A wander around the Douro

It’s one of life’s little (or perhaps that should be ‘big’) ironies that our fortified wines receive high praise, praise that unfortunately isn’t reflected in sales. We all love to talk them up but few are drunk.

Weather plays a role in this: a warmer and drier winter than usual, as we’ve experienced in the Cape, doesn’t help especially our Port-styled fortifieds.

A few years’ ago, the good wine producers of Calitzdorp, the self-styled ‘Port’ capital of South Africa, decided to take a leaf out of their Douro colleagues and embark on using Port varieties in table wines.

The Portuguese took this route back in the 1980s, when they started to establish vineyards according to variety rather than the field blend of sometimes up to 40 different varieties. Although this allows them to produce varietal wines, blends still predominate, given the region’s challenging climate.

Among the raft of varieties present in Douro vineyards, we have many of the more popular ones: tinta roriz, tinta barocca, touriga franca, touriga nacional, trincadeira and souzão.
It’s not surprising to learn the Nel cousins – Boets at De Krans and Carel at Boplaas – were in the vanguard of experimenting with table wines incorporating varieties also used in their Port-styled wines. Red Stone Reserve, a touriga, cab blend and Kuip and Clay, a touriga, merlot, cab blend were respectively their early efforts. I remember one of the Nel’s – I can’t remember which – telling me that a blend purely of Portuguese varieties didn’t work, which is why they fell back on cabernet.

Things are quite different today. De Krans Tritonia blends touriga, tinta barocca & tinta roriz (aka tempranillo); Boplaas Ring of Rocks mixes tinta franca with tinta barocca. They aren’t the only ‘dorpers to have broadened and shored up their portfolio with the addition of table wines: among others joining them are Axe Hill, Calitzdorp Cellar, Peter Bayly Wines and Fledge & Co.

Partners in this last ‘Co’ are Leon Coetzee and Margaux Nel, daughter of Carel & Jeanne, who is also winemaker at Boplaas. Together, they are cutting-edge Calitzdorpers, experimenting along with the Cape’s best. Their pair of unoaked chenins, HoekSteen from Stellenbosch and Klipspringer from old vines in the Paardeberg, are full of character, showing chenin doesn’t always need an oak crutch. But it’s their Big Red Blend 2012 that’s the focus here. A blend of two 300 litre older barrels each of souzão and touriga franca with one of touriga nacional (fruit source isn’t disclosed, but all the vineyards were at least 30 years old). Coetzee says it’s the first time in 30 years that this particular varietal trio have ripened sufficiently to make a blend. Yeast and sulphur were the only additions and the wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Coetzee and Nel kindly agreed to let me include a bottle in my presentation of six Douro reds, as per the list below. They also added a Boplaas Touriga Nacional 2012 and the Boplaas Portuguese White 2015 (tasted blind beforehand).

Despite its youth, this last proved quite an eye-opener. A blend of all Calitzdorp fruit led by verdelho and sauvignon blanc with viognier and chardonnay, it has good density with lots of greengage and citrus freshness. Straightforward but not facile and thoroughly moreish, especially with its R40 price tag.

Portuguese reds 1015We usually have a test to keep everyone on their toes; this time I asked them to identify the three wines made by one producer and the two wines not from the Douro (I made no mention of them being South African).

The line-up was tasted blind, as usual, in random order but coincidentally, The Fledge and Boplaas Touriga were numbers one and two.

The former proved divisive; some were in the over-ripe, dull camp, others, myself included agreed about the ripeness (alcohol is 13.88%) but found good balancing freshness, gentle tannins, silky texture and complexity in its fragrant spicy, pot pourri, violets features. However, it did suffer coming back to it after tasting through the other wines. Strangely, things were better when it was paired with food and the following day.

The real surprise of the evening was Boplaas Touriga, which no one picked out as not a Douro, whereas four had nominated The Fledge. Perhaps there was more obvious tannin than the Portuguese wines, but no imbalance; it just needs time. We were genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how well this wine showed; it offers much encouragement for the future.

The Douro wines too were most pleasurable and all-round of very good quality. These are wines at ease with themselves, there’s nothing forced, no over-oaking or extraction and even though alcohols are around 14.5% (typically, the Niepoorts are 13% or 13.5%), all enjoy a sense of natural freshness. Only Quinta do Crasto was felt to be drying out a little.
Few of us had tasted many Douro table wines before; the experience left us feeling positive about the potential here for blends built around the major Port varieties we already have, some vineyards with good age.

It’s a category that needs, even deserves, more attention; not at the expense of Port-styles but as well as. Not only could these blends add interest to our Port-style producers’ portfolio but buttress them against slack sales of their fortifieds.

For anyone interested in reading more about the Douro, in fact Portugal in general, UK journalist, Sarah Ahmed specialises in the country’s wines. Her website www.thewinedectective.co.uk is a useful source of information.

Fledge & Co Big Red Blend 2012 R200; Boplaas Touriga Nacional 2012 R150; Quinta Vale D Maria 2012 R605; Roquette & Cazes 2012 R295; Niepoort Batuta 2010 R735; Niepoort Redoma 2010 R425; Quinta do Crasto Reserva Vinhas Velhas 2012 R305; Niepoort Vertente 2012 R230

The two favourite wines of the tasting.
The two favourite wines of the tasting.
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