Portugal: moving up in the world

  • Wednesday 20 April 2011

Portuguese producers have a lot to shout about

Quinta de Roriz in the Douro Valley

Even five years ago, who would have believed that Vinho Verde would become one of Portugal’s sexiest wine regions? It’s just one example of how winemaking bravado wedded to viticultural excellence is unleashing the full potential of Portugal’s thrillingly diverse terroir and grape varieties.

In the first half of 2010, the value of Portuguese wine exports shot up by more than 20%; exports to the UK, where Portugal is becoming a popular specialist area in the independent retail sector, rose by almost 30%.

Winemakers Dirk Niepoort (who makes Port and still wines in the Douro) and Alvaro Castro (of Quinta de Saes and Quinta da Pellada in the Dão), are two examples of the country’s bursting sense of adventure, and have been at the vanguard of this revolution. Niepoort points out that he and Castro are self-taught.

Never limited by orthodoxy, they focused on terroir and indigenous varieties from the off, bucking the trend of ‘going more and more in a New World direction’.

They lead the pack in their respective regions and, having produced the innovative Douro-Dão blend Doda together, Niepoort has since become the master of creative collaborations, working his magic elsewhere.
It’s rubbing off.

The pair’s visionary approach has influenced the next generation of trained winemakers (see box p76) who, widely travelled, are laying to rest Portugal’s reputation for rustic wines while showing a healthy respect for tradition.

And it’s not just locals making waves: UK wine writer and Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Chair for Port & Madeira, Richard Mayson, and reputed French winemakers such as Bruno Prats and Michel Chapoutier have also invested in Portugal.

For Ronan Sayburn, Master Sommelier and wine director at the UK’s Hotel du Vin chain, ‘Pure, bright and fresh flavours seem to be the norm now’ which means that ‘Portugal’s diverse range of wines sit well on any quality wine list’.

From north to south, the country is a melting pot of tradition and innovation, personified by the marriage of leading domestic producers with noted overseas names. Here are just four such examples of vibrant, modern Portugal…

Prats & Symington

With 930 hectares of the Douro to their name and the ‘glamour’ of Port behind them (Graham’s, Dow’s and Warre’s are part of the group’s portfolio), the Symington family might have been gung ho about making table wine. Not so.

Paul Symington, joint managing director of Symington Family Estates says: ‘We always thought the Douro had the potential to produce great table wines, but our experience of making great reds, as opposed to Port, was limited.’

When Bordeaux veteran Bruno Prats (fresh from selling second growth Cos d’Estournel), agreed to make a super-premium table wine with them in 1998, though, the joint venture Prats & Symington was born.

Conceived in the same spirit as a boutique Bordeaux château, production is small and upmarket. Chryseia was released in 2000, followed by the second wine, Post Scriptum, first made in 2002 when fruit for Chryseia was declassified.

Prats’ chief concern, that ‘the good grapes were going to Port and the worst ones to table wines’, was allayed by ‘the Symingtons’ priceless knowledge of the Douro’.

Equally, keen to avoid the ‘brute and extract’ of old-style Douro wines, Symington looked to Prats’ ‘profound knowledge of turning outstanding fruit into one of the world’s greatest wines’.

Prats describes the wines as having ‘the Bordeaux touch: less power, with more focus on balance, finesse and elegance’ than other top Douro wines, with its limited influence of new French oak.

Quinta de Soalheiro

Antonio Cerdeira planted the first Alvarinho vines in the Vinho Verde sub-region of Melgaço in 1974.

Today, his Quinta de Soalheiro is one of the foremost producers in this most northerly Portuguese wine region, as his son Luís continues the pioneering tradition which has seen their range mushroom ever since.

Keen to improve Soalheiro’s avant-garde, wooded Alvarinho Reserve, Luís Cerdeira consulted Douro winemaker Dirk Niepoort. Niepoort, who rates the grape as ‘Portugal’s best white’, jumped at the chance to get involved – ‘the phone call took less than three minutes’, he recalls.

Having secured Cerdeira’s promise to make an unwooded Alvarinho ‘my way’, Niepoort met up with him shortly before vintage in August 2006.
The pair’s prodigious output since then includes a sleeker Reserve, with more integrated oak, and two new Alvarinhos.

Powerfully fruited yet mineral and complex, Primeiras Vinhas is naturally fermented, partly in barrel and, crucially, comes from Soalheiro’s oldest vines (as now does the Reserve).

Cerdeira describes Dócil, which has 9% alcohol and residual sugar, as ‘a German style of wine of which Dirk is a particular connoisseur’.

And why stop there? Cerdeira also makes Niepoort Girasol, a stellar example of Vinho Verde using the more delicate Loureiro grape. Like Soalheiro’s Alvarinhos, it bears eloquent testimony to the huge potential of this underrated region – as does Niepoort’s involvement, which Cerdeira believes gives an international profile to a region ‘that doesn’t have the glamour of Port’.

Cerdeira says that discerning differences in wines from older vines proved pivotal: ‘These days we understand our terroir much better, and use that philosophy to produce different styles of wine.’

Quinta do Monte d’Oiro

The Douro has become a magnet for famous Bordelais, including Bruno Prats, Jean-Michel Cazes, François Lurton and Bernard Magrez. The Lisboa appellation (previously called Estremadura) may not have the Douro’s caché, but its potential for great Syrah sparked the interest of Rhône Valley legend Michel Chapoutier. 

The owner of Quinta do Monte d’Oiro, José Bento dos Santos – who planted the country’s first Syrah in 1992 – befriended Chapoutier in the 1980s. Which explains why he owns an ‘extraordinary’ massal selection of Syrah (cuttings from Chapoutier’s old vines in Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and St-Joseph) and why his winemaker Graça Gonçalves is advised by Chapoutier’s chief oenologist Grégory Viennois.

For Bento dos Santos, Chapoutier’s involvement ‘has been of tremendous help to achieve perfection and consistency in our wines’. Côte-Rôtie style, with a dash of Viognier, the Reserva is supremely layered and complex compared to other Portuguese Syrahs. Madrigal, a 100% Viognier, also shows great subtlety.

The French-Portuguese relationship is a true cultural exchange in their joint project Domaine Bento & Chapoutier. Their Ex Aequo (first made in 2006) is a velvety, rich, floral blend of Monte d’Oiro’s Syrah and Touriga Nacional, Portugal’s flagship grape.

Describing the latter as ‘as great a grape as Syrah’, Chapoutier has since planted Touriga Nacional in France.

Quinta do Centro

‘I’m old enough to remember the fruitless, oxidised whites and dried out, tannic reds Portugal used to like and that were completely out of tune with foreign markets,’ says Richard Mayson (left) a wine writer and Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Chair for Port.

When he decided to ‘make a wine rooted in Portugal but shaped by international markets’, he joined forces with renowned consultant Rui Reguinga, who makes wine throughout Portugal and abroad.

The rolling plains of the warm, southerly Alentejo region is much better suited to volume production than mountainous regions like the Douro.

With frenzied planting of native and international grapes over the past decade, it has forged a reputation for soft, fruity, export-friendly wines. But Mayson and Reguinga wanted to do something different. ‘You can’t afford to shun international influence and experience, but it’s important to respect and build on the best Portuguese traditions,’ says Mayson.

In 2005, he acquired the 20-hectare Quinta do Centro, perched at 500m–560m on the slopes of the Serra de São Mamede in the Alentejo’s northernmost sub-region of Portalegre. ‘It has the altitude, freshness and diurnal variation for longer maturation, lower alcohols, more freshness and acidity,’ says Reguinga.

With a foot in the vineyard (traditionally planted with local varieties) and another in the market, the partners have produced ‘a terroir-based red that can be drunk outside Portugal’.

Pedra Basta reflects the region’s rocky granite terrain and what Mayson describes as ‘stony mountain fruit character’ that can be seen in cooler vintages like 2007 and 2008. ‘It’s fresher, more fruit pure, but it’s a Portuguese wine,’ says Reguinga.

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