As Portuguese winemakers become more skilled at working with their native grape varieties, some fantastic single-varietal wines have resulted. However, GILEs MaCDONOGH still firmly believes that Portugal's best wines are its blends

As Portuguese winemakers become more skilled at working with their native grape varieties, some fantastic single-varietal wines have resulted. However, GILEs MaCDONOGH still firmly believes that Portugal’s best wines are its blends

Touriga Naçional, Touriga Francesa, Baga, Tinto Cão, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, Jaen, Alfrocheiro Preto, Tinta Miuda, Castelão, Trincadeira – they all sound like tongue twisters to the unitiated. Translate them and they offer evidence of Lusitanian wit: ‘dog strangler’, ‘cat’stail’, ‘fly droppings’ or ‘bastard’. Stick with these Portuguese grape varieties, though, and you find that they also offer an intense range of new flavours capable of reviving palates deadened by the onslaught of commercial Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons.A generation ago, these varieties lived cheek by jowl; sometimes in a promiscuous jumble on the south-facing hillsides of Europe’s westernmost nation. Winemakers had only the vaguest notion as to the roles the different grapes performed. Then, in the Douro in the 1970s, vital work was done to isolate the best grapes for port. João Nicolau de Almeida named five that he thought worthy of retention: Touriga Naçional, Touriga Francesa, Tinto Cão and Tinta Barroca.

Once five quality grapes were isolated, the way was open for single-varietal wines. This process was brought forward by foreign winemakers working in Portugal. The most famous of these were the Australians David Baverstock and Peter Bright. Naturally they brought their Antipodean experience with mono-varietal wines to bear. From the Douro the process expanded to take in every region from the Minho to the Algarve. Today more and more cultivars are vinified on their own. The process has been taken to extremes (one wonders, for example, how much of a market there is a for a single-varietal Tinta Miuda), but it remains one of the highest value: Portuguese winemakers need to know how these grapes work and what they taste like. Some wines have turned out extremely well. Others, well, it might be better to throw them back into the pool.The most popular grape for single-varietal wine to date has been Touriga Naçional. This provides the backbone for port, but in my opinion it is often a little too serious to be good on its own. It needs a few light-hearted friends. Another imported winemaker, the American Jerry Luper, makes a superb example at Quinta do Cidrô, which has all the sweet butteriness of a cherry pie.

Touriga Naçional is supposed to have originated in the Dão, where there is a village called Tourigo. The grape disappeared after phylloxera, but it has been revived of late. Two other Dão varieties have worked well on their own: Jaen and Alfrocheiro Preto. The latter is particularly successful from the Sogrape Quinta das Carvalhais. The region is a high plateau and red wines tend to sport a prodigious acidity. Quinta de Pellada makes both straight Tinta Roriz and Touriga Naçional to a very high standard, but to my mind neither is equal to the blend of

Jaen and Tinta Roriz with its aroma of blackberries and cream. The place for great varietal wines is Quinta dos Roques. I would say that the Tinto Cão shows best, with its hints of liquorice. But Luis Lourenço, who works with his father-in-law at Roques, still believes that the blend that they produce is the best wine of the range, above all the mono-varietals. Tinta Roriz, or Aragonez as it is known in the south, is almost as favoured as Touriga Naçional. This is the Tempranillo of Spain, and its soft fruit has always been appreciated on its own. Again some of the best examples come from the Douro, like Quinta de la Rosa, or the wine made by Quinta do Portal. In Alenquer a leaner example from Quinta de Pancas has an interesting redcurrant bouquet. Some of the less well-known Douro varieties have been vinified successfully. Anselmo Mendes, for example, makes wines at Quinta da Gaivosa. The best of the single-varietal range is again the Tinto Cão. In Bairrada, Baga is usually vinified on its own. When badly made it can be as tough as old boots or smell of sweat. There are two names which ring out whenever pure Baga wines are mentioned: Casa de Saima and Luis Pato of Ois do Bairro with his old vine Vinha Barrosa, and the tiny Quinta do Ribeirinho, where vines are planted directly in the sandy soil. Less well known is Quinta da Rigodeira, which also uses very old vines to make a wine reeking of ripe, black fruits.One of the most tireless experimenters with single varieties is José Luis Oliveira da Silva in Alenquer. He is advised by José Neiva, part of the successful DFJ operation based across the way in the Ribatejo. Here you may taste Preto Martinho, Camarate, Trincadeira, Tinta Miuda as well as some of the more frequently encountered varieties, including a superlative Tinta Roriz.

Vinified alone, Castelão or Periquita is associated with the Setubal peninsula. The variety is tolerant of sand – and there is lots of it about. The peninsula is dominated by two big firms: JM da Fonseca and JP Vinhos, but there are increasing numbers of smaller estates making lovely Periquita wines: Quinta da Mimosa, Hero do Castanheiro and best of all, Pegos Claros, vinified by João Portugal Ramos and his team. The new thinking at Fonseca is veering away from mono-varietal wines, and tends more towards blending to add complexity to established brands such as Camarate or Periquita. Then there are the foreign cultivars, which surface most in the old bulk producing regions such as the Ribatejo, north of Lisbon. Syrah has been successfully vinified here at Quinta de Lagoalva. But the most famous Portuguese Syrah comes from the Alentejo. Incognito from Cortes de Cima has none of those carnation or peony smells I associate with granite-grown fruit, but an intense taste of baked plums. Portugal’s only Pinot Noir is made by the Duque de Cadaval at his estate in the Ribatejo.

The DFJ operation at Quinta da Fonte Bela in the Ribatejo is the source of a great deal of commercial varietal wines. Among the Grand’ Arte range there is an Alicante Bouschet – a grape variety with a much better reputation here than in its native France. The best wine is the Trincadeira.The chief player of the varietal card in the Alentejo is João Portugal Ramos. In his Marques de Borba range there are Aragonez, Trincadeira and Tinta Caiado (Bastard). Once again the blended reserva steals the show. Another predictable source of varietal wines is Esporão which makes a splendid Bastardo – a sure boon for any marketing man.

As Portuguese winemakers are learning, there are very few varieties in the world that are able to beat a skilfully structured blend. Even Cabernet Sauvignon, vinified on its own, has a famously hollow middle palate. Pinot Noir and Syrah are the only two that stand out, and Côte Rôtie only reaches the heavens by adding a little dash of Viognier. In the last few years more and more winemakers have realised that the best wines come from old, promiscuous vineyards. A surprising convert is David Baverstock, who used to make the wines at Quinta do Crasto in the Douro. When I visit him there he points to two plots, Ponte and Maria Teresa, which contain up to 50 different varieties. These make superb wine, and there is no logic in pulling them up to plant the famous five.It is still true that Portugal’s very best wines are its blends: Barca Velha is now on top form in the hands of José Maria Soares Franco, so too is its rival João Nicolau de Almeida’s Duas Quintas Reserva. Evel Grande Escolha is another lovely Douro blend, while Dirk Niepoort’s Redoma has a burly side to its nature which avoids the porty sweetness found in other top Douro reds. In great years Niepoort makes the aptly named Robustus. Portugal’s other great blends come from Alentejo. Barca Velha’s southern counterpart is Pera Manca, made from Trincadeira, Tinta Roriz and Castelão with a little Tinto Cão and Alfrocheiro Preto. With its citrussy bouquet it reminds me of great St-Emilion. Pera Manca is both rare and expensive, but there are cheaper alternatives, such as Tapada de Coelheiros where the smoky richness is created by a combination of Trincadeira, Aragonez and Cabernet Sauvignon. The excellent Tapada do Chaves has been around since the 1960s and uses mainly Trincadeira fruit. One of the greatest wines of the region is Herdade de Mouchão, a wine based on the French pariah-grape Alicante Bouschet, topped up with Castelão and Trincadeira. The old Garrafeiras from the other Reynolds property, Quinta do Carmo, were made from a similar cocktail. No one would blame the Portuguese winemakers for wanting to learn about their indigenous cultivars, and the deconstruction is a positive process; a learning curve. We destroy – as one old Russian anarchist so succinctly put it – to create.

Giles MacDonogh is the author of Portuguese Table Wines, published 31 October.

wines to look out for

l Duas Quintas Reserva 1997

£18.99

l Quinta do Crasto 1998 £4.49

l Redoma £14.99

l Luis Pato Vinha Barrosa; £15

l Quinta do Ribeirinho £12

l Casa de Saima £8.49;

l Quinta dos Roques 1998

£8.60–9.95

l Esporão Trincadeira £7.99

l Cortes de Cima £8.95–8.99

l Periquita £4.53

l Pasmados £6.20

Written by GILES MACDONOGH