Portugal is redefining itself as a country with its finger on the pulse, and its winemaking is improving at the same pace. SARAH JANE EVANS MW discovers a number of modern wines ready to make their world debut.

Once upon a time Portugal was the finis terrae, the end of the world where the land met the boundless ocean. Today, the ocean has been conquered, and the forgotten corner of the world is bright with European subsidy. Much of Portugal sparkles with the newly won affluence. Ancient convents and palaces house boutique hotels. Rambling winery buildings now shelter glinting rows of stainless steel tanks and new barrels. Things are looking up.

When it comes to table wines, the medals are still dominated by reds from Douro port houses. They held the top places and grabbed the popular attention at the recent tasting in London of Richard Mayson’s ‘Fifty Great Portuguese Red Wines’. Yet coming up on the outside are the wines of central and southern Portugal: notably Alentejo, but also Ribatejo, Estremadura and Terras do Sado. Step into the barrel cellar for the clearest view of the latest trends in Portuguese wine. Here are the wines we will be drinking soon; and here and there are the experimental barrels waiting for some thoughtful blending.

JM Fonseca’s cellars are typical of this new Portugal, just over the astonishing Vasco da Gama bridge from Lisbon, in Terras do Sado. JM Fonseca and its neighbour JP Vinhos share the honour of being the leading producers of the region’s sweet fortified, Setúbal. The business made its name and profits under the brand name, Lancer’s. Today JM Fonseca’s UC Davis-trained winemaker and co-owner Domingo Soãres is building up a wide selection of varietals. As befits a man who says, ‘I see myself as a New World producer’, he has Syrah and Tannat, in addition to the Douro’s best – Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cão – plus the locals: Castelão, Trincadeira, Aragonez. Also on the list are the usual crowd pleasers, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Learning Curve

This portfolio of varieties in the centre and south has the potential to be Portugal’s escape route from the trough of deep discounting in wine export. Its sheer range may well charm jaded wine writers and sommeliers. Yet the risk is that it confuses the consumer. The classic example is Aragonez, also known as Tinta Roriz. Over the border in Spain it has become much more familiar to the world as Rioja’s Tempranillo. Today site selection and improved winemaking need to go hand in hand with equally smart marketing.

First hope is Syrah, the attention-grabbing new guest in the Alentejo party. While it does not even figure in the top five planted grape varieties in the region, it is grown by an increasing number of producers. Quinta do Monte d’Oiro’s Syrahs from the cooler, more maritime Estremadura follow the latest New World fashion of containing a dose of Viognier, and figured in Mayson’s Fifty. The most prominent Syrah producer in the Alentejo is still probably Cortes de Cima, whose Incognico brand name was invented when Syrah was not permitted and could not be mentioned on the front label. Danish-born Hans Jorgensen is a scrupulous observer of viticulture, always ready to experiment.

Cortes de Cima’s portfolio includes an expressive Touriga Nacional (t20) with attractive violet and spice aromas, and plenty of red plum fruit with fine tannins. Despite its rising profile, there is relatively little Touriga Nacional planted in the port lands. It’s a difficult variety – low yielding, susceptible to fungal infections, and the small berries need hand harvesting and careful handling. In the arid Alentejo, there is no worry about humidity; but the risk is high alcohol. The wines are perhaps less complex, but more immediately attractive.

The style of the region is commercial. ‘Young Alentejo reds have flavours of ripe, sometimes overripe red fruits, relatively low acidity and smooth tannins, with medium to high alcohol,’ says Vasco Magalães of Sogrape. ‘This means the Alentejo has the potential and consistency to appeal to British wine drinkers just as Australia does.’

The Alentejo was once prime land for farming cereals. Today vines are almost everywhere. Sogrape, at its Herdade do Peso estate, began with 40ha (hectares) and now has 160ha. The benefit of recent investment across the region is that producers can bring in up-to-date technology. Accurate drip irrigation, for instance, has been vital: ‘With irrigation we can ensure the grapes ripen more slowly,’ says Magalães, who acknowledges that too much wine is produced in the region now, but says it means that he can select the best fruit.

In terms of red varieties, the best for the region are Aragonez, Trincadeira and Alfrocheiro. What of Syrah? ‘Yes,’ admits Magalães, ‘yet I sometimes think Syrah is invading Portugal.’ Magaläes finishes his list with Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet. Although the latter has been in the country for 100 years, he still ranks it as a French newcomer.

North of Lisbon, in Estremadura, José Luis Oliveira da Silva of Casa Santos Lima agrees that there is a distinctive Alentejo character, but says that, ‘we have very different micro-climates which give us almost too many styles’. Standing on the lawn admiring the view it is possible to believe this. The old soils on the hills and slopes in front of us offer almost every aspect and slope to delight the viticulturalist. The number of wines on the tasting table in front of us proves it. But his very clear focus on the needs of export customers means he is facing up to the challenge.

At DFJ Vinhos there’s also a complete focus on that challenge. The initials DFJ represent the company’s three founders, and Fausto Ferraz, the ‘F’, is a vivid example of the transformation of the old Portugal. DFJ’s skill has been to create wines for export to tight pricing, and Fausto keeps his mind on his work. The clue is the plug-in memory disks dangling from his neck on a strap. He pats them affectionately: ‘I have the whole business here.’ Winemaker José Neiva is the J of the team. He’s launching three upmarket reds – from the Douro, Alenquer (Estremadura) and Ribatejo.

Consensus, the Ribatejo blend, is one of Mayson’s Fifty (approximately £13–18). Hitherto Ribatejo has been a poor relation. ‘It reminds me of Languedoc after the war,’ says Magalhães, ‘when wine was being given up for distillation and quality was very low.’ The region built its export business on making wines for the supermarkets, working with winemakers like José Neiva and João Portugal Ramos. Now the poacher has turned gamekeeper. Ramos is employing Sam Harrop MW, until last year wine buyer for M&S, as a consultant with an eye to the British market.

‘I specialise in bringing lesser-known varieties from lesser-known regions to the UK,’ says Harrop. ‘As an independent consultant, I can challenge current winemaking practices and also long-term viticultural strategy. It’s different from a flying winemaker, who can be directly linked tohomogenisation in wine.’

Harrop adds that he is ‘interested in helping wineries make wines that are commercial and cheaper to produce for the same quality. What’s exciting is that up to now growers selected the fertile soils, and the vines produced vigorous canopies. João Portugal Ramos has sought out the schist and hilly areas to get the greater concentration of fruit.’

The first fruit is Tagus Creek, launched recently in the UK in Morrisons at £4.99. This is a well-packaged, recognisable brand. Not surprising from a producer who has managed growth in export markets so intelligently and has built a reputation for expressive Portuguese wines at good prices. Another new entrant is the stylishly transformed Casal Branco estate where Ramos also advises. This well-restored stud farm aims to offer a ‘New World’-style experience, with a gift shop, and a small café/wine bar. Casal Branco has taken the dual variety route, offering the local Castelão in a series of blends with a more famous variety such as Syrah, or Touriga Nacional. The packaging is handsome, and Waitrose has taken some of the wines as part of its project to increase the selection of wines from Portugal.

These commercial, smartly packaged brands are all the more remarkable for being so rare. Portugal has a range of well-made expressive wines at entry level and mid-market prices, but when it comes to packaging, many brands lack the conviction of their contents. At the top end, there are also some very high prices which find buyers in the domestic market. And as UK wine merchant James Tanner explains: ‘If you’re looking for wine to import you’ll find Portugal is keeping its best wine at home. It’s like Spain in that respect.’ However, in 2005 it seems the finis terrae is turning its back on splendid isolation by investing in building a profile for itself abroad. Portugal may at last get the sales its hardworking winemakers so deserve.

Cortes de Cima, Chamine, Alentejo 2003

One third Syrah, two thirds Aragonez, with a dash of

Touriga Nacional to add floral aromatics to a blend of dark berries, plum and liquorice.

£6.99; Maj, Odd, Wai

DFJ Vinhos, Grand’ Arte Trincadeira, Ribatejo 2003

Firm tannins, typical supple red plum fruit with a fine undertow of acidity. £6.99; Boo, Evy

Esporao, Alicante Bouschet, Alentejo 2002

Plenty of jammy damson, black plum fruit, well-controlled tannins and bright acidity. £9.99; Fel

José Maria da Fonseca, Hexagon, Terras do Sado 2000

The first release of this wine. Supple violet and menthol; a blend of six of the varieties in Domingo Soäres’ cellar: Trincadeira, Syrah and Tannat. Crisp acid, spice and pepper on the finish, long and intense.

£35 (in magnum); HvM

JP Vinhos, Quinta da Bacalhoa, Terras do Sado 2001

JP Vinhos was the first to plant Merlot in Portugal. This, the top wine, is from Bordeaux varieties. Dark berry fruit, with bright acidity and a long, dark finish. £10.99; Ehr

Sarah Jane Evans MW is a freelance wine and food writer.

Written by Sarah Jane Evans MW