Last week’s column, and Nick’s WineCast, featured the lovely wines of DonnaChiara from Campania, and highlighted how their move away from bulk peasant wine to quality wine was part of a growing trend in southern Italy.
Well, the movement is not limited to Italy. All along the arc of the Mediterranean wine world winemakers, inspired by the money they see been made in rejuvenated regions like Tuscany and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, are attempting a similar makeover.
In Portugal though, there is an added twist. The only quality wine the country has made for 300 years has been Port, but Port is not exactly flying off the shelves these days so many producers are attempting to diversify into dry table wines.
One of the most successful is the Churchill’s Estates Douro 2009, $20, and I spoke to Johnny Graham, the proprietor, about his motivation for moving into table wine.
“It comes down to finance. It comes down to what makes economic sense. As cost of production in the Douro is going up the regular production of cheap Port is coming to an end as there’s not really a market for it any longer.”
“So the writing was on the wall, things had to change. So people started, naturally, looking to find different revenue streams.”
When did you start making quality table wine?
“We bought Quinta da Gricha 1999 and decided that we’d seriously start to make Douro wine. For three years we experimented with different grape varieties, different blends….. we did 1999, 2000 and 2001, and eventually we launched what we now call Churchill Estates in 2004.”
The Douro is extremely hot and extremely dry and Port has evolved over the centuries as a wine that can flourish in these unique conditions. The problem is, what works for Port doesn’t work so well for table wine – it’s hard to make good table wine when you have such a sun-baked environment.
The problem is Portugal is rather warm. Now while this has proved ideal for Port, the question remains whether it’s possible to preserve the requisite freshness under the intense Portuguese sun, and not have the wine turn into over-cooked jam.
As Graham pointed out: “We all know we’re on a sharp learning curve. There’s been a marked change in how the quality, more the elegance of the wines being produced now than the ones that were first produced when the wave took place, which was really in the 1990’s.”
This improvement resulted from slowly figuring out what worked, and what didn’t – what varietals were most successful, what vineyards were most suited to making table wine, and how to handle the grapes in the winery, a process completely different from making Port.
The biggest challenge was “To try and make elegant wines. That was the key thing.” Tricky when you are working in such a hot climate.
“We cool the grapes down overnight. We don’t pick at night, we pick during the day, and then cool them down to 5 degrees centigrade over night. We then do a cold soak for about four days.”
Eight to ten days long, slow, cool fermentation follows.
There’s one other factor that separates Churchill’s from the mass of inferior Douro reds, and that’s the high proportion of grapes from very old vines planted as field blends. These produce ridiculously low yields, just16 hectoliters per hectare, and are only worthwhile because of the intensity they bring to the wine. As Graham adds: “they provide a bit of complexity and interest.”
This is a robust, red-meat wine full of mocha and dark chocolate flavors on the front palate enlivened by hints of violets, and a tangy blackberry bite on the finish. For years I had not thought it possible to make elegant, if muscular, wine like this in the Douro, but I was wrong.
Listen to Nick’s WineCast!