When the Douro Boys group was created, the aim behind the idea was not to work together commercially but rather to put the Douro on the wine map. That required a lot of travel both from Portugal and the Douro valley where the wineries are but also into the region.
Today, 17 years later and as the group approaches its 20 years since its existence with a pandemic in between, the five wineries which have put the Douro on the wine spotlight are reflecting as to what the future holds.
The Douro Boys was set up by the owners of five wineries, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta Vale D. Maria, Quinta do Vale Meão and the port wine house Niepoort to raise awareness for the Douro region worldwide.
Over the past weeks, I sat down (albeit via Zoom) to speak with a representative of each of the wineries to discuss the impact that the Douro Boys have had on Portuguese wine in particular but more importantly what changes they are considering particularly given the COVID-19 pandemic which has forced them to cancel all events and also see them individually having to handle a crisis unlike any other before.
Dirk Van der Niepoort is maybe the most radical. “This is a good moment to rethink a lot of things. Maybe it is the right time to think about what we are and what we do. We will be having a meeting soon and we need to think whether we need to rethink the whole thing. There is no question that we have to adapt to the situation. We need to ask ourselves whether we stop or whether we do more,” he said.
He has no doubt that what they have achieved in their first 15 years for the region is more than what had been achieved in the previous 50 years when it comes to promoting quality wine.
The region had always been well known for its Port but not necessarily for its wines.
On that basis you can say that it has been mission accomplished for the Douro Boys who had decided to concentrate on public relations only using events, press releases and communication with wine experts in their various target markets.
Tomas Roquette of Quinta do Crasto has no doubt about the value of the Douro Boys and its future. “The idea was brilliant when it came about. It was difficult to sell Portuguese wine at that time. Even though the five companies are today more mature, it still makes sense for all of us. But there is no question that we should reflect on what we can do different in future. Should we be faster, should we use social media to try and communicate more. We had a lot of activities planned but they have had to be cancelled or postponed,” he said.
Louisa Olazábal of Quinta do Vale Meão spoke of the number of events that had to be cancelled since March. “We had to cancel our events and we had to review our plans as we shut down little by little because of the pandemic,” she told Food and Wine Gazette.
She is also of the view that the Douro Boys are here to stay. “Wineries have different strategies and some are bigger than others but the focus is not on quantity but on quality. The aim of the informal group is to co-operate and also to gain experience and knowledge from the exchange of ideas,” she said.
João Ferreira Alvares Ribeiro from Quinta do Vallado said the pandemic has forced the Douro Boys to radically change what they had been doing before. “So far, we did not change too many things and we haven’t discussed what we will do long term but there is no question that we will continue to work together and to promote the region together. This has helped us before and will continue to be a good thing to support because it not also helps the image of the region but also our sales. As wineries we had similar challenges and we wanted to increase the visibility and prestige of Douro wines. I think we have achieved these over the years,” he said.
Last but not least, Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta Vale D. Maria said a reflection had been planned for the end of the year. “There is no question that there is still a long way ahead to establish our wines. When it comes to price, we are right at the bottom when compared to the top regions. We will need to raise awareness, we still need to reinforce the message that we have been working on since day 1 that the Douro can produce top quality wine.”
“We certainly have not finished our job. What may change is how we do our job. In the first years of the Douro Boys we travelled a lot and then we decided to bring people to the region. We ned to adapt and find the most effective ways of communication. We need to show who we are and we need to be more active on social media and adapt to the current circumstances,” he said.
The general objective for the next five years of the Douro Boys is to establish the Douro as one of the elite regions of the world.
“In my view, the general objective for the next five years is to establish the Douro as one of the elite regions of the world. Another objective is for wines from the Douro to make it in the restaurant lists around the world,” he said.
The pandemic has clearly had an impact on each and every business in the world and wine is no exception.
“This is a unique situation for everyone around the world. The impact is global. The big question for me is when will we find a solution,” said Tomas Roquette.
“We’ve had to contend with questions like how big should the harvest be, whether we should produce less wine. We do not know what is going to happen next year,” he said.
He is of the view that 2020 will represent a major shift. “The world will not be the same after this. We need to behave better. We need to take note of climate change and we need to think more about the future in the medium and long term and not just the next day,” he said.
This has been a moment of reflection he said. “We were not prepared. This is going to happen again so we need to prepare ourselves to live with uncertainty,” he said.
Dirk van der Niepoort relished the time spent at home during the pandemic and his conversations with his son which were something he was extremely grateful for. “It is a bit scary that you cannot plan anything. Planning a week ahead is impossible,” he said when I spoke to him a few weeks ago when the situation was relatively more stable than it is today.
“This is going to be a year when you will notice the character of people who make the wines,” he said.
About the Douro
The Douro River is one of the mightiest rivers in Europe. It stretches over 927 km through the Iberian peninsula. For 112 km, it is the border between Spain and Portugal. A total of 40,000 hectares of vineyards are planted along the steep banks of the Douro and its tributary rivers. Viticulture in the Douro Valley dates back to the times of the Romans. There are a total of 33,000 winegrowers in the region and 80 per cent own less than 0.5 hectares.
There are five main vines and these are Touring Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (known is Spain as Tempranillo),Tinto Cão and Tinta Barroca.
Don’t miss our complete interviews with the five winemakers over the coming weeks. We will learn more about the Douro Boys, their wineries, the importance of Port for the wineries, the complications of this year’s vintage, COVID-19 and what they have learned during the pandemic.