“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” – Lao Tzu
Dão: a mountainous wine region in north central Portugal in the province of Beira. After the Douro DOC, it is the second oldest demarcated wine region in Portugal, one that is authentically Portuguese – free of foreign influence – in its vitivinicultural history.
Since the beginning of time, man has worked in harmony with nature. Nature is not easy though. Any romantic notion of working on a vineyard will quickly vanish after having spent a day picking rocks, pulling weeds or even something as repetitive simple as tying young vines to bamboo sticks in 35°C heat. For the vineyard owner it is a constant battle against pests, diseases, and fungi that could easily wipe out their entire vines. Protecting vines from too much sun, too much heat, too much water or lack of those makes the vineyard owner an acrobat of sorts, juggling all things together at once. But when one is able to understand the land and find that balance between hardship and beauty, the power and gentleness of the natural forces, then the vineyard owner becomes a magician. In the Dão, a rough, rugged mountainous wine region in the central Portugal, the battle has not only been with nature but also with history. Not long ago it was known for producing tannic, overtly-oaked and simple table wines, but it is rediscovering and reinventing itself as a serious wine producing region.
Far removed from the picture-perfect terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley, a UNESCO world heritage site and Portugal’s most well-known viticulture area, the Dão vineyards are hidden from the outsider. Driving along village roads it is not uncommon to see old vineyards along with beautiful stone houses completely abandoned, with weeds growing deep and thick in every corner of the property. For what was once a thriving wine region, back in the late 19th century, providing wines for European countries hit hard by Phylloxera, it was almost forgotten in the mid-20th century. High rates of unemployment coupled with mass emigration in the mid-20th century pushed farmers, vineyard owners and workers away from the land and either into the cities or far beyond. To make matters worse, in the latter half of the 20th century restrictive wine laws forced vineyard owners to sell their grapes to cooperatives who paid according to quantity, not quality. As a result, wine quality suffered.
But not all was lost. In the past 15 to 20 years, there are those intrigued and enchanted by the hidden vineyards, the roughness of the land, and the hard work required in rebuilding the identity of the region. There are those that want to make unique wines, those that speak for themselves, those expressing the terroir of the Dao.
Lagar de Darei: The Natural Dão
Lagar de Darei, a hidden gem along the banks of the Dão River in Mangualde, Viseu, is a winery started by José Machado Ruivo, who decided to plant some vines and start making wines. His memories of sharing special moments with his grandfather, a winemaker in the Vinho Verde region, made him take the leap into the wine world despite the immense work that lay ahead. Now, after 18 years of taking care of the land, the 120 hectare property is a little slice of paradise. The property includes three rural retreat houses for tourism, including a 17th century manor that is perfect for queens and kings. Their seven hectares of vines are dispersed throughout the property with the very first plot of vines planted along the river. Others are planted along the westerly slopes benefitting from sunlight during the day. Organically fed cows, sheep and goat roam and graze along the green pastures, while the beautiful orchards add the finishing touch to an idyllic landscape. As for the wines, what started as a family project in 1997 with just one hectare of vines has developed into a successful wine company producing beautifully elegant wines.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes… Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” – Lao Tzu
“When I started, I had no plans to sell my wine,” explained José, whom I serendipitously ran into at O Antigo Carteiro a few days ago. Planting the first hectare of vines “was just something for the family, for us.” But seeing his wines on the wine list at one of Porto’s top restaurants was definitely an unexpected surprise, he said. It is also a clear indication that there is a demand for his wines. It hasn’t been easy for the family-run company as a relatively small producer at 20,000 and 25,000 lts of whites and reds, respectively. Competing with larger, high-volume, lower-priced wines from other Portuguese wine regions makes finding their wines in Portuguese wine shops, restaurants and wine bars a little bit of a challenge. Internationally, the battle has been trying to distinguish themselves and create a demand for Dão wines in a market so focused on Douro. But Carlos Ruivo, José’s son and marketing director, is making progress for Lagar de Darei wines in both European and American markets, with 80% of their wines going abroad.
For José, however, his passion and work lies in the vineyards, on the land and in the winery. Alongside local Dão winemaker Pedro Pereira, who has been with the Ruivo family since the beginning of both his career and that of Lagar de Darei, they work together to make wines that capture the essence of the Dão, true terroir wines. The native grapes of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro, Jaen (reds) and Encruzado, Malvasia Fina, Cerceal, Bical and Verdelho (whites) flourish in the granitic soil. In addition, the high altitudes (at 400m) and wide diurnal temperature shifts allows the grapes to fully ripen, to develop distinctive aromas and flavours while also maintaining freshness and acidity. In the cellar, this equates to wines with medium alcohol (between 12.5-13%abv). The reds are fermented in a large stone lagar (hence the name of the brand) and the must is foot trodden twice per day. They also co-ferment Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional to allow the silky, aromatic profile of Tinta Roriz to blend harmoniously with the power of the Touriga Nacional. Native yeasts are used for the Reserve and Special Selection wines and low intervention wiemaking is imperative. Oak, if any at all, is used sparingly for maturation purposes. The result: a mission complete. The wines are unique. They have character, they speak for themselves (please see below for tasting notes). A lovely harmony between the land, rocky and rough to handle, the power of the Serra de Estrela mountains, but also the subtle beauty of the morning fog rolling into the valleys, the sublime orange sunsets, and the smell of pine and eucalyptus trees of the Dao.
Lagar de Darei Branco 2014
Encruzado, Malvasia Fina, Cerceal, Bical, Gouveio
A blend of white grape, it is beautiful pale lemon colour. On nose, medium to medium plus aromas of citrus fruit and slight liquorice. On the palate, it is light to medium-low bodied, slightly sweet with crisp mineral tones. It has good acidity, giving freshness. The finish is medium, accessible wine and ready to drink now. 12.5%abv Good
Lagar de Darei Branco Private Selection 2012
Malvasia Fina, Cerceal, Bical, Verdelho, Arinto, Encruzado
One of the few wines that spends time in oak (40% of blend fermented in oak vats and 10% spends 2 months in new French barrels with battonage), this white has a deep lemon hue and a beautiful buttery nose mixed with ripe pear, gooseberry and white flowers. On the palate, it is medium-bodied with ripe stone fruit and tropical fruit, as well as slight hints of baking spice. It is clean, with lots of volume and long finish. 13.5%abv Very Good.
Lagar de Darei Tinto 2012
Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfocheiro, Jaen
Entry level red blend, it is medium ruby in colour. On the nose, a lovely mix of red fruits, red cherries and some floral, such as violets. On the palate, it is medium bodied with soft, round tannins. With lots of freshness, lively acidity, and juicy red fruits make it fun and refreshing. A medium, to medium-plus finish, it is ready to drink now. 12%abv Very Good
Lagar De Darei Sem Abrigo Reserva Tinto 2011
Sem Abrigo, meaning homeless, this wine got its nickname when they weren’t quite sure where in their range of wines to place it. It is a medium ruby colour with sheeting legs. On the nose, medium intensity of ripe cherries, blackberries, sweet spice and lovely floral of Touriga Nacional jumps out of the glass. On the palate, it is medium plus bodied, smooth round tannins that cover the entire mouth with balanced acidity. Juicy, ripe red fruit flavours have medium intensity, there are hints of vegetal in the background, alcohol is smooth and well-integrated, persistent finish. This is Jose’s signature blend, which was one of my favourites. 13.5%abv Outstanding
Lagar de Darei Tinto Reserva 2011
Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz
This Reserva has an intense ruby color with slightly tinted legs. Floral aromas combined with ripe dark fruit and berries, and hint of cocoa give it pronounced flavour intensity that are incredibly exicting for the sense. Very inviting and seductive on the nose! On the palate, supple velvety tannins, (so smooth), full-bodied and medium acidity. It keeps on delivering, showing great complexity. Great ageing potential. 12.5%abv Outstanding
Lagar de Darei Tinto Reserva 2012
Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz
A younger vintage, ruby colour of medium depth. On the nose, signature Touriga violets, dark fruit and some pine or forest notes. On the palate, structured tannins hitting side of the mouth, fresh acidity from start to finish, with a medium body and a medium finish. Good, but more ageing will allow it to show off more layers. 12.5%abv Very Good
Lagar de Darei Tinto 2004
This beauty was thoroughly enjoyed! It is medium ruby going on garnet at the rim. Slow forming legs. On the nose, very clean, cherry, liquorice, slight mint mingle beautifully. On the palate, there are more ageing notes of forest, pine, cedar, with still some red fruit to balance out. Structured tannins, with good acidity considering its age, lots of body and texture, and layers upon layers of flavours. Really long finish, an absolute delight. Outstanding.