I decided to write this piece after I was given a glass of red wine to try blind by a friend. I picked the wine as Old World from the refreshing acid, though Mediterranean due to the rich fruit aromas, and the rusticity of the wine pointed more to Spain or Italy. The quality of the wine and the delicious red fruit, savoury style and a distinctive herbal/black olive twist in the finish led me to Chianti- and a high quality example at that, though when the bottle came out, I found I was quite a way off. The wine came from Portugal’s Dão region- somewhere I know very little about. The wine was so delicious I knew I had to get writing about the region it came from to learn why these wines taste the way they do!
Dão is located just to the south of Portugal’s world-famous Port producing region, the Douro Valley, which is not far from the Spanish border to the north. Geographical vicinity is where the similarities end however; where the vineyards of the Douro bake on the banks of the river that gives the region its name, Dão is one of the coldest regions in Portugal. This is because the region sits in the dead centre of Portugal; about 100km to the Atlantic Ocean on the west side, and the same distance to the Spanish border on the eastern side. This part of central Portugal is very mountainous, and almost all the vineyards of this region sit between altitudes of 500-1500ft above sea level. To the north, west and south, the region is surrounded by huge granite mountains, which shelter the region from any moderating sea breezes off the ocean, meaning the summers are hot and the winters are cold. With no mountain to the east, the region benefits from the gentle morning sun, while the mountains to the west protect from harsh afternoon rays. The altitude and the cold granite soils also lead to a rapid drop in vineyard temperature once the sun sets behind these mountains- vitally important for retaining acid in the grapes in order to produce a more elegant, fresh style of wine.
The soils in the region also assist in making the wines from Dão fresher and more elegant. The Dão River, which originates near the Spanish border to the west, has run through this valley for millennia, carving a path through these granite mountains where the vineyards are planted today. The sub-soil of the region is still the same tough, low nutrient crystalline granite, and the topsoil is poor, low nutrient sand made of ground up granite. This sandy topsoil does not hold water well, and while the winters are wet, the summers here are typically very dry, meaning the vines must dig deep into the granite soil in the search for water. The poor nutrition of the soil means that the naturally high vigour of the vine is reigned in, and the plant focuses more on growing high-quality, delicious tasting grapes that will be carried away from this dry, nutrient-poor place. As I have mentioned in many prior pieces, it is these tasty grapes from these vines on the edge of survival that make some of the best wines on earth!
The final piece of what makes wine in this region so unique is the mix of grape varieties used in them. Now I mentioned before I mistook the wine I tried from this region as a Chianti Classico- wines known for their fresh, elegant style. And now what if I was to say that the grape varieties used to make wines in Dão are almost identical to those used in northern neighbour Douro? Whose Port wines are renowned for their power, rich body and heady alcohol? About 80% of wine made in Dão is red, and that is almost always a blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (known across the border in Spain as Tempranillo), Jaen (known in the rest of the world as Mencia), Alfrocheiro Preto and a handful of other varietals. These first 4 varieties are like the grapes in a Bordeaux Blend; each brings something to the mix that makes the final blend greater than each individual variety. An interesting fact is that Touriga Nacional, one of the ‘noble’ grapes used in Port, and now also finding a home here in Australia, is thought to have originated here in Dão! Whites make up the other 20%, and are made mainly from local hero variety Encruzado, and are crisp fragrant and age-worthy, sometimes matured in barrel
So despite being practically next door to a region famous for its heady, dense and powerful wines, and sharing many similar grape varieties, the Dão region produces some of Portugal’s most elegant, finely structured wines due to a mix of soil, altitude, orientation and location. Fresh acid from the cool nights and cold granite soils, rich red fruits and savoury spices from the warm summer days and low yields, and a distinctive twist which I thought was like black olive was actually pine resin, a note which shows through in all Dão wines after a few years in bottle due to the huge pine forests surrounding the region. Right, I don’t think I’ll miss this wine in a blind tasting again!
Wine Sales Manager