaper Público, production costs in the Douro Valley average 1.05€/kg, yet the average market price for table wine grapes is just 0.60€/kg.  Grapes intended for Port production fetch a higher average price of 1.50€/kg, but the Portuguese government strictly regulates the quantity of Port grapes sold each year.  

The Douro Valley wine industry rests upon thousands of small family grape farmers, more than 60% of whom own less than 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of vineyard land.  Historically, small farmers profited from selling their grapes to larger producers or co-operatives, but high production costs and low prices are becoming increasingly unsustainable.  By 2020, there were fewer than 20,000 grape farmers left in the region, a nearly 50% decline from a decade earlier.  Rather than continuing to sell at a loss, some farmers are staying afloat by producing and selling small volumes of table wines made from their own grapes.  But for others, selling or abandoning the vineyards their families have farmed for generations is increasingly the only recourse.

Wine lovers can help support this special region by seeking out more of its wines.  Bottlings from large and mid-sized producers are readily available on the U.S.  market, but many smaller producers lack the production capacity to export internationally.  The best way to support the region’s small producers is to go visit them in person.  Dozens of family-run quintas, or wine farms, warmly welcome visitors for tours and tastings.  Several also offer bed and breakfast-style accommodations, offering guests an intimate view into the daily workings of a traditional wine estate.

With its top-quality wines, unique winemaking traditions, and stunning scenery, the Douro Valley merits a spot on any wine aficionado’s radar.  The next time you’re browsing the shelves in in your local wine shop, perusing the wine list at a restaurant, or planning a getaway to a beautiful wine destination, this is a region to keep top of mind.