I grew up down the road in Church Stretton – a very pretty market town surrounded by hills that draw visitors from all over the UK and beyond. In nearly 19 years at Tanners, I have been lucky enough to have driven around Alsace and many of Germany’s winemaking regions. I have enjoyed a whistle-stop tour of Sicily, a cheeky short trip to Rioja, walked the grand crus of the Cote d’Or and pottered about both banks of Bordeaux… but The Douro Valley? Let me tell you, it is on another level!
Yes. Wine trips are every bit as good as you might imagine.
From Oporto we drove east for around two and a half hours up the (you will hear plenty of this) amazingly scenic IC5 – a true feat of engineering that has drastically reduced travel times up and down the Douro. Taking Shrewsbury as a starting point however made this a long, hot day, and my (relatively) young back and knees were naturally selected for cramming into the back of our absurdly dinky motor. I barely contained a squeal of delight when I spotted the pool upon our arrival at the hotel but in a valley around 500m above sea level (not unlike the Long Mynd), and, in March, that makes quite the difference to water temperatures, yikes!
Our first full day saw us head south to the Duorum project at Castelo do Melhor. This is the arid Douro Superior, frontier country, where the Douro River falls away below, the elevation carries a little breeze, and you can pretty much see across to the Spanish border. The earth here is hard and dry, lots of schist (slate mix), and scrub, and you marvel at how the vines create mesmerising patterns across the hazy landscape. Ex Barca Velha winemaker, Jose Maria Soares Franco, and his long-time friend, the superstar Alentejo oenologist/consultant, João Portugal Ramos, established Duroum in 2007. They care deeply about their environment, they are dedicated to sustainability in the vineyards, winning multiple awards for halting biodiversity loss and supporting natural ecosystems, and this respect for their land is reflected in terroir-driven wines. With a combined 60+ years of experience, they made a wonderful source for Tanners to partner with. Our visits give us a chance to taste through their broad range and to talk through options and plans for the Tanners Douro blend (and other secret projects, shhh).
The Douro Valley is heady with a distinctive mix of wildflowers and garrigue, and we had our fill as we meandered (for two hours!) back west, up hill and down dale through Pinhão and to Quinta Nova. Another beautiful site with picture-perfect views – I’ve never known anywhere that lends itself so well to point and click photography! And another broad range of wines. The style here reflects a desire for elegance and a lightness of touch, with ever less reliance on oak. Keeping time in the Douro, with so many wines and so many miles to cover is a challenge, and we toiled long into the night and headed to our hotel – at Quinta do Noval! That stunning Cedar tree, which adorns their labels overlooks the vines and the twisting river and frames the charming old house. We took in the range, including the Ports and we were very well looked after by our host who kept us company over dinner.
Being based at Quinta do Noval made our morning trip over to Quinta de Napoles, home to Niepoort, a mercifully easy jaunt. Niepoort is all about experimentation, innovation, and collaboration and I still think about my first tasting of Coche, Dirk’s homage to the legendary wines of Domaine Coche-Dury in Burgundy… wow! WOW!! The range is thrilling and perhaps best illustrates the variety and potential of Douro wines: Whites that have no right to be so delicate, their Riesling-esque Tiara the best example; the red counterpart to Coche, ‘Charme’, a genuine high-end Red Burgundy look-alike, and any number of field blends, lower alcohol wines, not to mention the Ports! The tasting on the veranda was magical, really.
We were due to have lunch with Cristiano Van Zeller at Quinta Vale Dona Maria, should have been a short trip back east, but again, so easy to get carried away! Thankfully, Cristiano is the loveliest of… giants, and we quickly made up for lost time. QVDM sits on the Rio Torto, a tributary of the Douro and at something of a confluence of valleys, where we could survey and point out the sources of his many different wines. The style here is, like Cristiano, BIG. Rich, concentrated, powerful and impressive red wines in the main, with a smattering of easier-going entry level wines and a clutch of whites that combine texture, minerality, fruit and super intensity. These wines have found a great following over the years. Lunch was a busy affair, with vineyard workers joining us for a joyfully noisy, raucous time, after which we headed into the cellar to talk business. Never to complain about such treats, but to think there was another visit ahead of us…
We rounded our afternoon and evening off with a trip north to Quinta da Manoella in the Pinhão Valley, home to Sandra Tavares da Silva and husband Jorge Serodio Borges of Wine & Soul, which also includes Pintas. There is an awful lot of history and detail to make note of, but in keeping this brief, Wine & Soul was established in 2001, when Sandra and Jorge decided to begin making wines for themselves, after long careers as winemakers elsewhere (at some of the Douro’s great names). Pintas was their first wine, a single vineyard red from a field mix of very old vines, and in 2009 they inherited Manoella and its 100+ year old vines!
They continue to source fruit and land, preferring vineyards with long traditions in Port production. Jorge hosted a further tasting late into the evening over dinner, where we tasted through his Passadouro wines (Passadouro was sold to Noval in 2019).
Our final day took us back to Oporto. An early start and another long drive, but what a place to finish! Porto is a beautiful city and an ideal spot to get away to for a short break. We had an appointment at with Johnny Graham at Churchill’s in Vila Nova de Gaia to kick things off, and I must say how civilized it felt to wander the streets and to visit the offices. We tasted through the materials and wines that go into Tanners Late Bottled Vintage and Crusted Ports, as well as their other Ports and table wines. These are very smart wines, again showing a vitality, brightness, and freshness one might not immediately associate with such a hot and dry winemaking region. Some remarkable value to be found here, and distinctive wines not least in the example of their rusty coloured aged Dry(ish) White Port – fantastic in the baking heat!
In the afternoon we visited Taylor’s but before that a light lunch at their Hotel. I had to freshen up, so was late to join our table. When I arrived made my apologies, our host was explaining about the drinks we were served, noting ‘Cheap White Port’ and tonic. I made a comment about not pouring the posh stuff if you are mixing, before turning a bottle to read Taylor’s Chip Dry White Port. Never forget the accent, when you are on holiday, folks! By the way, Port and tonic rules! On to the visitors centre and a grand tasting of Ports, a walk around their amazing cellars and a catch-up with David Guimaraens. That evening we met up at Symingtons for a fascinating and pretty intense tasting in the lab with their winemaking team. A growing range reflecting a variety of styles of table wines at many different levels, and our first tasting of the new Altano range, which has since become a staple. Port wines followed, and we found the team a really friendly, thoughtful bunch, and generally a great atmosphere among them. This continued into the evening as we were taken for a swish dinner at Symington’s restaurant, Vinum. Euan Mackay, Commercial Director at Symington Family Estates, and ex Tanners employee took great care of us and I did my very best to lean back and to take in all of those old stories.
Porto and the Douro Valley is a brilliant trip. Look out for flavourful rice cooked in stock; stews made of pork knuckle and cabbage; the BEST snacks like toasted almonds, and wines to suit all palates! The people are friendly, the scenery is dramatic and the old vineyards ooze history. It looks, smells, and tastes fantastic!