Serious fun in Portugal

A few countries around the Mediterranean have a delicious identity crisis—in a varietally organized world, dominated by the likes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and flashy new arrivals such as Pinot Grigio, what do you do when your wines are made from quite unfamiliar grapes, singly or blended with other strange-sounding ones? Greeks and Croatians generally put the grape names on their labels and hope for the best; in the western Balkans, they seem content with local markets, exporting a bit to close neighbors who might be anti-Russian (Communism nearly ruined winemaking behind the Iron Curtain). 
        In the Douro Vally in Portugal, the problem has been different, less a matter of shifting gears than of building a new car. For many centuries, the steep, terraced hillsides above the namesake river have been planted to a hodgepodge of mostly red grapes that went into Port; now, the world is inclined more to lighter table wines. Those old vines yield superb fruit, and can make splendid table wine as well. Reform, rejuvenation, or renovation? How do you tell the story?
        For five of the region’s best small independent winemakers, the answer was to form a loose sort of bromance: The Douro Boys, whose slogan is “flying the flag for the Douro, enabling dry wines.” “We have fun, but we’re serious,” said Cristiano van Zeller, when we chatted at Decanter’s recent Fine Wine Encounter devoted to Iberian wines. They are Francisco Ferreira, of Quinta do Vallado; Dirk van der Niepoort, of Niepoort; Francisco Olazabal, of Quinta do Vale Meão; Tomas Roquette, of Quinta do Crasto; and Christiano, who owns Quinta Vale Dona Maria.
        At a Masterclass during the tasting, the flag flew well. Niepoort’s white from 2014, known as Tiara (principal grape in a complex blend is Codega do Larinho—see what I mean?) was pale gold and full-bodied, rounded but braced with quietly firm acidity. Quinta Vale Dona Maria’s two from 2013, Douoro Red and Vinha da Francisca were both vibrant, the former a little lighter (a blend of 25 grapes), the latter a touch more tannic, and a blend of only four grapes, predominantly Touriga Nacional. Quinta do Crasto’s Vinha da Ponte 2012 was bold and loaded with fruit but with muscular structure that will guarantee a long age, surely at least 20 years at best. Quinta do Vale Meão’s Douro Superior 2013 went for almost classical Bordeaux-style elegance for its multi-grape blend, another 20-year winner, surely.
        There was talk of terroir, interestingly complicated when you have so many different grapes and also many sorts of soil and exposures to sunshine along those terraces, even in small vineyards. In the end, though, as it’s about flavour and enjoyment, they’re home free. Find them at, or on Facebook.

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