16-01-2018

Up the Douro & Quinta Nova

My mother’s family is of Portuguese descent and to honor this many years ago we opened a bottle of Vintage Port that my grandfather had brought back from Porto. The build up was intense and we gave it all the pomp and circumstance of a hallowed ceremony only to find that once we sampled the wine (even those of us underage were given a taste) few if any were impressed. My recently-departed Great Uncle George absolutely detested it and quickly doused his mouth in his preferred tipple, Budweiser. Despite direct ancestry tying us to the region, we obviously didn’t know shit about Port and my grandfather had been sold something of a skunky, uninteresting vintage of what can otherwise be a fine wine.

Ironically, had we been British, I doubt this mistake would have been made or at the very least, we would have known that “vintage” in Port Speak (much like Gran Reserva in Rioja Speak) doesn’t necessarily denote a fine wine. But for most Americans, Port is not on our traditional wine menu as it is in the UK (especially at Christmas) and once I learned more about wine, I realized that Porto and more to the point, Douro needed a visit.

Whilst in Georgia finishing up research for the book in the fall of 2016, I attended a rather poorly-done conference about enotourism and found myself sitting next to Paula Sousa, the marketing and communications manager for Quinta Nova, an established winery in the Douro Valley. I took her card with the intention of visiting soon.

“Soon” turned into a year later when my mother, who, despite her Portuguese DNA, had never visited her ancestors’ homeland. Despite living in Spain my excuse for not having been to Portgual was always the fact that even she hadn’t been so at my urging, we rectified this rather paltry situation by spend an extended weekend in Porto.

Despite Porto being on the Iberian Peninsula, which most people equate with sun and heat, it’s actually a very cool-climate town being that it’s oriented directly towards and sits on the Atlantic. Nights, even in the middle of summer can be quite chilly. As luck would have it, we arrived during a heatwave.

After two days of huffing and sweating up and down Porto’s hills, we headed inland to the Douro River Valley proper. The temperature gauge on the car steadily climbed, eventually peaking at 42C. Inside the car with the AC at full, this also didn’t matter and we quickly forgot about it once we left the main highway and came over the hills that had been hiding the slatey limits of the valley and its stupendous view.

From east to west stretched vineyard upon vineyard, plunging from the top ridge of the valley down to the water. Centuries of history were carved on these slopes and it was easy to understand why it became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. For someone used to the terraced vineyards of Priorat that almost total 2,000ha, the 40,000ha plus of Douro are overwhelming and as we wound our way down the side with the weak Fiat 500 I’d rented getting pissy, we came to the pocket that Quinta Nova lays claim to.

I’m sure many people confuse this winery with the much older, Quinta do Noval (which dates back to 1715) and in fact I’m often corrected by people not aware of it. In many ways, when talking about the centuries of history that Douro and Port have been produced, Quinta Nova is something of a “new” winery in its current phase.

The Amorim family bought the winery and vineyards in 1999 and set about completely renovating them. They have made their money as one of the largest cork producers. The financial injection was needed as while the winery itself is more than 250 years old with the original cellar dating to 1764, many aspects of it needed a healthy dose of modernization. This was to bring it into line with the revitalization of Douro as a brand unto itself independent of Port wine which really got underway throughout the region in the early 1990s.

Until 1999 there was 18ha of vineyards in total which they decided to replant a great deal of, focused mostly on Touriga Franca although they still buy in their white grapes. They renovated the estate so that there is now a restaurant as well as an 11-room hotel that has a pool which can claim one of the more stellar views I’ve ever seen as it has the glory of vineyard terraces cascading all around it and across the river. If I’d know it was going to be so damned hot, I would have brought something to swim in but instead a group of Americans were happily enjoying a dip just as they were checking out. For those looking for a wine country adventure, it offers a fully-inclusive package.

It was in 2011 that the winery probably saw one of its biggest changes when they hired Jorge Alves to head up the winemaking. Affable, charming, modest, and no end of knowledgeable, it’s small wonder that he’s been pursuing his Master of Wine credential. Upon meeting him, you find yourself in the presence of someone who is self-confident in their knowledge and yet not needing to show it off nor rub your face in it–the later always the mark of lesser wine people.

We toured the winery where they’re producing about 450,000 bottles a year of dry wines and 35,000 of Port. You can immediately see the investment from the Amorim family on display as there sit these antique premises with a healthy layer of modernity rolled across the top to support and bolster them. The only thing that stood out of place were some wax-sealed sealed barrels of aging Port. I’d seen something similar in Jerez where they seal the barrels of VORS Sherry for certification. As I don’t know Port inside and out, I asked Jorge if it was something similar to which he laughed, “Um no. It’s to keep the workers from helping themselves to a drink.” Apparently despite an employee allotment of wine, many had developed a taste for the good stuff.

Jorge told me he couldn’t spend as much time as he’d like as they needed to do some work in the vineyards later that day. The heat wasn’t normal, much as was the case for much of Europe in 2017. For Quinta Nova, Jorge said they were looking to harvest three weeks earlier than the previous year.

After we finished up tasting the wines, we had lunch and noticed there was smoke creeping up the valley from fires so we made a hasty retreat back in the direction of Porto only to find we hadn’t been fast enough and actually drove right through the middle of burning forest fire. The firefighters looked at us like we were idiots and thankfully this was a small fire but it was just the start of bigger ones in Portugal last summer as well as California after that and who knows what more to come.

Those making wines in Douro are producing some fine bottles these days as it’s being seen that there is a great deal more to the valley than being Port’s grape supply depot. But as the heatwave and fires have shown, theirs as well as countless other’s futures are far from certain in the changing climate of viticultural around the world.

Pomares 2016
Grapey nose with grassiness while being fresh and expressive. Good mid palate but short finish and a touch saline with a great wealth of acidity.
100% Muscat 13.5% 8€
* 87

Grainha 2015
Slatey, bit of light plum, plump yellow peach, yellow blossoms. Full weighted and complex on the palate with brioche notes and a persistent finish emerging as it opens.
Viosinho, Gouvieo, Robigeto, Fern~ao Pines 14% 14€
** 91

Mirabilis Grande Reserva White 2015
Light and extremely delicate, rich and well-integrated textured vanilla notes with grapefruit peel. Moderate acidity that stays fresh and balanced, very long, lingering finish.
85% Field Blend, 15% Godello 14% 28€
** 91

Quinta Nova Rosé Reserva 2015
Rich crushed strawberries, touch of marmalade, very floral with rose petal notes, old wood, and soft spice. Light and balanced in the body with a touch of astringency in the finish.
Tinta Roriz, Tinta Francisca 14% 8€
** 92

Quinta Nova Grande Reserva 2013
16 months of aging. Rich blackberry, red forest fruits, wild herbs, wet slate minerality, light orange peel. Wonderful balance and length on the palate with lovely, graceful acidity and a great aging potential.
75% Touriga Nacional, 25% Old Vines Field Blend 14% 48€
**+ 93+

Quinta Nova Referéncia Grande Reserva 2013
Rich dark fruits, dense and intense with crisp herbal notes, light chocolate and coffee notes. Very fresh and full herbal notes on the palate, laurel, full tannins, and raisin bits in the finish.
75% Tinta Roriz, 25% Old Vines Field Blend 14% 48€
** 94

Mirabilis Grande Reserva Red 2013
Spicy dark cherries, graphite, tea leaves, woodsy herbs. Naturally balanced in the mouth, rich cured fruits, good length and a wealth of soft, delicate tannins to carry the bottle forever.
85% Old Vines Field Blend, 15% Trincadeira 14.5% 80€
*** 96