Demystifying The Dão and Quinta dos Carvalhais

Portugal’s Dão region, inland and surrounded by mountains on the raised Beirão plateau, is often overshadowed by its more famous northerly neighbour, the Douro. However, Dão wines are beginning to demand attention. A unique combination of altitude and granite soils here results in elegant and age-worthy wines with intense fruit flavours balanced by a vibrant acidity. It is often said that if the Douro is Portugal’s Bordeaux, producing hearty and powerful wines, the Dão is its Burgundy, producing graceful and precise wines.

Although the Dão DOC covers 388,000 hectares, only around 14,500 hectares are under vine. This is due to the fact that parts of the region are too mountainous for viable viticulture. Similarly, vast swathes of the Dão are covered by pine and eucalyptus forests. A signature aroma of the Dão wines is reminiscent of these fragrant trees, echoing the pine needle and menthol notes. The mountain ranges that encircle the Dão and include Portugal’s highest peak (the Serra da Estrela at 2,000 metres) shelter the region from both the cool and wet weather from the Atlantic and from the heat from the Spanish Meseta, and a drop in temperatures in late summer and cool but dry autumns provide ideal conditions for a perfectly paced slow ripening of the grapes.

Quinta dos Carvalhais is one of the most respected producers in the Dão region. They pioneered the modernisation of viticulture and winemaking here in the 1990s and kick started the Dão wine quality renaissance. Following decades of state control and a co-operative monopoly in the region that favoured quantity over quality, they led the switch back to quality winemaking and sustainable viticultural practices, replanting the region’s indigenous grape varieties, such as Touriga Nacional and Encruzado, and saving them from near extinction.

The Quinta dos Carvalhais vineyards are located in the Terras de Senhorim sub-region, in the heart of the Dão, at an altitude of 465 to 500 metres above sea level. Precision viticulture is carried out on the estate, with each vineyard plot matched to a specific grape variety. The modern, gravity-flow winery is adapted to facilitate vinification of the individual vineyard plots, with numerous small stainless-steel fermentation tanks. Even the single-varietal wines are carefully assembled blends of grapes from different plots, vinified separately and each bringing a different characteristic to the final wine. The talented Beatriz Cabral de Almeida is at the winemaking helm and makes an impressive range of wines from the estate vineyards. 

Quinta dos Carvalhais Dão Colheita Branco 2018

The Colheita Branco is a refreshing and vibrant blend of 60% Encruzado and 40% Gouveio. Encruzado, the Dão’s premier white grape, brings a vibrant acidity and delicate citrus and floral aromatics to the blend. 10% of the Encruzado was barrel fermented and then aged for six months in used French oak, adding a subtle savouriness to the wine. Gouveio, the Portuguese name for Galicia’s Godello, brings a zippy freshness to the wine.

Quinta dos Carvalhais Dão Colheita Tinto 2018

The Colheita Tinto is a blend of Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, Tinta Roriz (Spain’s Tempranillo) and Jaen (Spain’s Mencía). The varieties were vinified separately and then 60% of the wine was aged in 225-litre used French oak barrels for eight months. It marries delicious dark fruit aromas of morello cherry and blackberry with a perfectly integrated spiciness from the oak, supple tannins and a lifted acidity.

Quinta dos Carvalhais Dão Encruzado 2019

Encruzado is a grape variety which thrives in the Dão and is prized for its ability to produce full bodied but balanced wines with great acidity and aromatics. Encruzado has a great affinity with oak, and barrel fermentation and ageing results in wines which are akin to white Burgundy. Quinta dos Carvalhais were the first producer to bottle single-varietal Encruzado in 1992. Their Encruzado begins its fermentation in stainless steel and is then transferred to new French oak barrels of varying sizes where is finishes fermentation and is then aged for eight months. It perfectly marries the citrussy vibrancy of this variety with delicious toasty notes from the oak.

Quinta dos Carvalhais Dão Touriga Nacional 2017

Touriga Nacional is highly valued not just in Portugal, but also abroad. Even the discerning Bordelais have recently welcomed it into their vineyards and it is now permitted in Bordeaux red blends. Although there is ongoing debate about whether Touriga Nacional originated in the Dão or in the Douro, there is no doubt that this variety is in its element on the granite soils and in the cooler climes here, where it can express delicate aromas of violet and bergamot alongside its brooding black fruit intensity. 2017 was an abnormally hot and dry vintage in the Dão and the harvest was followed by devastating bush fires in the region (27 hectares of the estate’s vines were damaged by the fires and have recently been replanted). In the wine, the hallmark cocoa and chocolate notes of a hot year are married with the signature black fruit and violet aromas of Touriga Nacional alongside a well-integrated spiciness from 12 months in French oak.

Quinta dos Carvalhais Dão Alfrocheiro 2015

Alfrocheiro is another prized red variety native to the Dão. It produces deeply coloured wines with flavours of juicy blackberry and spice, coupled with fine-grained tannins and a bright acidity. The Quinta dos Carvalhais Alfrocheiro is a blend of three separate plots on the estate, each vinified separately. The wine underwent nine months ageing in used French oak barrels, adding subtle savoury notes to the bright blackberry fruit. Bottle age has also added a delicious earthy, mushroomy complexity to the wine, reminiscent of that of aged Pinot Noir.

Quinta dos Carvalhais Dão Branco Reserva 2017

The Branco Reserva is a blend of 75% Encruzado and 25% Gouveio that honours the Dão white winemaking tradition of extended oak ageing and spends 16 months in 225-litre and 500-litre used French oak barrels. It balances the citrus-fruit freshness of both varieties and what Julia Harding MW describes as a “lime-juice-like acidity” with a “roundness of texture from the oak”. This is a wonderfully versatile wine with wonderful food-pairing potential.

Quinta dos Carvalhais Dão Tinto Reserva 2017

The Tinto Reserva is a complex blend of 65% Touriga Nacional, 20% Alfrocheiro and 15% Tinta Roriz aged for 12 months in a combination of new and used French oak barrels. The recently released 2017 was awarded 95 points by Roger Voss of Wine Enthusiast. In his words: “This rich, sumptuous wine is packed with great swathes of black fruits as well as a layer of firm tannins that lend support.

Quinta dos Carvalhais Dão Branco Especial NV

The Branco Especial was recently described by Sarah Ahmed writing for Decanter as “a jaw-droppingly complex, innovative non-vintage white”. It is a unique blend of whites from seven different vintages aged for extended periods in 225-litre French oak barriques. The latest release, bottled in 2019, combines wines from the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018 vintages. The different vintages all bring unique qualities to the blend and come together in beautiful harmony. A delicious ripeness from warmer years, such as the 2015 and the 2016, is brought into balance by the more crisp and aromatic wines of cooler vintages, like the 2014. The final blend comprises 45% Encruzado, 28% Gouveio, 13% Sémillon and 14% of grapes from a field blend plot of old vines on the estate, which produce low yields of incredibly concentrated fruit. This is hugely complex wine with a striking resemblance to a fine aged Sémillon, combining notes of dried fruits and nuts with a honeyed complexity, all kept on the straight and narrow by a linear acidity.

Quinta dos Carvalhais `Único` Dão Tinto 2015

The jewel in the Quinta dos Carvalhais crown is the Único, a Touriga-Nacional-dominant blend only produced in exceptional vintages from the best plots on the estate. Aged in new French oak for 18 months, this wine treads the fine line between power and elegance. It is hugely intense and complex with layers of blackberry and black cherry combined with violet, mint and spicy nuances and all balanced by a wonderful freshness. In the words of Richard Mayson (The Wines of Portugal, Infinite Ideas Limited, 2020): “It stands proudly (and justifiably) as the most expensive wine from Dão”.