Often unfairly viewed as Spain’s younger and less significant brother, Portugal has spent recent years shedding a similar reputation shrouding its vineyards. But wine has been growing in this part of the world since at least 2000b.c. and, given the right terroir, there’s no reason to believe Portugal couldn’t produce the same bottled quality we see from the rest of Western Europe. And I’m not talking about fortified wine founded by colonial companies and made for colonial consumers. I’m talking about the good, old fashioned, rustic wine that expresses the terroir of this place. Since the British popularization of Port in the 17th century and the establishment of the Douro appellation (one of the oldest in existence), Portuguese wine has been nearly synonymous with Port. But luckily, after a slow transition from a longstanding dictatorship to democracy, and the induction into the EU in 1986, small producers of authentic, dry Portuguese wine are receiving subsidies and flooring the international market.
Quinta do Vale do Pios
When we first met the winemaker Joaquim, one of his first utterings was “how did you find me?” How indeed. Seemingly reachable only through the most anonymous of back roads, no amount of iphone mappery would get us there. After requesting a bit of help from the locals, we were able to finally locate him. Lucky for us. Vale do Pios is nestled in a dry region just off the Spanish border, called Douro Superior. Port is also made here under the Porto Appellation but the potential for quality dry reds is outstanding. Joaquim grows his vines mostly on Cambrian Schist surrounded by ancient olive trees, including a species of olive exclusive to his vineyard! The soil itself is at low pH levels, giving his wines a jolt of electricity. Perhaps this is why his “Excomungado” is so light on its feet at 14% abv. The name refers to his expectation of excommunication from the wine community for making a wine so unorthodox. A dry red from the Douro with stem inclusion and no oak? Bring it on.
Above are the steep hillsides of the Douro Superior. We came during a veryy unusual occurence, rain in the summer months. In fact, the region receives less than 6 inches of rainfall per year, and it is unheard of to see precipitation this high up in elevation, it is normally way too dry. For this reason, only grapes and olives dot the rural landscape as they are the only crops that can weather this unforgiving terrain. Below is Joachim Almeida of Quintado Vale do Pios.
Quinta do Crasto
The drive from Vale do Pios to Quinta do Crasto was as long as it was treacherous. Fortunately, our shitty rental car was insured (only after dropping some serious grip). The drive took us along the Douro river where we observed miles of terraces carved into the steep valley slopes, a humbling testament to Man’s timeless commitment to good booze. Stumbling out of the car, we found ourselves on a refined, elevated property, somehow apart from the surrounding terrain. Quinta do Crasto sits at the top of one of these terraced slopes overlooking what must be one of the most beautiful river valleys in the world. Though not quite as sprawling as some of the big port producers, these guys are working with a solid 130 hectares, over half of which are strewn with vines. And despite the technological prowess in the winery, they are still foot treading for juice. Charming. After a much needed meal and a more needed wine tasting, we bee lined to the infinity pool. If you’re ever in Portugal for any reason whatsoever, this spot is essential traveling. It’s a badass vacation spot by any standards. Again, there is an infinity pool.
The wines at Quinta do Crasto are sourced from incredibly old vines, often times not specifically labeled by varietal. In fact, our guide Ana mentioned that the vineyards above us yield 62 different grape varieties, when I asked which ones, a simple shrug was enough to communicate both “I don’t know” and “Who cares?”. Like the rest of Portugal, the emphasis here is on the place instead of the grape. A field blend representative of the rugged terroir above is just what the doctor ordered. These wines are approachable, ripe, and great as a crossover wine for US concumers that are not too into European wines.
The soils are granite and schist. They provide ideal drainage and heat retention as temperatures drop to 55 degrees at night. This provides quite a different infinity pool experience after sunset.
The Douro becomes the Duero as it crosses into Spain and is one of the world’s most underappreciated wine corridors. Porto, Ribera del Duero, and Rueda lie along its shores. Some of the world;s most historic and distinctive wines are produced here.
Staying true to modern Portuguese wine making. The influence of oak is still pronounced, and wines mature in cask for anywhere from 1 to 4 years. These wines were introduced to compete with Bordeaux, and stylistically they very much do. Portugal has the climate Bordeaux has in its best years every year.
An incredible place to visit, and an incredible value for wines today. This really is the next big region in the scope of places to look to for the future.
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