- The Douro Valley is considered the oldest protected region of origin for wine in the world. 22% of Portuguese wines are produced there.
- Climatically, cold winters and hot summers prevail, the amount of rainfall varies considerably, ranging from over 1,000 mm in the west to less than 400 mm in the very dry east.
- In the premium sector, experimentation is taking place. Some producers are taking up old traditions, such as vinification in a granite "Lagares" basin or ageing in cement tanks.
- The Douro Valley is less well known to customers. This makes marketing more difficult, but also offers opportunities: the complex wines require explanation - this is where the strengths of the specialised trade lie.
- Even less well known, but with great potential, is the northern region of Trás-os-Montes, where just 22,000 hl of wine are produced on 10,000 ha. Very hot valley locations with temperatures of up to 45°C and vineyards on the high plateau ensure a wide stylistic range.
Marquês de Pombal is one of the most enigmatic figures in Portuguese history. The statesman not only rebuilt the capital Lisbon (where a huge monument stands to him) after the terrible earthquake in 1755, but also renewed the collapsing world empire - by force where necessary. But what does this have to do with wine? It is thanks to his work that the Douro Valley is considered the oldest protected region of origin for wine in the world, which certainly does not meet with much approval in the Chianti Classico region. The Marquês defined strict limits in 1756; a classic was born.
Flagship Port Wine
At the time of the Marquês, Portugal cultivated close ties with England, which was to consolidate the role of port wine as the river valley's flagship wine. And even today, fortified wine accounts for about half of the Douro Valley's production, where a total of around 1.61 mill. hl of wine were pressed in 2021. The other half is not fortified.
The Douro produces 22% of Portugal's total wine production (7.4 mill. hl in 2021) on a vineyard area of about 44,000 ha, which is just under a quarter of the national vineyard area.
With its steep slopes and impressive terraces, the valley itself is also geographically exciting. Due to the numerous river bends, the vineyards are always exposed to a different angle to the sun. Rainfall is high in the west, with amounts of rain exceeding the 1,000 mm mark, which no German wine-growing region comes close to achieving. In the east, towards the Douro Superior subzone, the wine-growing region becomes dry - with values of around 400 mm. In summer it is blisteringly hot, especially in the east, and in winter it is crisp and cold. Geologically, granite and slate dominate.
A Lot of Potential
The Sogevinus group represents the terroir of the Douro Valley with four quintas, or wineries. These include Quinta do Bairro in the western Baixo Corgo subzone, Quinta de São Luiz and Quinta da Boavista in the central Cima Corgo, and Quinta do Arnozelo in the extreme Douro Superior.
To this end, many efforts have been made in recent years to highlight the red and white wines. For example, the wines of the approximately 90 ha Quinta de São Luiz received a redesign. The wines themselves are made from the autochthonous varieties Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Rufete, Sousão, as well as the white grape varieties Verdelho and Viosinho. In addition, there is Tinta Roriz, as the Spanish Tempranillo is called in the Douro. The fact that autochthonous grape varieties are increasingly in demand is playing into the hands of the Portuguese.
In 2020, the group finally took over Quinta da Boavista. With single-vineyard bottlings like the "Vinha do Ujo" or "Vinha do Oratório" from vines that are more than 80 years old, the winery has a treasure that could hardly be more Portuguese: In the terraces, which are difficult to access and partly separated from each other by 8-metre-high walls, there are up to 25 different grape varieties in one vineyard. It is almost impossible to tell them all apart. The terraces form a nearly 100 m high ladder to heaven that begins at an altitude of 80 m and ends at 175 m.
For vinification, the classic granite "lagares" basins are used, in which the grapes are stomped with the feet. After fermentation, the wines mature in wooden barrels. This produces dense, complex and long-lived wines with plenty of colour and structure, reflecting the multi-layered terroir.
Portugal is a traditional wine country. Nevertheless, some producers take up traditions that date so far back in time that they are something new again. One of them is Mateus Nicolau de Almeida. For his wine "Alpha" from the "Curral Teles" series, he uses the Greek alphabet, but relies on winemaking methods that were once used by the ancient Romans on the Douro.
To do this, the organic winemaker climbs into a “lagar”, here called a "calcatórium", and lets the grapes macerate by stomping them with his feet for three hours. Then the mash is pressed with a spindle press. The must ferments in a cement tank where the wine matures for another eight months. This method, called "vinho vermelho" (red wine), produces fine, elegant and light-coloured red wines thanks to the short maceration.
"While almost everyone knows what a Rioja is, very few people start with Douro."
In specialist shops, Portuguese wines, even from the country's most famous growing region, are often right next to Spanish ones. This does not make it easy to establish them as an independent product category. Rui Afonso, sales manager at the German specialist for Portuguese wines Fonseca, comments: "The Douro region is perceived as both a red and a white wine region. Nevertheless, it is not yet generally known among consumers. While almost everyone knows what a Rioja is, very few people associate Douro with anything," he explains.
Nevertheless, the potential of the wines is beyond question. Especially for the specialisist trade, the wines are interesting thanks to their complex structure, but they also require explanation. "Only the specialisist trade has the possibility to present and explain these wines through its competence," Afonso describes.
- Vineyard surface 2021 (ha): 194,000 (-0.2%)
- Production volume 2021 (mill. hl): 7.36 (+14%)
- Yield 2021 (hl/ha): 38.3
- Export volume 2021 (mill. hl): 3.3 (+4%)
- Export value 2021 (mill. €): 900 (+8%)
- Domestic consumption 2021 (mill. hl): 4.6 (-0.6%)
Portugal's wine exports have continued to grow in recent years, both in terms of volume and value. The wine production level is the highest recorded since 2006, and the fact that Portugal's harvest volume was 14% higher than last year's should please producers, also in view of rising demand.
The most important export countries are Canada, Brazil, the USA, Great Britain and France, where the largest Portuguese diaspora is to be found. Germany and the Netherlands, with a share of Portuguese wine exports of 5.6% by value, occupy 6th place in this ranking.
Behind the Mountains
Portugal is a niche. And within this niche, there are others. North of the Douro, separated by numerous mountain ranges, lies Trás-os-Montes, "behind the mountains". The region is sparsely populated. A vast land, criss-crossed by hills, characterised by empty, ancient villages and emigration. On about 10,000 ha of vineyards, just about 22,000 hl were produced in 2021.
"Portugal has a huge variety of wines and regions, and we are clearly seeing a growing interest in the still little-known areas."
But interest in the vinhos from the remote northeast is growing. "Portugal has a huge variety of wines and regions, and we are clearly seeing a growing interest in the still little-known areas," summarises Frederico Falcão, president of the national marketing organisation Viniportugal. According to him, exports from such regions are growing faster than those of Port and Vinho Verde.
Lighter and More Sustainable
Other trends are lighter wine styles and sustainability. To this end, a national certification strategy is to be presented before the end of the year. For good reason: "Sustainability is the word of the hour. Everyone is moving in this direction," adds Falcão.
Back to Trás-os-Montes. Rui Afonso also sees room for development. Through investments and EU funding, the region has been able to reposition itself, quality-oriented winegrowers are increasingly finding their way over the mountains. "This region will develop very quickly through hip winemakers. At least, that is the expectation," says Afonso.
At ProWein 2022, only one producer from Trásos-Montes, more precisely from the small town of Valpaços, presented itself to the visitors: the organic Quinta do Sobreiró de Cima. With 40 ha of vineyards, it is one of the largest producers in the region. The Quinta's vineyards are mainly located between 250 m and 530 m.
Hot valley sites and vineyards on the plateau provide a wide stylistic range. And hot also means hot by Portuguese standards: 45°C in summer is not uncommon. Moreover, it takes longer for the sun to find its way behind the mountains in spring. This is why there is a saying among the locals that there are "10 months of winter and two months of hell".
The varied terroir of the forgotten Trás-os-Montes is in no way inferior to that of other wine regions: "We obtain wines with structure and a quality that is comparable to globally recognised references," says managing director Natacha Teixeira proudly. In addition to typical Portuguese grape varieties such as Touriga Nacional or Tinta Barroca, international varieties are also cultivated, but local specialities such as the rare Moscatel Galego are also part of the portfolio. Some of the vines are more than 100 years old.
Valpaços also resembles a Roman open-air museum. More than 75 lagares, often carved into the hard granite rock, can be found in the municipality and indicate that the region has always been used for viticulture. In order to preserve and revive the Roman heritage, a corresponding association was founded in 2018, of which the quinta is also a member.
Almost the entire production is drunk by the Portuguese themselves, and the demand for the wines from Trás-os-Montes is increasing. More and more people are discovering the region. But even in the days of the Marquês, it was not quite as quiet and lonely as one might think behind the mountains: Trasmontan guerrilla fighters pushed back invading Spanish troops from there in 1762.