The Dao wine region is located in the center of Portugal and is named after the Dao river. It is surrounded by mountains and has one of the highest average elevations of all of Portugal’s DOCs. The region stretches across quaint villages, ancient castles and vineyard-covered hills.
The Dao is one of Portugal’s coldest and best known wine regions. Despite this, it only received official recognition as a DOC in 1960.
Most of its typically small wineries are located between 600 and 3,300 feet of elevation. This elevation combined with its granite-based soils, temperate climate, relatively large diurnal shift (the difference between daytime and night temperatures) and its plentiful rain lead to well hydrated grapes that ripen slowly. The result is higher acidity and softer, more elegant wines with more pronounced minerality than is the case with wines from more sandy soil, lower elevations and warmer climates.
Dao Wine Grape Varieties
Like most of Portugal’s wine regions, the Dao grows a wide range of grapes which are often combined into blends rather than single grape wines. Yet roughly a dozen grapes account for the vast majority of the region’s production.
For white grapes the most used are:
- Encruzado, the most sought after, but much less produced of Dao white grapes, produces full-bodied wines with complexity, floral aromas, citrus, and mineral notes.
- Malvasia Fina, the most heavily planted of Dao whites is flowery and elegant with a straw-yellow color and a very citrusy taste.
- Bical produces light wine with a yellow color, fruity aromas, and dryness with low acidity.
- Cercial Branco is delicate, fruity and fragrant with a citrus taste.
- Rabo de Ovelha has complex aromas of tropical fruits and orange blossom.
The most predominate red grapes are:
- Touriga Nacional and Jaen are the most planted Dao’s red grapes and are the centerpieces of many of the region’s multi-varietal blends. Touriga Nacional contributes to the wine’s structure and ageability and Jaen provides delicate, smoothness, and perfume aromas.
- Alfrocheiro is often blended with Touriga Nacional. It is delicate, fruity, and balanced with light red (especially strawberry) notes.
- Tinta Roriz is also called Aragonez and Tempranillo in other countries. It provides tannins, body, acidity, tannins ageabilty.
Tasting Dao Wines
The best way to understand any wine region is to taste the wines.
A good place to start is at the Dao Wine Welcome center. You can buy wines from almost 50 wine producers. But even more important is that they can arrange tastings and provide information on the Dao wine region. Don’t forget to check out the nice display of older Dao wines.
But now onto tasting wines.
Winemaker/owner Luis Lourenco provided a wonderful introduction to Dao wines at his mid-sized (for Portugal) 200,000 bottle winery. He began producing single varietal Dao wines in 1992. This was before they became popular in Portugal and a year before the DOC even authorized them to be sold in 1993. He continues to make and sell single-varietal wines from most of Dao’s primary grapes and exports 85 percent of his production primary to Canada, Japan and the UK.
We tasted several of his single-varietal wines while also getting an education on the role of each in the market and how they are planted. Our tastings included several whites:
- 2021 Quinta dos Roques (a vineyard that Roque acquired) Malvesia Fina, the highest production of Dao white grapes. Roque ferments the juice on the lees to add complexity and balance. We found it to be light, fruity and refreshing with citrus notes. According the winemaker, Malvasia is the most widely grown grape. It is very easy and forgiving to grow and ultimately the most popular since about half of the grapes produced in Portugal are sold through coops which pay by the ton, rather than paying a premium for quality. However it is difficult to produce as a single varietal since errors cannot be disguised by oak which overwhelms its delicate aromas and tastes.
- 2021 Encruzado, the most structured, balanced and complex of Dao whites and our favorite. Roque ages its version in 50 percent in stainless and 50 percent with one-third each new, one and two year-old oak barrels (Roque uses 50 percent 500 liter oak barrels to reduce the percentage of wine with direct oak contact).
We then moved on the red single varietals.
- 2018 Quinta des Halas Jaen is light and fruity with low alcohol (generally 12.2-12.5 percent) and low tannins. It is kind of the Pinot Noir of Portuguese reds, except, in our opinion, without the body or the complexity. It is the most widely planted of the red grapes since it is fast ripening and requires little attention in the field. This, as with Malvasia Fina, makes it makes attractive to growers who sell to coops. Also as with Malvesia Fina, it is less forgiving in the production process as a single varietal—easy to ruin and difficult to fix other than by blending it with other grapes.
- 2017 Alfrocheiro has high acid and good structure, but is very approachable with a light, strawberry-like taste. While this makes Alfrocheiro a popular blending grape, these same characteristics makes it difficult to produce as a single varietal.
- 2017 Touriga Nacional is big, complex, and full bodied with high alcohol levels (at least for Portugal) of about 13.5 percent. While Roque and other winemakers try to bring down the alcohol, it is complicated by the fact that Touriga Nacional is the first grape to bud and the last to be harvested (typically late September or early October (compared with early September, or even late August for whites and for Jaen). This also makes to susceptible to late spring frosts and late September rains and fires. (Picking early results in a green wine.)
- 2017 Tinto Cao is a grape that is more common in Douro than in Dao. It adds freshness and elegance to blends but is not typically suitable for a single varietal. Although 2017 was an exception, it was not our taste profile.
Pedra Cancela (part of the Lusovini Vinhos de Portugal group)
We tasted seven of their wines in the Taverna do Dao along with a meal. Both of our lunch entrees were quite good: chicken breast with pesto and mushroom risotto and veal tenderloin (cooked medium rare, as requested) with asparagus risotto. But we were there to taste Pedra Cancela wines.
We began by tasting three white wines:
- 2021 Selecao do Enologo is a blend of Encruzado, Cocal-Branco and Malvasia-Fina. We found it to be very light and fresh and citrusy tasting.
- 2021 Vinha da Fidalga Encruzado is 100% Encruzado. Its balance and minerality made it our favorite of the whites we tasted.
- 2020 Vinha Branca Reserva is an oak-aged blend of Encruzado and Malvasia Fina. Its ripe apple, balance, and restrained use of oak made it our second favorite white.
Next was a rose:
- 2021 Touriga Nacional-based rose was a crisp and fruity rose, but was non-descript.
We finished the tasting with three red wines:
- 2018 Selecao do Enologo, a light red blend of Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro and Tinta Roriz that was aged for only six months. It had too much tannin or our taste.
- 2018 Vinha da Fidalga Red is a blend of Alfrocheiro and Touriga Nacional that tasted green. It was our favorite red.
- 2019 Tinto Reserva consisted of Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro, and Tinta-Ruiz grapes. While it is still two young, it shows promise.
Quinta da Fata
This family operation has been producing wine for three generations but began selling commercially only in 2003. It manages 12 hectares of vineyards and produces 35,000-50,000 bottles per year selling most of its production to export markets—especially Germany, France, and Japan. Our delightful host poured wines in her backyard that overlooked a vineyard while regaling us with interesting stories of her life.
We began our tasting with a single varietal white before moving on to two red blends:
- 2022 Encruzado which, unlike the Quinta dos Roques, was produced and aged all in stainless. The result is a fresh, complex, and expressive wine. The winery will offer a partially oaked version of this wine in 2023.
- 2019 Vinho Tinto, a blend of Touriga Nacional, Jaen and smaller volumes of several other grapes. It was aged for only about six months in a blend of new and neutral oak. We found it to be harsh and not especially compelling.
- 2017 Vinho Tinto Reserva is a blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Alfrocheiro, and Jaen. It was expressive and complex with nice dark fruit, tannins and acid that will age nicely. When we asked how long this wine was aged in oak (expecting that, as with most countries, extra aging is a requirement for Reserva designation), we were told that it was aged in oak for the same period, but held in the bottle. We were told that in Portugal, Reserva designations are determined by a jury on the basis of taste.
No, this is not a wine but a historic town in the of the center of the Dao wine region. It has some interesting sights if you have the time. While we didn’t spend much time here, we did hit a few highlights of the city’s architectural and historical heritage.
The mood is set when you enter the historic are through a 15th-century gate that is set in a section of the old town walls.
The 18th-century Church of the Misericordia and a 13th century Se or cathedral (with a 17th century façade) are open to explore.
The Museu de Grão Vasco was established in a 16th century former bishop’s granite palace and displays works by artists from the local 15th/16th-century Viseu School.