Behind strange grapes and stranger names lies a trove of wines yet to be discovered, reveals Portuguese-wine lover CHARLES METCALFE.
Picture this: you have found a beautiful beach in a popular holiday spot. No road leads there, so it’s almost deserted. There’s a path down the cliffs to fine sand and sheltering rocks, with rock pools exposed at low tide. A hidden gem! Now you are faced with a dilemma: do you attempt to impress all and sundry by telling them about this beach and risk that it will be over-run the next time you holiday there? Or do you stay quiet, in the hope that the beach will still be as unspoiled on your next visit, albeit that you’ll likely have to enjoy it alone? The answer? You should share your knowledge – with slight trepidation. At least that’s the way I feel about Portuguese wine. For years the proliferation of fine, modern Portuguese wine has been a well-guarded secret, fenced off from general knowledge by Portuguese wine names and unfamiliar grape varieties. All that time, this oasis of diverse delights has been steadily improving quality, and expanding quantity. Now that there is enough of it to go round, it’s only fair to let you in on the secret… Variety show There are two fundamentals to the potential of Portuguese wine: grapes and terroir. Take grapes first. Portugal has an astonishing line-up of great native grape varieties. A few Portuguese grapes are shared with neighbouring Spain, such as Alvarinho (Albariño in Spain), Aragonez or Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and Tinta Miúda (Graciano). But others, such as the two Tourigas – Nacional and Franca – are peculiar to Portugal (and certain other places that have had the foresight to establish plantings).
There’s also Baga (king of Bairrada, when it ripens), Alfrocheiro (a charming, earlyripening Dão grape), Castelão (for elegant, cedary reds in the Terras do Sado) and Trincadeira (a brilliant, piercingly fruity variety now grown all over Portugal. Characterful, different white varieties include the aforementioned Alvarinho, Antão Vaz, Arinto, Bical, Encruzado, Sercial and Viosinho, all good crisp, acidretaining white varieties, plus Fernão Pires and Loureiro, if you’re looking for something more aromatic. My list is deliberately shortened to the most important.
There are others too, all with flavours refreshingly different from the familiar grapes we know and love. The best varieties have spread outside their original regions, increasingly used in Vinho Regional (VR) wines. Grapes are an important constituent of the other factor for quality potential, terroir. It is this that makes wines special; different from those around them. It might apply to anything from a few rows of vines to a large region. But that specialness, the sense that these wines could only come from this place, is what counts. And Portugal is full of it. Regional diversity You need only travel around Portugal to realise the diversity of the soils and climates where wine is made. The damp, green countryside of the Vinho Verde region gives crisp, high acid wines of low alcohol – very refreshing in summer. Enter the river valleys of the Douro, their schist rock hewn into contoured terraces or steep vineyards, and you could be in another country.
The weather gets hotter and drier as you take the train along the banks of the Douro river from west to east, and the grapes riper and more powerful. This is the region that needs least introduction: it has exported port for centuries and is now well established for some of Portugal’s best unfortified (DOC Douro) reds as well. North of the Douro are the granite mountains of Trás-os-Montes, where those who haven’t emigrated scratch a living from ungrateful soils. Growing grapes for civilised wine is hard here. South of the Douro are the Beiras, a thick slice of the country from coast to Spanish border. In its western lowlands, Bairrada is a mix of sandy and clay soils, that give easy bubblies, crisp, ageable dry whites and the famous Baga reds. After a crisis of confidence in the late-ripening Baga, however, the rules were changed in 2003 to allow reds to be made from almost any red grape you can think of. A Bairrada red revolution has ensued. Inland and upwards, Dão is a discreetly hilly region with vineyards tucked away in pine forests and up the foothills of the Serra da Estrela. In the east the soils are granite, as they are in the Beira Interior, east of the Serra da Estrela and before the mountains that mark the Spanish border. So both Dão and Beira Interior wines have crisp acidity and balance that other wine regions might envy.
Immediately north of Lisbon are two VR regions that were once going to amalgamate under the name ‘Lisboa’. The cool, windy hills of the old Estremadura region scooped the prize, leaving the VR Ribatejano as it was. The winds and cool coastal climate of the new VR Lisboa give crisp whites, good fizz and lean reds, except for those made in DOC Alenquer, further inland and more sheltered. Fertile, alluvial soils along the Tagus River (in the Ribatejo) give vast quantities of quaffing wine. Better wines are made south of the river in sandy, scrubby, poorer soils. South of Lisbon, in the Setúbal Peninsula, the soils change completely. Chalky cliffs host the best Moscatel grapes, the base of luscious fortified
Setúbal wines. Ancient sandy soils in the Palmela region are the home of Portugal’s best Castelão reds. Everything is on a large scale in the Alentejo, which accounts for about a third of Portugal. Estates are huge and horizons wide, except in the northeastern corner around Portalegre, where vineyards cling to granite mountains. Elsewhere, there are rolling slopes with soils that vary from white and pink marble (around Borba and Estremoz) to a predominance of clay elsewhere. And everywhere except Portalegre is scorching in summer, peaking at Beja in the south. South of more mountains lies the Algarve, where hot temperatures are cooled by sea breezes. Winemaking here has been quite rustic until recently but new, quality-driven estates are starting to make good wines on higher, cooler slopes away from the coast.
The emergence of small estates has driven up quality all over Portugal. And the large companies that dominated exports are still making and exporting good wines. Sogrape, Bacalhôa Vinhos de Portugal, José Maria da Fonseca, Aveleda, Aliança, Esporão and Messias are those that formed G7 (until Sogrape withdrew last year).
Much of the rest of Portugal’s volume is made in co-ops, many struggling but a few thriving (Monção, Santo Isidro de Pegões and Borba are shining examples). Some of the new producers are escapees from co-ops – growers who decided to make their grapes into wine themselves, rather than wait a few years to be paid a small amount. And some are successful businessmen, lawyers or dentists who have the money to buy or start wineries as part of an agreeable lifestyle. Almost all have employed winemaking consultants who really know what they’re doing, and sometimes have sons and daughters who have qualified as oenologists. The result is a new wave of Portuguese wine, made in small quantities by people who care deeply about the quality of the results. Combine this with Portugal’s unique grapes and terroirs, and you can see why these ‘secret’ wines are about to come storming out of obscurity. It won’t happen immediately: it will take time for wine lovers to familiarise themselves with the flavours of Portuguese wines, and learn the names of the producers. But when you find those gems, don’t be afraid to talk about them. Just don’t tell everybody…
Written by Charles Metcalfe