An Apogee of Red: Drinking with the Douro Boys

You could call them the First Growths of Portugal, but they call themselves The Douro Boys — the scions of five great winemaking families in Portugal and the proprietors of the most famous wine estates in the Douro Valley. Together, they make some of Portugal’s most sought after, highly-rated, and expensive wines, and since 2003, they have loosely banded together to promote each other, and their region on the world stage. While my recent visit to Portugal didn’t include a trip to the Douro, I did get a chance to sit down for a tasting of all their wines, which ended up being an experience I’m not likely to forget any time soon.

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Photo by Vasco Pinhol, courtesy of the Douro Boys

The Douro Boys represent five estates in the Douro Valley: Quinta do Vallado, Niepoort, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale Dona Maria, and Quinta do Vale Meão. Their properties range the length of the Douro river, from its lower reaches in the West to the very highest elevations where the river enters Portugal from Spain.

With its neck-breaking meanders that have cut down through the rock for centuries, the Douro is simply one of the world’s greatest wine regions. It represents the earliest known formally demarcated wine region in the world, thanks to a royal decree in 1756 that indicated the geographical boundaries within which the production of Port wine would be permitted. The sometimes dizzyingly steep terraced slopes of the river valley have been growing grapes since Roman times, and often look like it. The whole region was declared a World Heritage Site in 2001.

While historically the region’s grapes have most famously become the coveted Port wines that attracted top dollar as far back as the beginning of the 18th Century, since the middle of the 20th Century, the region has also produced dry table wines of exceptional quality. Thanks to a wonderful tradition of maintaining old vineyards, these wines often feature a fantastic mix of grape varieties from sometimes centuries-old plants whose roots reach deep into the granite and schist soils of the steep river banks.

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The primary red grape varieties of the region are the native Touriga Nacional and its cousin Touriga Franca, as well as Tinto Roriz (which is better known in Spain as Tempranillo), Tinta Cão, and Bastardo (also known as Trousseau). But the list of planted varieties extends into the many dozens, making for a wonderfully technicolor patchwork of flavors and personalities.

The dry red wines of the region are, in a word, phenomenal. They are distinctive, unique, and among the least expensive world-class reds to be found around the globe. Like many of the world’s most successful red blends, they have layers of flavor that recall the wavy compressions of Damascus steel in their intricate and shifting dynamics. The best wines walk the knife edge between ripeness and mineral freshness, often with their old vines lending a remarkable acidic kick to dark and rich fruit flavors. Thanks to the primacy of Touriga Nacional among the region’s varieties, many of the wines carry its trademark Bergamot scent, among other exotic spice aromas lent by grapes that sometimes don’t even have names.

As you can imagine, I took particular delight in the opportunity to join all the Douro boys but one (Dirk Niepoort couldn’t make it) one incredibly rainy evening in Lisbon this past November. The wines were tasted over a long dinner, that I wish could have been even longer.

QUINTA DO VALE MEÃO
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Currently managed by Francisco Olazabal and his children, Quinta do Vale Meão is the legacy of one of Portugal’s greatest female entrepreneurs, one Dona Antonia. She built a massive wine estate in 1877 and died before seeing come to its true fruition, but the lady everyone said was senile to purchase so much unwanted land had the last laugh. The estate has been managed by her descendants ever since. The estate began producing wines under its own name in 1999.

2013 Quinta do Vale Meão “Meandro” White Blend, Douro, Portugal
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of white flowers and lemon pith. In the mouth, lemon and grapefruit pith mix with bright lemon juice and wet chalkboard minerality. Gorgeous bright length, with a flinty, tannic chalkiness in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: ??

2012 Quinta do Vale Meão “Meandro” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, mulberry, and blackberry. In the mouth juicy and spicy black cherry and blackberry fruit is dusted with chalky tannins. Totally fantastic acidity makes the fruit incredibly juicy and vibrant. Delicious. A blend of 38% Touriga Nacional, 30% Touriga Franca, 20% Tinta Roriz and 12% of various other varieties. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25 click to buy.

2012 Quinta do Vale Meão “Monte Meão” Touriga Nacional, Douro, Portugal
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bergamot and black raspberry and black cherry. In the mouth, gorgeous bergamot flavors mix with blackberry and black cherry and black raspberry. Fantastically juicy and delicious with supple, suede-like tannins. Long finish. From 20-year-old vines on granitic soil close to the river, which is unusual as the granite is usually found at higher elevations. 100% Touriga Nacional Score: around 9.5. Cost: $40

2012 Quinta do Vale Meão Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, black raspberry and a bit of new oak and graphite. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and black raspberry flavors are clasped in a tight muscular fist of very fine grained tannins. Fantastic acidity keeps the fruit incredibly fresh and the oak is nicely subsumed into the wine. Long finish with hints of citrus oil and forest floor. Outstanding. A blend of 58% Touriga Nacional, 35% Touriga Franca, 5% Tinta Barroca and 2% Tinta Roriz. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $75

NIEPOORT
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Dirk Niepoort’s great-great grandfather came to Portugal from Holland in 1842 to establish Niepoort as a name in the wine business. But Dirk Niepoort deserves much of the credit for his family’s fame, not to mention the explosion of interest in the dry red wines of the Douro. Niepoort was among the first in the modern era to champion the region’s dry reds, and to bring them to international attention, even as he was busy turning his family into one of the leading names in Port.

2010 Niepoort “Bioma” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of stony black raspberry and wet earth. In the mouth, powerful tannins wrap around a juicy core of black raspberry and wet earth that is spicy and leathery. Long finish. A blend of Tinta Amarela, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Sousão and Touriga Nacional. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $26 click to buy.

2012 Niepoort “Charme” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of leather, mulberry, and black raspberry. In the mouth, a phenomenally complex mélange of sour cherry and black cherry mix with black raspberry flavors with a stony deep mineral quality that is stunning. Fantastic acidity and length, with a remarkable lightness to it for a Douro red. Powdery athletic tannins make their presence known in a very long finish. A blend of primarily Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca with a small percentage of many other varieties. Totally outstanding. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $75 click to buy.

2012 Niepoort “Coche” White Blend, Douro, Portugal
Near colorless in the glass, with a faint golden hue, this wine smells of sea air, lemon oil, lemon curd, and a hint of oak. In the mouth juicy lemon curd and lemon oil flavors mix with gorgeous bright mineral and juicy pink grapefruit. There’s a tannic quality to the wine, a chalky feel that lingers in the mouth. Juicy and gorgeous. A blend of primarily Rabigato, Códega do Larinho, and Arinto with some small percentages of many others. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90 click to buy.

2001 Niepoort Colheita Port, Porto, Portugal
Dark amber red with a hint of brown on the edge, this wine smells of burnt orange peel, honey roasted nuts, and dark honey. In the mouth, caramel, raisins, chocolate, and brown sugar have a bright juicy acidity and great length in the mouth. A blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cão, Tinta Francisca, Tinta Amarela, Sousão, Tinta Roriz and several other varieties. Score: around 9. Cost: $55 click to buy.

QUINTA DO CRASTO
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Able to trace its name back to a written record in 1615, Quinta do Crasto has been one of the most storied estates in Port’s history. Purchased by the Almeida family in 1900, it has remained in their hands ever since. The latest generation of the family, now bearing the surname Roquette have been managing the estate since 1981 and deserve the credit for turning the estate into one of Portugal’s crown jewels. They farm approximately 160 acres and produce a wide range of table wines and Port, including some of the finest examples of either to be found.

2013 Quinto do Crasto “Crasto” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of bright mulberry and black raspberry and black cherry. In the mouth, juicy bright black raspberry and cherry flavors mix with a darker blackberry note amidst very fine, nearly imperceptible tannins. Delicious. A blend of 35% Touriga Nacional, 30% Tinta Roriz, 25% Touriga Franca, and 10% Tinta Barroca. 33,000 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $15 click to buy.

2011 Quinto do Crasto “Reserva Old Vines” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of toasted oak, black cherries, tobacco and graphite. In the mouth, rich cherry, black cherry, and blackberry fruit mix with tobacco, graphite, and wet earth. Fantastic acidity and freshness. The oak treatment I believe slightly masks the uniqueness of this old vine field blend, which is incredibly tasty nonetheless. 100k bottles produced Score: around 9. Cost: $43 click to buy.

2011 Quinto do Crasto Touriga Nacional, Douro, Portugal
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of beautifully bright mulberry and black cherry, plus a forest floor quality that is quite compelling. In the mouth, black cherry and black raspberry fruit has a fantastic spicy kick to it, with a citrusy, orange oil quality that lingers for a long time in the finish. Phenomenal. 7,000 bottles produced. Made about 5 or 6 years out of 10. 100% Touriga Nacional Score: around 9.5. Cost: $75

2011 Quinto do Crasto “Vinha Maria Teresa” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of tobacco, black cherries, and black raspberries. In the mouth, the wine has an incredible juiciness. Phenomenally mouthwatering flavors of black cherries and blackberries and raspberries swirl with well integrated oak, and the wine has an incredible smoothness and polish. Fine grained, powdery tannins emerge through the incredible finish. Yowza. A field blend from a single vineyard of 100 year-old vines. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $150

QUINTA DO VALLADO
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Yet another product of an enterprising woman, Quinta do Vallado owes its existence to the dynamic Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, who built a veritable empire in the region during the 19th Century. Now managed by Francisco Ferreira and his cousin João Alvares Ribeiro, the estate dates back to 1716 and is widely regarded as one of the oldest and most prestigious estates in the region. The source of the Ferreira family’s Port wines for decades, the estate began bottling wines under the Vallado name in 1993. The estate encompasses 120 acres of vines and produces a number of table and Port wines.

2013 Quinta do Vallado “Reserva” White Blend, Douro, Portugal
Near colorless in the glass with faint yellow gold, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, white flowers, and lemon pith. In the mouth, the wine has electrically bright acidity. Lemon and yellow grapefruit citrus flavors explode on the palate. Fantastically juicy, and deeply minerally. A blend of 35% Verdelho, 30% Arinto, 25% Viosinho and 10% Rabigato. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40 click to buy.

2012 Quinta do Vallado “Reserva Field Blend” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of tobacco, wet earth, black cherry and black raspberry. In the mouth, rich black cherry and black raspberry flavor mix with leather and wet earth. Rich deep, with plush tannins and leather. Long finish. A blend of 10% Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca from 20-year-old vines, with the rest being more than 30 different grape varieties from 100+ year-old vineyards. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65 click to buy.

2012 Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional, Douro, Portugal
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of violets and bergamot and black cherries. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and black raspberry flavors mix with black tea and forest floor flavors. Muscular tannins clasp the edge of the mouth, and the wine lingers for a while through an earthy finish. 100% Touriga Nacional. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60 click to buy.

2009 Quinta do Vallado “Reserva Field Blend” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Inky garnet in glass, this wine smells of blackberries, raspberries, and forest floor with a hint of citrus oil. In the mouth, gorgeously spicy flavors of black cherry and black raspberry somehow manage to have both an animal quality to them while sporting the most sophisticated texture and polish possible. Fantastic acidity and great length. Tasted out of double magnum. A blend of 27% Touriga Nacional and 3% Sousão from 15-year-old vines. The remaining 70% of this wine is made up of a field blend of more than 20 different varieties from vineyards in excess of 100 years old. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60 click to buy.

QUINTA VALE DONA MARIA
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Quinta Vale Dona Maria is a new project for a very old wine family. The Van Zellers began shipping Port wines around the world in 1780, and built a substantial business which they sold in the early 19th century. Over the course of the next 200 years, a member of the Van Zeller family would periodically re-acquire the business and then sell it again. In 2006, the company (at least in name) returned to Van Zeller ownership under Cristiano van Zeller, who until 1993 ran Quinto do Noval, the last commercial interest to which the family’s properties had been sold. Van Zeller purchased the run-down Quinta Vale Dona Maria estate in 1996, and began rehabilitating the property and its vineyards. The estate now includes 75 acres of grapes, with an unusually high percentage of old vines. Van Zeller is committed to the use of the traditional Portuguese lagar in his winemaking, a concrete or stone tank used for crushing grapes by foot.

2013 Quinta Vale D. Maria “Van Zeller’s VZ White” White Blend, Douro, Portugal
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of wet concrete, lemon pith and pink grapefruit. In the mouth deeply mineral flavors of wet chalkboard, lemon pith and pink grapefruit have laser-like acidity and great chalky, pithy, tannic dryness that lingers for a long time in the finish. Grapes are a field blend from a 70 year old vineyard. Delicious. Barrel fermented in oak barrels, 50% new. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: ??

2012 Quinta Vale D. Maria “CV-Curriculum Vitae” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bergamot, black raspberries, and wet earth. In the mouth rich and spicy black cherry, blackberry, and black pepper mix with earl grey tea, cocoa powder, and wet earth. Fantastic acidity and dark minerality. Great length. A field blend of more than 30 traditional Portuguese grape varieties with vines in excess of 85 years old. A knockout of a wine. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $85 click to buy.

2012 Quinta Vale D. Maria Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Dark garnet in the glass this wine smells of, bright black cherry and black raspberry. In the mouth gorgeously bright and juicy black raspberry, mulberry, and black pepper flavors are nestled in a bed of suede-like tannins. really phenomenal acidity and an incredible finish. A truly stunning wine. Foot trodden, fermented in steel and traditional granite lagars. Starting in 2015 this wine will be fermented 100% in granite. A field blend of 41 traditional Portuguese grape varieties from 65+ year-old vines. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60 click to buy.

2012 Quinta Vale D. Maria “Vinha da Francisca” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet earth, tobacco, black raspberry and black cherry. In the mouth, super juicy black raspberry fruit is clasped in fine grained, very muscular tannins. Phenomenally good acidity and length. The youngest vineyard in the property at 12 years old and named after the proprietor’s daughter. A field blend of Sousão, Rufete, Tinta Francisca, Touriga Franca, and Touriga Nacional. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??

2007 Quinta Vale D. Maria Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark earth, black raspberries, and orange oil with a hint of animal/manure. In the mouth, spicy blackberry, black cherry and black raspberry flavors mix with black tea and pink peppercorns. Stony, earthy flavors rumble in the basement and fantastically bright acidity keeps the wine juicy and fresh. Wonderfully mineral, like smooth granite and rainwater. Great finish. A remarkable wine. A blend of 58% Touriga Nacional, 35% Touriga Franca, 5% Tinta Barroca and 2% Tinta Roriz. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $40 click to buy.

2011 Quinta Vale D. Maria “Rufo do Vale D. Maria” Red Blend, Douro, Portugal
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and black raspberry. In the mouth, spicy black raspberry and mulberry fruit have a wonderful juicy brightness to them thanks to fantastic acidity. A long finish with fine grained tannins. Aged from 12-24 months in old oak. A blend of 60% Touriga Franca and 40% Touriga Nacional. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $15 click to buy.

Photos from the Douro Valley courtesy of Bigstock.