In 2017 Ewa and I were lucky enough to visit the Douro region as part of a trip covering north-west Spain and Portugal. During our visit, we stumbled across a wine that became one of our favorites of the year, Pacheca Douro Reserva Vinhas Velhas, as well as sampling some port that the region is so well known for. This was our first real introduction to port and we were lucky enough to visit a producer, Churchill’s Port, more than capable of introducing two newcomers to the world. But more on that later.
First, I’d like to provide more information on this often underappreciated wine region, some recommendations on places to visit and finally the wines to look out for.
Douro is one of Portugal’s best-known wine regions, and for good reason, as it makes the world famous fortified wine Port (also known as Vinho do Porto). I must admit beyond the fact that this is where port came from, before visiting in person, I knew very little about the region or the wines it produced.
Reading the section on Portugal in Karen MacNeil’s excellent ‘The Wine Bible‘ it appears I’m not the only one.
“Historically, there have been two Portugals—the famous Portugal that made Port and the obscure Portugal that made dry table wines.”
However, ‘The Wine Bible’ goes on to say how this is changing. Having tasted a selection of wines from the region I can see why.
Portugal, as of 2018 forecasts, is ranked 11th globally for wine production.1 It should be noted that 2018 was a rough year and saw a drop in production. This was due to heavy rainfall and humidity, resulting in mildew. Additionally during August & September temperatures rose to 10-year highs leading to crops being lost due to sunburnt grapes.2 All this lead to a decrease in yield but conversely an expected increase in quality.3 So look out for Portuguese wines from the 2018 vintage when out browsing.
Portugal, like other European countries, has a hierarchy of classifications for wine quality. At the top, you have DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) meaning Controlled Designation of Origin. There are 31 DOCs in Portugal with the Douro DOC being one of these. The Douro DOC covers unfortified wines and is interesting in that it lies in the same geographical region as another DOC, that of Porto, which as you’d expect covers fortified wines4. It’s no wonder its table wines often get overlooked, when it comes to name recognition that’s some stiff competition.
What do I mean by fortified & unfortified wine? Put simply, fortified wine is when a distilled spirit is added to the wine, you sometimes hear them called desert wines. Unfortified wine doesn’t have any additional spirit added, they are your ‘table wines’ where all the alcohol should come from the fermentation of the grapes.
- Examples of fortified wine include Port, Sherry & Madeira as well as others.
- Examples of unfortified wine are the red, white and rose wines that you’re likely drinking over dinner.
I’m going to focus on the Douro DOC (the unfortified table wines) in this article mostly because with the amount of information available on port books could be written (and many have) and also because I feel that it’s the table wines that could use more promotion. It has nothing to do we my current lack of knowledge of port, honestly.
Douro is located in the north of Portugal and is centered on the Douro river. It’s divided into three geographical sections; Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo, and Douro Superior. There are differences in climate across the three sections resulting in a difference in quality.
Source: Cellar Tours
The history of wine in the Douro goes back 2000 years5. Wine had been exported from Douro from the 14th Century, but a big milestone in Douro’s history was when the English developed a taste for Port in the 17th – 18th Century. This lead to a massive expansion of grape production which went hand in hand with a reduction in quality. Producers wanting to protect the quality of Port petitioned to create an institution to focus on ensuring this. The Companhia Geral dos Vinhos do Alto Douro institution was created by royal Portuguese charter on 10 September 1756. One key action taken by the new institution was between 1758 and 1761 with the creation of the “Pombalina Demarcation of the Douro Valley” between 1758 and 17616. This was one of the world’s first formal demarcations for a wine region.
Like many other regions, Douro was struck by Powdery mildew and Phylloxera during the 19th Century. Although Douro was decimated by these disasters it also led to vineyards responding with new biological and chemical defenses.
The main focus during Douro’s history has been on port but that started to change in 1952 with Fernando Nicolau de Almeida who created Barca Velha, often lauded as the first high quality, unfortified wine produced in the Douro valley. This tradition was continued by his son João Nicolau de Almeida7.
Demand for Portuguese wine further increased after Portugal’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1986. Outside of Port wine, some see Douro’s wine industry as still being in its early days with great things to come.
You can find an abundance of traditional grape varieties in Douro. For red wine the most common seem to be: –
- Touriga Nacional
- Touriga Franca
- Tinta Roriz (also known as Tempranillo in Spain)
- Tinto Cão
While for white wines the list is: –
- Malvasia Fina
A Couple of Recommendations
As mentioned above we visited in 2017. Our first stop was, where else, Porto. Unfortunately, we arrived on a dark and rainy night, as a result my first impressions of Porto were not favorable (no matter how hard Ewa valiantly tried to convince me of the beauty of the place). This soon changed, over the next couple of days the weather improved and I got to see the city in a much better light, literally.
While in Porto I recommend you visit one of the many Port Houses. We opted for Churchill’s Port house based on reviews. As you expect from most of the house tours they give an overview of the history of port production as well as their company while also going into detail about the Port making process. A tour around the cellar to see some of the huge barrels was also a unique experience.
The tasting afterward was informative and generous, we actually ended staying after the tour was over and learned a few interesting things. I won’t go too much into the tasting of the port as that’s not the focus of the article, and also I’m also woefully unqualified at the moment. I will say we both came away with a new appreciation of port and have been enjoying a glass more regularly since then (Pro-tip from Ewa, if you find port a bit hard to take initially try it with a bit of ice).
Like most port houses, Churchill’s is now also producing unfortified wines. We were lucky enough to try Quinta da Gricha Douro 2007; a beautiful deep red with rich berries on the nose and palate. It was the first example of a Douro red that was right up our street. Although at around £40 a bottle I’m not sure if we could justify picking up a bottle; especially with the other wines on offer throughout the Douro.
When we asked where we could get Churchill’s in London we were told that there is one restaurant that serves the companies port. The restaurant was called Bar Douro, located at London Bridge, and was being run by the owner of Churchill’s son. As luck would have it Ewa and I had been there only a few weeks before; small world. We can recommend the food and if you do visit obviously give the port a try.
To end the holiday we decided to treat ourselves and had booked into Monverde Hotel. A hotel that styles itself as a Wine Experience Hotel. It’s set on a 32-hectare vineyard and is associated with Quinta da Lixa. Most importantly, it had an exceptionally well-stocked wine cellar with extremely knowledgeable staff that are happy to guide you through the wines of the area. This is where we came across the previously mentioned Pacheca Douro Reserva Vinhas Velhas.
We tasted a number of wines but for us, there were three standouts.
Pacheca Douro Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2013
Pacheca was and remains our favorite wine of the trip, even after tasting higher rated (and much more expensive) wines. Since finding this wine we usually have a couple of bottles on our shelf. Getting your hands on it in the UK is difficult so we started to have it shipped in. The following site will get a case delivered straight to your door for around £14 a bottle (link), which is a steal. If you’re planning to get some feel free to contact us, happy to go halves on the delivery costs!
The wine is made from old vineyards (Vinhas Velhas), in this case, 60-year-old vines. Older vines tend to produce fewer grapes but with higher concentration and it comes through in this wine. As part of the WSET Level 3 training, I’m planning to do a systematic tasting of this when we get back to the UK. I’ll add the notes onto the site once I’ve written them up. That, of course, is assuming the two bottles we left with my good friend haven’t been ‘accidentally’ drunk before we get back….it’s happened before.
|Douro Reserva Vinhas Velhas|
|Region||Douro, Baixa Corgo|
|Notes||Detailed notes to follow.|
Quinta de La Rosa Douro Reserva Red 2013
When I think of a quintessential Douro red wine I think of this wine, and that is meant to be a compliment. It hits pretty much all the notes we look for, full-bodied, black fruits with a moreish texture making it easy to drink. You can quickly work your way through a bottle but at around £30 (link) per bottle, it could be a better idea to take your time with it.
|La Rosa Douro Reserva Red|
|Region||Douro, Cima Corgo|
|Winery||Quinta de La Rosa|
|Notes||Full bodied with dark fruits and a velvet texture.|
Curriculum Vitae Douro (CV) 2012
OK, this one isn’t cheap. A bottle will set you back around £60 (Link) and taking into account Pacheca clocked in around £14 it would be difficult to justify…..with that said, this type of wine was almost made for our tastes. For a long time we’ve both enjoyed richer, ‘heavier’ wines and as such CV was an easy match.
Rightly considered one of the best wines to come out of the Douro it’s an example, if more where needed, of just how good the unfortified wines from this region can be.
|Curriculum Vitae Douro (CV)|
|Region||Douro, Cima Corgo|
|Winery||Vale D. Maria|
|Notes||Dark black fruit, very smooth with a long finish.|
- Douro is a beautiful region, well worth a visit with many table wines worth your time.
- The yield was down in 2018 due to tough conditions but quality for the years wine is looking positive – keep an eye out for the 2018 vintage when shopping.
- Churchill’s Port house is well worth a visit if you’re looking to choose one of the many port houses to visit when in Porto.
- Port with a bit of ice helps the medicine go down
- If you want to spoil yourself or someone else while also enjoying some of the best wines the Douro has to offer check yourself into Monverde Hotel.
- Give Portuguese table wine a try, especially from the Douro region and especially if it has Pacheca on the label.
1. International Organisation of Vine and Wine 2018 Global Economic Vitiviniculture Data
2. Vinepair – Wine Harvest 2018 Report
3. Sogevinus 2018 HARVEST REPORT
4. Wines of Portugal – Overview of Porto and Douro
5. UNESCO – World Heritage Centre – Alto Douro Wine Region
6. Real Companhia Velha – History
7. For The Love of Port – Joao Nicolau De Almeida Interview