The Birthplace of Port Wine

Dec 18, 2023

The boundaries of the Port wine-growing area were defined long before the famous classifications of Bordeaux and other renowned wine regions. In 1756, Marques de Pombal undertook the monumental task of demarcating this region, a process that took nearly two years. Since then, grapes for Port wine have been exclusively grown within these bounds.

The Douro Demarcated Region (DDR) stretches about 100 to 250 kilometers east of Porto, starting near Regua in the west and following the course of the Douro River until it reaches close to the Spanish border. The vineyards cover approximately 45,000 hectares of the total 250,000 hectares in the region, with only around 32,000 hectares authorized for Port wine production. The remaining land is dedicated to the production of red and white wines. More than 22,000 winegrowers work these lands, with each managing an average of just over two hectares.

Unveiling the Subregions of the Douro Valley

The Port wine area of the Douro Valley is divided into two main zones: the Lower Corgo (Baixo Corgo) and the Upper Corgo (Cima Corgo). The Baixo Corgo stretches from the Marão Mountains to the Corgo River's mouth near Regua, encompassing nearly half of the vineyard area. The Cima Corgo extends from there to the Cachao de Valeira near Ferradosa. The Douro Superior, a vast area reaching the Spanish border, was not part of the original demarcation but has been integrated over generations.

Each subregion within the Douro Valley, from Baixo Corgo to Douro Superior, possesses its own microclimate and distinct terroir, influencing the growth and characteristics of the grape varieties. The Baixo Corgo, with its relatively moist and cool climate, presents a striking contrast to the subtropical vegetation and even more challenging soil conditions of the Douro Superior. This diversity results in grapes with varying levels of ripeness, acidity, and tannins, often leading to the production of more complex and age-worthy Vintage Ports.

A Climate of Contrasts

The climate of the Douro Valley is often described as "nine months of winter and three months of hell," alluding to the long, wet winters and scorching summers. However, visitors who explore the region in spring and autumn are greeted with a beautiful landscape under more temperate conditions. In contrast, the winter landscape appears desolate, revealing the true resilience required to cultivate this land.

The Art of Winemaking in the Douro

Grapes from different subregions contribute to the complexity of the wines produced in the Douro Valley, allowing winemakers greater versatility in crafting the perfect blend. The principle upheld by winemakers in the region is one of quality over quantity. The harsh conditions that grapes endure in the Douro Valley result in concentrated flavors, producing exceptional base wines for high-quality Port production.

The Douro Valley is not unaffected by the global issue of climate change. As temperatures rise, the region faces earlier harvests and reduced yields due to more extreme weather events. However, a new generation of environmentally conscious winemakers is focused on sustainability rather than maximum yield. The current production in the Douro Valley accounts for about half of Bordeaux's and a quarter of Champagne's output, emphasizing the commitment to quality and the preservation of this unique wine region.

The Quintas and Their Stories

In Portugal, a wine estate is called a "Quinta," similar to the Châteaux in Bordeaux. There is no specific criterion for naming an estate a "Quinta," and the term is sometimes applied to simple structures or even lands without any buildings. When it comes to Port wine, if the label reads "Quinta do/da" followed by the estate's name, the grapes must come exclusively from that estate. However, when a house name such as Dow, Fonseca, or Niepoort is mentioned on the label, the producers have more flexibility in sourcing grapes from various locations. The term "Quinta" originated from the Latin word "quintus" (fifth), harkening back to a time when Portuguese farms had to give a fifth of their harvest to the church.

A World Heritage Site

Since 2001, the Douro Superior has been recognized as a World Heritage Site. Traveling by train (Linha do Douro) or boat from Pinhão to Pocinho allows visitors to witness the stunning views of vineyards cascading down steep slopes to the river's edge. This journey reveals climatic shifts as one approaches the Spanish border, with lush greenery near Peso da Regua transitioning to faded yellow and orange trees giving way to cacti.

Unveiling the Douro's Hidden Gems

To fully explore the Douro Valley, traveling by train or boat from Pinhão eastward is an excellent option. As the road from Regua ends in Pinhão, the only travel options along the Douro are by train or boat. Navigating through several high dams offers breathtaking views of the renowned Quintas and vineyards.

For those who wish to spend more time in the Douro Valley and visit multiple producers, it is advisable to stay in central locations like Regua or Pinhão. These villages offer a range of hotels and restaurants, and having a car is highly recommended for exploring the region. The harvest season, from early September to mid-October, is the busiest time for winemakers, so planning a visit in May, June, or late October ensures a more relaxed experience. It is always best to announce your visit to the Quintas in advance to avoid finding closed doors.

The Challenges of Viticulture

In the Port wine region, irrigation is only allowed during the first two years after planting, with the Douro Superior being the exception. In exceptionally hot years, special irrigation permissions may be granted by the IVP (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto), although the aim is not to increase yield. The absence of irrigation allows the vines to endure hardships, resulting in a natural selection process that yields the best possible fruit for crafting exceptional Port wines. While a horticulturist might rush to water seemingly parched vines, a connoisseur understands that stress concentrates the flavors in the grapes, ultimately producing wines of exceptional quality.

The soil in the Port wine area is primarily schist or granite. While granite areas remain mostly untouched, vines in schist soil can penetrate deep into the ground. In regions like the Mosel, with similar soil composition, schist helps maintain consistent heat for the vines. It warms up during the day and releases heat at night, aiding grape ripening in cooler climates. However, in the hotter Douro Valley, schist prevents the vines from cooling down at night, resulting in reduced yields.

Vines in the Douro Valley extend their roots up to 25 meters deep to access water. The perfect cleavage of schist allows even young vines to quickly reach deeper layers. The rainfall from November to April plays a crucial role in replenishing underground water reserves, essential for vine survival during the hot summer months. Insufficient rainfall can lead to older vines with deep roots not receiving enough water, potentially halting grape production and resulting in crop losses.

The Art of Dry Stone Walls

Unlike the steep vineyards of the Mosel, the traditional vineyards in the Douro Valley are predominantly laid out parallel to the river. These terraces, known as "socalcos" in Portuguese, are historically built with dry stone walls, accommodating only one or two rows of vines. However, heavy rainfall can wash soil against these walls, necessitating labor-intensive maintenance. Rising labor costs and a dwindling workforce make the preservation of these walls increasingly challenging in the Douro Valley.

Honoring Tradition, Embracing Innovation

Viticulture on the steep slopes of the Douro Valley comes with inherent costs. Unlike in other wine regions, larger machines are impractical due to the stone walls that provide only flat terrain for one or two rows of vines. As a result, most tasks, from construction to planting, care, and harvesting, are performed manually, requiring significant labor hours. The labor shortage became apparent in the 1970s, with winemakers struggling to complete grape harvests due to the lack of available workers, compounded by Portugal's military engagements in Angola, which required many young men for service. The shortage of labor in rural areas persists today, as younger generations seek opportunities in cities, further straining the workforce in the vineyards.

To address this challenge, major producers have been experimenting with robotic lagares and other innovative technologies for decades, aiming to reduce manual labor in various stages of winemaking. The shortage of labor is now acknowledged by all winemakers, with many predicting that within the next 5 to 10 years, no harvest will be possible without the assistance of such machines.

A Timeless Journey Awaits

The Douro Valley invites visitors to immerse themselves in its timeless beauty, where nature, history, and winemaking converge. From its enchanting landscapes to its rich cultural heritage, this region captivates the senses and leaves a lasting impression on all who venture here. Whether you explore the vineyards, savor the local cuisine, or simply bask in the tranquility of the Douro River, this hidden haven promises an unforgettable experience.

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