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Dão, Finesse of Portugal

Going on wine trips it’s always great fun. Even the ‘en route’ to the wineries and vineyards can be adventures on their own right. In many of the wine regions I have visited e.g Rioja, Bordeaux, Mendoza vines dominate. The landscape and you can usually spot the winery from the distance, and if you get lost and can’t make it to a given winery there would be another not too far away. You just drive for a little longer, follow the vines ‘et voila’.

Not in the Dão.

The Place

The terrain in the Dão is all about hills, forests, mountain ranges, altogether hiding the vineyards. This makes the region even more mysterious and interesting. Vineyards have been passed from generation to generation and therefore tend to be fairly small, which again makes them less obvious.

Serra da Caramullo to the west and Serra do Buçaco to the south, protect the Dão from the rain and cool Atlantic winds. Serra da Estrella to the east protects the Dão from anything that west Spain throughs at it, which usually comes in the form of strong and dry continental winds. It is the highest mountain in Portugal with an altitude of almost 2000 meters at its highest point. The lowest temperatures in Portugal are registered here, as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius. This is the only ski resort in Portugal; yes this country seems to have it all.

Within its mountain walls (which are also great trekking destinations and tourists from all over Europe visit the region every spring and summer), the Dão vineyards lie at between 200 and 400 metres above sea level. Some even as high as 800. Granitic soils predominate, although there are pockets of schist too. Vineyard sites must be carefully chosen for best exposure to the sun to ensure perfect ripeness. In late summer the days become rapidly cooler, allowing for long, slow ripening and the development of complex flavours.

The combination of all these natural factors gives the Dão wines an innate brightness and freshness, minerality, fragrance, character and intensity.

First DO for still unfortified wines

The Dão region was officially demarcated in 1908, being the first demarcated region for still wines in Portugal.

In 1932, the new Portuguese government set about reforming agriculture, including the wine industry. The Dão growers could only sell their grapes to cooperatives, which kind of took the private wineries out of the equation. This policy also pushed the growers to focus on quantity rather than quality, as they needed more grapes to make more money.

When Portugal joined the European Union these laws were dissolved and even though co-operatives are still very important in the Dão, new generation winemakers are now focusing on making the most of the unique microclimates, soils and locations within the region. Today Dão winemakers produce not only the DO’s well-known reds, but also whites, rosés and sparkling wines. In contrast, the focus is now on quality rather than quantity.

This is a wine region that is fast becoming one of the most exciting in the world. It is referred to as the Burgundy of Portugal (without the price tag of course). Which I only fully understood after visiting the region and tasting and drinking a fair amount of its wines.

Red wine is 80% of all wine produced as the region climatic conditions favour red winemaking. Nonetheless, some incredible white wines are coming out and we can be sure that more will follow soon. Encruzado is native to the Dão and makes wines light in style but also wines with structure, without losing freshness. It can take well on oak and lees contact is not rare. Essentially, the conditions of the Dão region enable producers to create wines of exceptional character and finesse.

The famous Buçaco Palace Hotel

Late in the 19th Century, the Portuguese royal family commissioned an Italian scene painter and architect to build a summer palace in the Buçaco Forest. The building was completed in 1907, and in 1910 would become a hotel.

Right from the beginning, the owner of the hotel wanted to offer local food and drink.

So the hotel began making their own wines, which was for a long time one of the inside secrets of Portugal’s wine trade. These, a pair of red and white wines, have always been a blend of Dão and Bairrada, and they had a reputation for their longevity. However, they would only feature on the hotel restaurant wine list. Occasional bottles got out, and were the source of great excitement.

The whites would be a blend of Encruzado from Dão and Maria Gomes, Arinto and Cercial from Bairrada.

Red wines have Bairrada noble grape Baga, with Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Alfrocheiro, Jaen (Mencia) from Dão.

The wines undergo maturation in the hotel cellar and vintages go as far back as 1940’s, some of them available from the hotel list at exuberant prices nonetheless.

Touriga Nacional

Touriga Nacional was born in the Dão so it’s only fair it gets some words and praise too. After the Philloxera plague, vineyards had to be replanted and since it is a low yielding grape variety, many producers favoured some of the other varieties we find in the Dão today. These days however, the focus is on quality and therefore it has made a stellar comeback.

It is Portugal’s red wine grape “par excellence” and very important for Port making. It makes for dark coloured, rich, tannic, complex and concentrated wines. Enjoys ageing and has a good disease and drought resistance which is one of the reasons they plant it in Bordeaux. This is a cautious traveller though, domestically and further afield.

Of great importance is that in the Dão it produces wines very different to those it produces in the Douro or even Alentejo.

In the Dão, Touriga Nacional has substance and heaps of freshness and brightness. The wines are less rich than in the Douro but not short of body nor structure. It easily achieves super fine tannins and the wines have a precision rarely found anywhere else.

As it descends the road from the Douro into the Dão, it steps onto a catwalk dressed up in silk, it walks in an assertive manner, with supreme elegance and finesse.

Expect to see more Dão wines on shelves, wine lists and wine competition podiums where they will be challenging for top prizes.

This region excels in all fronts, from the entry level to the premium end, with prices difficult to match.