Red wines from Dão, the Portuguese art of blending
Dão wine region
Dão, one of the oldest established Portuguese wine regions, is a mountainous region with a temperate climate located in the north-central region of Portugal, and it’s crisscrossed by the Mondego and Dão rivers. The region became a Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) appellation in 1990. Get ready to discover Dão red wines and their main blends’ composition
Text adapted from Grandes Escolhas Magazine, edition number 46, February 2021. Original text by Valéria Zeferino.
The art of blending
In a varietal wine, the maximum expression of one grape is sought, in a blend the complementarity between multiple grape varieties is privileged. Some serve as a structuring pillar, providing tannin, others, acidity. There are varieties that contribute with texture or enrich the aromatic part, others add complexity and ensure longevity in the bottle. The objective is achieved when the result is greater than the sum of its parts.
Not all grape varieties adapt well to the same place. The years vary in temperature, precipitation, and other factors benefiting some varieties and challenging others. It’s possible to maintain a reliable production associated with the highest quality when several grapes are combined in different proportions according to the place and the year.
The blend made in the cellar
Sónia Martins, the lead winemaker at Lusovini, confesses that she prefers blended wines to the varietal ones. Drawing from her experience, the sooner the grape varieties are added in winemaking, the better they are integrated into the blend. Whenever maturation allows, she likes to join at least two varieties in order to enhance both. For example, Tinta Roriz generally has lower acidity, so it’s preferable to vinify it with Touriga Nacional or Alfrocheiro. The blend becomes more balanced right from the start.
Winemaker Luís Leocádio, responsible for Conde de Anadia wines, vinifies some grape varieties separately, others together. For example, Alfrocheiro and Jaen usually ferment together, while Touriga Nacional ferments by itself to enhance the aromatic part. A blend is not limited to the combination of grape varieties, it can also be a combination of vines. Paulo Nunes attributes great importance to this factor, as the same grape variety shows a different behavior due to altitude, exposure, and soil composition.
Born in Bairrada, Sónia studied at UTAD University and graduated in Oenology in 2000. She presides over Lusovini and is the director of enology. From Alentejo to the Douro, from Bairrada to Dão, Sónia Martins decides on about 80 wine labels between sparkling wines, whites, reds, rosés, and Port wine.
The blend made in the vineyard
Dão red wines composition, in the past, was defined right at the origin, in the vineyard, with the varieties all mixed, including, sometimes, some white ones.
Traditionally, the field blend was purely a practical solution based on empirical knowledge and was used as a kind of insurance policy against climatic adversities. With many grape varieties in the mix, production and quality stability were achieved.
Casa da Passarella Pedras Altas vineyard is over 85 years old. It shelters 24 grape varieties in the same plot, 2 of which are white. In the case of Quinta da Pellada, the wine Casa e Mata is made from 70 years old vines with 48 mixed grape varieties.
There are two drawbacks when working with old vines boasting a wide variety of grape varieties, the first being the efficient ripening control and the second setting the adequate harvest date. Álvaro Castro, the owner of Quinta da Pellada, says that it is necessary to make at least two passes during the harvest.
It is necessary to know not only the plot but also the vines, to prune each one properly. Paulo Nunes explains that in order to control the maturation in an old vine with many grape varieties, it is necessary to know them very well and identify one or two vines that reflect the maturity level of the whole vineyard.
Graduated from Escola Superior Agrária de Viseu in agronomic engineering in 2010, Luís Leocádio is the winemaker behind the Titan of Douro and Biaia projects. He’s also the enologist and consultant for several projects in the Douro, Vinhos Verdes and Beira Interior regions.
What is a traditional Dão blend?
The most common blends in the current days, apart from old vines, can hardly be regarded as traditional. Before phylloxera, the three main red grape varieties in Dão were Touriga Nacional, Alvarelhão, and Bastardo. In addition to those, there are mentions of Amaral, Baga, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Carvalha, Tinta Francisca, and some others with names that are unknown today.
The composition of vineyards and wines changed according to trends: scientific studies favored some varieties over others, progress in viticulture, climate change, and other factors contributed to it. Touriga Nacional went through a period of abandonment until the recent stardom. Meanwhile, Tinta Roriz appeared and increased its plantation area exponentially while some grape varieties were lost along the way.
Educated as a civil engineer, Álvaro inherited Quinta da Pellada in 1980. Since then has dedicated himself exclusively to the property, reestablishing the family tradition of wine production. He is acknowledged as one of the best Portuguese producers.
The main quartet today
The importance of these four grapes has increased exponentially over the past 35 years. In 1983 they represented only about 26% of the planted area, but in 2018 they reached almost 70%. Blended Dão red wines normally include at least three of them, with Touriga Nacional being used in almost, if not all, the blends.
Its stardom is relatively recent, but the history in the Dão region is memorable. Before phylloxera Touriga Nacional was very present in the region and was appreciated for its aromatic and coloring qualities. Afterward, the grape’s reputation was seriously compromised by low productivity, almost leading to its extinction. It was rehabilitated in the middle of the last century thanks to tests made at the Centro de Estudos Vitivinícolas do Dão and, later, to clonal selection work.
This variety has lower sensitivity to mildew and powdery mildew. Its thick skin protects the berries contributing to a high level of polyphenols and coloring matter to the wine. In the cellar, it is flexible and moldable to different types of winemaking. It has a good affinity with the barrel and high aging potential.
It’s a terpenic variety due to the high concentration of free terpenes, responsible for floral aromas. Fundamental to the blends, there is almost no top-of-the-range wine in the Dão that does not include Touriga Nacional. According to the most recent data from IVV, it’s the third most planted grape variety nationwide, with predominance in the Douro region (4,228 hectares). In the Dão region, it occupies an area of 3,116 hectares (21.5%), being the second most planted after Jaen.
It’s a variety of Iberian origin mainly cultivated in northwestern Spain. In Portugal, it is almost exclusive to the Dão. In 2008 it became the grape variety with the largest planted area and, to this day, occupies 3,417 hectares, or 24% of the plantations in the region. Despite its dominant presence, it is sensitive to the various Dão terroirs. It’s highly productive, especially on fertile land. Susceptible to downy mildew and powdery mildew, it also rots easily. This grape withstands water stress quite well, but at the same time, it does not enjoy too much heat. It is early mature and has a small harvest window. The musts have a very high probable alcohol content and low acidity. Is often used in entry-level wines. Jaen contains the second-highest concentration (after Touriga Nacional) of terpenic compounds, presenting, in the first months, an intense and delicate flower scent, later evolving into ripe fruit aromas, reminiscent of strawberries and raspberries.
Alfrocheiro is spread throughout the region. It’s the fourth grape variety and it occupies an area of 874 hectares or 6% of the total.
The bunch is small and compact, composed of small berries with thin skin. It contains many anthocyanins, resulting in wines that are rich in color with violet hues when young. It is an early-ripening variety. It does well on poorly fertile soils but is sensitive to heat and water stress. If it reaches an over maturation state, the berry shrinks, decreasing production. On the vineyard is a very irregular variety with no fixed pattern. In terms of enology, it provides a remarkable balance between alcohol, tannins, and acidity.
To Sónia Martins, Alfrocheiro is her favorite variety from the Dão. She recognizes that it behaves irregularly on the vineyard, but still, it produces elegant aromatic wines.
Luís Leocádio points out the interesting aromatic profile, with pronounced notes of pine and balsamic. Paulo Nunes recognizes in Alfrocheiro the freshest, most elegant, and most subtle of the four main grape varieties.
Tinta Roriz, also known as Aragonez
The most well-known Iberian variety has many synonyms, being Tempranillo the most recognizable. Probably it was brought by Quinta da Romaneira to the Douro Valley before phylloxera. Today it is the most planted variety in Portugal, occupying 10% of the total area.
Records show that in 1983 there were only 2 hectares of Tinta Roriz in the Dão. Today it occupies 2,672 hectares (18% of the plantation).
It easily achieves high productions, therefore drastically losing quality. It prefers deep and well-drained soils. Omnipresent in the blends is, however, quite controversial. In a good year, it produces wines of good color, intense, aromatically complex, and well structured, but in any other year, it is hard to squeeze quality out of it.
Paulo Nunes considers that the proliferation of this variety in the region was a casting mistake. Polyphenolic maturation does not accompany the pace of this “sugar factory”: either the wines present green and astringent tannins or high alcohol content. Sónia Martins says that she usually makes the first harvest of Tinta Roriz for sparkling or rosé, allowing the remaining curls to ripen the polyphenols for longer.
Paulo oversees wine projects in the Dão, Douro, and Trás-os-Montes. He has been recently awarded the distinction of Enologist of the Year by the two most relevant publications in the wine sector in Portugal.
Other grape varieties
In total, there are 20 red grape varieties authorized for producing wines bearing the DOC Dão denomination.
Baga (Baga de Louro) still has a relevant presence, corresponding to 5% of the region’s variety, most evident in the old vineyards. It contributes to acidity and tannin.
Rufete (Tinta Pinheira) provides wines with an open ruby color, floral and herbaceous aromas, light structure with medium alcohol content and acidity.
Tinta Carvalha is the least consensual, being very open in color, in a claret style.
Alvarelhão goes even further than Tinta Carvalha, clarifies the blend, has more primary fruit. It brings softness, perfume, and acid balance.
Tinto Cão is characterized by low but regular productivity. It gives wines of intense color with a violet hue, with good alcohol content, full-body, and robust tannins. It preserves its high acidity well, refreshing the blend and conferring aging potential.
Tinta Amarela, Trincadeira in Dão, is more vegetable in a good sense. It occupies about 1% of the plantation. It provides the blend with intense color, high alcohol content and contributes to aromatic complexity.
Bastardo is characterized by low and irregular production and extremely early maturation. Of the Dão grape varieties, it has the most probable alcohol and the lowest acidity. The wines have a very open-color reminiscent of claret. To the blend, it gives intense perfume and softness.
All varieties have their particularities and strengths. Instead of excluding them, the goal is to find the best way to make them work as a team. Paulo Nunes’s understanding is that the fashion of producing super-concentrated wines akin to Douro wines is fading.
It’s important to learn from past mistakes and preserve the rich varietal heritage of Dão red wines.