Dao Wines

About Portugal's Dao region

Dao is sandwiched between the sunny, dry, relatively hot landscapes that drive Douro’s bold fruited, full bodied, highly alcoholic styles and Alentejo’s even hotter climates that amp  wines up a couple of notches. Logically, you’d expect Dao wine styles to be hotter than Douro and less so than Alentejo. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Dao is much wetter and cooler in winter, greener and more temperate in summer. As far as Portuguese climates go, Dao feels more like it belongs up north in France.  

The region’s wines are dominated by two grape varieties, the iconic red, Touriga Nacional, and a first class white, called Encruzado. Historically these have played fundamental roles in the region’s two core blends, but over the last two decades each has emerged as a single varietal in its own right.

Dao’s white blends (called Branco) are sophisticated, gastronomic styles that can be as long lived as Dao’s red blends. I have tasted Dao whites from the 1960s and 70s recently, and they are extraordinarily complex and remain remarkably fresh for their age.

Although Encruzado is the mainstay of white blends, with Malvasina Fina, Bical, Cerceal (Madeira’s Sercial), Verdelho, and more than a dozen other varietals playing important supportive rolls. These secondary grapes also have good potential as single varietals, but so far most haven’t been fully explored for this possibility.

Dao’s flagship red blend (called Tinto) is generally constructed around Touriga Nacional (40-80% ratio) generally supported with smaller portions of Alfrocheiro, Rufete (Tinta Pinheira), Jaen (Spain’s Mencia) and/or Tinta Roriz (Aragonez, Spain’s Tempranillo). To a lesser degree Trincadeira (Tinta Amarela), Baga, Tinto Cao, Bastardo and more than a dozen lesser known grapes can also play into the mix. As with the whites above, few of these grapes have been singled out for their potential as mono-varietals.

The proportions often echo the ratios found in older, inter-planted field blends dating from over a century ago. Each sub-region within Dao tends to have a particular bias for which grapes are most commonly used to support Touriga in the blend.

Background and History

Dao was often described in the 19th Century as the ‘Bourgogne of the South’ and was a preferred wine of Portugal’s kings stretching back deeply into the nations’s early history.

The region maintained a high reputation throughout the early part of the 20th century, but the region's emphasis changed after Dictator Salazar took power in the 1930s. As part his self-sufficiency drive, Salazar decreed that Dao would produce the nation’s wine, eventually legislating that Dao wine had to be produced in and sold only through cooperatives. This mandate blocked private initiative and locked Dao into producing table wines for the common man. By definition those wines had to be cheap and plentiful, leading eventually to cooperatives paying growers for quantity, not quality.  By the 1980s, this one-size-fits-all approach left many Dao wines dilute and indistinct, faint echoes of their former selves. Unfortunately, those wines suggested little of Dao's past and future potential.

EU regulations ended the cooperatives monopoly on production in the late 1980s. This set in motion important post-deregulation developments that gave rise to the re-emergence of quality Dao wine and a modern ‘vigneron’ (grape growers who make their own wine) movement intent on delivering it.

Under the old regime, big companies like Sogrape, Borges and others were unable to produce Dao wines for their portfolios inside Dao. Instead they were forced to buy up finished wines from local coops, which was then blended and bottled outside of the region as DOC wine. After deregulation in 1988, Sogrape (followed by other other giants like Dao Sul and Borges later) shifted their production bases inside Dao. Intent on maximizing quality, they began buying grapes directly from producers, rewarding higher quality grapes with progressively higher prices. Suddenly faced with competition, coops were forced to set higher standards for themselves or face extinction.

After deregulation in 1989, Quinta da Bica’s Joao Sacadura Botte was the first small producer to pull away from the cooperative movement and make his own wine. Álvaro Castro of Quinta da Pellada left the following year. During the early 1990s Luis Lourenço of Quinta das Roques and others joined this growing movement of independent producers intent on creating high quality wine.

Today there are dozens of small, medium and large sized wineries that are reconnecting the relationship between terroir, grape growing and wine making, and how all this plays through vintage and sub-regional variation and wine styles. The region has clearly entered a new golden age.

Dao Wine Region

Quartz-rich soil

Terroir: climate and soil

Dao is walled off from the heat of the Douro by the Serra da Nave on its northern border. The Serra da Estrela’s southeast alignment and Serra do Açor along the southern border perform a similar function deflecting hot winds that roll in from the plains of Spain and Alentejo. Completing this mountainous defensive wall, the Serra do Caramulo holds back the Atlantic rains that make grape growing so much riskier in Barriada directly to the east. 

Within this bowl shaped configuration there are a wide range of micro-climates strongly influenced by relatively steep valleys carved out by the Mondego, Alva and Dão Rivers and their numerous tributaries. Vineyards either hug terraced slopes or flow along rolling hills following the rivers’ curves making site exposure a major factor in ripening. Most vineyards grow at around 400-500 meters, with extremes ranging between 200-700. Between elevation and river driven humidity, Dao’s wide diurnal temperature shifts (20º+) ensure both white and red wines are endowed ample natural acidity. Dao wines are renowned throughout Portugal for their ‘freshness.’

There are a wide range of microclimates within Dao. Its hottest, driest spots lie within a triangular plateau between the towns of Viseu, Mangualde and Nelas. This area favours late ripening Touriga Nacional and fuller bodied, bolder red styles. The cooler, wetter, more elevated transition corridors running alongside the mountains (Tondela to Mortagua to Tabua, surrounding Penalva do Castello, Gouveia to Seia, etc.) favour whites and more aromatic red styles (Alfrocheiro, Jaen, Rufet) and shape Touriga with more florals and linearity.

Dao’s soils are granite dominated sands; lean, free draining and relatively infertile, forcing vines to struggle. Often laced with bits of feldspar, quartz and mica they tend to sparkle back at you when walking through vineyards. One has a sense there is a lot of interesting ‘terroir’ waiting to be discovered and defined in Dao’s future.

What's special about Dao

What I like about Dao is that it hasn’t sold out its roots. It hasn’t given itself over to the New World ‘spoofulation’ that has drained much Spanish wine of its Spanishness. Luckily, Robert Parker never took much notice of Dao, so it never felt compelled to whore its styles out to the more Baroque aspects of Parkerism. And just as fortunately, very few hired-gun Australasian ‘flying winemakers’ have set foot in the place, and so they haven’t imposed the sterility of supermarket quality control and the inevitable dumbed-down, consumer friendliness that comes with it.

Luckily, Dao has managed to keep all its assets in place. It hasn’t sold out its old vineyards full of indigenous grapes or its wine styles that evolved out of its sense of ‘place’ or its unique set of traditions. Dao still tastes of itself, and for those of us who are increasingly bored with the sameness of wine around the world, that’s  a very good thing.

Recent DNA research points to Portugal as the place where the last ‘truly European’ grapes survived the most recent Ice Age, leaving the rest of Europe to  repopulate itself later with Middle Eastern grapes. Dao is particularly rich in both clonal and varietal diversity in this respect, with dozens of interesting autochthonous grapes still in use (many still unidentified). Touriga National and Encruzado--arguably Portugal’s top red and white grapes—originated in Dao.

Historically Dao’s grapes have been locked in to both red and white blends and only recently being unlocked as single varieties. It is increasingly clear that some of these grape varieties are world class and simply need stylistic development in their own right.

Fortunately, many of these grapes still grow in low yielding, old vineyards that naturally produce concentrated wine.  Others grow inter-mixed in ‘field blends’ that have decades of adaptive co-habitation within their terroir. When co-fermented they reveal highly specific statements about site and soil.

Dao also has great traditional tools to work with. The use of lagars—granite walled vessels used to tread grapes—dates back at least to the middle ages in Dao and probably thousands of years earlier. Sitting in silent testimony to this tradition, dozens of beautifully preserved, stone-age ‘largaretta’-- fermentation troughs, hand-hewn out of massive granite bolders--pepper the upper slopes of Dao’s major river valleys. Virtually every older quinta has one or two traditional waist high, granite walled lagar that was the centre of production generations back. Some of these are factory sized gargantuans, able to process dozens of tons of grapes, often capped with tree trunk driven presses. Increasingly these old tools are seen as offering new potentials within a wider range of modern winemaking practices.

Most importantly of all, Dao has style. Anyone who has tasted the traditional red and white blends created by Alberto Vilhena while at Centro de Estudos Vintivinicolas (CEV) knows Dao’s unique mix of grapes, climate and soil create wine with a tremendous capacity to evolve positively and age for decades. I’ve tasted most vintages back to 1958 on several occasions now and amazed at how complete, complex, compellingly mature each wine remains. Dao’s grapes can easily stand the test of time. Considering how good those wines were back then, and in light of what we know now about viticulture and winemaking today, Dao has a remarkably bright future.