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Home of port now producing reds and whites that are surprisingly good
Vila Seca, Portugal
IN THE cellar of a modern, concrete winery in this small town in the Douro Valley, Luis Seabra was drawing a sample of his 2018 Xisto Cru Branco from the large old barrel in which it was ageing.
Even at such an early stage, this was a gorgeous white wine, made largely of rabigato, a grape grown almost nowhere else in the world, blended with a little of the equally obscure côdega, gouveio and viosinho.
The wine was saline and mineral, tightly coiled, with an opaque texture that was not quite ready to admit exploration. It was exactly the sort of fresh, vivacious white that has never been associated with the Douro Valley. Yet it was evidence of the unexpected evolution of this historic region, so long associated with the production of port.
The valley now is the source of some of Portugal's freshest, most energetic and intriguing wines, both whites and reds. These wines by no means represent the dominant Douro style, yet it's a surprise to anyone who a decade ago might have thought the area was capable of making only powerful, heavy and portlike reds.
The Douro is one of the visual wonders of the wine world. It's a series of undulating river valleys, lined with stunning, perilously steep slopes rising to roughly 3,000 feet, onto which terraces have been carved over centuries by intrepid farmers.
This ancient network of vineyards is nowadays punctuated by moratorios, old terraces that were abandoned over the years, many after phylloxera - an aphid that virtually destroyed European vineyards - ravaged the area a century ago.
Some terraces, though, were forsaken more recently, by growers who farmed a few acres and sold the grapes to the big port companies, as small farmers have done for generations. Their children preferred city life to carrying on the work, though, as has been the case in much of rural Europe. More of the roughly 100,000 acres under vine in the Douro are likely to be abandoned in the coming decades.
"It's too big," Mr Seabra said. "Too much wine is made, and prices for the grapes are too low." But prices for land, he added, are high.
The model of small growers and producers selling to shippers, who labelled and marketed the wine, is as anachronistic in the Douro as it is in the rest of the modern wine world.
Today, the big companies have bought up land, and taken charge of farming and making port. Many are now hedging their bets, making still wines as well. But it may be smaller producers like Mr Seabra who will help lift the reputation of the Douro as a source for great table wines, as well as historic ports.
Mr Seabra, 46, spent 10 years working for Dirk Niepoort, the visionary scion of a longtime port shipper who has been among the pioneers of still wines in the Douro Valley.
In 2013, Mr Seabra set out on his own, and is now making some of Portugal's most compelling wines, both white and red. Yet he rents his winery and his vineyards, which include the 90-year-old vines that produce his rabigato. His position is not exactly secure.
"I started with no money, and I still have no money," he said. "Everything goes into the wine."
Unfortified table or still wines have a history in the Douro. Before the production of fortified port took hold in the 17th century, the region was known for powerful red wines that the British called "blackstrap."
When conflict interrupted Britain's access to French products, British merchants came here to Portugal to buy wine. To stabilise it for the ocean voyage back home, they fortified the wine with a measure of brandy.
Before long, they began adding the brandy during fermentation rather than after, which stopped the process before all the grape sugar had been transformed to alcohol, leaving the wine agreeably sweet. This fortified wine was called port, after the coastal city of Porto, where the British shippers set up shop.
Table wines would appear occasionally through the 20th century, but it was not until the 1990s that production took off, after Portugal joined the European Union and subsidies began to flow in.
As a young man in the early 1980s, Mr Niepoort left Portugal to work in the California wine industry. When he returned in 1987, hardly any still wine was being made in the Douro.
"Thirty years ago 100,000 pipes of port were produced, and 1,000 pipes of still wine," he said, using the port shippers' term for barrels. "Now, 100,000 pipes of port are produced, and 70,000 pipes of still wine."
His father was not interested in still wines, Mr Niepoort said, so he took the lead in his family. With the 1999 vintage he made his first red wine, using three varieties typically found in port. He called the wine Batuta, like a conductor's baton. It was, he said, a monster: oaky, alcoholic and powerfully fruity.
"I wanted a lighter wine, I just didn't know how to do it," he said. "I thought it would take 20 years to make fine wines. I've been going in a direction of lighter and more elegant."
The journey from port to elegant table wine is by no means a simple one. Growing grapes for port is different than for table wine. Many growers say the best vineyards for port are not the best for table wine, and vice versa.
Mr Niepoort's forecast of a 20-year learning curve has proved accurate, not only for him but also for other producers in the region. His 2016 Charme, a high-end red named in homage to the Burgundies of Charmes-Chambertin, is fine and gentle, with the potential to age and evolve, and just 13 per cent alcohol. His more reasonably priced Redomas, reds and whites that run roughly from US$20 -35, are savoury, refreshing and most definitely not portlike.
Not all of the better-known port companies have gotten into table wines. Taylor Fladgate, for one, has almost defiantly stayed away. But some of those that have, like Quinta do Noval and Quinta da Romaneira, which are tangentially related, are also moving in the direction of lighter, more elegant wines.
"Still wine was not really around before the 1990s," said Carlos Agrellos, technical director of Noval, which is owned by Axa, a multinational insurance corporation, and a consultant at Romaneira, which is owned by the managing director of Noval. "Quality in the last few years has risen exponentially."
He points particularly to the quality of viticulture - the work had become more precise, with more attention to detail. "The quality of the grapes is now very good, year after year, not randomly," he said.
Mr Seabra says most table wines in the Douro are still big and heavy, though he concedes they are more balanced than they used to be. One of the biggest problems holding back the region, he said, is a cursory understanding of the soils.
"Knowledge of soil is nothing, even today," he said. "People say it's all schist, but there are many kinds of schist. Actually, this is slate, not schist. We don't have the word."
Blue slate, he said, produced edgy, tight, less exuberant wines. Yellow slate made easier, fruitier wines, while mica slate, with more feldspar, was best for white grapes.
While the era of table-wine production in the Douro is too short to draw conclusions about what is most typical, it's clear that Mr Seabra's pale reds are considered outliers. When he brings them to gatherings with other winemakers, he said, he is often teased: "Oh, you brought your rosé again."
Mr Niepoort said: "I'm accused of being too light, and of not having a style." NYTIMES