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Posted by David Eley on 16-10-2008
I am back from the glorious land of topographically terraced vines known as the Douro valley: three and a half weeks of searing Portuguese sunshine, fine wines and heavy perspiration, climbing amid the vertiginous schist slopes. So many memories filed and stored without any real opportunity to reflect, before moving on to the next location. Ervamoira, Noval, Nápoles, Vesuvio, Malvedos, Roriz, Bom Retiro, Crasto... the list of great winemaking Quintas visited is endless, my mind is full of edited highlights and the minutiae of vindima. The Douro at vintage time is mesmerizing and full of vinous details, providing a visual lexicon for wine-lovers to savour. The cobbled streets of careworn Pinhão strewn with tumbled blue-black berries and congested by winemaker's camions, heavily laden with a rich harvest - coloured the deepest Touriga purple to a translucent Rabigato green. Driving along the dizzyingly precipitous roads high in the valley, the asphalt surface is frequently striped by violet stains - a snail like trail left by grape laden trucks as the dense juice regularly leaks from onboard metalled or plastic containers; the muffled rumbling of tyre treads upon undulating cobbles and the miraculous acoustic illusion of swallowed sound, as vehicles vanish from view along gargantuan hillsides, only to reappear and disappear time and again, as they slowly wend their way into the distance; waiting at remote railway halts and listening for the tell tale whistle of an approaching train, its advance ping-pong echo bouncing across the valley affording time to shake the ochre dust from your trousers and take an extra gulp of mineral water before ascending the high steel carriage steps, in the baking midday heat.
My last day was spent at Quinta do Vesuvio, high above the river, with vindimadores picking grapes for Symington's premium red table wine, Chryseia. Temperatures throughout my near month long stay were solid, varying between mid to high 20's and rising periodically to the low 30's, with cool nights. My first week of image gathering was diluted by a somewhat delayed harvest but I manically made up time later, though my headless chicken routine rarely afforded much time for sleep. Late dinners peppered with wine conversation ensured drooping eyelids every morning as I rose at 6am to catch the early light.
This year's Douro vintage looks extremely promising for table wine producers: the juice I tasted over three long weeks had good acidity and all winemakers, with whom I spent any appreciable time, declared their belief in the likely freshness and balance of the resultant wines. 2007 will be a tough act to follow, but there is no doubt the two consecutive vintages will contrast sharply and provide satisfaction for differing camps. Those who love fruit and immediate gratification might find some of the 07's perfect for their palates and the 08's could well turn out to be buttoned-up keepers, offering a wholly different vinous perspective, occasionally cloaked in elegance and with a touch of greenness on the palate... we will have to wait and see.
The autumn valley looked stunning beneath deep cobalt skies scattered with errant cumulus: the Douro is a place like no other - with a variety of vineyard plantings, flora and fauna to defy description. Wild Partridge scurrying for dusty cover, bristled and be-tusked boar, shaggy goats of differing hues, exotically coloured snakes and heavy river bass wallowing and swatting flies in the heated shallows. In addition to fish and game, Quinta grown produce plays a vital part in Douro life - originally born of self sufficient necessity during tougher times, the valley's vegetable gardens are a sight to behold and provide a wonderful contrast to the regimented vines - vibrant multihued peppers, noble potatoes, verdant cabbage patches, benign onions and luscious vine tomatoes - flavours so richly intense and vivid to the taste. This stately Douro of our modern age might have been tamed by hydroelectric dams, but it continues to course through an inspiring landscape whose undulations and folds are defined by manmade terracing and stonework to rival anything on our beleaguered planet - this region stands as a living, breathing monument to how man might enhance the natural landscape and leave his mark in a truly positive way, in this particular case, over three turbulent centuries.