Another Change of Scene

Guess where I am at last?

Pinhão in the heart of the Douro.  I took the train from Porto, which wound north, then east, then back south to the Douro, then east right along the river to Regua, then on to Pinhão.  Absolutely spectacular journey, recommend it highly.

A little Douro geography lesson for those who aren’t familiar… wish I had a map to patch in here, will work on that.

From Porto to Regua, as the crow flies (NOT as the river winds) is roughly 43 miles, to Pinhão about 55, to Pocinho about 80 miles.  The vineyard district for grapes for Port (and increasingly for unfortified Douro wines as well) begins about 38 miles from Oporto, the eastern side of a mountain range called Serra do Marão.  From there to Pocinho there are three distinct regions, first the Baixo Corgo, then the Cima Corgo, then the Douro Superior.  Baixo and Cima mean lower and upper, or below and above, the Corgo River.  Strictly the Cima Corgo begins a bit further east than the point where the Corgo River comes into the Douro at Regua.

The difference in regions is primarily climate and to a lesser degree terrain, which of course hugely affects the grapes and therefore the style of wine that can be made.

The Baixo Corgo is in the shadow of the Serra do Marão, so it is the coolest and wettest area, and very fertile.  As you continue east the rainfall drops pretty dramatically (weather systems typically work from west to east, off the Atlantic) and the land is progressively both drier and stonier (less fertile).  If you are familiar with the climate descriptions used to describe wine regions, then the Baixo Corgo has almost an Atlantic climate (wet, mild, not too dramatic fluctuations in temperature either winter to summer or even day to night), the Cima Corgo has a Continental / Mediterranean climate (hot summers and days, cold winters and nights, less rainfall generally), and the Douro Superior is the eastern end, up to the border with Spain, and has a more extreme Continental climate, with drought a serious problem; also sheer access was a problem until the past twenty or thirty years.

Which translates in wine style terms to:  Baixo Corgo is high volume, lower intensity of flavour – good for creating a lighter, simpler style of wine or for blending and balancing more intense grapes from elsewhere; think Ruby and basic Tawnies.  Cima Corgo is greater intensity and complexity of flavour – the heart of the region, all the major producers have properties here – think of your top end rubies, aged tawnies, your vintage and LBVs (late bottled vintage).  The climate of the Douro Superior is of course the most stressful – which creates the most powerful intensity of flavour, but in small quantities, so again, think of your vintage and LBV ports, and blending into your premium tawnies.

Pinhão is the heart of the Cima Corgo.  Now you know where I am and why.

Arrived about noon, had lunch and some sleep (almost no sleep in Oporto the past couple nights between traffic, howling dogs and my own thoughts once the other things woke me up in the middle of the night), and then set out to explore.

I am staying at Quinta de la Rosa, about 2 km walk west from Pinhão train station, on the north bank of the Douro.  Very charming accomodation, do stay there if you can; it’s right on the river.  From the Quinta I basically started walking uphill to the north (well more towards the sky than towards the north it seemed).

Met my first grapes very shortly:

I was told Quinta de la Rosa started their harvest in mid-August and finished about three weeks ago, so these must have been unripe at harvest time and left behind.  So I had no compunction about tasting them – wonderfully intensely sweet and flavourful.  These were about the size of blueberries and the bunch was not very tightly packed – all the bunches I saw were quite loose, not like most pinot noir at all.  Pips and skin made a higher percentage of the mouthful than the flesh, but if you are willing to chew a bit, the pips and skin are good to eat too, very flavourful.  Often with pinot noir I found the pips almost jawbreaking and gave up and spat them out, or if I did chew through them, found them a bit bitter.  I have to say, I sampled a fair few grapes today, and all of them were thoroughly edible, though some were less intensely flavoured than this first lot.  No idea re varieties.  Tomorrow I will attend the tour and tasting at 11:00 am, and hopefully learn more.  [Learned that this vinyard is a mix of varieties, so still can’t be sure.]

All of this area is mountainous – what you see in that first photo is what I am surrounded by here.  The vines are planted on terraces, called socalcos.  For centuries pre-phylloxera, the terraces were built with dry stone retaining walls, as much as anything as a way to use up all the stone excavated to create the flat terraces, and there were only a couple rows of vines per terrace – one, two, maybe three at most.

That is actually part of the view from the window of my room, to the hillside opposite.  You can see the wonderful old stone walls, and the vinyards, and olive trees as well.

When the vinyards all had to be torn out and re-planted post phylloxera the cost of labour had risen somewhat since prior centuries, so other methods were adopted.  First they made broader terraces on the socalcos, of 10 or 20 rows of vines on an incline between retaining walls, like these on the right side:

By the mid 20th century labour costs had risen further, and stone walls were out of the question, so they began to make patamares:  narrow and flat terraces with one or two rows of vines like the pre-phylloxera vinyards, but instead of building retaining walls, the level terraces sit atop steeply angled banks called taludes – god bless bulldozers.  Erosion can be a problem, as can weed control but… beats building miles of stone walls.

Another nice view of a talude:

Which brings me to schist.  You want stoney soil for your grapes?  This is stone heaven.  Schist is a generic term for any sort of rock that forms (and breaks up) in layers (think about mica) – here it is clay based, and quite acidic.  And wandering around, it is mostly rock underfoot, there is some clay dust, and I saw one or two patches of slimey very clay silt-ey mud on the roads, but most of all, it’s rock.  And a good thing about rock in any vinyard is heat retention and reflection back up to the grapes, aiding ripening and minimising the impact of temperature swings from day to night.

More schist under the vines.  But look carefully – see to the left of the wooden post a dark blue triangular bit?  That is the broken stump of a blue schist post – another piece of it is lying just to the right of the foot of the vine.  This type of schist is very very hard, and is most common at the far eastern end of the Douro.  I saw hundreds of these stone posts throughout the vinyards, though as they break they are being replaced with wood.

Here, an intact blue schist post, and alongside it a vine which was cut down, and a new spur trained up from the stump – string was taped to the stump and then tied up to the first wire of the trellis, and the cane trained up along the string till it was long enough to be caught in the trellis wires.  Beyond, a nice eyeful of patamares.

Here, baby vines probably only a year or two old – notice the deep depressions dug out around them, called caldeiras.  These collect and channel water down to the roots of the young vines as they become established.  Given the dry climate, new vines are watered by hand during the first few years to give them a fighting chance until their roots are deep, broad and strong enough to find sufficient water for themselves.

And when they grow up to be big and strong…

In another year or so like the first vine on the left, and after that, in about 20 years’ time, like the next one along the row.  The vines here are trained much higher than in Burgundy – three rows of wires here, the bottom wire is below my hip, the middle around my second rib counting up from the waist, and the top wire around my shoulder or even chin in some cases (I’m 5’6” or 1.65 m).  Versus in Burgundy, generally two rows of wires, first around knee height and the upper wire was under my armpit – I could lean over the top and cut on the other side of a row if necessary.

Finally, a view from halfway up this hill, looking north by east towards Pinhão on the banks of the river.  Those are vine wires across the middle of the photo by the way, not cable car cables!