Portugal is home to some fantastic indigenous varieties, yet they are in danger of disappearing. That would be a tragedy, says Paul White

When does global influence prevent a wine made in Portugal from being Portuguese?

A Portuguese producer told me about a visit he had from one of America’s most influential wine writers. Eager to show off his terroir, the producer invited him to see his vineyards. The writer curtly replied that ‘terroir wasn’t important’.

The producer then laid out a vertical tasting of his wines going back 20 years to show how his wine matured in a background of vintage variation. Waving off these older wines as ‘irrelevant’, the writer insisted on tasting only those his readers could buy. Clearly, he’d already made up his mind about what he felt Portuguese wines were all about and was looking for wines that conformed to his concept.

Such attitudes must drive Portuguese producers crazy. All that hard work, vision and artistry, judged by outsiders who have little interest in their wines’ history, their sense of place, and the technology and culture that shaped them. Yet these are the things that make wines tick, that make them quintessentially Portuguese.

Another time I was waved over to a producer’s table at a Portuguese wine fair to try a wine ‘because it was made with 150% new oak barrels and Robert Parker had scored it 93 points’. I asked whether he would have scored 96 points if he’d used 200% new oak instead. Although he laughed, I’m not really sure who my joke was on – him or me?

More disturbingly, I recently visited several large, modern Portuguese wineries that have given up on traditional varieties altogether, opting for grapes they feel will be easier to sell: Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet.

This creates some tough choices for Portuguese producers. Which wine language to choose: American, French, English or Portuguese? Do you sell out to sell, or stay true to yourself and your traditions? So far, Portugal has managed to remain true, while offering up a huge range of distinctive grapes and unusual wine styles. Luckily, it’s doing so just as many of us are tiring of endless New World makeovers of French varieties.

The beating heart

The northern region of Dão has a lot going for it in that respect: first-rate grape varieties rooted in granite-based terroir, shaped by a growing season that’s gentler and longer than other Portuguese regions. Although many are relatively unknown and often tricky to pronounce, Dão’s red grapes offer consumers genuinely new and exciting drinking experiences.

Dão’s flagship red blend is built around Touriga Nacional (usually 40%–60%), supported with smaller portions of Jaen, Alfrocheiro Preto, Rufete, Roriz or Tinto Cão. Although positioned south of Douro, the region is cooler and wetter, producing fresher wines. Compared to darker fruited, fuller bodied, more alcoholic blends common to Douro and Alentejo, Dão reds are lighter coloured, more floral, red fruit-oriented and finer bodied, with a juicier undercurrent of natural acidity. Superb food wines.

While visiting Dão’s Centro de Estudo Vitivinicolas (CEV), I tasted my way through many traditional blends back to 1958. Excepting the oldest 1959 white, every wine was in superb shape – complete, complex and mature, yet still vibrant. If these wines were that good back then, they ought to be world class today, given better hygiene and more knowledge. But does going modern necessarily mean progress?

Undisputedly, Dão’s star grape is Touriga Nacional. Recent DNA research confirms that Touriga originated in Dão, and didn’t move to Douro until the 19th century. Because of this, Touriga has its widest range of clonal diversity and varietal character in Dão. Ripening under cooler conditions, it takes on violets, balsamic and bergamot, a finer structure, and retains more natural acidity than elsewhere in Portugal. The fact it ripens at 12%–13% alcohol testifies to its natural fit with Dão soils and weather.

Beyond its lead function in blends, Dão Touriga is also the most complete on its own. Some better examples include Barão de Nelas, Quinta dos Carvalhais, Quinta da Fata, Perdigão, Borges, Quinta do Cerrado, Quinta das Marias, Casa de Santar, Quinta dos Roques, Quinta da Falorca and the cooperative Udaca.

producers have started pulling other grapes out of the traditional blend. Unable to ‘accept what had been done, purely out of tradition’, Luís Lorenço, owner of Quinta dos Roques and Quinta das Maias, took the lead in making single-variety wines in an effort to understand their potential.

A strong proponent of Jaen and Alfrocheiro, Lorenço says, ‘If I had to drop one grape it would be Roriz (aka Tempranillo), because it doesn’t grow well or in interesting ways in my vineyards.’ Introduced from Douro, Sogrape promoted Roriz through its grower network in the 1990s where it became an important component of Quinta dos Carvalhais. Contrarily, winemaker Manuel Vieira likes its ‘reliability, austere aromas, firm tannins, and balsamic character’.

His 100% Roriz vintages back to 1992 were stylistically pure, intensely focused and beautifully structured – reminiscent of fine old Rioja Another interloper, Jaen, is identical to Spain’s Mencia grape which grows along the pilgrim’s trail to Santiago de Campostela. In hotter parts of Dão, Jaen ripens first and is low in acidity. It traditionally enhanced floral aromas and provided alcohol, softening tarter grapes in blends.

CEV’s Jorge Brites says In Northern Dão’s cooler conditions, however, Jaen harvests two weeks later, producing firmer tannins and more pronounced florals. It works as a standalone there. João Tavares de Pina of Quinta da Boavista wants his Terras de Tavares Jaen to ‘have concentration without density’ believing it needs ‘freshness, not high acidity’.

The extended ripening time in his sub-region of Penalva delivers ripe tannins without losing delicate aromas, all at low alcohol levels. His young Jaen is highly floral, full of violet, cinnamon, black cherry and plum fruits with fleshy textures, bright acidity and finely powered tannins. Other compelling Jaens are ‘Jaen ripens too fast in southern Dão, so has no colour or structure. It was not respected because it had been put in the wrong places and found at Casa de Darei and Quinta de Lemos, a smart rosé at Quinta das Marias, and a complex, velvety 1997 at Quinta das Maias. not treated as a prime grape.’

Two other traditional Dão grapes, Alfrocheiro and Rufete, have solid solo potential. Both are highly perfumed, with red cherry characters and juicy acidity. ‘Alfrocheiro adds colour, perfume and flavour,’ says Brites. ‘Like Merlot’s relationship to Cabernet Sauvignon, it marries well with Touriga, offering structure and ageing potential. Rufete adds aroma and acidity, and fixes colour.’

Of the two, Alfrocheiro is the stronger soloist. Vieira praises its ‘fresh acidity and ageing potential. Although aromas and flavours are not obvious initially, they develop nicely over time’. In cooler, northern sites it has aromatic and structural similarities with Pinot Noir. On hotter southern sites, alcohol can reach 15%, making it more Garnacha-like. Quinta das Marias, Borges, Quinta dos Roques, Perdigão and Quinta dos Carvalhais make expressive, structured examples.

Rufete (also called Tinta Pinheiro) is traditionally used in rosés. It can make pretty, early-drinking styles, provided it’s grown on cooler sites and yields are kept low. The profile is of red and black cherry fruits, with good spice, soft tannins and juicy acidity – somewhere between Gamay and Dolcetto.

Inspired by the past

These just scratch the surface of Dão’s grapes. Portugal has some of the greatest vine biodiversity in the world, taking on a Noah’s Ark role. Of the 340 varieties in common use, 258 are native only to Portugal and researchers believe another 200 still await identification in old field-blend vineyards. And, as global warming advances, such grapes may be the last hope for other hot-climate wine producers.

On a similar note, after years of stainless-steel fermentation and ageing in French barrels, fermentation in traditional lagares is on the rise. Driven by arm-locked workers stomping grapes for long periods in waist high, granite-walled vats, the resulting wine is often darker, richer, finer tannined, more persistent and far more complex than modern production methods. Once again, Dão’s future takes inspiration from its past.

Two other traditional Dão grapes, Alfrocheiro and Rufete, have solid solo potential. Both are highly perfumed, with red cherry characters and juicy acidity. ‘Alfrocheiro adds colour, perfume and flavour,’ says Brites. ‘Like Merlot’s relationship to Cabernet Sauvignon, it marries well with Touriga, offering structure and ageing potential. Rufete adds aroma and acidity, and fixes colour.’

Of the two, Alfrocheiro is the stronger soloist. Vieira praises its ‘fresh acidity and ageing potential. Although aromas and flavours are not obvious initially, they develop nicely over time’. In cooler, northern sites it has aromatic and structural similarities with Pinot Noir. On hotter southern sites, alcohol can reach 15%, making it more Garnacha-like.

The great paradox is that progress preys on this rich diversity. Dão’s older vineyards are commonly inter-planted in field blends with 20 or more varieties mixed together. As different grapes ripen at different times, it’s impossible to pick each one when optimally ripe. In previous times – when 12% or 13% wines were normal – this didn’t matter, as the whole lot was picked at once and co-fermented, so perfectly ripened grapes were mixed in with the under-ripe grapes that averaged out the over-ripe ones.

Now that newer, internationally Now that newer, internationally influenced wine styles demand riper grapes, often punching alcohol above 14%, all this has become anathema to modern viticulture. And so, old varieties are mowed down and replanted with a couple of varieties in single blocks – all for ease of harvest and stylistic conformity.

While Alvaro Castro and a few others make wonderful wines from field blends of old, unknown grapes, the rest of Dão – indeed all of Portugal – needs to take a cue from them and Californian producers such as Ridge, Ravenswood and Marietta, who turned their old-vine, field blends into a marketing gold mine. And we can then help support this priceless resource before it’s gone forever.

Let’s return to my opening question. I pondered this while sampling Touriga from a classical 600-litre Portuguese oak barrel, and then the same wine aged in a 225-litre Bordeaux barrique. The first spoke of fruit grown in Portuguese soil; the other spoke mostly about French oak forests. It leaves little doubt where Portuguese wine began, and should end.

Written by Paul White