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Portugal: Dedicated Band of Douro Boys

Posted: Tuesday, 16 August 2011 11:45

Portugal: Dedicated Band of Douro Boys

August 16: Known for sweet Port wine for centuries, Douro Valley has now carved a niche for its red still wines and a significant credit goes to the Douro Boys, a band of five producers, who have orchestrated high quality performance with unique red still wines from local grapes, winning accolades from critics, competitors and consumers alike, writes Subhash Arora who met two of the ‘Boys’ during his recent trip to Douro and Porto, ending it with a meeting with another Douro producer Quinta do Portal.

Dirk van der Niepoort in his Cellar

I received an invitation in March this year from Château Pichon Longueville Baron to attend a Portuguese pool-side party co-hosted by them with the Douro Boys to mark the beginning of Vinexpo. I had been hearing about the Douro Boys making waves about promoting Douro still wines for several years but had not met them. This would be a great opportunity to meet them- except there was a change in my plans and I flew over Bordeaux instead to visit Porto to attend the OIV Annual Conference and visit a few Port and Douro wine producers.

Douro Boys are a band of five dedicated Douro producers who are not only good, innovative  winemakers but have become a marketing phenomenon for the promotion of red wines of the region, made from the local grapes- making 45% of the total production- balance being the Port. In the eight years since they banded together in 2003, they seem to have made waves in the wine world and have become a brand representing modern high quality wines from Douro without losing the traditional touch.

The underlying factor binding them has been the promotion of not their wines individually but the Douro region and its wines - with a seeming emphasis on the still DOC Douro wines produced in this region about 150 kms  north-east of Porto.

Miguel Roquette in the vineyards of Quinta do Crasto

Five estates forming the band of ‘Douro Boys’ are Quinta do Crasto (pronounced key-nta doo Crastoo), Vinhos  (pronounced Vinyos) Niepoort, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Vale Meão and Quinta Vale Dona Maria-owned respectively by the Roquette family , Dirk van der Niepoort, the Ferreira family, the Olazabal family and Cristiano van Zeller. They all produce and sell the wines individually, but organise joint promotions  as ‘Douro Boys’ at international arenas like Vinexpo where their pool party has become a popular event. This dedicated band does not get involved in any commercial activity.

I had conveyed to my hosts IVDP that I would like to meet some of the ‘boys’ and though most of them were at Vinexpo when I was in Porto, Dirk Niepoort was in town-in fact he was a speaker at the OIV Conference, participating in a seminar, ‘Innovation in Wine SMEs: The Portuguese Case of the Douro Boys’. I was happy to accept his invitation for dinner at his residence. Miguel Roquette drove the 1000 kms stretch from Bordeaux back to Douro just in time to spend an evening tasting with me during my visit to Douro a couple of days later when I met his parents too. He was able to give me an extensive tour of his vineyards and the boutique winery next morning.

Douro Boys are not really ‘boys’- but perhaps boys at heart, who have made marketing Douro wines a fun event-although they or their families have been making Port wines for generations. They enjoy each other’s company and are passionate about their region and the DOC Douro wines, making it a successful venture that has become a subject of discussion in the international circles and a journalists’ delight.

Helping to professionalize the marketing activities of this charismatic group is an Austrian woman, Dorli Muhr, the dynamic and inspirational force who owns a PR company-Wine and partners in Vienna. She was married to Niepoort at the time the project was conceptualized and has been handling the ‘Boys’ despite their break-up.

Vinhos Niepoort

Rua Cãndidi dos Reis, 5A
440-071 Vila Nova de Gaia
Contact Person: Dirk Niepoort

When you meet Dirk Niepoort for the first time, you’d think he is a poet, English professor or the leader of a rock band. You’d also expect him to welcome you with a glass of his white Port. Not only did he welcome me with a Burmester’s Very Fine White Port which his family had since 1955, but also offered me  wines of other producers for the evening- Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piemonte, Tuscany, Mosel- he was well stocked. But when I told him I would rather taste his home production, he brought out a 10 year old White Niepoort and that was just the beginning.  He likes to be offbeat and so I was not surprised when he served me an Indian styled dinner,  - the Indian dal included - he loves to cook Indian food, following his visits to India.

His family has been Port négociants since1842. After acquiring Quinta de Nápoles in 1987, the open minded Dirk added table wines which changed the face of the estate, bringing out these DOC wines made in a modern way, yet without sacrificing the traditions of Douro Port, which has been the key to the success of this winery.

A complete range of Port wines may be the backbone of Niepoort Vinhos, including the Vintage Ports, Ruby Dum, Tawny Dee, Colheitas, LVB and young drinking Secundum Vintage Ports. However, the iconic and expensive wines like Redoma and Batuta have made it a well sought out label by wine connoisseurs throughout the world. But there are several other labels as well. ‘Drink Me’ is one such affordable and quaffable wine, as I discovered after tasting these wines costing €4 to upwards of €100.

Niepoort has also launched this year 3500 bottles of the fortified wine Bioma, made from 22 different grape varieties from over 80-year-old vines- Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Tinta Amarela being the principal grapes from organic vineyards, though not yet certified organic.

When I ask him how Douro Boys became such a hit in such a short time, he says he does not see any conflict as they promote the region only and have no commercial interest at these tastings. Also since Douro produces terroir driven wines with the special climate and soil, there is a market to be exploited. He explains that they pooled their own resources initially because they were an informal group and not an association. ‘In fact we directly compete against each other in some markets. Our goal is to put Douro on the map to make it a separate category for the world market to add to their portfolios.’ He  admits that now they get significant external  funding for the promotion. 

As one of the unique methods of promoting his wines, Dirk designs a country-specific catalogue full of a story narrated through cartoons based on the local culture of the market. ‘This helps me connect with the wine drinkers of that specific country and since we plan to be in a market on a long term basis, this helps us create brand awareness.’ If you see a catalogue with a cartoonist like Mario Miranda from Goa doing his next catalogue, you’d know that one of the Douro Boys, Niepoort Vinhos has targeted India a market for quality Douro wines.

Quinta do Crasto
Contact person: Miguel Roquette- Exports Director

Miguel with his parents Leonor and Jorge Roquette

The first thing that impresses you about Quinta do Crasto, owned by Leonor Roquette and her husband Jorge in the Douro Valley, is its fabulous, heavenly location accessed by driving through the winding and climbing narrow road from Pinhao to Régua . The other surprising fact is that it is presently  one of the few Port producers who age their wines at the cellars at the winery and not Gaia, the Mecca for Port producers for cellaring their wines for decades- even over a century. Some believe that this practice may even spread in future because of better technology being available.

The winery is located on the eastern bank of the Douro valley (right bank) between the two important towns of Pinhao and Régua. Roquettes, who bought the majority share from Leonor’s family in 1981 and modernized the winery and vineyards, have passed on the major responsibilities to the sons, Miguel-the international marketing face, and Tomas who manages the winery operations. Her family had owned the estate for a century although the Quinta was listed in the 1756 Demarcation of the region. A beautiful swimming pool faces the farmhouse and the schist rocks on which the farmhouse is built and opens into the valley and the river Duoro around 400 meters below, making it one of the best vineyard and winery locations in the whole valley.

Crasto owns a total vineyards of 130 hA, around 70 hA of which are planted with ‘A’ grade (highest quality) vineyards- following the system of quality of vineyards enforced by the law. Some of them like Maria Teresa vineyards are over 100 years old. No chemical treatments are given. The traditional horses are still being used for viticulture. Miguel has a connection with India through his maternal grandmother who his mother tells me, was the ‘Countess of Panjim’ in Goa- a title passed on to her brother now.

Miguel, who started Quinta do Crasto after finishing his PhD in marketing in San Diego in 1994, says Portugal is going through a wine revolution, conceding that it is where Spain was 12 years ago. ‘Now younger people think with an open mind. We share information and opinion,’ he says, which helps one understand the reason for the success of Douro Boys. He is also forthright to admit that Portugal still produces a lot of low end wines.

Miguel is optimistic about the future of Douro wines. ‘With only 15 years’ history behind us, I believe that  during the next 8-10 years it will be recognized as the best appellation- as one of the top wines of the world.  Unfortunately, consumers don’t understand and appreciate our cost of production which is 6-8 times higher here than in Bordeaux,’ he rues.

Crasto makes a range of Douro wines, which go from  Flor de Crasto, Crasto White, Crasto Red, Crasto Superior and Reserva which are blends of concentrated local grapes, reaching a crescendo with Vinha Maria Teresa made from the 100-plus years old vineyard having  field blends of over 30 vines (‘we have got the DNA of various vines tested and we expect the number to go over 40,’ says Miguel.), it is produced only during the exceptional  years-  only 3 vintages were produced during the last 12 years- 2001, 2003 and 2005. Vinha da Ponte is a similar iconic wine made from grapes from the vineyard over the Ponte (bridge)-produced only in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2004. For details about these beauties, check out the website-suffice it to say that the wines were delicious and complex and had a personality like that of Bordeaux wines costing 3-5 times as much or even more.

Quinta do Portal
Contact: Dr. Eugenio Branco, Owner

A Port and DOC Douro wine producer near Pinhao, Quinta do Portal produces a complete range of Ports including Extra Dry White, Lagrima (very sweet white Port) and the usual Ruby and Tawnies that are in all the standard ranges of 10,20,30 and 40 years old. Colheitas, Vintage and Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) are also a part of the portfolio.

The owner Dr. Eugenio Branco, like many Porto producers lives in Porto and has two sons helping him with the family run business. He knows the Portuguese Ambassador in India, H.E. Jorge Roza de Oliveira and since my programme was already over-packed, he recommended we meet at a gourmet restaurant called DOP run by Chef Rui Paula and his brother at the Palace of Arts, Talent Factory, close to river Douro front. The restaurant was a discovery as, passing by the restaurant everyday from my hotel to the river front, I had not even noticed it from outside. The presentation, the quality of food and the service is definitely Michelin starred- a highly recommended place whether one wants to have the traditional Porto food, or choose from one of the Duoro Menu, Arts menu and the Sea Menu- all under € 80 each without wine.

During the lunch I was able to taste the 30 year Old tawny, Colheita Branco, Colheita Rosé, Quinta do Portal Grande Reserva. The lunch ended with Portal Vintage 2003 which was a meditation drink-ideal with the dessert and chat after. The top of the line Auru- the DOC Douro Red that is a blend of top quality, low-yielding and concentrated Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz grape varietals, that sells for around €400 at the restaurants, would have to wait till the next visit.

Colheita Branco is made from Rabigato, Gouveio (sometimes confused with Verdelho), Moscatel, Viosinho and Malvasia- all indigenous grapes; it’s a nice, crispy, citrus wine and slightly creamy on the palate. Colheita Rose- a typical Portuguese one with Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, would be a welcome accompaniment with light meat dishes, chicken, Salmon after one develops the palate for it. The Portal DOC Douro Reserva was a well structured, juicy wine with complex flavours and long after-taste- a good quality value-for-money wine that would do any high-end restaurant list proud. I had a quick taste of the 30-year old golden Tawny- complex and flavourful.

This quinta uses the five local key red grape varietals grown in this region for its red Douro DOC wines. Dr. Branco has been working with Bordeaux from Pascal Chatonnet of the Istitute d'Oenologie in Bordeaux. This has meant converting to the use of new oak barriques since 1993. It also makes a range of delicious dry white wines with maximum flavour extraction of the local grapes.

Subhash Arora

Visits were organised by the IVDP. It was an interesting coincidence that I onlydiscovered on my return that all these three wineries had been visited by the Portuguese Ambassador before he took over the new assignment in Delhi, in a determined effort to promote the Portuguese wines in India. Editor


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