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THE POUR - from the New York Times

Where Port Reigns, Unfortified Wines Undergo a Stylistic Evolution
The Douro Valley in Portugal seems an unlikely source for bottles with delicacy and subtlety, but producers are now creating elegant reds and whites.
By Eric Asimov, for the New York Times.
July 25, 2019

VILA SECA, Portugal — In the cellar of a modern, concrete winery in this small town in the Douro Valley, Luis Seabra was drawing a sample of his 2018 Xisto Cru Branco from the large old barrel in which it was aging.
Even at such an early stage, this was a gorgeous white wine, made largely of rabigato, a grape grown almost nowhere else in the world, blended with a little of the equally obscure côdega, gouveio and viosinho.
The wine was saline and mineral, tightly coiled, with an opaque texture that was not quite ready to admit exploration. It was exactly the sort of fresh, vivacious white that has never been associated with the Douro Valley. Yet it was evidence of the unexpected evolution of this historic region, so long associated with the production of port.
The valley now is the source of some of Portugal’s freshest, most energetic and intriguing wines, both whites and reds. These wines by no means represent the dominant Douro style, yet it’s a surprise to anyone who a decade ago might have thought the area was capable of making only powerful, heavy and portlike reds.
The Douro is one of the visual wonders of the wine world. It’s a series of undulating river valleys, lined with stunning, perilously steep slopes rising to roughly to 3,000 feet, onto which terraces have been carved over centuries by intrepid farmers.
This ancient network of vineyards is nowadays punctuated by moratorios, old terraces that were abandoned over the years, many after phylloxera, an aphid that virtually destroyed European vineyards, ravaged the area a century ago.
Some terraces, though, were forsaken more recently, by growers who farmed a few acres and sold the grapes to the big port companies, as small farmers have done for generations. Their children preferred city life to carrying on the work, though, as has been the case in much of rural Europe. More of the roughly 100,000 acres under vine in the Douro are likely to be abandoned in the coming decades.
“It’s too big,” Mr. Seabra said. “Too much wine is made, and prices for the grapes are too low.” But prices for land, he added, are high.
The model of small growers and producers selling to shippers, who labeled and marketed the wine, is as anachronistic in the Douro as it is in the rest of the modern wine world.
Today, the big companies have bought up land, and taken charge of farming and making port. Many are now hedging their bets, making still wines as well. But it may be smaller producers like Mr. Seabra who will help lift the reputation of the Douro as a source for great table wines, as well as historic ports.
Mr. Seabra, 46, spent 10 years working for Dirk Niepoort, the visionary scion of a longtime port shipper who has been among the pioneers of still wines in the Douro Valley.
In 2013, Mr. Seabra set out on his own, and is now making some of Portugal’s most compelling wines, both white and red. Yet he rents his winery and his vineyards, which include the 90-year-old vines that produce his rabigato. His position is not exactly secure.
“I started with no money, and I still have no money,” he said. “Everything goes into the wine.”
Unfortified table or still wines have a history in the Douro. Before the production of fortified port took hold in the 17th century, the region was known for powerful red wines that the British called “blackstrap.”
When conflict interrupted Britain’s access to French products, British merchants came here to Portugal to buy wine. To stabilize it for the ocean voyage back home, they fortified the wine with a measure of brandy.
Before long, they began adding the brandy during fermentation rather than after, which stopped the process before all the grape sugar had been transformed to alcohol, leaving the wine agreeably sweet. This fortified wine was called port, after the coastal city of Porto, where the British shippers set up shop.
Table wines would appear occasionally through the 20th century, but it was not until the 1990s that production took off, after Portugal joined the European Union and subsidies began to flow in
As a young man in the early 1980s, Mr. Niepoort left Portugal to work in the California wine industry. When he returned in 1987, hardly any still wine was being made in the Douro.
“Thirty years ago 100,000 pipes of port were produced, and 1,000 pipes of still wine,” Mr. Niepoort said, using the port shippers’ term for barrels. “Now, 100,000 pipes of port are produced, and 70,000 pipes of still wine.”
His father was not interested in still wines, Mr. Niepoort said, so the younger Mr. Niepoort took the lead in his family. With the 1999 vintage he made his first red wine, using three varieties typically found in port. He called the wine Batuta, like a conductor’s baton. It was, he said, a monster: oaky, alcoholic and powerfully fruity.
“I wanted a lighter wine, I just didn’t know how to do it,” Mr. Niepoort said. “I thought it would take 20 years to make fine wines. I’ve been going in a direction of lighter and more elegant.”
The journey from port to elegant table wine is by no means a simple one. Growing grapes for port is different than for table wine. Many growers say the best vineyards for port are not the best for table wine, and vice versa.
Mr. Niepoort’s forecast of a 20-year learning curve has proved accurate, not only for him but also for other producers in the region. His Douro wines today, both white and red, are lively, savory and subtle.
The whites are fresh and mineral. He has learned that it’s necessary for Douro whites to block the malolactic fermentation, in which tart snap of malic acid is turned into softer lactic acid.
“I’m a fetishist for natural acidity,” he said. “It’s impossible to make a proper wine with too-low acidity.”
His 2016 Charme, a high-end red named in homage to the Burgundies of Charmes-Chambertin, is fine and gentle, with the potential to age and evolve, and just 13 percent alcohol. His more reasonably priced Redomas, reds and whites that run roughly form $20 to $35, are savory, refreshing and most definitely not portlike.
“My first rule: I do not like fruity wines,” Mr. Niepoort said.
Not all of the better-known port companies have gotten into table wines. Taylor Fladgate, for one, has almost defiantly stayed away. But some of those that have, like Quinta do Noval and Quinta da Romaneira, which are tangentially related, are also moving in the direction of lighter, more elegant wines.
“Still wine was not really around before the 1990s,” said Carlos Agrellos, the technical director of Noval, which is owned by Axa, a multinational insurance corporation, and a consultant at Romaneira, which is owned by the managing director of Noval. “Quality in the last few years has risen exponentially.”
Mr. Agrellos points particularly to the quality of viticulture. He said the work had become more precise, with more attention to detail. Noval and Romaneira are focusing in their new vineyards on varietal planting rather than on the traditional field blends.
“The quality of the grapes is now very good, year after year, not randomly,” he said.
The snaking river valleys of the Douro mean that vineyards face in almost every direction. Those facing north were once considered the least preferable; the grapes did not always ripen enough for port. But with climate change and the movement toward table wines, Mr. Agrellos said, “North is looking good now.”
Romaneira, facing the Douro River, has vineyards more suited to table wine than Noval, which faces the Pinhão River. Table wines make up 65 percent of Romaneira’s production, as against 25 percent of Nova
Romaneira’s 2016 Tinto, a blend of red port grapes, is fresh, focused and floral, but Romaneira is moving toward varietal wines rather than blends. Its 2016 touriga nacional is floral, savory and refined, while a 2017 tinto cão is lightly spicy, floral and pretty.
Mr. Agrellos called tinto cão a variety well adapted to hot weather, and said single-variety wines were a “response to climate change.”
By contrast, Quinta do Noval’s table wines are denser and more mineral. Its 2017 touriga nacional was powerfully floral and exotically fruity, with a tannic structure that demands a few years of aging before drinking.
Mr. Seabra says most table wines in the Douro are still big and heavy, though he concedes they are more balanced than they used to be. One of the biggest problems holding back the region, he said, is a cursory understanding of the soils.
“Knowledge of soil is nothing, even today,” he said. “People say it’s all schist, but there are many kinds of schist. Actually, this is slate, not schist. We don’t have the word.”
Blue slate, he said, produced edgy, tight, less exuberant wines. Yellow slate made easier, fruitier wines, while mica slate, with more feldspar, was best for white grapes.
While the era of table-wine production in the Douro is too short to draw conclusions about what is most typical, it’s clear that Mr. Seabra’s pale reds are considered outliers. When he brings them to gatherings with other winemakers, he said, he is often teased: “Oh, you brought your rosé again.”
Mr. Niepoort, too, finds that acceptance comes easier outside the region.
“Now, I’m accused of being too light, and of not having a style,” he said. “But our wines are getting better and better.”

Bristol Oporto Association Newsletter
A review of our latest visit involving some twenty eight of our members and also members of our
sister organisation Associação Porto-Bristol who joined us on many of our tours, visits and escapades.
Words and photos have been mostly and kindly supplied by some of our members who came on the trip.
Their personal observati as well as memories of our journey and visits have been much appreciated,
with acknowledgements at the end.

Our group of travellers departing from Bristol airport on the Saturday evening
were met by a flag waving Peter and Anabela at the airport in Porto.
We arrived at our hotel in Oporto, in the Ribeira district, close by the river Douro, at around midnight.
Traditional Barcos de Rabelo                                                                 Lello Bookshop near the Clerigos tower
Sunday morning saw us leave quite early for a morning guided bus tour of the city. For some of our group,
it was a first time visit to Oporto, whereas for others it was a return visit. Nevertheless,
it proved very interesting for all of us to see and learn about the many improvements made to the area
over the past few years. It was also a good opportunity to help orientate and appreciate the size of Oporto itself
together with Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite side of the Douro. We are told the population of the
metropolitan district is now more than one and a half million. Following this,
we left the city, being joined en route, by several of our Portuguese Association members,
to visit the nearby town of Aveiro, where we were treated by our hosts to what
was termed ‘a picnic’ in the local city park grounds.
This proved to be a quite memorable banquet, with much of the food and wine supplied by
farms owned by a few of our hosts, as well as an array of desserts made by them especially for us.
The memory of the wonderful bowls of fresh cherries and strawberries lingers on!
We then spent the afternoon visiting the local museum, followed by a jolly boat trip on the
many canals. We were then treated to tea or coffee and full afternoon tea at a local restaurant before returning to Oporto.
It soon became clear that this was not going to be a trip where adhering to a diet would be easy!
Aveiro Museum                                                                                                         Aveiro - waterfront
Gondola ride                                                                                                                       Elegant architecture
Monday gave us the opportunity to do our own thing during the morning and afternoon, before
meeting up to visit a local river front restaurant to eat and exchange experiences of the day. For
some, this had involved a wine tasting at one of the port lodges on the other bank of the Douro.
For others, it was a slow ride along the river front on an ancient tram towards the beach area at
Foz. Your correspondent did that, and also visited the local botanical garden, which proved a
hidden gem with a multitude of trees, shrubs, cacti and other exotic plants.

Time to relax!                                                                                                       Performance time
Tuesday meant an early start, as we headed inland towards Spain, stopping for a mid-morning break in
Mirandela, with its Roman bridge stretching over the river, and then moving on to have lunch at the
beautiful Parador Santa Catarina. Later, we were treated to a boat trip in Miranda through part of the
Douro River as it enters Portugal. This gorge area had high cliffs on either side, although somewhat devoid
of many signs of fauna or flora. Subsequently, we were entertained to a display similar to falconry, but
involving two types of owl, in which Association members from both countries were invited to participate.
Bridge at Mirandela                                                                                       Upper reaches of the River Douro
We then moved on to Braganca, where we stayed in a local Pousada, which provided us with
spacious accommodation and attractive views from our balconies overlooking the town.
Wednesday started with a guided tour of the town on a tourist train, taking us up to the castle
area, where we learned much concerning the history and rich culture of this region, as well as
seeing several interesting landmarks and buildings. One particular memory is of a visit to a
costume and masks museum that brought to life memories of historical pagan rituals and customs.
One fascinating fact that we learned was that, instead of growing potatoes as a staple vegetable,
it had proved more profitable to cultivate and grow chestnuts, which featured on many menus in
the region. Indeed, at lunch in a local restaurant, we were treated to a delicious bowl of chestnut
soup, as a starter course. Our afternoon was free time, enabling us to explore and visit some of
the museums, churches and other buildings of interest.
On our final day we enjoyed a guided tour of Casa Mateus Rosé home of the famous wine before a
last lunch with our Portuguese friends in wine country, deep in vineyards at the glorious Hotel
Monverde. To round off a gentle stroll by the ocean before our return flight to Bristol beckoned.
Wonderful last lunch together at Monverde
Every photo tells a story!
Comments from our members:

‘We have been thinking about our wonderful trip and trying to pick a highlight ....but every day was fascinating and entertaining in different ways. With that amazing picnic of local dishes; outstanding lunches; stunning churches (so wedding cake-ish with their carvings and gold leaf), boat trips - one memorably in silence - ssssh -, medieval villages and historic houses, the variety was endless. Travelling farther inland it was interesting to see the changes in the landscape from lush to arid, and everywhere so quiet, un-populated and traffic free. Abiding memories will be of cherries everywhere - baskets overflowing at the picnic, being shared on the coach and the stall at the rail station with nothing but cherries, cherries and more cherries, and the stunning view of the castle from our balcony. There was delicious food and wonderful wines and ports of course, including the stunning lunch next to the wine casks. Thank you everyone involved in the organisation, which as usual was seamless, with fantastic accommodation and with such lovely warm and friendly people.’

‘Under the TLC of Peter and Anabela with blue skies and a good group of friends what more could one expect? Beats me how P and A find so many new, interesting places to visit not forgetting delicious meals in unusual interesting restaurants especially the Solar Bragancano (gentlemen’s club) with its old books, bottles, games, chess set etc. A special thanks to our Portuguese hosts who produced that apparently “easy” tasty picnic under the trees in Oudinot City Park with their speciality dishes and an amazing basket of home grown cherries nestling under cool leaves. Wow! A mention too of our tireless coach driver who conveyed us safely through sweeping vineyards, olives groves, curving valleys and hills between destinations. Especially memorable for me was the tranquil boat ride through the gorge of the Douro River as it enters Portugal, a sanctuary for protected wildlife. A few of we rather “decrepids”opted out at the Parador while everyone else climbed to see the old castle, ordering tea with milk on a shady terrace overlooking stunning views which arrived literally milk and tea in a pot…. on the house! Lovely too to have a free day to wander so we rode the tram along the river, lunched in a little park with two charming Portuguese gentlemen and visited a posh old fashioned “loo” (20 cents each) with individual toilets large enough to take a shower. A memorable five days. Can’t wait for the next time!’

‘A very heartfelt, 'thank you' from Sarah and me for all the effort you put in for the wonderful trip to Porto and Braganza. We both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on the varied programme of events and experiences. We loved being part of the friendly group for the first time, and really appreciated the efforts that the BOA and APB put in to make the visit incredibly memorable in so many respects. To visit the Monverde vineyard on the final day was a brilliant move - what a way to finish off!’

‘It’s amazing how Peter and Anabela manage to find new places each time, to add to the pleasure of revisiting old ones. The lunches stand out for us both, particularly for Mervyn the one in the Solar in Braganza, with its careless air of elegance. For me I think one of the best moments was the swim, looking out at the distant mountains (and with sun shining thinking of people shivering at home!). But meeting old friends and making new ones was probably best of all.’
‘We know that these things don’t just happen, and that a lot of things go on behind the scenes (before and during the visit) while we are having fun and being looked after. Thank you very much indeed for everything you did to make this a great trip.’

With grateful thanks to the following who contributed to this diary of events: Philip Channack, Sue & Chris Davies,
Isabel Cortan, Alistair& Sarah Watson, Liz & Mervyn Bramley.
Photos are a selection from the many taken.
We now look forward to welcoming members from Associacao Porto-Bristol here in 2020!!
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