The difficult, diverse nature of Portugal's grape varieties has long caused despair. Until now. By Josie Butchart

The difficult, diverse nature of Portugal’s grape varieties has long caused despair. Until now. By Josie Butchart

There’s something about the air in northern Portugal. Charged with passion, the wines to be found there are similarly dramatic. Northern Portugal has a lot to offer the wine world: top-class indigenous grape varieties, a long tradition of winemaking and the determination to reassess and modernise. With the exception of the Douro thoroughbreds, however, the area’s wines are often ignored or approached with caution by wine lovers unfamiliar with the grape varieties and the taste of these wild stallions from the unknown regions.

Viticulturalists are nonetheless striving to find and express the true identity of the region’s grapes. Most are all too aware of the challenges involved, namely the confusion that reigns from the random planting of varieties in many of the vineyards, and the collision of tradition with modern machinery and methods. But they are also full of energy and optimism – and with good reason.

Carlos Moura, winemaker at the dynamic Dão Sul winery, believes each region has something unique to offer: ‘As you travel across the country you can immediately see the contrasts in climate and landscape, and ultimately you can taste the diversity in the grapes,’ he says. Dão Sul has set out to take the top indigenous grape varieties from Dão, Bairrada and Douro and use them to express the terroir as clearly as possible.

On tasting the wines, it is obvious that modern winemaking methods haven’t obscured regional identity. Even though the emphasis is on a clean, New World-influenced style, the character of each region sings out from the glass. But can the lesser-known regions ever truly compete with the classic stars of the Douro?

Dão

The winds of change have blown through many northern Portuguese wineries. The aftermath has been dramatic in Dão, until recently almost completely dominated by co-operatives. Young winemakers, with their eyes on the international market but their feet firmly planted in Portugal, are shaking up the industry and producing more approachable and appealing wines.

Red grapes dominate Dão, through a similar mix to the classic Port varieties found in the Douro. Touriga Nacional is generally viewed as the top performer, but decent wines are also sourced from Tinta Roriz, Portugal’s Tempranillo.

Dão is not as tradition-bound as other regions and has less classic winemaking history to build on, but on tasting the wines I am struck by their delicacy, fine aroma and modern fruitiness, backed by a very Portuguese, dense, earthy character.

But while winemaking may have improved, without top quality fruit long-term success will be limited. ‘We brought a lot of new techniques and technologies into the winery, and the results were impressive, but we must now concentrate on the vineyards,’ says Moura.

Many wineries have a tradition of buying in grapes from small growers to supplement their own crop, which can make it difficult to control the quality of fruit. ‘The main problem that almost all producers here face is a lack of viticultural knowledge,’ says Moura’s colleague Carlos Lucas.

Sogrape, which is based in Dão but operates across northern Portugal, has met the challenge head on by establishing incentives for grape growers and paying
a premium for top-quality fruit. Although there is a modern winery, on arriving I am immediately ushered off for a trip to the vineyards, where the real action is.
Not all the viticultural improvements are hi-tech. Out in the fields, my first sight is of sheep between the vines, trimming the grass as they go. The shepherd ensures his flock keeps the grass short so that the winery can avoid using chemical controls. It is late October, the harvest is over and the wind is blowing. Some undesirable grapes have been left to wither on the vine and are a tasty treat for the sheep.

Bairrada

Producers in Bairrada have both a secret weapon and a constant millstone hanging around their neck – the wonderful yet difficult grape variety, Baga. The wines produced from Baga have a fickle nature. Bad fruit is the source of wines that are among the meanest I have ever tasted. But good fruit, from low-yielding vines, produces wines full of concentration, power and sensuality. The mighty and, at times, unforgiving tannins provide excellent structure for ageing, and age they must. Once the tannins have mellowed, Baga is an almost ethereal, delicate and fragrant wine, with an amazing complexity.

Casa de Saima is a traditional producer with a history of respecting the Baga variety, believing in minimum intervention and maximum slow, gentle ageing. ‘We let the wine sleep after fermentation – no filtration or treatment,’ says owner Graça Miranda. ‘The Baga grape needs time.’ The resulting wines are distinctive and complex with aromas of mature fruit, verging on over-ripe. The tannins are tight but as the wines age these loosen up to reveal a velvety wine with good fruit balance.

Winemaker Luis Pato, of the winery bearing his name, has a passion for Baga. So much so that he is careful to introduce new drinkers to it slowly – not every palate can handle the sheer intensity and structure of these powerful wines without training. But asked if he would ever forsake it for the other varieties he flirts with, he looks astounded. As far as he and his fellow winemakers in Bairrada are concerned, Baga is king.
Pato is a man of principle but is not afraid of progress. As I taste his wines in the space-age winery, he waits with the quiet assurance of a man who knows he is right. The concentration of fruit is intense and the wines have amazing complexity. Low yields and careful winemaking are producing wines with lusher tannins, a smooth structure and much easier drinking.

After tasting his 100% Baga wines I am surprised at Pato’s willingness to blend in other varieties to cater for those less enamoured of the grape. Then I detect the motive. This is merely his way of gently leading drinkers to nirvana – pure Baga. It is a strong, powerful animal. Woe betides those who mistreat it.

Douro

From Bairrada, the road to the Douro is a winding one. The landscape takes an even more dramatic turn, vines gazing down at the river from their precarious vantage points on the steep vineyard slopes. Caught in the mists rising from the river, we make our way up the twisting road to Quinta do Côtto.

The winery is housed in the Portuguese equivalent of a stately home. Fittingly, the wines are dark and brooding, full of intense, rich fruit and with a powerful structure. Aristocratic in tone, they are wholly in tune with the surroundings.

Arriving at Quinta do Portal, however, we are once again back to sparkling steel and massive vats. Winemaker Paulo Coutinho is a man of few words, as controlled as his wines. Over the last five years he has refined the winemaking philosophy at Portal, producing wines that are rounder, with softer tannins.

Longer fermentation times have added complexity, along with a deep colour and velvety structure. Tannins, yet again, play a major role; necessary for the grand structure of the wines, but difficult to control. ‘The object is to have a powerful wine but with less tannin,’ says Coutinho.

I ask him if he views wines from Dão as a serious threat to Douro producers. He looks aghast. ‘I would compare Dão to Douro 10 years ago. It is a sleepy place. Some producers have made improvements but it’s not possible for them to reach the same quality level as Douro.’

He does go on to suggest that there is latent potential in the Dão region, though, finishing with the concession, ‘It is possible for Dão to get closer to the quality level of Douro’. Coutinho doesn’t see Bairrada as a competitor since it is not comparable in style to Douro, but rather a region with something different to offer. ‘The terroir is different and so are the grapes,’ he says. The ocean influence is a factor in Bairrada. Dão and Douro have something in common but Bairrada is an altogether different style.’ Bairrada seems set apart by the different climate, the Baga grape and a more traditional style.

Northern Portugal is a land of diversity and anticipation. These qualities are reflected in the passion with which the producers speak of the future – and history – of their wines, of setting modern methods against regional tradition. And they are there in the wines themselves, in the vivid terroir and the powerful, yet elegant palates. Douro remains the star, undoubtedly, with the terroir and the vast experience evident in its wines. But the other two regions have their own clear styles, and are racing to catch up.

One of each to try

Luis Pato, Vinha Barrossa, 2001 *****

A single vineyard, 100% Baga wine from 90-year-old vines. Lashings of soft, sour cherry and berry fruits and a rich, velvety structure. Spice notes, chunky tannins and a long, dark chocolate finish. 2-5 years.

£16.75; Har, Hax, LyS (key to stockists)

Sogrape Dão, Reserva Tinto 1999 ****

Dark, plummy fruit with spice, vanilla and cedar box aromas. Full fruity palate, powerful with chewy tannins and a long coffee, herbal-flavoured finish. Drink now.

£7.25; WSo (key to stockists)

Quinta do Côtto, Douro Red 2001 ****

Intense black cherry aroma, rich fruits with hints of tar. Lingering sour cherry flavours, long but austere. 2-5 years.

£8.50; LyS(key to stockists)

Written by JOSIE BUTCHART