Tim James: Looking for terroir in the Douro

By , 11 July 2017

This century has seen an accelerated move towards specificity in wine everywhere. It’s been very obvious in the Cape, not least: mostly in terms of general “terroir”, but also, for example, expressing soil types (with the Mullineux’s separate bottlings of syrah from schist, granite and iron a paradigm example), or even clonal selections (as in the chardonnays and now syrahs of Richard Kershaw).

Douro vineyards.

Douro vineyards.

So I paid my recent visit to Portugal’s Douro Valley with this in the back of my mind: port is one of the great blended wines of the world (blending varieties and vineyard origins), but so is champagne, and, as I discussed last week, there are terroirists there challenging the status quo. But I don’t see it happening with port, and nor did any of the experts I spoke to there. Just looking at the remarkable Douro landscape suggests the difficulty – with infinite variety of slope, aspect and elevation apparent in every direction. Which little patch of terroir would one express in a fortified wine – let alone a fortified wine that would have to compete in terms of interest and complexity with the great classic blends?

Even in port there are distinctions and discriminations, however. But, interestingly, the smaller origins give generally the lesser wines. Most classic ports blend grapes from at least three important estates (quinta is the Portuguese word used for farm or estate here). Taylor’s Vintage Port, for example, comes from the best produce of three quintas: Vargellas, Terra Feita and Junco. Famously, however, a port “shipper” (or house) does not “declare” a vintage every year: only in about three years out of ten does Taylor’s consider the harvest quality good enough to make a Taylor’s Vintage Port. In some of the inbetween years, however, a vintage may be declared just for Quinta de Vargellas, the greatest of the contributing farms.

This happened in 2015, incidentally, and on my visit I had the privilege of tasting (with Taylor’s wine supremo, David Guimaraens) the infant Quinta de Vargellas 2015, alongside another 2015 “single quinta vintage port”, Croft’s Quinta da Roêda, and also Fonseca Guimaraens 2015 – which, just to confuse things, was a blend rather than a single quinta.

Such “single-quinta ports” are seldom anywhere as highly regarded (or as expensive) as the classic blends. Confusingly, testing the rule, a few of the greatest vintage ports do come from a single property which is regarded as sufficiently diverse in itself: Quinta do Noval is the most famous example.

But, as I implied before, even a single quinta vintage port cannot really be regarded as expressing terroir in the paradigm in which Burgundy reigns supreme. It is from one property, but a large and diverse one.

Occasionally things get a bit closer. Quinta do Noval, for example, makes a Single Vineyard Late Bottled Vintage (an earlier-maturing style of bottle-matured port). And, if I haven’t confused you (or me) enough, it’s worth noting for my point that occasionally Taylor’s produces a top-level (and very rare) vintage port in tiny quantities from some of the oldest vines on the Vargellas property. But even this Vargellas Vinha Velha doesn’t really count as a “terroir” wine in the sense in we generally use that term. It is selected from five individual plots, in fact – each of which has, apparently, “its own distinct character”.

That other great style of port, Tawny, is even more distant from terroir – a blend of varieties, origins, of barrels, and, usually, harvests and ages. The point of the great bottled tawnies is to express their age, but in the house style. It was a remarkable experience to taste at Grahams their 10, 20, 30 and 40 Year Old Tawnies – magnificent wines, but next year’s bottlings should, ideally, be interchangeable with the current ones. It was, then, fascinating to taste alongside them a tawny expression of a single year, in this case 1972. These “Single Harvest” tawny ports are allowed to be as idiosyncratic as they wish (the 1972 was my favourite in the great line-up); the others are not.

If port seems unlikely to ever embrace the Burgundian model of expressing origin, there is, at least, an available outlet for the ardent Duoro terroirists, who are certainly not absent from the scene: unfortified table wines, both red and (increasingly) white, from the traditional varieties of the area. Here small selections from single blocks of vines (which doesn’t necessarily imply single varieties) become more viable; and, no doubt, terroir is more transparent in unfortified wines. But that’s another great Douro story, to which I shall feel impelled to return one day.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


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