THE Douro Valley region of Portugal has so much going in its favor, it’s almost ridiculous.
It has looks. With its rows of terraced vines winding along steep, curvaceous hillsides that rise above the sinuous Douro River on the country’s northern tier, it is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world.
It has brains. Some of the brightest, most creative minds in the trade make wine in the Douro (pronounced DOH-roo). This is not surprising, given that the region is home to the port business, which, through long years of doldrums, has sent some of those minds scurrying in search of new and different products — namely, table wine.
It has history. Even though Douro is largely a newcomer to the commercial table-wine business — which really got going in the 1990s, and is still sorting itself out — the network of vineyards supplying the port trade goes back centuries, providing the fundamental material for making distinctive wines that speak of the region and nowhere else.
It has grapes, and because of all that history, many are from old, established vines. Portugal, isolated on the Atlantic edge of the Iberian Peninsula, has largely been immune from the pressures of conformity that have led so many historic wine regions to tear out their little-known indigenous red grapes in favor of those popular worldwide.
Instead of cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, it has port grapes, including touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta barroca and tinta roriz, which over in Rioja goes by the name tempranillo. Does that make the tinta roriz any less Portuguese? Well, Spain and Portugal share many things, including the Douro River, which across the border is called the Duero, so no, the tinta roriz is no less Portuguese, though perhaps it’s more familiar than the other grapes.
That leaves the wines. The wine panel recently tasted 20 bottles of Douro reds from recent vintages. We like to check in on this fascinating, rapidly evolving region every few years, and our last tasting was more than two years ago. For this one, we brought back the same panel. Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Laura Maniec, proprietor of Corkbuzz Wine Studio, a wine bar and events space, and Byron Bates, general manager and wine director at Isa in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
We all took a great deal of pleasure in our favorite wines. Not surprisingly, the plummy fruit and spice flavors, the good acidity and the occasionally rugged tannins are more than a little reminiscent of port. These distinctive qualities make these wines a welcome step up from, say, malbecs and others in the plush-and-fruity genre of international wines.
At the same time, we had some qualms. We all found a sameness in the wines, a uniformity that seemed to speak more of cautious winemaking than of what Laura called typicity.
“They need more confidence,” she said. “It seems like they’re holding back a bit.”
Florence said the wines were too restrained. “I wanted something wilder and more funky,” she added.
Byron agreed, but also saw a positive, saying the wines seemed more focused and refined than in our last tasting.
I hesitate to play armchair psychologist. The process of discovery is going on right now in the Douro as many producers experiment with different methods and combinations of grapes. A cautious approach is understandable, particularly because many wineries are connected to the various port houses, where conservatism is part of the DNA.
Our 20 bottles were $7 to $87. Generally in lineups like this, the most expensive bottles are easy to single out. You can almost taste the investment: the new oak barrels lending their woody, vanilla sheen; the density, richness and power of the fruit flavors, which come from grapes that have been babied every step of the way. It can all be too much.
In fact, two of the three bottles over $60 did not make the cut. The 2007 Quinta do Vale Meão ($87) was much too oaky and powerfully fruity. It was so dense that I felt as if the producers had tried to cram a case’s worth of wine into a single bottle. The 2009 Quinta do Vallado ($63) was a rare Douro wine made entirely of one grape, the touriga nacional, rather than a blend of many. We liked it better than the more expensive bottle, but it, too, was overly fruity and, frankly, a bit simple.
We also tasted 13 wines that were $25 or less, but only five made our list. Here the issues were different: out-of-control tannins or wines that lacked verve. Yet a $9 bottle — the structured, intriguingly complex 2008 Palestra — was our No. 3 wine and best value.
A $20 bottle, the 2009 Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo (don’t make me write that again!) was our No. 2 choice, a fresh, elegant wine that was juicy and earthy, while a $12 bottle, the 2009 Lavradores de Feitoria was a pleasing combination of exotic fruit flavors and tannic rasp. It was our No. 5 wine.
That left the fine middle ground. We tasted four bottles priced $30 to $46, and liked all of them. These included our No. 1 bottle, the 2008 Niepoort Redoma, a graceful, complex wine that was focused and precise, and the No. 4, the 2008 Domini Plus from José Maria da Fonseca, an earthy, plummy, spicy wine. This may be the most fertile area for the most satisfying Douro wines, where producers can take the steps to ensure top quality without yielding to excess.
The 20 bottles were primarily from the 2009 and 2008 vintages. The two years were different, with ’09 yielding riper, fruitier wines and ’08 those with clearer acidity. Either way, aside from the least expensive bottles, these wines will benefit from a few years of aging to integrate.
All told, the tasting reinforced our notion that the Douro bears close watching. With so much going for it, the potential is enormous.
Niepoort Douro Redoma Tinto 2008, $45, ***
Graceful, complex and well-balanced, with a spicy, herbal edge to the aromas and flavors of fruit and flowers.
Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo Douro QN Colheita tinto 2009, $20, ***
Elegant and fresh with lingering plummy, mineral flavors.
Palestra 2008 Douro, $9, ** ½
Pleasing and lightly structured with straightforward herbal and fruit flavors.
José Maria da Fonseca Domini Plus 2008 Douro, $36, ** ½
Earthy flavors of plums and spice with a touch of oak.
Lavradores de Feitoria Lavradores de Feitoria Tinto 2009 Douro, $12, ** ½
Exotic flavors of wild herbs, anise and fruit with dusty tannins.
Sogrape Douro Callabriga 2008, $16, **
Bright flavors of sweet black fruit and oak.
CARM Douro Reserva 2008, $30, **
Rich and perfumed with plenty of ripe fruit and oak.
Quinta do Crasto Quinta do Crasto Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2009 Douro Reserva, $46, **
Plummy, earthy and a touch oaky.
Dow's Douro Vale do Bomfim 2008, $12, **
Rough yet juicy with flavors of red fruit and flowers.
Wine & Soul Douro Pintas 2008, $81, **
Jammy, oaky and powerful; you can taste the money.