The New Era of Port

“Today you can see where the Douro gets its name,” says Jorge Alves, winemaker at Quinta do Tedo. “It means river of gold.” Today the water is cappuccino-colored and runs high and fast from weeks of rain.

Our vantage point overlooks the confluence of two rivers: the Douro and a smaller tributary, Rio Tedo. Quinta do Tedo’s 30 acres of vineyards are nestled among these terraced hills and spill down to small spits of land that lie between Rio Tedo’s twisting oxbows. This is prime Class A vineyard property, a spot that’s been growing grapes for Port since 1756.

Historically, the wine from this quinta was sold to large Port firms like Sandeman, which possessed aging warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from the city of Porto. They had to, because the law required Port makers to age their wine in Vila Nova de Gaia.

Twenty years ago, the law changed, opening up a new era for Port. Since 1987, winemakers upstream could age their Port there. That meant the smaller guy could compete.

What followed was the birth of places like Quinta do Tedo—boutique estates with award-winning Portos and dry wines. This property was purchased in 1992 by a French/American couple: Vincent Bouchard, an 8th generation Burgundy winemaker and barrel broker, and Kay Steffey Bouchard, an American with expertise in Italian wine.

On this soggy January day, Jorge walks us through the winery. We see traditional lagar, where grapes are crushed by foot. In the cellar, I admire the small barrels, all tawny, beautifully grained oak. “They’d been used for 20 years to age cognac,” Jorge explains—a little bonus of Bouchard’s professional life as a barrel broker.

There are a growing number of French connections in the Douro: AXA Millesimes took over Quinta do Noval in 1994; the Champagne house Roederer now owns Ramos Pinto; French vintner Francois Lurton owns the Pilheiros label; and Chryseia is a new joint venture between the old Port family Symington and Bordeaux winemaker Bruno Prats, formerly of the Chateau Cos-d’Estournel, to name a few.

Clearly, change is afoot in the Douro. But traditions also linger — and that’s a good thing, I think when tasting Jorge’s 1997, 1998, and 2001 barrel samples (meant for tawny), and 1999 (for ruby). Upstairs, Jorge pours a 2003 LBV and a 2007 single-vineyard vintage called Savedra. Only 1500 bottles are made of this dark elixir, which is absolutely bewitching. It’s a special blend of terroir, tradition, and new blood, and the results are very good.