Douro – Cristiano Van Zeller

Until recently, all the Douro Valley exporters produced port. However, it’s not that table wines were never produced in the Douro. The port producers did make small amounts of table wines for local consumption, usually from surplus grapes or grapes that by law could not be used for making port.

Lately, however, a new generation of winemakers in the Douro are turning their attention to producing red wines for export. Instead of using surplus or low quality grapes, they have been using the same, high quality grapes that were destined for port.

These include Touriga Nacional (venerated for its tannins and acidity), Touriga Franca (prized for its perfumed aromas) and other grapes varieties such as Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinto Cao (produces concentrated and spicy wines) and Tinta Barroca.

The reason for this couldn’t be simpler. If the grapes can be turned into high quality port, surely fine table wines can also be made.

Any visitor to the Douro Valley will be awed by the vista of stunning hills, running on both sides of the river and falling steeply down to the water’s edge. And on the steep slopes of the hills are man-made terraces, all planted with vines.

In this region of contrasts, winters are cold and wet while summers are searingly hot. Soils range from granite to schist, slate and even limestone. In many places, the Douro River cuts through the slate, thus splitting it into vertical layers below the surface . This enables water to seep in and roots grow deep.

Vines are planted almost everywhere from the river’s edge right up to an altitude of 500m. Microclimates abound and the conditions are perfect for making fine wine.

Cristiano, checking on our lunch

On a recent tour of Douro, I visited a group of five like-minded port producers who have turned their efforts towards making dry table wines. They do so with the intent of promoting the region for its fortified port wines as well as for its fine table wines. They call themelves the Douro Boys.

First of the Douro Boys is Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta Vale Dona Maria. A former co-owner of the esteemed port winery of Quinta do Noval, van Zeller set out on his own a little over a decade ago, buying a vineyard and then adding to it an old vineyard belonging to his wife’s family.

Although he began by making port, he discovered that he could also make good red wines from the same grapes. To make quality wine, “you make mistakes, try everything and even deliberate errors just to discover the consequences,” he shared.

Over the years, as van Zeller crafted his wines, he found a growing interest from appreciative drinkers for his table wines. Less port was made as more grapes from the vineyard were destined for wine.

Today, with the assistance of winemaker Sandra Tavares da Silva, 25,000 bottles of red wine are made at Quinta Vale Dona Maria. Van Zeller continues to expand operations by leasing neighbours vineyards and also acquiring them.

Winemaker Sandra Tavares da Silva (left) helps port producer van Zeller make fine, dry white table wine.

I tasted his Quinta Vale Dona Maria red wines from various vintages – all had beautiful aromas but it was the 2004 with a scent of fresh plums, a sweet core of red and black fruit and a complex and elegant finish that impressed me most.

Lemos & Van Zeller CV-Curriculum Vitae 2007 was another equally outstanding wine with power and stature; it was herbal with spice, violets, eucalyptus and pencil shavings, tannic and perfect for long ageing.

Then out of nowhere, van Zeller whisked out a pink wine.This was a big surprise as I had only been expecting red wines from the region. The delightful rosé wine lived up to the estate’s reputation – it was perfumed with strawberries and had a smooth texture. Another wine was uncorked. I was way past surprises. But even so the white Quinta do Vale Dona Maria VZ Branco seduced me with its citrus overtones, with an underlying oak flavour and creamy texture.

Douro wines certainly are full of revelations!

Note: Its entirely unfair to compare wines from different countries and regions but for readers unfamiliar with Portuguese table wines and wondering about the styles, here are some approximations:

The Quinta Vale Dona Maria is like a terroir-based European wine; The CV could be compared to a New World iconic wine, the pink, somewhat between a mid-heavy bodied Tavel and Navarra rose; and the Branco – I could have mistaken it for a Pessac Leognan.