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Portugal’s Douro Superior Region Takes Its Time

Far away, in the remote eastern mountains and valleys of the Douro wine region, where Portugal meets Spain, exciting things are happening. New vineyards, new owners and new red wines are coming from an area that was relatively inaccessible only 30 years ago.

“I remember it as the end of the world,” says João Nicolau d’Almeida, who has been visiting the Douro Superior region for 50 years. “It was biblical in its primitive wildness and its distance.” He retired as CEO of producer Ramos-Pinto and is now owner with his sons, João and Mateus, of Quinta do Monte Xisto, a spectacular vineyard in Douro Superior.

Francisco Olazabal, winemaker at his family’s Quinta do Vale Meão, remembers coming with the family from Porto as a child.

“It took five hours on terrible roads with curves [now it takes just over two hours on new roads]. But when we arrived, we were happy in this wild and inhospitable land. It was perfect for adventures.”

There have been a handful of major vineyards in this region since the 19th century. Quinta de Vargellas, Quinta do Vesúvio and Quinta do Vale Meão were all founded and developed by the iconic Dona Antónia Ferreira as she expanded her Ferreira empire eastward. All three vineyards still produce exceptional Ports and, at Vesúvio and Vale Meão, equally important red table wines.

terraced vineyards in Portugal
Vila Nova de Foz Coa, Portugal / Alamy

A Bit of History

In 1756, the Douro became among the first defined wine regions in the world. Portugal’s prime minister, the Marquês de Pombal, issued the decree to stop British wine shippers from importing wines from outside the Douro and labeling them Douro. Douro Superior is so remote that this spectacular wine region wasn’t demarcated as part of the Douro area until 1907. But its history goes back much further.

In the heart of Douro Superior region are the astonishing UNESCO-registered wall paintings at Vila Nova de Foz Côa. Only officially recognized in the 1990s, but dating as far back as 20,000 BCE, they are among the oldest wall art in the world. Their presence underlines and emphasizes the region’s palpable and still living antiquity.

As Douro wines have developed in quantity and quality since the 1990s, so has Douro Superior. Luís Sottomayor, head winemaker at Sogrape-owned Casa Ferreirinha, with vineyards in Douro Superior, explains why.

“The drier, warmer climate of Douro Superior gives the wines an extra volume and aromatic component that sets them apart from other subregions,” he says.

Growers from the Pinhao-centered Cima Corgo, the traditional Douro heartland, have swarmed in, helped by the new roads and easier access. They’ve seized the opportunity for expansion in a place with just the right conditions, the granite and schist soils, for the growing demand for Douro wines.

They’re planting the same grapes here, principal among them Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa, Sousão, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. With the new plantings, Touriga Nacional dominates, while the older vineyards have a bewildering mix of more than 30 varieties, muddled up in random order.

Names such as Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vallado and Quinta de la Rosa are producing wine here. Outside investors at Colinas do Douro have also bought land. The Symington family, owners of the largest vineyard acreage in the Douro, have vineyards by the Douro River and more than 200 acres in the Vilariça valley along the Sabor River. Other new projects such as Conceito by the Marques family have come from local growers who started to bottle their wine.

Sophia Bergqvist, owner of Quinta de la Rosa, purchased the Quinta das Bandeiras property in 2005. She says the wines being made there under the label Passagem “have a seductiveness and exuberance that always surprises me. They are voluptuous and attractive…with intense aromas but at the same time equilibrium and freshness.”

She describes the Bandeiras vineyard as a “fabulous location, but remote. It reminds me of the Douro of my childhood.”

Bento Amaral, director of the Technical and Approval service at the Port and Douro wine Institute (IVDP) puts a more technical nuance on the rich wines of the Douro Superior: “Usually the grapes are riper, with more phenolic compounds, and less acidity and the wines are a little bit more tannic, powerful, jammy and ageworthy.”

Douro vineyards
Quinta do Vesuvio vineyards / Alamy

Douro Drama

Despite the development, Douro Superior is still a place where time moves slowly. The land carries its sounds and echoes vultures, falcons and songbirds overhead. The stars shine brightly. There are no sizeable towns. Vila Nova de Foz Côa, the largest, has well under 10,000 people.

Coming upriver, as most travelers do, Douro Superior starts its dramatic landscape at the Valeira dam. In a remote countryside, set between rock faces, it is a wild and inhospitable place. A small chapel on a mountaintop is a reminder of the dangers once faced by voyagers who traveled by boat.

These mountains block half the rain that comes from the Atlantic Ocean, below the already derisory amount in the Cima Corgo. The result is that Douro Superior is arid. The majority of vineyards are planted close to the rivers, either the wide Douro or its tributaries, the Côa and the Sabor. There, the vines can take advantage of the moisture and greater humidity in the air.

As new producers have come in, existing ones have upped their game. This is certainly true of the Olazabal family at Quinta do Vale Meão. They’re descendants of Dona Antónia Ferreira, who bought and planted the estate in 1877.

This is a magnificent quinta. Standing by the chapel on the terraces of Monte Meão and looking across the property, I can see the Douro, glittering in the sun, performs a massive horseshoe bend as it meets granite and forms a wide undulating plain.

Olazabal says this lower land is “excellent for Douro wines, not so good for Port,” which is produced from vines on the hilly schist soils. The legendary Barca Velha Douro wine, from vines planted on the granite, was first produced here in 1952 and, for the first time, showed the potential for dry wines in the Douro.

The same progression happened at Quinta do Vesúvio, another of Dona Antónia Ferreira’s creations just downriver from Meão. The Symington family bought the property in 1989, initially to produce Port and later to produce a Douro wine.

“We set about planting considerable areas of the property partly with a view to developing the quinta’s potential for Douro wines,” says Charles Symington, head of winemaking for the family company. Plantings at an altitude of between 980 and 1,400 feet have given “some of our most prized grapes for our flagship Quinta do Vesúvio Douro wine.”

harvest in Douro
Douro harvest / Alamy

Staying Wild

Despite being the largest of the three Douro regions (from west to east: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior), the Superior is also the most sparsely planted. Only 23% of the land has vines. In theory, more land to the east as far as the Spanish frontier could be planted, with more wine produced.

But in practice, the growers already there caution it would be difficult.

“The best lands are along the rivers, and they are almost all planted,” says Olazabal.

Symington agrees. “Most of the best sites to the east have already been identified, and to go north or south, the geology is not favorable,” he says.

It is also even hotter and drier further east, where summer temperatures regularly exceed 100˚F. Amaral says that’s the Douro region most exposed to climate change.

Sottomayor says the Douro Superior creates “wines with soul.”

When João Nicolau d’Almeida looked at the almost virgin soil of Quinta do Monte Xisto, he felt that it had “all the keys to play great music.”

The region has proved its potential for Douro wines: It is the source of some of the greatest wines the valley can produce. It is a new frontier, yet will always be the most remote and wildly romantic region of the Douro.

Prime Portuguese Brands

Barca Velha: Only produced in exceptional years, the wine originally came from Quinta do Vale Meão, but grapes are now sourced from Quinta da Leda and other Sogrape Douro Superior vineyards. The latest release, 2011, was the 20th vintage since 1952.

Quinta da Leda: This vineyard, the flagship estate of Sogrape-owned Casa Ferreirinha, is located in the far east of Douro Superior. It yields an estate wine and contributes to Barca Velha and Reserva Especialin the best years. The resulting wine style is structured, ageworthy and impressively elegant.

Quinta do Vesúvio: One of the estates created by Dona Antónia Ferreira, the Vesúvio Douro wine reflects structure and minerality as well as aging potential. As the vines for this wine have aged, each vintage has deepened and become more concentrated.

Quinta do Monte Xisto: This astonishing estate with steep slopes that descend a conical hill, terrifying to drive down, is the brainchild of João Nicolau d’Almeida. Having created with his uncle the Port vineyard of Quinta da Ervamoira for Ramos-Pinto, he now concentrates on an impressive, structured Douro wine at his family’s own property.

Quinta do Vale Meão: The last and probably the greatest creation of Dona Antónia Ferreira, this estate, still in the hands of her descendants, produces memorable Douro wines and Ports. As the estate’s renovations have taken hold, the wines have become more and more impressive.

Conceito: Produced using grapes from Rita Marques’s family vineyard, this brand’s name translates to concept.  Look particularly for Conceito Único from old vines and for the single-vineyard, earthy 100% Bastardo grape bottling.

Colinas do Douro Quinta da Extrema: This vineyard planted at high altitude in the far east of Douro Superior is producing rich, full and powerful wines taking advantage of the transition between the high plateau and the granite and schist soils.

This article originally appeared in the December 31, 2021 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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