This is typical of how the Douro Boys collective works: as well as making the occasional wine together, each of the five member quintas makes its own wines; at the same time, each of the winemakers is free to go off and do their own thing. More a loose club than a cartel, it seems to work very well. At least, the Guru is wonderful, as are all the wines I’ve been trying.
Douro means “golden”, and as the sun begins to drop behind the hills, the valley turns a warm orange hue. I hop back on the train and chug off into the night.
My last stop is the Quinta do Crasto. Here in the beautiful Brazilian colonial-style main house hang paintings of the old dear, Dona Antónia, looking sternly on as we drink a few glasses of the estate’s best and eat some hot chicken soup.
The owner of Crasto is Jorge Roquette, but he’s away on business. All the Douro Boys spend time jetting round the world, showing off their wines to importers. I’m taken round by his two sons Miguel and Tomás, and their Australian winemaker, Dominic Morris. Miguel tells me he plans to turn Crasto into a five-star boutique hotel. The quinta’s position high above the river is very privileged, and there are clear views of vineyards on all sides. An infinity pool hangs on the edge of a sheer cliff – I can see wealthy tourists splashing around here in a few years, when the Douro is as well known as the Dordogne or Rioja.
In the mid-18th century British port exporters divided up the Douro, and 335 stone markers were erected to show the demarcated zone where port could officially be produced. Standing by the one in Crasto’s garden, Miguel gives me a potted history: “At the end of the 17th century the English went to war with France. They came down here to replace the wine they could no longer get from Bordeaux. It didn’t travel well so they added brandy and fortified it. The new drink, port, was a massive success”.
None of the Douro Boys says anything negative about the English or their port monopoly. But I flick through the history books in some of the quintas and see the whole system was rather feudal. The Brits, by controlling exports and production in Porto, used the landowners in Douro rather like supermarkets use small producers – for example: “We’ll pay you what we want and if that’s not good enough, you’ll be stuck with a load of grapes.”
Brussels rarely gets good press – even in Portugal, which is a lot richer than it used to be for being a member – but it was the EC that freed the winemakers. “In 1986, when the law was changed, producers were allowed to export their products independently,” says Miguel. “So wineries began to make fine red wines as well as their own ports. A decade later, the Douro Boys were born.”
It would be a great story even if the wines weren’t so fantastic – but Douro wines, which are low volume and belong to the very top end of the market, have picked up medals and awards all over the world. The USA, Brazil and Western Europe are major importers, and some wine regions, such as those in southern France, are even sending oenologists to study the vines and varieties in this hidden valley. No doubt Dona Antónia would have been proud.
Port might still be the tipple of choice for the old boys down at the British club, but for the Douro Boys, it’s all about beautiful, top-class, proudly Portuguese wines.