A Visit to Portugal: Willamette Valley vs Douro Valley
Just last month, we here at Triangle Wine Country Tours were lucky enough to vacation in Portugal after a family wedding in Italy. Portugal, an amazing, beautiful and historic country, is home to the Douro Valley, the country’s primary wine region, much like Willamette Valley is Oregon’s primary wine region. I was struck by the similarities and differences between here and there, which I am pleased to share with you now.
Bottom line? Visit at your next opportunity, but let me explain why.
Let’s start with population: Oregon: 4.2 million vs Portugal: 10.2 million
Area: Oregon 96,000 square miles vs Portugal 36,000 square miles
Age: Oregon became a state in 1868 vs Portugal, founded by the Zamora treaty, in 1143
So what about the wine?? This is a wine blog after all; what’s the connection?
Well as the title suggests, both places have famous valleys rising from rivers of the same name.
They both have a primary wine which defines its reputation: Port wine for Portugal and Pinot Noir for Oregon. In contrast, though, while the Willamette Valley was first planted to vine in the mid 1960’s, the Douro Valley wine history dates back to the 11th century, cemented in 1368 with the Treaty of Windsor, which guaranteed a market for Portuguese wine in England.
The Douro Valley is one of oldest demarcated wine regions in the world, as well as being designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Evidence of grape production in the Douro Valley has been dated to the fall of the Roman Empire. Portugal is renowned for being the first official and protected wine region in the world. See this quote below for more history:
In the 17th century, the region’s vineyards expanded, and the earliest known mention of “Port wine” dates from 1675. The Methuen Treaty between Portugal and England in 1703, and the subsequent establishment of many British Port lodges in Porto meant that Port wine became the primary product of the region. As part of the regulation of the production and trade of this valuable commodity, a royal Portuguese charter of 10 September 1756 defined the production region for Port wine. It thus became the world’s first wine region to have a formal demarcation 1
Conversely, Willamette Valley is one of the youngest wine regions, achieving AVA (American Viticultural Area) status in just 1983. Prior to our wine pioneers planting pinot noir in the 1960’s, no grape vines were planted in the Willamette Valley. Although the valley had been farmed for decades with hazelnuts, christmas trees, fruit trees, clover, hay, and wheat, the local farmers insisted the cool wet winters would not allow for growing and ripening of wine grapes. (for more details on AVAs link here for our blog post on the subject)
What’s the deal with Port Wine, the wine of Portugal? It is fortified with grape brandy (a distilled spirit) which increases its alcohol content to over 20% in order to extend its shelf life for long voyages first to London and later to the New World. Much of Portugal’s port wine is dessert wine, where fermentation is halted (by addition of brandy) before all the sugar (from grape juice) is digested by yeast and converted to alcohol. (for more details on fortified wines link here for our blog post on it)
The resulting wine is both high alcohol and high sugar compared to classic table wines and is beloved by the English both in England and as well as the New World, as it was transported there for our founding fathers.
Which grapes are used to make Port Wine (named after the 2nd city of Portugal: Oporto)? Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Roriz, Tinta Cão, Tinta Amarela and Tinta Barroca are primary, though 82 grape varieties are permitted.2
How did Port wine originate? According to one theory, an abbot working in a monastery in the town of Lamego along the Douro River is credited with creating the Port Wine we enjoy today by adding grape brandy to still wine to extend its shelf life. In 1678 this wine was discovered by wine merchants from England where it was widely enjoyed and even today continues to boost Portugal’s economy.3
What about Willamette Valley Pinot Noir? Our history is much shorter and simpler: our Willamette Valley founding fathers, in search of the right terroir to rival French Burgundy wines, all rolled the dice on the Willamette Valley and succeeded! (for more details link here for our blog post on the subject)
Sixty percent of the acres here are planted to Pinot Noir plus Chardonnay in the classic French style, and sparkling wine using the Champagne method. The vast majority of our wines are classic table wines, fermented to dryness (meaning they have no residual sugar),and barrel aged in French oak. Fun fact: many Portuguese winemakers prefer American Oak for their wines!
In 1979 David Lett (aka Papa Pinot) entered The Eyrie’s 1975 South Block Pinot Noir in the French Gault Millau blind tasting competition and placed third, rocking the wine world and cementing Willamette Valley’s reputation for having world-class wine.4
What about the dirt? It’s impossible to discuss Willamette Valley wines without talking about the soils. We are blessed with over 15 soil types due to a geological event 15,000 years ago called the Missoula Flood (google it for more details!) which imported soils from 4 states into our valley. Jory, the most famous soil type, is Oregon’s state soil. It is high in iron leading to a red color in the vineyards of Chehalem Mountains, one of our 11 sub AVAs where it is common (for more details on soils link here for our blog post).
Conversely, the Douro Valley is mainly composed of schist with a sprinkling of granite. The steep hills rising from the Douro River have been terraced over hundreds of years by hand-hammering and later employing dynamite to break down the rocks to allow for the planting of vines. The rocky schist provides conditions where water drains quickly and the roots tunnel down up to 65 feet to find water and nutrients in the brutally hot summers. This struggle results in complex and well-balanced wines.
During our tour of the Taylor Fladgate port lodge, we were encouraged to take a piece of schist as a souvenir. It now sits proudly on my kitchen windowsill as a great reminder of our visit!
Over the years, as global tastes changed, Portuguese wine producers have expanded their offerings to include dry table wines made from their port wine grapes. Red wines are typically field blends of the grapes planted in each vineyard; varieties are not required to be listed on the label. These wines are full-bodied, known for licorice and black fig notes due to the hot, dry summers, leading to thick skins and the resulting high tannin content,
Vinho Verde is also gaining in international popularity for easy drinking, slightly fizzy, tart, citrusy white wines from the north of Portugal. The green (verde) reference comes from either the young age of the wines or the lush green hills surrounding the vineyards in this wet region bordering on the Atlantic Ocean. Alvarinho (aka Albarino) and Loureiro (similar to Riesling) are the best-known grape varieties.5
Are you looking to try new wines without breaking the bank? Try Portuguese reds from the Douro Valley and Vinho Verde whites from the Minho region of northern Portugal.
Cork: Portugal’s Claim to Fame
Portugal produces most of the world’s cork, harvested from the bark of cork trees traditionally used in bottle-aged wines. While in Portugal we saw trees painted with a number on the trunk. Our guide advised the number corresponds with the last year the cork bark was harvested. A #3 indicates harvest in 2023, a #8 means 2018 since trees are harvested for bark every 9 years. Cork is a renewable resource and technology advances can reduce or eliminate the presence of TCA, caused by a bacteria present in some natural corks which can spoil wine. (more details on cork link here)
The Douro Valley is quite different from The Willamette Valley and well worth a visit to expand your wine journey and increase your knowledge of wine styles and grape varieties. The country is full of history and beauty and an excellent value vs many countries in Europe. The scenery in the Douro Valley rivals that of our valley with the added option to travel on the river!