Can The Douro Valley find success in unfortified white wines?

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The Douro Valley has been producing world-renowned fortified wines for centuries with the word “Port” synonymous with the region. However, in recent years, highly alcoholic wine styles have fallen out of favour, with many consumers opting for lighter bodied and lower abv drink options. The Douro Valley is blessed with a large and varied viticultural area which is certainly capable of producing unfortified dry white wines of various styles and quality levels, depending on the orientation and elevation of the site as well as the cultivars planted and the winemaking practices employed. To fully understand the quality potential of this specific category and if it will become an important part of the future of the region will require analysis of unfortified dry white wine in current production in the Douro Valley, global trends and export markets as well as the implication of an emerging style in a region that has a global reputation for fortified wine.


White wine production currently makes up only 10% of the Douro Valley’s total 1.5 million hectolitre production[1], along with rosé, with fortified and red wines dominating sales. Owing to the hot and dry climate, the profile of white wines of this area tend to be full bodied and rich, produced from blends of indigenous grapes such as Viosinho, Rabigato, Codega de Larinho and Gouveio. Despite dry, unfortified wine historically having connotations of basic, table-wine, in recent years some producers have seen the potential to create wines with complexity akin to the quality terroir-driven wines of Burgundy. For example, Dirk Niepoort’s Redoma white wine sells at £21 a bottle through Tanner’s Wine Merchants in the UK, confirming how indigenous white grape varieties from old vines and oak barrel maturation can result in a premium style.


According to FoodBev Media, The Drinks Business and The Daily Telegraph, the common top global wine industry trend in 2020 will focus on “no and low” alcohol drinks.[2] Creating a new category of lower alcohol white wines to satisfy consumer needs is therefore imperative for the Douro Valley in order to compete in both domestic and international markets. The Douro Valley only has to look at neighbouring Vinho Verde’s 70 million bottle production of quality dry white wine for inspiration.[3]And it’s not just the low alcohol levels and price point that makes Vinho Verde so popular (typically between 8% - 10% abv and retailing at £7-£12 in the UK) but also the green fruit flavour profile, light body and high acidity that echoes other zingy, refreshing styles dominating the world wine market, such as Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and South Africa.


The UK and France are the top two export markets for Portugese wine with their worth representing around 65 million euros and 110 million euros, respectively[4]. It is important to note that a large proportion of the export for both of these countries is fortified and red wine, which continues to be a staple requirement based on what is traditionally expected of Port wines’ style and quality. Therefore, it is critical that the region continues to satisfy these markets with the styles of wine that they know and love, whilst simultaneously creating a strong brand for dry unfortified white wines.


The Douro Valley has an excellent reputation as a wine-growing area with much historical importance. The region is a UNESCO world heritage site, it boasts beautiful scenery and produces arguably the most famous fortified wine in the world. When contemplating the future success of the Douro Valley’s dry unfortified white wines, it is important to apply these reputable factors but to also focus on the provenance and terroir of the region to build the wines’ reputation. Consider the volcanic soil in Santorini for Assyrtiko, Kimmeridgian clay in Chablis for Chardonnay and slate in the Mosel for Riesling. The region’s granite soil should be celebrated and highlighted as part of the reputation of the wine, making sure that the sites selected for growing are elevated, with northerly aspects to retain freshness and acidity, structural components which consumers are enjoying so readily. An appellation style system could also create a clear quality hierarchy for different sites to help differentiate between lighter, brighter styles as well as fuller, riper wines. To ensure this quality reputation continues through to the final bottle will require investment in relevant wine-making equipment such as state of the art presses, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. This will ultimately result in mid-tier to premium priced bottles retailing for £15 - £25 in the UK market, arguably a much more profitable proposition than entry-level tawny/ruby ports retailing at substantially less.


To conclude, the Douro Valley’s unfortified dry white wines do indeed have the quality potential to become an important part of the future of the region. If producers focus on site selection, indigenous grapes, state of the art winemaking equipment and modest alcohol levels, there is no end to the range of styles that could be produced. The challenge the region will have will be to uphold a presitigious reputation where prices stay at a premium, particularly as “millenials are more into craft, organic {and} limited edition and not in favour of big players.”[5] It is important to listen to the needs of these younger consumers who will play a big part in the success of the wine region’s future.



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[5] Guillaume Deglise CEO of Vinexpo quoted in 2018 at Vinexpo