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Report from the Douro

This time I did not stomp grapes – or, more accurately, tread them. 

Visiting the Douro Valley during harvest always brings with it an invitation to jump into the granite vats, called lagars, with the real harvest workers for a photo op for the friends back home, a sort of dancing with the stars while being up to your thighs in purple pulp.  Once is enough, so I was relieved when my hosts, the folks at Fladgate Partnership who make Taylor Fladgate, Croft and Fonseca Ports, told me I was a couple of days too late for treading. Lagar est finie, as it were.

Not that I was too late to see the fermenting grapes which will end up as various forms of premium Port, perhaps even vintage, although the latter seems dubious.  “Don’t give up on this year too soon,” warned David Guimaraens, who oversees winemaking for Fladgate and who comes from a legendary Douro family.  At the same time, he told a tale of three harvests – an early September start under ideal conditions and a final few days leading into October that were equally fine.  The middle third was quite bad.  “The skies opened up, and we received about 100 millimeters of rain,” he said.  That’s about 4 inches of downpours to us Americans, and it causes grape juice to be diluted in addition to inducing bunch rot, which can reduce quality and quantity.

For the past few decades, the great Port houses of Vila Nova de Gaia on the south side of the Douro opposite Porto have been consolidating as well as backward integrating by buying their own grape farms called quintas.  Where once most grapes were foot trod on small family farms, economics and manpower shortages have dictated centralized wineries with mechanical presses or automated plungers that approximate the pressure exerted by a couple of dozen pairs of dancing feet.  Guimaraens, who likes to look at what has traditionally proved successfully in an empirical manner, said, “Foot treading is the reference, but it is not necessarily better.”

Nevertheless, at the house-owned quintas, most grapes that could end up as vintage Port are still trod in lagars in case a vintage is declared.  Classic vintages are announced, or not, the second spring after harvest.  Final judgments about the quality of the current vintage will be made in the spring of 2016.  If 2014 rises to those standards, each house will make a classic vintage, blending cuvees from the various quintas it owns or sources.  If not, they can decide to make a single-quinta vintage, with no blending from other sources, or no vintage at all.

So far in this century, the years 2000, 2003, 2007, 2009 and 2011 have been declared by most houses as vintage years.  There was a time when vintages neatly occurred three times a decade, but now there is no hesitancy in doing so more often.  “Normally, we do not like to declare back-to-back vintages,” explained Fladgate’s CEO, Adrian Bridge.  “If 2011 hadn’t existed, we might have declared 2012, as both are exceptional vintages.”  Having a choice, Taylor Fladgate declared 2011 a classic vintage and 2012 a quinta vintage, especially for its prized estate – Quinta de Vargellas.

I was fortunate enough to spend an evening with Alistair and Gillyane Robertson at Vargellas, far up the Douro, as well as a couple of days at Fladgate’s stellar hotel, The Yeatman, in Gaia – one rural and traditional, the other urban and very modern.  In ways, they reflect Port itself, still valuing foot treading and the gigantic ancient wooden tanks in the Gaia warehouses opposite Porto while also investing in more-modern planting systems, state-of-the-art wineries and humidified cellars. 

After all, throughout the centuries, the Douro Valley and its Port producers have found a place for both the old and the new and ways of integrating the two.

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