The Douro Valley is a demarcated wine region, meaning that Port can only be produced within the designated area. The region varies from 90m to up to 600m above sea level. Above this altitude the necessary temperatures for the suitable maturation of grapes for producing Port wine do not regularly occur.
There are 115 different grape varieties authorised for Port production, which are classified as "recommended" or "authorised". The vast majority of them are indigenous Portuguese varieties, which makes sense as they are well-adapted to our local terroir. Portugal has the third highest number of identified indigenous grape varieties of any country in the world, and many of these varieties are from the Douro.
According to the IVDP (the Port Wine Institute), in 2019 there were 43,500 hectares of vineyard in the Douro Valley farmed by 20,370 individual farmers. The exact number of registered producers depends on how you interpret the different types of 'operators' legally classified by the IVDP (including bottlers and warehouse operators). The 2019 report shows there are 1121 registered operators in the Douro, 239 of them for specifically for Port. You can check out the data yourself at ivdp.pt > statistics.
We are the largest organic vineyard owners in the Douro Valley and although the majority of grapes grown in them are used for table wines (like the Altano Douro Organic Red), some are also used for Port production. Graham's Natura Reserve Port is made from organically farmed grapes grown on 10 hectares which are fully organically certified at Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos. Furthermore, all other vineyards are managed under an environmentally friendly minimum intervention regime called Integrated Crop Management.
Essentially, the benefício is the proportion of the total wine produced each year in the Douro Demarcated Region that may be made as port. The industry's governing body, the IVDP (Port and Douro Wines Institute) sets an annual cap (expressed in pipes — port barrels of approximately 550 litres) on how much of the region's total wine production becomes port, thus establishing the benefício. Grapes with the benefício generally fetch a higher price than those for Douro (dry) wine and growers are therefore keen to hold on to their benefício. Criteria for setting the annual benefício range from quality considerations (some vineyards have higher gradings than others); stock levels, market conditions, and so forth.
The benefício is the proportion of the total wine produced each year in the Douro Demarcated Region that may be sold as Port. Quantities are reviewed and set annually and this system, which is closely linked to the rating of individual vineyards, ensures that only very good grapes can be used for the port wine production, safeguarding the quality of the finished product. As the main objective of the benefício is protecting Port’s reputation we wouldn't say it is outdated but, on the contrary, a necessary tool for winegrowers in the Douro.
We have definitely observed a variety of shifts in the Douro's viticulture due to climate change in recent years. The annual average temperature in the Douro has increased (1.3ºC between 1967 and 2010) predominantly because the winters are getting warmer. The vegetative cycle of the vines tends to be activated sooner, making the maturation periods shorter which subsequently results in earlier harvests - in 2017 we had the earliest harvest on record. Although the Douro Valley has very resistant grape varietals (which are used to extreme weather conditions) and a morphology which allows avoiding higher temperatures (namely by moving parcels up the mountain), the threat is real and action is needed to prevent the region from significant future harm.
The Douro Valley has a large number of indigenous grape varieties which contribute in very different ways to the final blend – this diversity is a part of the Douro’s uniqueness. The Tourigas (Nacional and Franca) are very concentrated and add much structure. The Nacional in particular is considered the backbone of most blends and it can also be very aromatic (rose and violet aromas). Tinta Roriz normally contributes with impressive tannic structure and fruit flavours, while Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cão, being less concentrated, add finesse and elegance. On the other hand, the spicy black peppery flavours in some ports are a characteristic of Tinto Cão.
This year's growing cycle was very precocious because of a very mild winter that brought forward by three weeks the start of the vines' growth cycle. A hot summer hastened the maturation and ripening of the grapes, which contributed to a very early starting vintage. The heat and lack of rain provoked some dehydration of the vines and this was reflected in much lower yields. This shorter crop and the fact that the various grape varieties pretty much all ripened in unison (very unusual in the Douro), meant the harvest was fast-paced and brief. After some initial apprehension because of the extraordinary conditions that this harvest brought, producers throughout the Douro are reporting that some very good wines have been made, albeit in much smaller quantities than normal (yields are down by as much as 50% in some areas).
The first signs are often in the vineyard, even before the grapes have been picked. The final ripening stage before the harvest is critical and we are looking for balance between sugar levels and acidity in the berries, as well as good phenolic development (colour, tannins, aromas). During the fermentations, deep colour, concentration and fragrant aromas are very positive signs of a great wine in the making. Once the wine is made, the telltale signs of a potentially great vintage are inky black colour, concentration balanced by freshness (the acidity is a hallmark of longevity) and ironclad structure (abundant, polished tannins).
Port and sherry are both fortified wines, meaning a distilled spirit has been added during the fermentation process. But that's where the similarities end. Here are some of the main differences between them: Port is made from Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and other grape varieties, while sherry is produced from varietals such as Palomino Fino, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel - each of these varieties determines the type of sherry that is produced, which is not the case for port. Climate conditions in the two demarcated regions are very different. For example, the Douro has very hot and dry summers while in Jeréz de la Frontera summer temperatures are balanced by the Atlantic. Port can be aged in seasoned wood (vats or barrels) or bottle which determines its style, whereas sherry ages through a unique system called solera. The solera system consists of stacking barrels up, putting the younger wines in the upper rows and older wines in the lower ones. As the wines ages, it goes down the 'steps' until the ageing is complete.
The Benefício is attributed to each Douro farmer in accordance with a grading system which classifies his/her particular vineyard into different quality categories, rated from a descending scale from A to I. This is based on a set of criteria which include site, altitude, aspect, gradient, exposure, etc. The higher the letter ranking, the higher the proportion of grapes that a farmer is allowed to make into Port. This system is therefore an individual authorisation based on the specific attributes of each vineyard and it is therefore, by definition, non-transferable between farmers. In exceptional circumstances, the Interprofessional Council of the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP), Port’s governing body, may authorise a transfer of production rights from one farmer to another. This is extremely rare and is only considered in extraordinary cases, for example, in the event of a farmer losing his crop through natural causes such as a severe climatic event. These instances are rigorously analysed and decided on a case by case basis by the IVDP.
The Douro Demarcated Region has an impressive number of mainly indigenous grape varieties, and this diversity is undoubtedly one of the region's greatest assets. For all wines officially certified as having been produced in the demarcated region, there are 115 different varieties that winemakers can work with.For port wine specifically, the total number of permitted grape varieties is 116. Of these, 29 are indicated as 'recommended' (16 classified as very good and 13 classified as good) and 87 are considered 'authorised'. There are other wine categories from the region such as ’Vinho do Douro’ or ’Vinho Regional’ which can include a few additional varieties, but broadly speaking it is a very similar list.
The best introduction to port (and the Douro region), and almost certainly the most widely available is: - PORT AND THE DOURO by Richard Mayson. Other worthy reads on your way to becoming #schoolofportgeeks, are: - 'Rich, Rare and Red', by Ben Howkins - 'The Port Companion', by Godfrey Spence. For Portuguese readers: - História do Douro e do Vinho do Porto (Gaspar Martins Pereira) - Ilha de Xisto: Guia do Douro e do Vinho do Porto (Manuel Carvalho) - DOURO, Rio, Gente e Vinhp (António Barreto)