Wine opinion: exploring the unique character of Portugal's Douro region
Wine people are often called upon to explain what makes a particular region unique, and because wine itself is difficult to differentiate with words - one person's plum is another's blackberry - the tendency is to fixate on soil, climate, landscape, grape varieties or even the winemaking if there's something to say.
Portugal's Douro region has all of these: a friable grey schist soil; an arid, almost desert climate suitable only for gnarled vines and olive trees; and an otherworldly topography carved out by the river for which it is named.
You like indigenous grape varieties? Douro has at least 40 - the inky touriga nacional is head honcho, flanked by its homeboys touriga franca and tinta roriz (Spain's tempranillo). Much winemaking is still done in granite lagares - essentially wide, shallow kiddy pools of grapes stomped by teams of the young and (initially) enthusiastic in an activity that we personally discovered more resembles a four-hour step class than a bacchanalian romp.
But what we often gloss over in describing a region is its people. Here it is the Douro Boys, a group of five quinta (wine estate) owners that embody the region, at least as much as any crumbling rocks or terraced hillsides do.
They first teamed up in 2003 to represent and inspire the region, a move which at the time was considered highly unusual. This year, they celebrated their tenth anniversary in grand style by auctioning a few hundred magnums of a table wine and a vintage port created from a blend of their individual 2011 harvests.
So how do the Douro Boys manage? It helps that they're all family. Many of the families used to make port, but now focus on making dry wines that are as important as port.
The Olazabals of Quinta do Vale Meão and the Ferreiras of Quinta do Vallado are both related to Dona Antonia Ferreira - the grande dame of Douro who amassed a property portfolio that would put many a Hong Kong tai-tai to shame - and Olazabal even makes the Ferreiras' wine. Joao Ferreira is married to a Roquette, the family that owns Quinta do Crasto, and Francisco "Vito" Olazabal himself has some Van Zeller blood (the family that owns Quinta Vale D. Maria). Then there is the quiet ringleader, Dirk van der Niepoort of Quinta de Nápoles (among many projects), who has no known family connections to the others.
Despite all the interrelatedness, the people couldn't be more dissimilar. The devastating Roquette brothers, Miguel and Tomas, recall Argentine polo players with their glowing tans and swooping hairstyles; the gravel-voiced Francisco "Xito" (son of Vito) Olazabal; the boyish, silver-haired Joao Ferreira; the imposing Cristiano Van Zeller, with his sonorous voice; and Van der Niepoort, with his billowing curls and cherubic looks belying a caustic wit. The wines differ widely too - from the boldness of Crasto, the earthiness of Meão, the violets of Vallado and the cherry-tones of D. Maria to the occasionally ingenious curios that are Niepoort's wines.
It also helps the camaraderie that each has experienced critical success. About their recent spate of 90+ scores, Miguel Roquette said it best: "They play the music, so we dance, but we don't live for that." And one does get the sense that they mean it, enjoying the glory while it lasts but also busying themselves with the mapping of varietal diversity in their vineyards so that their wines might maintain their complexity long after the critics have refocused elsewhere.
In a way, what keeps the Douro boys together is their Portugueseness. During the long bus ride home along the Douro, I asked about Portuguese national stereotypes. We concluded that they are patient - they are, after all, the slowest maturing wine in vintage port; they are practical, retaining what is relevant from their traditions and modernising what is not; and they are refreshingly modest (though perhaps it is just quiet confidence).