View of Quinta do Javali and the Douro valley

Exploring the Douro - Part One

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In preparing to write this piece about the wines of the Douro Valley, I figured I'd brush up on the background, and quickly realized that the story of unfortified wines in the region is essentially a very recent one. Considering the fact that independent estates in the Douro valley were only able to make and bottle their own wines starting in the 1980s, I have come to fully value and respect the work of the handful of producers who are trying not to "redefine" a region, but to define it in the here and now. They are writing the story as they go, and we're excited about the chapters that are still to come!

The prologue to our story bring us to Roman times when the area was first cultivated with vines, but most importantly in terms of viticulture, the work of Cistercian monks starting around the 12th Century. The emperor of Leon gifted the county (not country yet!) of Portugal to Henry of Burgundy in the end of the 11th century, and Henry's son Afonso eventually became the first king of Portugal. Afonso's tutor and advisor was integral in inviting the Cistercian order and helping to build several monasteries, partly because it gave legitimacy to the new state in the eye of the Pope, but also because the family was from the Dukedom of Burgundy, so it effectively brought a little taste of home to this far away land. The monks also brought a little taste of their vineyard wizardry, and created the famous terraces on the schist slopes of the Douro valley, developing an incredibly mineral rich and visually stunning terrain (the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and setting the stage for emergence and explosion of the Port wine industry.

Illustration from Portuguese monastery, 15th century

Evidence is clear that monks in Portugal in the Douro Valley were making a wine using grape brandy during fermentation in order to preserve some sweetness from the juice. This also made the wines more suitable for aging (in times before the modern wine bottle) and coincidentally, more suitable for travel. There were many dry, unfortified wines produced as well, but they don't seem to have reached the outside world. The sweet style wines were already served at court and among nobility in Portugal, and shipping documents show that English merchants began importing in the 1650s, with quantities multiplying during conflicts between England and France (due to English embargos on French imports). This moment in the mid to late 17th Century is seen as the beginnning of the Port story, chronicling a booming industry of wine heading down the Douro to Porto, and out to the world. Wine would be sent down the river, mostly from the section known now as Cima Corgo, the heart of the production and vineyards of the Douro, before reaching houses that bottled and shipped out of Porto. In fact many of the shippers were based in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro river from Porto, in order to avoid paying taxes to the Bishop of Porto. Most of these Port shipping houses were British, some Dutch, with smatterings from other countries. When the vine louse Phyloxera hit western Europe, the devastation was felt in the Douro in the mid-to-late 1800's and many farmers ended up selling their vineyards to the Port houses. When production finally restarted, the system of contracts for farmers with the shipping center in Porto was fully solidified. From the 1930s through the 1970s the Salazar dictatorship implemented legislation that favored large co-ops over independent producers, which led to a decline in quality and a debilitating blow to the local winemakers who hoped to break out of the Port system. It was not until the 1980s, when Portugal joined the E.U., that winemakers were able to produce and bottle wine at their Quintas, and export out of Portugal!

Throughout all of this backstory, the only wine from the Douro that the world knew was a fortified wine called Port. There is generally no recognition of a dry wine coming from the region until the 1980s (with the exception of the famous Barca Velha - more on that later), as there were restrictive laws against estate bottling or exporting anything but Port wine from the Douro. Of course people made dry wines for consumption at home, but this was simply a local custom and not an export (but as we know, not by choice). Many people worked quite hard to develop and raise the image of Douro wines in the first decades after these changes to Port production laws in the 80s, and that labor is now coming to fruition as new generations are adapting and changing their family wineries, local winemakers are sourcing from tiny rugged plots on steep, schist slopes, or attempting to recuperate or plant vineyards on prized terroir, and the diversity of styles and expressions emerging from the region is increasing.

Today's run-down will just touch on a few projects and estates that have been on our radar lately, but obviously I've gone down the rabbit hole with my research and I have to try more independent Douro wines now! We'll have to do a second round. I'll be asking João Roseira from Quinta do Infantado for some tips!

João Roseira (photo from wineanorak.com)

Speaking of João, it seems only right to start with Quinta do Infantado, as João's family estate was the first to break out of the contractual system (selling wine or fruit to the shippers in Vila Nova de Gaia) in 1979, and produce only estate-bottled wines. This was unheard of, and was considered crazy, as there were laws against exporting estate-bottled wine, so their only market would be in Portugal, but it seems that it was a move made out of pride for their vineyards and the high quality of their wines. It's notable now, and in many ways the decision of Quinta do Infantado was the first sign of changes to come. Though the winery is primarly focused on production of estate-bottled Ports, João has produced many compelling Douro reds from family vineyards, including one from an organic certified plot that he planted in '98. His role in the Douro story is undeniably an important one, and he has looked beyond the region in his attempts to nurture up-and-coming independent producers from across the country.

Another person with links to early changes to Port's dominance in the region is Mateus Nicolau de Almeida, whose grandfather first produced the famous Barca Velha wine in 1952, after spending time in Bordeaux and developing relationships with French winemakers. The wine was a dry red produced from the family's vineyards in the Douro Superior. This area, closest to the Spanish border, is higher in altitude, drier, and hotter than other sections of the valley, but is now considered to be home to some of the best vineyards in the Douro. Barca Velha was legendary, and was made again several times, all in all 18 times since 1952, though I have to assume it was not sold outside of Portugal before the 80s. Mateus Nicolau has followed in his grandfather's footsteps by working on many projects aimed to highlight the potential of dry wines from the region. His newest project, Trans-Douro Express, focuses on dry wines from the three regions of the Douro: Douro Superior, Cima Corgo, and Baixo Corgo, with the goal of showcasing how the micro-climates and soils can influence red and white wines from the Douro.

Susana Lopes (photo from JD selections)

Before starting the Trans-Douro Express project, Mateus fonded the Muxagat winery in 2002, with winemaker Eduardo Lopes. Susana Lopes, the second generation at Muxagat, has been running the project now since around 2015, with some consultation from her friend Luis Seabra and oenologist Ana Sofia Silva. The wines from Muxagat are soulful, and express the unique spot in the Douro Superior where higher altitude granitic sites contrast with schist and quartz found in lower vineyards. We've been impressed with the wines so far and look forward to trying more bottlings from Susana!

 

Luis Seabra (r) during a visit to Chambers Street Wines

Then there's mister Luis Seabra himself! Luis is a personal friend, and a stoic and warm-hearted winemaker who cut his teeth at Niepoort for over a decade before embarking on his own project to showcase the immense potential of the Douro for producing high quality red and white wines. Luis brings a terroir-driven approach to his winemaking, with focus going to soil type (yellow schist – or, “xisto” – a high-acid, crystalline soil) and climate. Nestled in the hills of the subregion Cima Corgo, almost 2,000 feet above sea-level, Luis farms his vineyards with minimal intervention, respecting the mineral-filled soil above all else. His vines, co-planted red and white varieties (naturally) see a drastic temperature change from day to night, leading to an extended maturation on the vine. Luis is calm, good-natured, and I would venture to say patient. I only posit this because it must require a certain amount of patience to be involved in something so special and unique that the wine world knows so little about. Don't worry Luis! The times they are a changin.  

Last but not least, there's Quinta do Javali, run by António Mendes, whom we had the pleasure of meeting and hosting for an in-store tasting earlier this year.

Antonio Mendes at CSW, 2023

Located in Cima Corgo subregion, the Quinta is situated on steep schist slopes and the land has been planted to vines since the 1650s. António has made great steps to convert the estate to organic and Biodynamic farming, and is embracing a bit of the natural wine vibes that are spreading through Portugal, while also bottling vineyard specific wines that are exquisite, earthy and elegant. The red grapes are mostly Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cão, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca and Sousão, and whites grapes are mostly Arinto and Viosinho, though it is common to find many other varieities mixed in the vineyards. António is a very open-minded and passionate winemaker who clearly has set no limits for the Quinta do Javali, and treats each vintage as another opportunity to experiment with new wines, and explore the potential of the Douro.  

 

As previously mentioned, we will most definitely be doubling our efforts to discover more exceptional wines from the Douro Valley, so stay tuned for Part Two!

-Eben Lillie

Wines will all be in stock by Friday 7/28, and shippable the week of 7/31

Quinta do Javali 2019 Douro Clos Bonifata Branco

The Clos Bonifata vineyard is a prized site at the Quinta do Javali. Planted at 600m altitude on schist soils, the vineyard is designed as an ampitheater, and is primarily planted to Arinto and Viosinho, which make up the blend of this exceptional white wine. Fermentation is in concrete, and the wine is aged in concrete spheres (not eggs), with occasional batonnage. We were really impressed with this wine (as were our customers!) when winemaker Antonio Mendes was in town pouring his wines at Chambers Street. There was a pleasant density in the mid-palate, having just enough weight and texture to balance what is clearly a very chiseled and direct mineral spine. A welcome addition to our nascent Portuguese white section.  

  • white
  • 5 in stock
  • $33.99

  • Organic
  • Biodynamic
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Infantado 2016 Douro Tinto Organic

Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional are the predominant varieties in this certified-organic, 2-hectare vineyard called Pousado planted by the estate in 1998. Like all Infantado vineyards, this one is ranked "Class A ", the highest classification in the Douro. The wine is made just like its other dry red blend: the bunches are hand-harvested, mainly destemmed and fermented spontaneously with native yeasts in stainless steel lagares with robotic treaders built to mimic the gentleness of the old tradition of foot treading. The wine is aged for 18 months in 300-liter French oak barrels (little to none of it being new) and bottled without fining or filtration. A sensational value!

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $22.99

  • Organic

Mateus Nicolau De Almeida 2021 Douro Trans Douro Express Cima

A blend of over 10 varieties from Schist soils in the Cima Corgo subregion of the Douro Valley, this is a crunchy red that showcases berry fruits contrasting with a mineral driven, stony profile. There is a rustic nose that is also high toned, but the palate is very delicate and fresh. A lively introduction to table-friendly young red wines from the Douro. Grapes are destemmed and fermented together in large cement vats, per Mateus' approah for the Trans-Douro-Express wines.

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $21.99

  • Organic

Luis Seabra 2020 Douro Xisto Ilimitado Tinto

The Xisto Ilimitado is a delightful entry into the wines of Luis Seabra's latest project. This is a red blend of Touriga Franca, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Roriz, Rufete, Tinta Barroca,  Malvasia Preta and Deonzelinho Tinto. It shows soft tannins, notes of pepper, spice, smoked meat, and bright dark fruit. Backed by a strong mineral presence and great acidity, this wine shows a velvety depth in the finish. Almost Saint-Joseph in profile, this wine will age incredibly well, but can be drunk now with any roasted meat or game.

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $31.99

Luis Seabra 2021 Douro Xisto Ilimitado Branco

Luis Seabra’s wines are a sublime example of the terroir of his native Douro Valley. His wines are always terroir-driven, and his dedication to expressions of schist-soil is the most important factor in his wine-making. Xisto Illimatado Branco (a Portuguese analogue to the idea of a “village” level Burgundy) is a field-blend of Rabigato, Codega, Gouveiu and Viosinho from 30-45 year-old vines, planted at high elevation in Cima Corgo, a subregion in the Douro Valley that experiences extreme variances in temperature (allowing an extended hanging period for the fruit). The wine offers the closest expression to Chablis outside of Burgundy: bright acidity, ultra-expressive minerality, with notes of ripe citrus, green apple, slate minerals. Seabra’s wines can be aged for another decade, but can be enjoyed today with oysters, scallops, and rock shrimp tempura. JDC

  • Out of Stock
  • white
  • 0 in stock
  • $31.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Muxagat 2020 Douro Branco

A field blend of indigenous varieties: mostly Rabigato, with Arinto and Gouveio. From the upper Douro Valley (Douro Superior), the warmest and the driest Douro sub-region. Altitudes are 500-600 meters with schist soils. Practicing organic and biodynamic, hand harvested, fermentation with indigenous yeast only. Aged in used French oak barrels for 9 months on the lees. With a bright gold appearance, the nose shows aromas of ripe melon and pear, white flowers and wet stones. In the mouth the wine displays great volume and fresh acidity along with flavors of citrus, pear, melon, honey and slightly bitter almond. For lovers of ripe Chenin or white Rhônes. The lees and oak aging give the wine a round body and structure that would make it an excellent partner to light meats as well as richer seafood dishes. Giselle Hamburg

  • Out of Stock
  • white
  • 0 in stock
  • $29.99

  • Organic
  • Low Sulfur

Quinta do Javali 2018 Douro 'Clos Fonte do Santo Stone Vineyard'

Stone vineyard is a mixed plot in the Douro from a terroir that is prized by the domaine. The vineyard is named "Fonrte do Santo" and their love for the place compelled them to produce three 'Clos' wines from the old vineyards here. This is a field blend, like the Cherry Tree Vineyard, but there is more darkness here, and a longer maturation. An elegant, deep wine, with

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $42.99

  • Organic

Quinta do Javali 2022 Douro Crazy Javali Tinto

Javalis are the wild boars in the Douro Valley region, and clearly some of them are a bit crazy! This particular "Crazy Javali" is a blend of Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca, vinified in stainless steel and concrete and aged in concrete for 12 months. Maceration is short here, with the goal of producing a light-bodied and quaff-able red that can (and should) be served chilled. We had one sample bottle open of this wine during our in-store tasting with the winemaker, Antonio, and we had to let down a throng of people who all wanted a bottle for the park!  -EL 

  • Out of Stock
  • red
  • 0 in stock
  • $25.99

  • Organic
  • Biodynamic
  • Low Sulfur

Quinta do Javali 2020 Pet Nat Rose

This is one of those bottles that just looks like it tastes good. Obviously that is all just the color of the wine, and the knowledge that it's a Pet-Nat, but we can tell you from experience, it is really tasty. A blend of Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca, the bubbles are frothy and energetic, the wine itself full of crushed red and blackberry flavors. Totally dry and refreshing, and a perfect fit for any Lambrusco lovers. I couldn't think of a better fit for a summer BBQ or beach outing.  -EL 

  • Out of Stock
  • red sparkling
  • 0 in stock
  • no discount
  • $23.99

  • Organic
  • Biodynamic
  • Low Sulfur