Tradition vs. Innovation: What Will Save the Douro? Part I
Getting up early after an eventful evening in Gaia, Portugal made departing the fantastic luxury surroundings at the Yeatman Hotel difficult. Knowing that my journey into the Douro would bring knowledge and adventure and probably a whole lot of things I could not anticipate made the departure somewhat exciting. It was made a little easier knowing four days from now I would return to this oasis of civilization and culture with a great deal of knowledge about a wine region I knew very little about.
Embarking on this adventure with a crammed suitcase and an open mind, we departed Gaia and headed towards the steep steps of the Douro River. Being guided into the Douro with a representative from Portugal’s equivalent of our TTB or more locally here in Oregon the OLCC there they are called the IVDP. Paulo Pintão was as good a guide as you could possibly get. Paulo’s educational banter about rules and regulations regarding the procedure to legally produce Port Wine resounded with authority, as did the proclamation of the 2 to 1 stock ratio required to be able to sell Port Wine from the DOC. These facts intertwined between explaining why we had to stop because the road was too narrow for two cars to pass and seamlessly blended together completing our education about the progress of traffic to trafficking Port Wine in international markets. Concise deliberate and compelling were Paulo Pintão delineations—this guy really knew his stuff.
As we made our way further into the Douro, it was obvious we had departed what most of us would call our world and entered into a very different existence that bent, adjusted and made to survive in the specific elements that define this geographical location. Schist a phrase we would hear over and over again, and quite honestly it was a defining moment that brought to bear the actual difficulty of carving out a life in the Douro. It wasn’t until I saw fence posts and slats for flooring made from this material did I appreciate its beauty and utilitarian usefulness.
We traversed a harrowing route to get to Quinta da Gricha. At one point as we teetered off the side of a cliff, I think I could hear the heartbeats of some of my fellow travelers while we had to back up a quarter mile to get to a place where a vehicle coming down the mountain could pass. I decided not to look back and be confident in the driving skills of our driver another gentleman named Paulo who soon became someone I looked forward to seeing after each time he deposited us at a Quinta to take in the history, winemaking techniques, and philosophy of Port. I mention the philosophy of port because it is a very important part of the Douro and according to who you happen to be listening to, you will receive a lot of different opinions.
Before embarking on this trip while I was still stateside I was thinking about what would motivate the producers to sink so much money into the promotion of name protection through the Center for Wine Origins. What was the real agenda? It was revealed pretty early at our first winery stop Quinta da Gricha where we met Johnny Graham of Churchill’s. Yes, he is a member of the famed Graham port producers, but the winery he owns and operates goes by the name of his wife’s family. The port producers were looking for answers, now whether they wanted to hear what we had to say still remains to be seen. They seemed to be divided into two camps. Traditionalists that believed that with enough promotion they could bring traditional port consumption back into popularity. Or innovators who believed that things needed to change which could include scrapping the whole business model that is now in place for producing Port according to IVDP guidelines including shifting the focus to still wines and innovations in the production, blending and marketing of Port. I’m pretty sure the later makes the IDVP a little nervous. To date I am not sure why the Portuguese choose to be governed in the manner that they are, not that I know that much about it but it seems pretty restrictive compared to the democratic capitalism (for lack of a more accurate description) we have here.
The Quinta da Gricha was a fantastic way to start this journey although my first view of treaders in a Largares made me feel like I was at the zoo. No one, not the viewer nor the viewiee, is comfortable nor do you think you have learned anything. I still wonder why Zoos exist in this day and time. The tasting began and it was amazing how quickly all the other professionals I happened to be working with gathered their composure and became the journalists and sommeliers they are known to be. Having overcome the jitters from the arduous journey to the winery, I’m sure the wine helped a little—we listened to the history of how Johnny Graham came into possession of this winery. The tasting went well along with a few comments offered up regarding the marketability of the wines. It was easy to see Johnny was encouraged by the comments made about his still red wines, especially the favorable comments being professed by a pretty hard crowd to impress. It was later revealed to us the wines we were tasting had been made under the consultation of winemaker Joao Brito E Cunha from Quinta de San José. We tasted through the Churchill Ports and sat down for lunch. We were treated to hearty soup, the traditional soup of the harvest. Our main course was a cassolet style dish of roast pork and chick peas. Both were fantastic as was the homemade hot pepper vinegar sauce. Dessert followed by the requisite cheese course and more Port, which accentuated the fact we were now in the Douro. The meal was wonderful, all prepared by Maria Emilia Campos.
As we walked down the side of the mountain to meet Rupert Symington I was thinking back to something that crossed my mind before I set out on this trip. I was wondering what these guys hoped to find out from a bunch of wine professionals from the USA. After our first stop it was pretty apparent there was foreseeable turmoil coming to a head for this industry as Port drinkers are going away and there are few new Port consumers to replace them. Some wineries think a transition to still wine is a viable alternative. Others think it has to be a more innovative solution that finds revenue that does not require excessive aging, a 2-1 stock ratio and government involvement in your inventory levels and production procedures. What will save the Douro innovation or tradition? Some producers have some innovative products they would like to offer but current regulations are a bit restrictive.
As our visit continued on we would hear from a lot of different people who all have major stakes in the outcome, but had vastly different opinions on how to achieve success. Even the term success seemed to be something many producers disagreed on. Some considered staying afloat financially a measure of success while others dreamed larger and thought that garnering a much larger share of the world’s still wines sales could propel Portugal, particularly the Douro beyond their current wine export amounts. I taste a lot of wine from all over the world and Portuguese still wines have made huge strides in quality perhaps as much as South American wines have in the past couple of decades. The possibility of Portugal becoming the wine darling of the world is not as focused as Spain’s effort right now but you could say Portugal is like their good-looking younger sister—give her a few years and the tables might turn.
Rupert met us at the river in his motor boat. It was a perfect time in the afternoon for a quick jaunt up and down the river to view some of the other Symington properties. The photo opportunities were abundant and the lighting was perfect. As we climbed out of the boat upon our arrival at Quinta do Bomfim we headed up from the dock to the guest house. Rooms were quickly assigned and we headed into the main room where a nice cold beer was awaiting a sign of the exquisite hospitality that was to continue throughout the evening and following day by our hospitable host. As we sipped our beers, we listened to a presentation about the vastness and irrefutable history of the Symington family’s involvement in the Douro. It was impressive to say the least. Just before sundown, we headed outside to one of the more memorable tastings of the whole trip.
Most of my wine trips the hosts know our level of experience and seldom do I get the explanation of how fermentation works or the steps from grape to bottle. This trip was different. Almost every other producer started their presentation just as they would for someone who walked in off the street. Rupert was quite savvy on this subject—our tastings of wines from all the Symington’s Port lines and still wines from Dow and Altano took less time than any other tasting the entire trip. Rupert knew we were all pros and there was no need to wax poetically about the wines to a group of people who make their livings doing the same thing. A couple of quick comments about new label styles and blends of fruit changing for some bottling designations and we were done, ready to move on to dinner and have some fun.
Fun we did have. The wine flowed and the food was great. At one point I became the Duke of Norwich through no fault of my own. As a vintage 1963 Port was being passed, I was pitching the Northwest Food and Wine Festival to Rupert, and boom, the decanter had acquired residence at my seat—quite embarrassing. Rupert’s cousin, the winemaker who was a bit reserved found great humor in the fact that the decanter sat motionless at my seat. We retired to our rooms where I found it is not good to twitter after enjoying as many wines as we did. I think my first five tweets I misspelled Douro.
The next morning I awoke to the only breakfast on this trip where we were offered hot eggs. It’s really not something I eat very often but if you want to impress American journalists cater to their expectations. The tour of the wine production facility was educational because up to this point I was not aware the Douro only got electricity in the 1960’s. Prior to that, all grapes were floated down the river to Gaia. This was done for several centuries. It was probably not all that easy to get anyone to believe that the wines could be made by the growers. I am still not sure that they do not struggle with this notion a bit today.
As we toured Quinta do Bomfim the efficiency of the operation was apparent to a production freak like me. The pressure valve pump over tanks are a bit of engineering marvel that were created just ten years before electricity came to the Douro but 60 years later still perform as well as any current technology. My stay at Quinta do Bomfim was a wonderful experience and whatever happens in the Douro it’s a cinch that the Symington’s will inherit the largest swath of market exposure.
What will save the Douro? I was thinking about this as we pulled away from Quinta do Bomfim and Rupert passed us in his BMW on his way back to Gaia. It is a complex question with no easy or immediate answer. Where are the innovators for this wine region—that is an easy question. But how easy would it be to find an answer? Come back and read part two of this post as we learn about some fresh, new and somewhat controversial ideas that may be the solution if the Portuguese government is willing to change and the current system survives that long.