Wine Club: Pulling away from port

The hillsides are terraced like contour lines
The hillsides are terraced like contour lines
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Portugal’s winemakers have moved on from fortified wines with impressive results finds Christine Austin.

In the days long before central heating the world use to drink a lot more port. It was poured at most dinners and was carefully passed around the table, from right to left and enjoyed for its deep flavours and warming alcohol.

Then sales began to slide. The need to get home for baby-sitters, the quite necessary drink-driving regulations and a general shift away from fortified wines sent sales of port into a spiral.

So what so you do if you have a hillside full of grapes and your sales are in decline? The answer is simple, you find something else to make and that is just what the winemakers of the Douro have done. They are now making fabulous table wines as well as terrific ports and frankly it is a win/win situation for everyone. They are able to select the best grapes for each product, and they can make planting decisions with table wines in mind.

The Douro is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world. Its name comes from the River Douro which runs across the top quarter of Portugal, rising in Spain where it is known as the Duero and winding its way through steep-sided rocky hillsides and ending in the Atlantic. The Douro region occupies the harsh, dry hillsides each side of this now-tranquil river between the Spanish border and the low range of coastal mountains which stretch around 50 km inland from the Atlantic. This is where a whole range of grapes are grown, often on terraces which curve around the hillsides like contours on a map.

There are 80 permitted grape varieties in this region and while many vineyards are still made up of a natural field selection, planted long before grapes were individually identified and selected, there is more specialisation these days to get the best ripeness and flavour. The five most important grapes are Tinta Roriz, Touriga Naçional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão which together make up the majority of plantings.

The winemakers from the Douro were recently in the UK to show off their table wines and what seems clear from this tasting is that the necessity which drove them to make table wines has now turned into a virtue with a style unique to the region.

One of the most easily accessible Douro reds comes from the Symington family who own the major port brands of Dow, Warre’s and Graham’s. Three of their vineyards have now been granted organic certification which guarantees that no chemicals or pesticides have been sprayed on the vines for at least three years, but in fact they have been chemical free for a lot longer than that.

Made from a blend of Tinta Barroca, Touriga Naçional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca, Altano Organic Red 2011 (£9.99 Waitrose and Halifax Wine Co) is an up-front, succulent blackberry and cinnamon spiced wine that is terrific partner to pasta and red meat dishes.

Moving up the quality scale this same family has joined forces with the Prats family which used to own Ch. Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux. Bruno Prats is vey much involved in the winemaking of Post Scriptum and Chryseia which have set new standards in Douro wines. Post Scriptum, which cleverly echoes the initials of the two families, is a blend of Touriga Naçional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barocca and Tinta Roriz. Grapes are sourced from the Symington vineyards and the wine is made at Quinta de Roriz, an old style Quinta on a promontory overlooking the Douro river. I tasted the 2011 Post Scriptum which has been aged in large French oak barrels oak for 13 months and was impressed by its concentrated dark, fruit flavours and silky soft style, although it still needs more time. Penistone Wine Cellars (01226 766037) has the 2006 vintage which I tasted a couple of years ago and that should be perfect for drinking now.

Chryseia is in yet another league and, as Paul Symington told me, has been scoring such high points with Robert Parker that it is now on allocation. The 2011 is a fantastic wine, big and brooding, layered with liquorice and damsons and chunky but elegant fruit and a long life ahead of it. Berry Bros in London has a full set of vintages of this wine, but Penistone Wine Cellars has the suave and supple 2004 vintage which can be enjoyed now at £45.

Dirk Niepoort is another notable port producer who has added some excellent table wines to his range. I like the simply named Drink Me 2011 (£11.99 Harrogate Fine Wine), made from a whole basketful of grapes which gives lively, juicy raspberry fruit with an easy drinking style. Redoma 2009 (£28.99 Harrogate Fine Wine, 01423 522270), like Drink Me is made from a field blend of grapes but this time the vines are 70 years old and the wine has a traditional, almost rustic edge to it. Made in an old-style granite lagare and foot trodden, the stalks which go into the lagare have imparted a chunky style with tannins layered amongst pepper, spice and savoury balsamic notes. This is a wine to put alongside game, venison or a really deep flavoured beef dish.

Dirk is also involved in the Lavradores de Feitoria label which is a co-operation, (rather than a co-operative) between 18 young and enthusiastic Douro producers. They use their joint know-how and their combined sources of grapes to make a range of wines in far bigger volumes than they could individually. Lavradores de Feitoria Douro Tinto 2010 is a bright, cherry and red berry wine, with a touch of savoury complexity. At just £9.60 (Field and Fawcett 01904 489073) is a bargain.

Other Douro wines to look out for include Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Douro 2011 which comes from the stunning Quinto do Crasto. If you haven’t ventured into the Douro then this is the wine to start with. At just £8.49 it provides a taste of the dark fruits, spice and smooth depth of flavour from this region.