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Dinner with the Douro boys – Assorted wines, and exciting discoveries

Our first meeting with the legendary Douro Boys occurred 4 years ago at Essencia do Vinho in Porto, where Gabriella and I shared a dinner in the cramped tea house of the Museu de Serralves. For me, it was a dream come true, and something that I remember fondly as one of the great moments in my short wine career. Since then, we have met on various occasions throughout Portugal, but have yet to visit more than 2 of their estates – something we hope to change in the near future.

A few nights ago, we were invited to dinner in the home of Cristiano and Joanna Van Zellar at Quinta Vale d. Maria. Gabriella and I were playing hosts to my parents who were visiting Portugal for the first time. For us, this was a chance to “show off” our discoveries, friends, and in many ways, home away from home. From the very first moment we stepped on Portuguese soil in 2003, we have had a desire to share this lush and diverse country with those we love. Dinner at the Van Zellars with 4 of the 5 “Douro Boys” was never a requisite, but turned out to be a unique peek at what is one of the most effective marketing campaigns in Iberia.

Initially, I was afraid that my parents, who are far from “wine geeks”, would be overwhelmed with the number of wines and ample amount of wine techie conversations. And in all honestly, I did catch more than a few blank stares as we asked questions regarding the residual sugars of various wines; but in the end, I think they enjoyed peering behind the vibrant and multi-colored curtain of the Portuguese wine industry.

For us, the night was a glimpse at a group of friends gathered together around a cozy table sharing wines, delicious home cooked foods and often, spirited conversation! While these various wineries, and winemakers, work together to promote their own brands – and by extension, the brand “Douro” – they are very much a family.

100287 C. van Zeller Tasting, Quinta do Vallado, Douro, EWBC, Portugal 3 Nov 09Without digressing too much, I wanted to tell you about some of the  wines and foods we savored. With the recent 2009 vintage being a dry and hot one, showing huge potential, it was fun to taste some of the young wines coming out of it. We also enjoyed several 2007’s, though still in their infancy, showed a very long and successful life ahead. In fact, when I asked Cristiano Van Zellar, and Luis Seabra of Niepoort, what they would compare to the 07’s, they immediately piped up with 1970 and 1994. Decade by decade, both men could recall a handful of good vintages, but only 3 were considered truly great. Who am I to argue?

When talking to Cristiano’s assistant winemaker at Quinta Vale d. Maria about their still wines, she preferred the 2008’s for their more opulent rich style. I have to agree, while ’08 was not a VP year, the reds are great! However, I also found the 2007 red from Quinta Vale d. Maria an elegant and subtle vintage. Be it global warming, better wine making or dumb luck, the Douro Valley is definately enjoying a fine run of vintages.

Moving on to other wines that impressed or surprised, Niepoort’s 2007 Riesling was pure genius: a wine that deserves to be put in the halls of fine wine’s greatest treasures. We also opened an ‘82 Vintage Port from Niepoort, which Luis suggested was the best vintage of the 80’s, generally a lackluster decade in the Port wine world. I immediately fell in love with the blended elegance that showed as a marriage of ruby and aged tawny flavors. Beautifully developed, if you are holding on to an 1982 Niepoort, drink up and enjoy!

For long term cellaring, look at the 2007 Crasto VP rich and well made, while the 2009 Crasto white, valued around 9€ on the shelf, is a steal. With its zesty acidity, and lush mouthfeel from the blend, rather than oak, this is one of the more exciting Douro whites I’ve tasted recently! I highly suggest you enjoy this among friends on a hot summer’s day, while basking in the shade.

The 2008 Bastardo from the Niepoort’s famous “project wines” made me smile in reminiscence for this very unique and native grape. Light and delicate, it is a wine that does not live up to it’s heavy handed moniker. Paired with classical music, dimmed lights and the gentle crackle of the fireplace, I don’t think it would disappoint, as you debated with friends long into the night. Lined up against the other beasty reds this night it sadly faded into the background. I look forward to our next encounter.

There were other wines as well, including some lovely Vallado reds, though most showed too much wood for me, while on the other hand a 2008 Ribeira Sacra made from Mencia and Alicante Bouschet that made my mind spin. A pet project, again, of Niepoort that yielded a wine full of Christmas spices and complex layers, this is not to be missed! Another was the 1994 Bageiras white from Bairrada which was like nothing I’ve tasted before.  A white that showed a sherry-esque flavor with a fresh and structured acidity. We’ll be writing more about this wine and winery in the future, as it was one of the more exciting and unexpected treats we’ve had the pleasure of tasting!Douro Valley

As to the food, in a word, delicious. We enjoyed Alheiras, a jewish non-pork sausage, roasted chestnuts with pork, tomato rice and more. I need not say anything other than it filled you up and left you with a smile.

The night was about vibrant debates, stellar wines, new discoveries and new friends. This is what wine should always be about. On our drive home with Luis back to Aquapura, a small debate broke out regarding the quality and purpose of points when discussing wines. Luis, while a vehement opponent to points, admitted their value; while I attempted to make the case that we can change this, and move away from them with new media. I don’t know if it’s possible to get away from lazy merchants and importers taking the easy way out, allowing the “Parkers” of the world to control the trade with these flavorless points, but I can dream. Dinners with friends over bottles unknown, with conversations about life and indulgences, will always win in my world. Today there are very few wines that are truly “bad”. In truth when we talk about wine points we are arguing about variations of grey. There are only 2 reasons to keep the point system today that I see:

  1. Your ego is so delicate that you need to be able to tell people that you drank the best of something. As decided by someone other than yourself. Thus leading to you drinking wines that one person says are the best and you instead not knowing if you like it.
  2. You feel that wine is not worth exploring, and you are not able to ask others for recommendations, so you must look to numbers.

Sadly points are here to stay for at least awhile longer, that said the Douro Boys make great wines. We don’t always like all of them, but we do know that no matter the points awarded, it’s always a pleasure to explore the ones we have a chance to taste.

Till soon,


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