Douro Valley Winemakers

Go vineyard-hopping in Portugal’s stunning wine country to meet the young winemakers drawing attention to this juicy destination.


raving narrow roads and hairpin turns on a 17-mile stretch of highway that slices through the heart of Portugal’s Douro Valley, I arrive breathless at the new Six Senses hotel in Samodães. When I tell the front desk clerk that I’ve come from Peso da Régua, she smiles and says, “Ah, the best road in the world.”

Science backs her up. A quantum physicist once hired by a rental car company to determine the ideal highway driving ratio concluded it was 10:1 or 10 seconds on a straightaway to every one second spent on a bend. This combines the exhilaration of acceleration, sharp corners, and stretches just long enough for you to enjoy the scenery. The road I just drove, the N-222, has a near perfect ratio of 11:1. To think, I’m just here for two days of wine tasting.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Douro Valley ranks as one of the world’s most beautiful and unlikely wine regions. Located in northeast Portugal not far from the Spanish border, the valley has been sculpted through the ages by the Douro River, which runs through it. Three regions make up the verdant valley, which covers 160 square miles: Baixo Corgo, meaning “below the Corgo,” a Douro tributary; Cima Corgo, “above the Corgo”; and Douro Superior, “upper Douro.” You’ll find most of Douro’s high-quality, historic vineyards in Cima Corgo, the largest region. It’s home to all but one of the wineries on my list to visit, most within a 30-minute drive of Pinhão, a pretty town of just 700 considered Douro’s nexus.

Throughout the region, vines grow on rock-walled terraces carved into steep slopes made of schist, a flinty, slatelike rock. Schist settles vertically, thus vines can slither through to the water below. It’s something they’ve been doing since Roman times, when men first began coaxing wine from this harsh lunarlike surface, the world’s oldest demarcated wine region.

Historically, Douro has been known for port but over the past decade it has earned acclaim for its red table wines and is increasingly gaining respect for its full-bodied whites. Indeed, wines from the latest generation of winemakers (most in their early 30s to mid-40s) are now nabbing enviable scores in the 90s from the likes of Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator magazines.

Only the wine trade could visit the Douro’s quintas (wine estates) in the past, but to boost wine tourism, more quinta owners are now building inviting tasting rooms and some are converting their manor houses, many dating back to the 1700s, into quaint, charming hotels. With efforts to increase traffic to the wineries still in the early stages, don’t be surprised if vineyard owners themselves or their winemakers personally welcome you and give you tours. Weather permitting, you’ll wander through the vineyards before entering wineries to trace the path of the grapes from sorting tables to caves where they’re aged in seemingly endless rows of stainless-steel vats or wooden barrels. The site should whet your appetite for the wine tasting that follows, during which winemakers will often share their tasting notes.

Looks can be deceiving

When it’s time for me to do my own tasting at some of the wineries earning praise from critics, I don’t get back behind the wheel of my car – not with the narrow winding roads, sparse signage, and all the world-class wines to savor. I leave the driving to a Douro insider, Joana van Zeller, who handles PR for Six Senses and comes from a long line of Portuguese wine producers and landowners. She’s also married to Cristiano van Zeller, one of the original Douro Boys, five renowned winemakers from respected Portuguese winemaking families who started shaking up the region in 2005 by producing and promoting elegant wines from grapes formerly cast into grape-agnostic ports.

Their bonhomie is legendary. When you tasted wine from one winemaker, he would say, “I’m glad you like it. Have you tried my friend’s?” Their shared enthusiasm for one another has been passed on to the next generation, along with their innovative ways.

“After I got my master’s in oenology in 1999, Cristiano asked his friends to hire me but no one would.” They feared the ex-model wouldn’t want to get her hands dirty, but they were dead wrong. “I always knew I wanted to work with the earth,” she quickly adds. Cristiano hired her himself and she worked for him until December 2015 even though she and her husband had started their own winery.

Tavares da Silva and Borges believe in using traditional winemaking methods but with a modern twist. For example, they still crush their grapes in stone lagares but the containers are temperature-controlled, giving the winemakers more control over the final product. Fermenting wine at high temperatures can lead to a secondary fermentation, which eliminates some of the wine’s aromas and could cook the wine, giving it a burnt taste. In too-cold temperatures, the yeast that converts sugar into alcohol could go dormant and stop working. The duo also blanket their wines with carbon dioxide to prevent oxidation, which can cause wines to lose their brightness in both flavor and color.

The couple named their first wine Pintas Douro Red after their dog (pinta is Portuguese for spot) and Wine Spectator awarded the 2011 vintage 98 points, the highest score the publication had ever given a Douro table wine. I taste the 2012, deeming it full-bodied and a bit spicy. They make this wine from 30 indigenous grape varieties grown on 80-year-old vines. Like many in Douro, these wines are “field blends,” as many different kinds of grapes grow side by side in the vineyards.

Another of their reds, Pintas Character, packs more of a punch – rich, intense, and just begging for a steak. Guru, a white blend, gets much of its minerality from the schist but has an added complexity that distinguishes it from Portugal’s iconic white wine, vinho verde. In 2014, Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer called Guru “among the finest white wines I’ve tasted this year from Douro or anywhere else – and, yes, I’m including Burgundy in that sweeping declaration.”

Frenchman does Douro, with an unlikely head winemaker

A scion of Douro winemaking royalty, 36-year-old João Nicolau de Almeida, crafts the wine as head winemaker. Inspired by a trip to Bordeaux, Nicolau de Almeida’s grandfather Fernando made Portugal’s first high-quality table wine, the famed 1952 Barca Velha; in the ’70s, his father led the study that identified the five best grape varieties for Douro and helped secure funding from the World Bank to modernize and expand the region’s vineyards.

Before hiring Nicolau de Almeida in 2007, Pessegueiro’s general manager, Marc Monrose, interviewed several other more prominent winemakers. His risky choice surprised Nicolau de Almeida just as much as it did everyone else. “I never thought they’d pick me. I was very young, but I had big ideas and I guess they liked that,” he says.

Monrose’s gamble has paid off. I taste Aluze, a light, fresh wine with a tart zing, followed by the winery’s signature Quinta do Pessegueiro 2011, a lightly oaked red awarded 90 points by Wine Spectator. The red has a base of Touriga Nacional, one of Nicolau de Almeida’s favorite grapes and widely considered Portugal’s finest because the skins are rich in tannins that give the wines excellent structure and aging capacity. Reflecting on the red, he tells me, “I want the wine to be fresh and elegant, but also to reflect the personality and attitude of the vineyard, and I think this wine does that.”

Before landing at this estate, Nicolau de Almeida studied and worked in France and his technical training enables him to take advantage of the high-tech facility. Even so, he focuses mostly on the vines. He analyzes the grapes on a plot-by-plot basis, treating each plot individually to coax out the grapes’ natural potential. Even in the cellar, he separates the wines by plot so that he can monitor specific traits and nuances.

In-law’s update of a family vineyard

Next, we’re off to the van Zellers’ house in Sarzedinho, 7 miles south of Pinhão, where we’re having lunch with Joana Pinhão, 35, head winemaker for Quinta Vale D. Maria. Joana van Zellers’ great-grandfather founded this quinta in 1868 and it stayed in her family until she and Cristiano bought it from her grandmother in 1996. The quinta had been partially sold off and neglected over the years and desperately needed rehabilitation. Cristiano has rebuilt every building on the property and added a modern winery with temperature-controlled granite lagares, robotic treaders, and a computer-operated basket press. He also pruned and weeded the old vines, planted new ones, and purchased or leased old vineyards from neighboring properties. Despite being tricked out with all the latest equipment, the cellar retains some of its Old World feel thanks to its wood-beamed ceilings, preserved stucco walls, and stacks of wooden barrels.

Pinhão, who got her start as an intern under Cristiano and Tavares da Silva in 2007, leads the tasting. We start with an exciting new wine from Cristiano’s winery, CV Douro White 2013, one of only 628 bottles produced. He named this wine for curriculum vitae because it – along with the CV Douro Red – is, Pinhão tells me, “the kind of wine we’d put on our résumé.” To them, CV represents the region’s essence and the pinnacle of their winemaking skill. While Pinhão refers to the wine’s “elegant structure and nice acidity,” I’m more inclined to agree with Robert Parker, who described the experience of tasting this powerful wine as “pretty much ‘wow’ all the way.”

To complement a lavish, three-hour banquet of grilled meats and potatoes, homemade bread, and Portuguese cheeses, we sample Grande Escolha, a full-bodied, velvety red that one of Pinhão’s friends made at Quinta do Côtto, and, in the tradition of the Douro Boys, she wants me to taste it. Finally, we get to the CV Douro Red, a lush, almost portlike wine that’s attracting raves. Robert Parker awarded it 95 points and called it “elegantly constructed, sensual, and nicely balanced,” and Wine Spectator gave it 91 points. I find myself describing this deep crimson-colored beauty as a rich, refined knockout – like Julianne Moore in a glass.

When visiting the Douro, advance planning is fine but plan to be flexible, because you never know when an unexpected invitation will pop up. It turns out that Pinhão also consults for Quinta da Ferradosa, a new winery owned by Cristiano’s good friend, Joaquim Cálem, so she arranges for Joana and I to meet her there for a tour the next day.

Trailblazing in the valley

At Quinta da Ferradosa – in Carrazeda de Ansiães in the Douro Superior region, about 40 miles northeast of Pinhão – Cálem is one of the few Douro winemakers growing vines in granite rather than schist. Joana and I rendezvous with the innovator at a rickety gas pump and he motors us across the river in a small boat. After a short ride, we arrive at the winery, a restored 19th-century granite building topped with a red tile roof that stands out against the verdant slopes that rise behind it.

Inside, old meets new with sleek, stainless-steel tanks juxtaposed against weathered granite walls. In the warehouse, framed photographs of Cálem’s family line one wall, an homage to his ancestors who made port from 1859 to 1993. Pinhão is already at work and gives us tastes of the wines straight from the barrels. Since this is a new vineyard, she’s still determining which specific wines will be used to make Ferradosa’s two brands: Quinta da Ferradosa and Pontes da Ferradosa. This vineyard’s uniqueness excites Pinhão, who explains that “wines made from grapes grown in granite tend to be fresher and more aromatic than those grown in schist.” After our last barrel tasting, she smiles and whispers, “This is really good. It has the potential to be a $100 wine.” The wine is fresh with light fruit and a slight tinge of chocolate and, as Pinhão says correctly, really good.

Steps away from the winery sit two dilapidated stone buildings that Cálem is currently renovating into two contemporary guest cottages and a tasting room. He hopes to open them by, or shortly after, this year’s autumn harvest. He also plans to rent out the contemporary, three-bedroom main house, which has a full kitchen, dining room that seats eight, and sitting room with a fireplace. The house offers breathtaking views of the river from floor-to-ceiling windows, and landscaped gardens and olive trees surround the property’s pool. Cálem plans to use the trees to produce olive oil.

Winemaking the organic way

Next, Joana and I head back across the river to meet Carlos Raposo, 32, the boyish winemaker at Niepoort’s Quinta de Nápoles winery in Armamar, 9 miles southeast of Pinhão. The Niepoort family, originally from Holland, has been making wine here since 1842, with the brother and sister team of Dirk and Verena now in charge – the fifth generation of Niepoorts to run the business. Dirk oversees the winemaking; Verena focuses on administrative duties. The charismatic Dirk, alongside Cristiano, played a key role in creating the Douro Boys. Architects designed this winery, made of schist walls and surrounded by terraces, to blend into the landscape – and it blends so well it takes us three tries to find it.

Those in the know credit Dirk with revolutionizing the Douro Valley, as he was one of the first to attempt to make and sell high-quality table wines from the area in 1991. To expand his knowledge, Dirk traveled around the world in the early 1990s visiting the great wine regions of Australia, California, France, and Germany, and brought some of their techniques back to the Douro. For example, to make his elegant Charme, a Burgundian-style red, he presses the grapes with 100 percent of their stems on, a French tradition inspired by Burgundy’s legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Dirk advocates a noninterventionist approach to winemaking using no enzymes, cultured yeast, or added acid.

Raposo also has traveled the world perfecting his craft, having studied in France and worked in Spain, the Napa Valley, and Australia before returning to his native Portugal in 2011. He takes me on a winery tour, starting with a hidden cellar entered via a door in the floor that exposes a descending spiral staircase. “Our James Bond wine cellar,” he quips. Raposo then leads me on a barrel-tasting tour of the main cellar. I taste my favorite Portuguese wine, Redoma Branco – a fresh, flinty white bettered only by the drier Redoma Reserva Branco, which has a surprisingly smoky finish.

Raposo shares the Niepoorts’ commitment to organic, sustainable, and biodynamic practices that seek to balance the natural biodiversity of the vineyard with the least intrusive intervention from man. He’s also producing more wines without filtration, a step less-experienced winemakers use as a crutch to fix flaws in a wine. Problem is, it also strips the wine of its characteristic flavors and aromas.

Sitting down for another lavish lunch with the entire Niepoort team, we all taste Diálogo, a fresh, easy-drinking red; and Conciso, a fine, delicate red from the Dão region, south of Douro, that’s reminiscent of a good Burgundy. Raposo expresses particular pride in this unfiltered wine as he was raised in Dão and studied at the University of Burgundy in Dijon.

For Diálogo, an entry-level wine, Dirk created unique names and labels to market the wine to 37 countries and encourage their residents to try it. For each, the wine’s name is in the country’s official language and local illustrators designed the labels. While some winemakers tweak their wines to suit national preferences, Dirk didn’t. He was confident that once people tried his wine, they’d like it. He markets Diálogo, the Portuguese name, as “Drink Me” in the U.K. and “Twisted” in the U.S. The irreverent winemaker also enjoys injecting whimsy into wine’s staid world: He considers the ports Tawny Dee and Ruby Dum – named after the Tweedle twins in Alice in Wonderland – “twins” because the grapes come from the same lot but are aged differently. The paler, more subtle Tawny Dee, aged in small old casks, stands in contrast to the stronger, richer Ruby Dum, aged in large wooden vats.

Our meal concludes with homemade almond cake and an LBV (Late-Bottled Vintage) port from 2011, which Wine Spectator called “an amazing vintage” from a year that “port surged to remarkable heights of quality.” LBVs are bottled four to six years from the vintage date so they spend more time in oak, making them drinkable at a young age and at about one-quarter the cost of vintage port. The dark ruby wine with its notes of pepper and dark chocolate pairs beautifully with the cake.

Later that evening, on my last night in the valley, I savor another glass of Redoma Branco on the Six Senses deck. As I gaze upon the Douro’s steep terraces lined with tenacious vines doggedly clawing their way out of craggy schist, I’m awed by both the landscape’s beauty and the sheer lunacy that must have once inspired someone to plant vineyards on it. I’m also grateful for the passionate winemakers who continue to overcome nature’s obstacles to produce wines full of the character, personality, and soul of this majestic region. Go while the Douro is still developing its wine tourism and the winemakers still welcome you to their cellars themselves.

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