Tradition vs. Innovation: What Will Save the Douro? Part II
As Rupert Symington’s BMW became smaller in the distance and Paulo professionally navigated the van away from Quinta do Bomfim and toward our first stop for the day, something Rupert said the previous evening was still stuck in my head. As Rupert spoke about the marketing challenges for Port wines in the future he mentioned that many California wines were approaching alcohol levels close to that of fortified wines specifically Douro DOC Ports and this caught my attention because of the many arguments winemakers and wine writers have about alcohol levels. While I was still stateside, I was searching my knowledge of port sales to ascertain any marketing advice I might be able to give. The only conclusive idea I had was if things need to change and they are not selling enough Port wine why not upgrade the quality and use the same grapes in the brandy you use to fortify the original grape fermentation. Make smaller quantities of better quality wines and broaden the expression of the grapes. My other thought was they should focus on table wines and improve production to reach the quality of wines they are capable of achieving.
My economics probably do not make sense to most producers especially when Rupert Symington made the claim that Napa Valley could produce juice for twenty-five cents a liter while in the Douro it would be a dollar and thirty cents per liter. So production costs for the Douro (according to Rupert Symington) are five times more expensive than that of Napa Valley. The message that Douro DOC products should command the highest prices because their costs are so high seemed to resonate among the bigger houses. But there always seemed to be an ear open to suggestion if anyone had any revelations about reviving the sale of port wines in a manner that might have previously been overlooked. Many attempts were made by the hosts to query our group about the popularity of White port and Rose port. Most comments were similar whether it is the East or West coasts. There are some fans of high quality White port and the jury was still out on the possible success of Rose port.
Our next stop would be Quinta do Infantado founded in 1816; it later became the first Quinta to produce Estate bottled Port wines in 1979. We were here to meet Joao Roseira the proprietor. As we arrived, he looked as though he had rather be doing something else besides talking to a group of writers. After all, it was in the middle of harvest. There was lots to be done like checking the vineyards and overseeing the sorting table and watching the one of a kind pneumatic treading machine to make sure the programming was working. Before Quinta do Infantado all Douro port was sold through a negociant. The responsibility of bringing in a harvest quickly and efficiently could clearly be seen on Joao’s face. After traversing to the top of his vineyards where some vines run vertically on the mountainside at a 45-degree angle, it was apparent this type of terrain was not suitable for running up and down the rows to harvest fruit. It was not easy to compare with harvests I have witnessed in California, Oregon and Washington. The pace was painfully slower.
As João spoke of his family’s history and the philosophy of the winery it was apparent although you could not tell it in his banter, his mental attention was on how the contract picking crew was being supervised. This quality endeared him to me because of the discipline it takes to be in that position and not let it show is hard to pull off. While opening new restaurants as the executive chef I knew that feeling well. The weather was good and the fruit sets looked great so with no rain in the future if it took a bit longer then it took a bit longer. We spent a few more minutes in the vineyard then we traversed the steep landscape back down to the winery where we first watched the fresh picked fruit being dumped on the sorting table then pushed down the hopper on their way to being pressed then fermented. Joao had a big smile of pride when he showed us the pneumatic treading machine his team had invented to simulate the movement of human treading. The clinging to these technologies (treading either manual or automated) are evidence of the many components that will dictate whether or not the Douro will survive or what changes will have to be made. As we made our way through the winery, it was easy to get a feel for the independence that is the moniker of this Quinta. They operate with a business plan that is quick on its feet. The budget dictates what actions will be taken to survive and compete with the big conglomerates; independent producers have to be creative and talented. Joao proved to be quite adept at expressing these qualities. One glaring accomplishment was the treading machine and the other was his ability to see through marketing schemes that do not pay off.
As we finished our tour of the winery and headed up to the tasting room, it was pretty cool to see a reoccurring theme; no matter how decrepit and old the production site may seem where they conduct their hospitality is on a different level in terms of settings and esthetics. Joao walked us out onto a balcony in the large modern tasting room. He had arranged a treat that was not on the official itinerary and that was a visit by his friends who make wine under the Conceito label. First, we were going to taste through their wines then Quinta do Infantado before having lunch.
The conversation on the balcony turned to marketing rather quickly as we were queried about our thoughts on Rose port, White Port and tonic cocktails. And once again our opinions were being solicited about how Ports and Portuguese table wines were perceived in our regional markets. Being from the first Quinta on the Douro to be Estate bottled it was not a shock that Joao Roseira had some independent thoughts about how much the government should be involved in the wine making industry. Nothing very controversial but some of his ideas were worthy of being investigated and test marketed. For instance, his idea of making Douro Port wine out of only two varietals is something that should not be overlooked. Yes, it is unconventional; but until the wine is made and test marketed or at least entered into a couple of competitions the door should still be open to move forward on production. The alternative is to stay true to the business model that is already in place and that does not seem to be as profitable as it needs to be to keep these Quintas viable.
When our lunch guests arrived, it was apparent that there were other independent thinkers who, like Mr. Roseira, had the talent to make great wines. They just needed more exposure to markets that are open to trying new things. Enter Rita Ferreira Marques her new child and Luis Fatima a wine writer from Portugal and Rita’s boyfriend. Rita’s family owns Conceito Wines and Rita is the winemaker. As we tasted through the Conceito (English translation Concept) wines there was a slight difference in flavor in the whites and the reds from the wines we had tasted at previous wineries. A cleaner more modern style of wines with balance and elegance set these wines apart. The artwork on the bottles by artist Joao Noutel also set the wines apart and would be unmistakable on shelves with hundreds of other wine labels. If I were making a wine that was entering into new markets, label art that stands out would be a priority. There was a vibe of vigor and excitement surrounding the wine of Conceito. I look forward to seeing their wines on shelves here on the west coast soon.
Next we moved into tasting the wines of Quinta do Infantado and they too had the same degree of personality and balanced expression. The decision of this winery to embrace organic farming was encouraging and will eventually become a decision many other Douro wineries will follow after they see the economic upside. Joao Roseira’s wines were well crafted, quality conscious and above all very tasty. The QPR was off the charts for a couple of the reds, especially the 2008 Roseira made from Touriga National, Franca and Rouiz. The lunch was a real treat. Almost every component was made by Joao. An appetizer of thinly sliced grilled zucchini was presented in three rolls and all had different fillings. My favorite was the one stuffed with a mussel. As a southerner, Sautéed Fish and Black-eyed Peas are not uncommon on a plate together but it was a bit of a surprise to have them served to me in Portugal. The meal was very good and the pastries paired well with the ports.
As we concluded our visit, it became apparent to me that innovation will save the Douro and I’m not saying throw out tradition and stop making fortified wines. There will always be a market for them. Probably not as big a market as there used to be but as generations mature the things that were shunned just because you did not want to have the same likes as your parents seem to find their way back to popularity. Table wines are the future for the Douro and as I was writing this article, the Wine Spectator released their Top 100 wines of 2011 and several Douro producers made the list this year.
Quinta do Vallado’s Touriga National Douro 2008 was #7, Quinta do Crasto’s Douro Reserva Old Vines 2008 was #62 and Quinta do Vale Meao Douro 2008 was #64. All three of these producers I met a couple of days after we were at Quinta do Infantado who also made the Wine Spectators Top 100 list in 2007. The three previously mentioned wineries belong to a group of producers called the Douro Boy’s although the winemaker for Quinta do Vale Meao is a woman. I had the pleasure of tasting through all of their wines and that will be the subject of the next post in my series about the Douro Valley.
Nonetheless, it seems as though I am not the only one who thinks the future for Portugal’s Douro Valley wine producers will be the table wines. Those wines continue to impress critics and sommeliers and if they are not available in your market start, ask your wine steward to bring them in so you can say you did your part to save the Douro Valley wineries from extinction. Before you contemplate visiting a wine region for a second time on vacation, consider visiting the Douro Valley. It is one of the most beautiful and captivating places you will ever visit. Besides, the wines are great and the cuisine is fantastic.