Duoro fine wines are grown in the same vineyards that have traditionally produced only port wines. Planting different grapes and paying attention to temperature control are relatively recent developments that came about only when Portugal began losing ground with its port wines. Port is a drink many today associate with days gone by when "the men" left "the ladies" after dinner to smoke cigars and drink port. But new ways are afoot in the Duoro valley.
Michael Kush, founder with wife Jennifer Kingen Kush of Chasing Harvest Winery in the Chicago area, noted that many experts believed Portugal had been moving toward making cookie-cutter wines that all tasted the same. Knowing it was time to change that, some winemakers invited.Kush to offer his winemaking skills to certain Portuguese vintners and to other select wineries around the world to help them learn how to make fine wines. They now "chase harvest" in several countries in both the northern and the southern hemispheres of the globe.
Portugal is a country of geographical variety---from mountains to river valleys to the extra-warm areas near Spain, all of which tend to produce widely different grapes. The Pinhao valley there is home to vineyards that make port wines---and now these days, fine red and white table wines are named after the Duoro river valley where they're made.
The landscape is almost exotic, with many terraced hillsides so steep they can hold only one row of vines on each step. And it's here the very old vines---some as old as 130 years---grow in the kind of rocky soil that yields rich minerality in wines made from the grapes of these venerable hearty vines.
Kush says he loves working with the viñas viejas - the old vines - that are only to be found in a very small area. And when you taste the wines he masterminded from those grapes, you see why. Kush arrives, he says, mid- to late-August, studies the grapes, the weather and so on, tells them what and when to harvest--he actually refurnished the old traditional structure, from harvest through putting into barrels--and then he leaves and goes on to other countries where he performs similar services
In this valley, sorting tables allow hand-sorting of the grapes, generally combinations of the three most popular local grapes. Older vines tend to be more consistent in production, says Kush. "2011 may be a good way to test whether Duoro and port wines both produce great wines in the same year."
The wines he turns out are truly special. The 2012 Chasing Harvest Branco is a beautiful white wine full of delicious minerality due to the grapes having come from the old vines. A richly deep white that's beautifully blended, sadly it is no longer available for sale. They made only 46 cases, but if this wine is any indication of the kind they are turning out, this is a winery to put on your watch list. Kush described a number of his other wines:
2009 Quinta Larosa Reserve is an absolutely lovely red made from old vines that also is no longer available but it did go for about $40 a bottle.
2010 Chasing Harvest Tinto goes for a very reasonable $160 per 12 bottle case. It was rich with minerality and so complex and full it tasted almost like food. A beautiful red indeed, showing that same loveliness of flavor from the old vines.
The 2011 Niepoort Vertente was grown on the first level of the valley from younger vines. Delicious, though not nearly as full and nuanced as those from the old vines.
Niepoort 2009 LBV is a ruby port wine with a unique flavor, partly due to how it's made. Granite troughs are filled with grapes up to one palm-length deep, then fermented for a short period. The winemaker then adds brandy which stops the fermentation. Rubys are intentionally oxidized---stored in large vats in tunnels. You don't top the tawny barrels as often as the reds.
Taylor's twenty-year tawny port is a reserve-level tawny wine with a burnt caramel aroma in the nose and a buttery and butterscotchy taste in the mouth.
Some of the great years for ports include 1927, 1945, 1963, 1966, and 1977, according to Kush. He explained that port wines labeled vintage are only made in the best harvest years. The idea is that you age it in your cellar yourself. The flavors are rich, layered and complex. Kush likes to put on a blind vintage port tasting for his audiences. In this case, no one was able to guess it correctly, though a few were close. The magnificent, truly mouthwatering flavor belonged to a 1970 Warre's. The best ports, said Kush, are made with respect for the old traditions. "As port wine makers," he said, "we are judged by the next generation on the strength of our vintage port."
More about the Duoro Valley. It produces mainly port, but about 20 years ago vintners began to want to produce high-end table wines. Little rain in the area is good for grape quality. All planting and harvesting is done by hand. While grapes for port can be a little overripe, this is not the case for fine wines. You "need perfect balance between sweetness and acidity," said Kush. Very rocky soil means the grapes have to fight to get water. Such deep roots give the wines more minerality. Fermentation takes place in stone vessels, and the grapes are crushed exclusively by human feet. By foot means you don't crush the seeds, which would give the wine a bitterness.
Kush briefly described the signatures of a few of the big port makers: Taylor is characterized by rose petals. Warre's has finesse and elegance. Dow's is drier, more masculine. His recommendations on good vintages: 2009 very good year, 2007 classic port year. 2011, 2009, 77, 66, 63 were great years. He said to remember that it takes time to declare whether it is a vintage port year or not, so you don't always know right away if a particular year will yield that magical elixir.
Read the story of Chasing Harvest Winery here. And go experiment with Duoro table wines and fine ports. You may be pleasantly surprised.