The Douro may have put Portugal on the map, but other regions are helping shape the country’s future as a quality wine region, says Andrew Catchpole.

The Douro may have put Portugal on the map, but other regions are helping shape the country’s future as a quality wine region, says Andrew Catchpole.

I have always thought of Portugal as a contented sort of a nation, humming away, quietly doing its thing on the edge of Europe, wisely eschewing the brash self-satisfaction and collectively inflated egos of many of its winemaking rivals around the globe.

And in common with other visitors to its vineyards, I’ve always delighted in a sense that there is still an element of discovery, that I’m one of the lucky few to delve into this charming country, sampling its wonderfully diverse wines and regionally distinct food.

Like the closely guarded secret of a fertile truffle wood, the best of Portugal has remained largely unknown to the outside world. Somehow, though, I suspect this is all about to change.

Visiting the Essência do Vinho wine fair in the splendid Palácio da Bolsa in Porto this year brought home just how much progress Portugal’s wines have made in the past couple of decades.

With table after groaning table of often superb wines to be tasted around the palace’s galleried courtyard and chambers, presented by a who’s who of Portuguese winemaking’s great and good, this event alone was more than enough to scotch anyone’s lingering notion that the country is some form of bucolic vinous backwater.

There is a palpable sense of dynamism among Portugal’s leading winemakers and they are now beginning to shout their achievements to the world.

THE BOYS ARE BACK

At the forefront of the winemakers are the self-styled Douro Boys, a loose, friendly affiliation of five winemakers whose wines first exemplified the new wave of Portugal. Of course, the Douro has a long tradition of producing table wines from its medley of port grapes.

But it is only in fairly recent times, following in the impressive footsteps of the legendary Barca Velha, that the Douro’s leading winemakers have focused their energies on producing unfortified wines – from noble local varieties such as Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and others – of a quality to match their finest ports.

At best, these are intense, lingering wines, full of power and, as with the older vintages of Barca Velha, revealing ever-greater complexity and elegance as they age. In a few short years, the Douro has emerged as a new classic style and a benchmark for quality in Portugal, and it is making the world sit up and take notice of Portuguese wines.

After a hard day’s tasting at the Essência fair, the Douro Boys gathered for a private wine dinner in the funky setting of Porto’s contemporary art gallery, the Fundação de Serralves.

Wines from Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vale Meão, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria and Niepoort flowed freely from bottles and magnums, while some of the Douro’s biggest guns, Cristiano van Zeller, Miguel Roquette, Dirk van der Niepoort and João Ferreira Alvares Ribeiro, table-hopped, chatting about football, old friends and their wines.

As the room sampled his minerally intense, powerful Batuta 2004 (a now cult wine from 70-year-old vines), the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall-ish van der Niepoort explained why the Douro region has so recently come along in leaps and bounds. ‘The reason there has been such a remarkable change in the quality of the wines is that in the past, winemakers didn’t focus on table wines in the Douro,’ he said.

‘Now that has changed, with vineyards being dedicated to the production of these wines rather than table wines being made after the best of the crop had been used for port wines.’ It’s worth remembering that Niepoort, who comes from the fifth generation of a family of port shippers, only bought vineyards of his own in 1987 and first vinified Robusta, his first table wine from these vineyards, as recently as 1990.

As Miguel Roquette of Quinta do Crasto later pointed out: ‘We only have 15 or so years behind us so there is still a lot to be done.’ Crasto’s perfumed, rich, single varietal Touriga Nacional 2005 suggests quite how much progress these wines have already made.

BEYOND THE DOURO

If the Douro Boys give a snapshot of what is happening at the premium, red end of Portuguese winemaking, then another leading group of dynamic winemakers, naming themselves the less catchy Independent Winegrowers’ Association of

Portugal, more than hint at the incredible diversity this country has to offer.

Its six members produce exemplary wines from Vinho Verde, Douro, Bairrada, Dâo and the wider Beiras regions. Founded three years ago and headed by Luis Pato, once dubbed the Messiah of Bairrada for taming and transforming the sometimes chewy native Baga variety – think Nebbiolo as a guide to style – into wines of impressive quality, this group also boasts some of Portugal’s most innovative winemakers.

At a gathering of the group at Porto’s modish Bull & Bear restaurant, members sampled minerally, slightly creamy-textured young white Loureiro from Quinta do Ameal; fresh, peachy Encruzado and brooding, perfumed, well-structured reds from Quinta dos Roques and Quinta das Maias in the Dão; along with dense, ripe but fresh reds of Pato’s, including a superb, tiny production of 2005 Quinta do Ribeirinho from old Baga vines.

‘The group was born with the aim of promoting Portuguese varieties at the top level and I’d be the first to say that we were very impressed with what the Douro Boys have achieved in a very short time,’ Pato explained. ‘Portugal is a small wine-producing country so there is little point us trying to compete with an international flood of Chardonnay and Merlot when we can promote a combination of quality and difference of character of our own.’

It’s this difference of character that is the key to enjoying and understanding Portuguese wines. Much is made of the intriguing and sometimes confusing indigenous grapes, and it’s always fun to play around with some of the more outlandish.

For example, the zesty, citrussy Bical is also known as Borrado das Moscas, or fly droppings; the proud Tinta Roriz of the Douro becomes Aragonez in the Alentejo; aromatic Fernão Pires moonlights as Maria Gomes; and few would be brave enough – both stylistically and linguistically – to pop Bastardo on a label.

But the serious point is that varietals such as Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Tinta Roriz/Aragonez, Bical, Loureiro and Alvarinho are gradually becoming better known outside of Portugal as winemakers stick to their guns and promote these native varieties on their labels. Pato’s UK importer, Portuguese specialist Raymond Reynolds, explains why he believes Portugal’s time has come.

‘There is a lot of energy and excitement being generated by Portugal’s winemakers as the learning process of this generation clicks into place,’ he says. ‘People have been getting to grips with the terroir, with the grape varieties, with which styles of wine to make, travelling the world and bringing back ideas. Now they are getting into the groove.’

Reynolds agrees that the Douro, and in particular certain new cult wines, are bringing ‘notoriety’ at the top end, among them Sandra Tavares’ Pintas; Chryseia, the joint venture between Bruno Prats of Cos d’Estournel fame and

the Symington family; and Niepoort’s Batuta. But beyond this compact

powerhouse of a region, Reynolds also points to the Dão, Bairrada and

especially the Alentejo as great hunting grounds for more affordable but still

quality-driven wines.

RISING FAST

Indeed, the hot, southern, cork-oak carpeted Alentejo has been developing fast as a versatile region that can seemingly deliver all things to all people. Or at least a medley of different wines and varieties, ranging from fruity, affordable co-operative reds to soughtafter wines such as João Portugal Ramos’s Marquês de Borba Tinto Reserva, combining depth and berryish concentration with the typical ebullience of the warm Alentejo.

The region has become a ripe hunting ground for goodvalue wines. Ramos, who finally settled on an estate below the gleaming white hilltown of Estremoz after a peripatetic life as one of Portugal’s leading wine consultants, remains one of the country’s most innovative winemakers.

‘You have to remember that the Alentejo was still an undiscovered region in the early 1980s, with few beyond the co-operatives making wine,’ he says. ‘But in many ways it offers ideal conditions for wine, and since then the wines from here have changed in a good sense because of an influx of grape varieties from elsewhere, ambitious new producers and the growing maturity of new vineyards.’

Red varieties capable of producing bright, bouncy wines, such as Trincadeira and Periquita (Castelão Francês), were among the original vines in the region, but the more recently introduced Touriga Nacional, Aragonez and others, including a smattering of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, have taken well to the warm southern soils.

‘The softer, more approachable characteristics of the region are still reflected in the wines, regardless of the varieties grown,’ says Ramos. ‘But the influence of these new vines has added to the character and complexity of the Alentejo.’

In addition to blending, Ramos makes impressive wines from single varieties including an Aragonez and Trincadeira. As does Australian-winemaker-turnednative David Baverstock at Herdade do Esporão, near Reguengos de Monsaraz.

This last estate, with its distinctive southern architecture and excellent restaurant, is a great starting point for anyone who wants to familiarise themselves with Alentejo wines. Berryish, herby Esporão Touriga Nacional, perfumed Aragonez, fruity Trincadeira, dense Alicante Bouschet and even a spicy Syrah give a good insight into the region at the cellar door.

Esporão is also doing its bit to promote Portugal in all its diversity through a group of six of Portugal’s larger wineries known, slightly confusingly, as Grupo dos Sete, or G7 (Sogrape, Portugal’s largest producer, and maker of some very fine wines, left the group last year).

The six remaining wineries – Caves Aliança, Aveleda, Bacalhôa, Esporão, José Maria da Fonseca and Messias – are ranged up and down the country, again providing a showcase for Portugal’s varied styles. Whereas a single article may have been enough to cover Portugal’s better table wines 20 years ago, today it can only scratch the surface of the exciting developments in this still rapidly evolving country.

The Douro has clearly stolen a march over the old, traditional regions of Dão and Bairrada, but even here, in regions that were once a byword for tough, chewy reds, a new, supple, yet still distinctly Portuguese quality is beginning to shine through.

The Alentejo has stormed ahead as it develops an increasingly strong reputation for approachable, yet often complex, quality wines. But there is still potentially far more to come from the idiosyncratic vineyards of this country.

Last year, while Symington’s characterful Douro wine Altano was

knocking spots off global rivals for a modest £5.99 on the UK shelves,

independent merchant Tanners was busy launching the UK’s first serious

Portuguese en primeur table wine offer of 2005 Douro wines.

It was hailed as a great success and will be repeated with the 2007s next year. Towards the end of this year, Vino ’07, a new joint venture between Portuguese specialist D&F Wines and a group of nine co-operatives, plus four or five independent wineries, will launch what promises to be an exciting range of new-wave wines to suit a variety of pockets.

Meanwhile, individual producers continue to up the ante with interesting, flavoursome, greatvalue, food-friendly wines from every corner of Portugal.

SHAPING THE IMAGE

D&F’s Jose Leitao should, perhaps, have the last word on why Portugal is striving so hard. ‘You British are very good at stereotyping other nations, if I may say so,’ he says with a smile.

‘You talk of the “frogs” and the “krauts”, and you have

images of mad Italians and of Spanish either bullfighting or on a semi-permanent siesta. But when it comes to Portugal there is no stereotyping at all beyond a vague surprise that we play football.’ This lack of a strong, clichéd image in

the outside world, he suggests, is why the Portuguese have had to focus on delivering quality and indigenous character that will speak for itself in its wines.

It’s a slow, dedicated path to recognition, but increasingly the benefits are finding their way into consumers’ glasses.

Written by Andrew Catchpole