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Douro Valley
Portugal Fine Wines
He (or she) that wonders what Portugal has to offer in the form of fine wine has only one answer: Port! Quite simply the country’s greatest export, Porto wine, port wine, or whatever you want to call it is the jewel in country’s winemaking crown. (Although there are some pretty good Madeiras as well, but we won't go into that here).

Because of the country's relative isolation, it has not suffered the same ravages as neighbourign Spain (think Phylloxera in the 19th century) which is a bonus, but the remoteness has also worked against it too, and Portugal has remained a relatively unknown player on the world fine wine stage. Their 250 grape varieties seem strange and unheard of (João de Santarém or Trajadura anyone? Although we will admit to prior knowledge of Touriga National). Coupled with little exportation and a viticulture developed to satisfy the Portuguese wine tastes rather than the international market, with the exception of Port, Portugal has not managed to gain a proper footing in the fine wine arena.

But that doesn’t matter, as it is the eponymous fruit of the Douro Valley that offers by far the best returns in the market. The fortified red wine’s longevity is its strongest asset, with ageing potential that stretches well into the decades for certain producers. And with roots that go back 2,000 years it's not exactly surprising that the Portuguese know how to make Port.

Located north-eastern Portugal, about 3-hours from Porto (or Oporto), the region covers about 250,000 hectares. Only 15% (about 38,000 hectares) is planted with vines and only 75% of that - 26,000 hectares - are government authorised for Port production. Unsurprisingly for such a hot, dry climate, most of the wines made here (around 90%) are red, with the remaining 10% divided more or less equally between whites and rosés (yes there are other colours of Port than red).

Much of the area’s success is down to perhaps two people: James Symington and Antónia Adelaide Ferreira ("Ferreirinha"). The former has Anglo roots but also has five generations of Portuguese know how (and 26 Quintas or estates), and is by far the largest landowner in the region. The second was a 19th-century businesswoman who did not see the remoteness of her terrain as a problem and lobbied the Portuguese government to lay railway tracks allowing her workers to tend her fields. Ferreirinha was incredibly influential in laying the foundations of success for full-bodied Port wines and without her, the face of the country’s winemaking history would undoubtedly look very different.

The region itself is so strikingly beautiful that UNESCO made it a world heritage site in 2001 (think terraced vineyards punctuated by white-washed villages), protection that both ensures and reflects its technical, social and economic evolution. Techniques are hybrid: as well as terraced fields, walled vineyards are also popular, along with vertical planting. This is a modern technique where vines are planted vertically where possible up and down the slope, rather than along the contour. Referred to as vinha ao alto in Portuguese, the 21st-century developments have made vinha ao alto more affordable, and progress in erosion and drainage management means that an increasing number of vineyards are being managed this way. The advantages are numerous: a higher vine density per hectare and better canopy exposure to name just two.

With so many variables in the Douro Valley terroir, one would be mistaken in thinking that the difference in one port to another was about blending. While the vagarities of climate and exposure had always been respected, it took a while for the Portuguese to catch on that the proof was in the soil. Long thought of as being just schist and granite, with the emerging fashion for table wine, winemakers began to step away from Port production and look more closely at what they are planting in. Because of the steep slopes of the region, vines that were able to force their roots through broken granite could offer a very different option than those that are grown on more horizontal terrain.

In order to try an buck the trend and change the world’s thinking about Portuguese fine wine, cooperatives of young winemakers have been revisiting the country’s magnificent red wine heritage. These full-bodied beauties are relatively inexpensive to acquire on the primary market and can fetch up to xxxx on the secondary market, so it is worth considering if you want to expand your “port” folio.