Monday 8 January 2018

The Douro Boys Part 1 – The Harmony of Technology and Tradition

Producer: Quinta do Crasto

The Douro Valley is just a two hour drive away from the coastal city of Porto, but worlds apart in terms of scenery and climate. As my car emerges from under the Serra do Marão mountain range via a tunnel on the A4 motorway, I am momentarily dazzled by the bright sunlight. Waves of unrelenting heat bathe the area, a marked difference from the refreshing crispness of the Atlantic breeze in Porto. I begin to understand why some wines are referred to as having the “Douro bake” character. With the mountains blocking the cool ocean air, the Douro Valley resembles a hot oven during the day.

Too much heat can desiccate a land, leaving barren deserts, but here the warmth is a nurturing force, coaxing life and vitality out of the soil. At the entrance to Quinta do Crasto, we had the perfect vantage point to admire the vista laid out before us. Rows of neat terraces interspersed with olive trees cover the slopes. In the distance we could see the glittering expanse of the Douro river as it made its way westwards. The quinta is located in the central part of the Douro Valley, called Cima Corgo. Flattish Douro almonds fried in olive oil are a common snack here. Their light, sweet crunchiness make them extremely addictive.

It amazes me that the wines of the Douro have flown under the radar for so long. Certainly enough wine writers, newspapers and trade magazines have gushed enough about it, yet when driving on the winding roads of the valley I barely encountered another soul. I count this as a blessing, for although the road is meant to be two-way, there is no possibility of squeezing past another car. Not that I had much time to think about traffic. Navigating the road is difficult enough without having your fellow passengers shrieking at you because they are convinced you are about to veer off the cliff.

The Douro Valley is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. It started off as a centre of production for port – the sweet, fortified wine so popular in the United Kingdom, but the Douro is not the place to go to if you want to drink port. That is because the valley is far too hot to age port, and traditionally the wine was shipped to Vila Nova de Gaia in Porto for maturation. In recent years, news regarding the high quality of table wines produced in the Douro has been quietly filtering out, and these were the wines we were there to taste. Miguel Roquette is in charge of exports for Quinta do Crasto and part of the Douro Boys, a group of producers with the common goal of promoting the dry wines of the Douro. The Douro Boys are also distantly related, a kinship that can be traced back to Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, a local businesswoman and a powerful figure in the port industry during the 19th century.

One of the peculiarities of Portuguese wines and particularly in the Douro is the bounty of grape varieties that can be found in the vineyards. Many of the grape varieties were approved for the production of port, and provide a rich palette of options for the winemaker. In Quinta do Crasto they have identified 47 grape varieties grown in just a single vineyard. Many of these vines are very old indeed. As we walked through the vineyards, Miguel pointed out how deep the roots go, pointing to a gnarly example that had burrowed through the schist rock that is so widely found in the Douro. Early winemakers discovered how useful schist could be. As it splits horizontally, they found that they could stack slabs of schist to buttress the terraces and guard against erosion. Miguel also prompted me to take a closer look at the posts at either end of a row of vines. What I had assumed was a stout wooden pillar turned out to be solid rock. As I looked across the extensive plantings carpeting the valley, each with several of these pillars, I marvelled at the extensive quarrying that must have been required to provide such lasting foundations.

To say that Quinta do Crasto makes excellent wines would be to state the obvious, but what I found impressive was the harmony of tradition and technology. The tasting room where we sampled the wines was so old that the floorboards creaked with every step, yet it exuded a cosy air and a lived-in charm. Outside, the ultra-modern infinity pool provided modern contrast, and if I had the proper attire I would have jumped in right there and soaked in the views. The port wines are made by foot-trodden grapes in stone lagares, but grapes destined to become table wines go into a gleaming Bucher-Vaslin basket press that looks as though it just rolled off the assembly line. The cellar where wines are aged in barrels merits special mention as well. It uses the OXOline system which stacks each barrel on rollers vertically in such a way that is space efficient and also allows for easy access to the barrels. I can imagine that this would save copious hours of work, not to mention ease the strain on many backs.

The wines tasted below are not available in Singapore but I do hope that some enterprising distributor will pick up this very interesting producer.

Tasting notes:

Flor de Crasto White 2016 – This is the entry level white fermented and aged in stainless steel. It is a smooth, light bodied wine with expressive honeysuckle and lemon tart notes. Good length and balance. A blend of Rabigato, Códega do Larinho and Viosinho.

Crasto Douro White 2016 – Really crisp and appealing, with tangerine, blood orange and a hint of green mango. Grape varieties are Gouveio, Viosinho and Rabigato. Despite the hot climate this is very balanced with only 12% abv.

Crasto Superiore White 2016 – The wine is named after the area the grapes come from, the Douro Superior where another property was recently acquired, the Quinta da Cabreira. It is priced slightly higher than the Flor de Crasto and Douro white wines and is aged for six months in French oak barrels. This has infused the wine with noticeable texture and richness. It shows lemon and sweet oatmeal aromas with a hint of green mango. The oak is prominent here and probably needs a year to integrate. Grape varieties are Viosinho and Verdelho.

Flor de Crasto Red 2015 – A blend of Tinta Roriz (same grape as Tempranillo), Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional. Blueberry nose with bright red cherry fruit. Primary fruit dominates on the palate, very cheerful with just enough structure. Good balance and very fresh.

Crasto Red 2015 – Miguel says that this wine is popular with airlines. I see that it was selected as one of the wines in Business Class for Brussels Airlines. This wine is a blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Barroca. It has masses of dense, sweet black fruit with some brown spices and licorice in the background. Great vitality and purity with a long finish. Good stuff!

Crasto Superiore Red 2014 – A blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Souzão, the latter grape being particularly valued for its useful contribution to acidity. Shows very sweet and ripe black fruit, a bountiful combination of hedgerow fruits, blackberries and licorice with a hint of forest floor complexity. Full bodied with ripe, sturdy tannins and a flash of heat. A powerful and delicious wine.

Quinta do Crasto Reserva 2014 – A field blend of 25-30 different grape varieties from vines over 70 years old, foot-trodden then aged for about sixteen months in 85% French oak and 15% American oak. This tastes very young, with some powdery and earthy notes. It’s surprisingly agile and delicate for a wine clocking in at 14.5% abv.

Roquette & Cazes 2014 – A joint project between Quinta do Crasto and Château Lynch-Bages utilising fruit from Cima Corgo and Douro Superior and French winemaking techniques. A blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz. The oak gives this wine a fine veneer that is very Bordeaux-like but there is undeniably Douro fruit underneath. Savoury character.

Quinta do Crasto Late Bottled Vintage Port 2012 – Aged in large oak vats for around four years then bottled without any fining or filtration. Pronounced raisiny notes, lots of poise and complexity with a sweet spice basket character, cinnamon notes and a hint of stemminess.

Quinta do Crasto Vintage Port 2015 – Super concentrated and rich, this wine has lovely depth and concentration. An inky core with sweet blackberry jam and balancing acidity. The average age of the vines that make this port is over 60 years.

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