I woke up this morning with a very odd thought clanking in my brain, “If the Fantastic Five port varietals are so famous, why don’t I have a clue as to how they each contribute to the pot?” I’ll readily admit that I rarely wake up…scratch that, I NEVER have woken up with a question about grape varietals springing to mind, but this morning was different. As I slowly came out of my groggy and rather disoriented state, exemplified by my tripping over the cat and jamming my shoulder into the door frame on my way to brew coffee, I was annoyed that I knew a ridiculous amount about Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz, but absolutely nothing about Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão and Touriga Franca. If they’re important players, a girl needs to be informed!
So with cat in tow, I sat down with the “Oxford Companion to Wine”, “Jancis Robinson’s Guide to Wines Grapes”, and Richard Mayson’s book, “Port and the Douro“. I then flipped on my computer, watched my cat stretch across the keyboard in a clear effort to help with my research, and I opened a series of my favorite Portuguese wine websites.
Here’s what I found:
Also known as Preto Mortãgua, it is the eighth most planted red grape in the Douro, but only accounts for 2 percent of the vine stock in Portugal. Renowned for its excessive vigor and variable yields, this small, thick-skinned berry produces some incredibly dark, tannic and intensely flavored wines with a high level of alcohol. I know this grape well, because its signature aromas are violets, roses and bergamot, exemplified in the majority of our tasting notes this past month. Touriga Nacional is one of my favorite grapes. Because it not only produces dark, concentrated wines that I absolutely adore, but its violet aromas always bring my memories back to Portugal – a country I cannot wait to return to.
If I say, Tempranillo, will you think of Tinta Roriz? Probably not, but it’s one of many aliases Tinta Roriz goes by. Travel just south of Lisbon to the Alentejo, and you’ll hear it referred to as Aragonez. As if this isn’t confusing enough, its aliases also include Cencibel in La Mancha, Ull de Llebre in Catalonia, Tinto Fino in the Zamora region, Tinta del Pais in the Ribero del Duero, and Tinta de Toro in the Toro region. Tinta Roriz is the second most planted varietal to Touriga Franca, and occupies over 16% of all Douro vineyards. What makes this varietal so popular to growers is that unlike Touriga Nacional, this grape grows easily, in a vertical manner, and buds late in the season. This rather convenient combination prevents the likelihood of suffering from a spring frost. In addition, it ripens early, giving grape pickers a leg up on the harvest. But for all its positives, there is one big glaring negative: inconsistent quality. It has been known to do poorly in good seasons and quite well in harvests with inherently poor yields. As a grape grower, I can’t think of anything more frustrating than heading out on the first day of harvest after a perfect growing season, knowing that my crop has a fifty percent chance of failure. Where the gamble pays off is when Tinta Roriz decides to shine, producing dry, scented, age-worthy wines with firm fruit, a deep-hue and a nice level of alcohol. These grapes are huge fans of developing in new oak, aiding in the creation of some solid tawny’s and vintage ports.
Welcome to the most widely planted grape throughout the Douro region, accounting for approximately 20% of all vineyards. This varietal is said to have close ties to (or an alias of) Touriga Francesa, often debated as being a mutation of Tinta Franca, and is also known as “Touriga” in both California and Australia. Like me, Touriga Franca enjoys the warmth of the sun, flourishing in south-facing slopes. This our our strong man varietal, renowned for its consistency and reliability in creating quality yields. However, Touriga Franca has its issues as well, tending to hold back on color and tannin from its thick skins, they just won’t let go! But with a little tender loving care, this grape can be very expressive, maturing quickly while retaining its solid structure, and express a array of perfumy floral aromas.
Before it was christened as Tinta Barroca, this vivacious little varietal was known as Boca da Mina, Tinta Grossa, Tinta Vigaria, and my favorite, Tinta Gorda – translate to: fat red! Accounting for approximately 11% of all vineyards in the Douro, this is our sugar queen who enjoys the chilly north facing slopes and high altitudes. Her skin is thin and fragile, consistently needing to hide in the shadows away from the intense rays of the sun that shrivel her delicate skin. Tinta Barroca not only gives port wines their intense sweet flavor, but also that earthy, rustic overtones, such as mushroom and plum, so familiar in many vintage port wines.
When I translated this from Portuguese into English, I was super excited because its name means, “Red Dog”. I thought to myself how great this name is for a grape. I imagine this big, bulky, muscular powerhouse of a berry (wait, berry sounds a little sissy doesn’t it…hmmm) with tattoos and earrings. When I was reminded that is also the name of a popular energy drink that makes me feel like a ferret on crack, I found myself irrationally disappointed. But the name fits, because this miraculous grape can resist mildew and rot! Tinto Cão also helps wines to age with grace and elegance, adding the perfect balance of both acidity and alcohol to fine port wines.
As Txarli stretches from his deep slumber looking up at me in desperate hunger for kibbles, I read to on learn that the Douro has contained a misfit of varietals for centuries, and very few growers are completely confident as to what their old vineyards may contain. However, attempts have been made in the recent past to identify and categorize the 90+ varietals blanketing the valley. One particular organization has taken the lead of this rather daunting endeavor called, the Centro de Estudios Vitivinicolas do Douro (CEVD). In 1968, the CEVD planted numerous experimental plots in three specific sub-regions of the Douro, and based on results obtained from respected port tasters and blenders of that period, ten different grape varietals were chosen for more rigorous study. Of that ten, only five were chosen in a follow up study lead by Jose Ramos Pinto Rosas and João Nicolau de Almeida in 1981. Today, there are over 100 different red and white varietals authorized for planting in the Douro, 29 of which are recommended.
As Txarli jumps off my lap and saunters over to our dining room table where our small mountain of port wines sit eagerly waiting to be tasted, retasted or merely enjoyed, I wonder how my future tasting notes will change. Will I scream, “Rose, I smell rose! That must be from Touriga Nacional.” Or will I be completely off base as one of the 90+ varietals could be chiming in for their part? In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter. At least I calmed my spirit after waking up to one of life’s perfect wine problems, and can now go about my day enjoying yet another, port tasting!