Let's hear it for the Boys: from the Douro with love
Portugal's Douro Valley is one of the world's oldest demarcated wine regions, but it is its newest varieties that are drawing the attention of the critics.
In recent years, vintages such as Quinta do Crasto Reserva 2005 and Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional Douro Red 2008 have respectively been awarded the rank of No3 and No7 in Wine Spectator's top 100 of the year. Quinta Vale Dona Maria 2009 Douro Red scored 96 Parker points, one of many recent wines from the region to get a score or more than 90 from the critic.
The spectacularly steep valley has been home to winemakers for 2,000 years, but over the past 300 they have tended to concentrate on producing port. Some 20 years ago a younger generation of winemakers decided to focus on high-quality table wines.
The Douro Boys are not a Portuguese boy band, but a group of five leading families and estates (quinta), who came to together to 'put Douro on the map'. The families are the Olazabals from Quinta do Vale Meao, the Roquettes from Quinta do Crasto, the Van Zellers from Quinta Vale Dona Maria, the Ferreiras from Quinta do Vallado and the Niepoorts from Quinta de Napoles.
The steep sides of the river banks give winemakers three types of soil in which to grow - alluvial at the base, moving through schist to granite at the top.
While each type of soil has an impact on the flavour of the wines, it is the vines grown on granite that are said to produce the very best. The steep slopes mean that many terraces have been built by hand and that much of the harvesting is also done manually. In keeping with tradition, much of the crushing of the grapes is done by foot.
The wines themselves vary in style and varietal used, which are all indigenous to Portugal - touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta roriz, tinta cao and tinta barocca. Even if the grape names are unfamiliar, you may have tasted some of them in port.
The Boys explained their wines and philosophies at a recent series of seminars and tastings in Hong Kong and Macau.
Quinta do Vale Meao 2008 and 2009 are both great, but the 2009, with its concentrated cherry and plum flavours, just has the edge. The second label Meandro and vintage ports from 2003 and 2007 were all first class. These wines are made by Francisco 'Xito' Olazabal, son of Francisco 'Vito' Olazabal, both descendants of Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, the grand dame of the 19th century Douro Valley. Xito also makes the wine at Quinta do Vallado, a winery overlooking the Corgo tributary of the Douro River. While the Quinta do Vallado Reserva Field Blend 2009 is very concentrated, the Vallado Adelaide Vintage Port 2009 is notable for its long finish. The Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional 2009 is typical of the varietal, especially the soft tannins.
Next was the Quinta Vale Dona Maria 2009 made by larger-than-life Cristiano van Zeller, who used to co-own the renowned port house Quinta do Noval. The 2009 is as incredibly deep coloured as the tasting notes say. Black cherries and plums are followed by a surprising blast of raspberries. Van Zeller's outsized character can also be felt in his resume, which is always impressive. These wines are all foot-trodden in traditional tanks called lagares, spend nine to 18 months in French oak and are bottled unfiltered.
Quinta do Crasto Reserva 2009 is an exceptional blend of up to 25 to 30 regional grape varieties, all made from old vines by the estate's Miguel Roquette. Quinta do Crasto's two best wines must be the Vinha Maria Teresa and the Vinha Da Ponte, but their joint venture with Jean-Michel Cazes of Chateau Lynch Bages producing the elegant wine called Xisto - referring to the rocky schist soil that makes up much of the Douro - is definitely worthy of an honourable mention.
At the City of Dreams on Macau's Cotai Strip, Dirk van der Niepoort led a tasting of the Redoma Branco 2009, Redoma Tinto 2006, Vintage Port 2000 and the wonderfully named Charme 2007.
The Niepoort family have been shipping port since 1842, but only growing vines since 1987 and producing wines from 1991 onwards. And while pioneering winemaker Dirk Niepoort likes to claim that the Duoro has the potential to produce some of the world's best reds, he still had the humility to remind his audience that his father thought his first efforts were rubbish.