Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 9 News List

First demarcated wine region eyes world recognition

Portugal's Douro River Valley has been a well-kept secret for decades, but now local vintners are trying to change all of that


"Go into a bank, a shoe shop or a butcher's around here and you'll hear people talking about wine. It's in our blood," says 34-year-old Alvaro Martinho, one of Real Companhia Velha's team of young wine experts and the third generation of his family in the trade.

More than three centuries of tradition, however, began to work against the Douro.

Reluctance to change methods handed from father to son, coupled with the fatalism of those who work the land, meant that the Douro fell out of step with trends in the global drinks market.

"There was a fear of change. The Douro forgot to modernize," Silva Reis said.

Now, Martinho and his colleagues regularly travel abroad to pick up new ideas. They are also trying out largely forgotten varieties of local grapes and new blends of table wines in their fight for more space on foreign supermarket shelves.

There are dozens of grape varieties here that can't be found in any other country: tinta barroca, tinta roriz, touriga nacional, tinto cao, rufete and bastardo.

"When we plant new vines now, we do it with a type of customer and market niche in mind," Silva Reis said. "Before, we just planted the vines and left it all in God's hands."

Tightening competition in the global drinks market after a string of international mergers and acquisitions forced producers to pull off the blinkers.

To lower production costs and keep prices down, technology is nudging aside the old ways. Mechanical grape treaders have become common. Some vineyards are using laser measurements to obtain the perfect 3 percent gradient on their vineyard terraces.

Amid the fickleness of beverage fashions, the Douro wines need to capture foreign drinkers' imagination by showing them the region's beauty, Silva Reis says.

Authorities agree and are hoping to rev up the modest local tourism industry.

At the harvest at Quinta do Vallado, local worker Francisco Maria stoops and pokes his hands into a bushy vine. He snips off a bunch of grapes and drops it into a bucket. He's been doing this since he was 11, in the 1960s, when he helped build some of the dry-stone walls hereabouts.

"People always talk about French wine and Spanish wine, but we have something very special here, too," he says.

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