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Clone Wars in Port Country

November 29, 2000|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We all hope politics won't encroach on our holiday festivities this year. But make no mistake: Those of us who opt for a glass of vintage Port will be aiding and abetting a revolution.

Portugal's Douro Valley has long commanded an international reputation for Port, its uniquely luscious yet fine and long-aging fortified wine. The methods of producing Port were established nearly two centuries ago and haven't changed much at all--until recently.

During the last decade or so, the Douro's viticultural community has determinedly reinvented itself, primarily by attempting to refine the grape varieties traditionally blended to make Port. Success is evident in the heroically sculpted 1994 vintage Ports currently on the market, even more so in the superb '97s now becoming available.

The transition was quite apparent last summer when I dashed down to Portugal from Paris one sweltering weekend. As a longtime observer of the California wine industry, I recognized immediately what is happening on the steep, terraced banks of the Douro.

On one hand are large plots of old head-pruned vines resembling groves of miniature trees, with the thick trunks typical of St. George and other post-phylloxera American rootstocks. Those vineyards include traditional grape varieties interplanted in a more or less random field blend.

On the other hand there are new, trellised plantings of single varieties in orderly blocks designated by clone and rootstock. This contrast, more than any other visual clue, tells the story of Portugal's viticultural revolution.

The working premise of the old-fashioned way is that a range of varieties makes for an interesting vineyard-specific blend in which each variety has its own window of optimum ripeness, giving the vineyard a degree of flexibility in the face of climatic variations through the growing season.

A mix of varieties also maximizes pollination. The advantage of separating varieties, on the other hand, is the ability to address the particular problems of each variety while exploiting its special qualities--the kind of controlled consistency that makes international wine marketing possible.

The first Port company to plant vineyards by single varieties was Ramos-Pinto, first at its Bom Retiro estate near Pinha~o in 1970 and then, on a much larger scale, at Ervamoira in the Alto Douro. Ramos-Pinto's Jose Rosas led the tasting panels that worked from 1967 into the late '70s on focusing the Douro's varietal roster on the five varieties most commonly used today: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (which doubles as the Tempranillo grape of Spain's Rioja district), Touriga Francesa, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Ca~o.

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Ramos-Pinto's dynamic and visionary general manager, Joa~o Nicola de Almeida, began making micro-vinifications of the five varieties (in both Port and table wine) in 1977. An offshoot of that program is the superb dry table wine Duas Quintas Riserva. The Cockburn, Taylor and Ferreira Port houses have also been extensively involved in experimental plantings and evaluations of individual varieties.

Cockburn's Vilarica vineyard is one such planting, on relatively flat ground with the grape varieties in separate blocks. Miguel Corte Real notes that along with Ramos-Pinto's Ervamoira, it was among the first to be planted by variety.

"It's important to have the varieties separated because they mature so far apart," he explained as we walked among the manicured rows. "In the same meso-climate, on the same roots, with the same pruning, [Tinta] Barroca will be the first to ripen, followed by Roriz or Touriga [Nacional], with Touriga Francesa ready to pick three weeks later. Each must be picked at the right time."

As in Bordeaux, he pointed out, making a blended wine from a range of grape varieties allows for a moving window of maturity from season to season.

The pillar of the vineyard is Touriga Nacional, which accounts for about 35% of the vines, with more than 20 clones. ("I'm not thinking about Touriga Nacional," Corte Real stressed, "I'm thinking about clones of Touriga Nacional.")

At Taylor's Quinta de Vargellas, winemaker David Guimaraens and vineyard manager Antonio Magalha~es are also approaching the ancient grapes in new ways. Vargellas has been owned by Taylor since the last century and has large blocks of old mixed vines. In newer plantings, however, Guimaraens and Magalha~es have tried to situate and cultivate each variety ideally, while allowing for mechanization as a solution to the Douro's chronic labor shortage.

"The problem is to keep the character of the old vineyards while doing things the new way," said Guimaraens. Even something as simple as replacing the traditional slate stakes with wooden ones has been difficult and expensive, he said, "but what we're doing with our new vineyards will eventually be as good as the old vineyards."

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