The Douro Valley is ‘Disneyland’ for winemakers

The bountiful array of native grape varieties in the Douro Valley makes it like “Disneyland for winemakers”, according to Tiago Alves de Sousa of Quinta da Gaivosa.

Tiago Alves de Sousa of Quinta da Gaivosa among his vines

Speaking to the drinks business during a recent trip to Porto, dry Douro pioneer de Sousa said: “There are around 50 different white varieties and 70 different reds growing in the Douro – it’s Disneyland for winemakers and makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape look like child’s play.

“It’s so much fun to have all these different varieties to play with. I know around 30 of the varieties well, so still have around 90 that I need to explore. Many vineyards in the Douro are planted with lots of different varieties mixed up at random so it’s hard to know their individual character.

“It’s crazy to plant Syrah and Cabernet in the Douro – what’s the point when we have so many native grapes to work with? We work with around 70 different varieties and are trying to recover a lot of the old varieties once planted in the region like Malvasia Prieta.”

Quinta da Gaivosa was one of the pioneers of dry Douro wines in the early ‘90s and made its first red in 1992. Today, 75% of its production is dry wines.

Based in Bajo Corgo, the coolest of the three sub-regions in the Douro, de Sousa is keen to continue the work of his ancestors by keeping the field blend tradition alive.

“We mustn’t forget our Port heritage but we want to show the diversity of the region and the terroir. This is still just the beginning of the discoveries in the Douro.

“Our old vines have such great potential but they won’t last forever so we need to replant new vines in the old field blend model to keep the tradition alive. We believe we’re moving forward by going back to what our ancestors did.

“Our old vines are naturally adapted to the region to withstand things like drought but future challenges lie ahead with the threat of climate change, but I think irrigation would be a total mistake. It’s like a band aid that eases the problem rather than fixing it. The real solution is to adapt the vineyards to dry conditions,” he told db.

He also revealed that he loves the freedom that comes with being a dry winemaker in the region.

“I make a skin contact white in a deliberately oxidative style from old vine vineyards that spends a year in barrel. We only make 2,000 bottles, but it’s important to show what we can do as a region and that we’re capable of making a diverse array of reds and whites,” he said.

“One issue at the moment is that we should be charging more for our dry wines in order for them to be taken more seriously, particularly given that the grapes come from low yielding mountain vineyards with high production costs.

“I understand why we’re not quite there yet as the dry wine movement is a recent phenomenon in the Douro but the quality and character is there to charge more. I believe the best is yet to come and consumers will be willing to pay more for these wines once they are introduced to them and find out how they are made,” he added.

Da Sousa thinks a good way in for consumers to get into dry Douro reds is via single varietal wines, which is why he makes a 100% Touriga Nacional, which he believes is interesting enough to work well as a solo act with its floral aromas of orange blossom and violets. But he also has a soft spot for Touriga Franca.

“Touriga Franca is the most planted red in the Douro but it’s a bit of a forgotten variety. I think it works well on its own with a tiny amount of other varieties in the blend. I love its liquorice and balsamic notes,” he told db.

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