Portugal’s Big Ideas

Portugal has spent the last 20 years rediscovering its terroir. RICHARD MAYSON looks at how its best quality areas are now prospering.

Much has changed since I first became involved with Portuguese wines at the end of the 1970s. My first job on leaving school was behind the bar at a restaurant near Lagos in southwest Portugal. I was given responsibility for the wine list and, looking back, the choice was decidedly limited.

Then there were just a few large companies with big brands (Periquita, Lancer’s and Mateus), a handful of venerable garrafeiras, and a number of co-operatives producing thin, fruitless reds. The Alentejo, now among Portugal’s leading wine regions, was still terra incognita and single vineyard wines were virtually unheard of.

In those days, a wine fair might have scraped together a couple of dozen exhibitors. At this year’s ExpoVinis wine fair in Porto, there were more than 300 pouring their wines for the trade.

Narrowing the Focus

Even after spending 20 years in the wine business, I still find wine fairs daunting. There are so many people to meet, far too many wines to taste and so little time to make sense of it all. I decided to narrow my focus to new wines, new vintages and new producers.

The Portuguese have spent the last 20 years rediscovering their terroir. Wines that were once anonymous blends are now becoming increasingly site-specific. Not only are there new wine regions, there are also new vineyards (single-quintas), some of which have subsequently sub-divided further to bottle wine from the best plot under a separate label.

Highly individual grape varieties that were once lost or overlooked are finding their way either into varietal wines or striking new blends, paired often with international varieties.

This fragmentation has made the wine scene more difficult to take in and understand. But, in a promising move, a number of producers in the north of the country have taken it upon themselves to form voluntary associations, sharing information, technical expertise and marketing. The following is a regional, but by no means exhaustive, round-up of the latest and most impressive releases.

VINHO VERDE/MINHO

Having sat in the doldrums for a few years, the northwest corner of Portugal is making headway once more.

2003 was kind to Vinho Verde, producing wines with characteristic minerality and underlying ripeness. I was particularly impressed with Quinta d’Amares, one of the largest properties in the region, making wines exclusively from the Loureiro grape. The 2003 Colheita Seleccionada is perfumed, crisp and refreshing. Borges’ 2003 Quinta de Simaens is also good, a lively blend of Trajadura and Padernã. (Both of these are stocked by UK supermarket Waitrose). And look out for the 2003 Alvarinhos from the very north of the region, of which the jasmine-scented Soalheira is one of the best examples.

More and more enterprising wines are coming from the Vinho Regional Minho designation. Quinta de Covela, on the lower reaches of the Douro, was one of the first, and now produces a soft, peachy dry white by blending the local Avesso with Chardonnay.

The 2002 red Covela combines Touriga Nacional, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah to make a wine with wild berry fruit and spice. On the south side of the Douro (but still designated Minho) Quinta de Massorra’s 2003 is an impressively rich, yet balanced, barrel-fermented dry white made entirely from Arinto (also known as Padernã).

DOURO

Since the late 1990s, the Douro has forged ahead and is unquestionably Portugal’s leading producer of red wines. Many of the most impressive wines come from a loose association of producers calling themselves the ‘Douro Boys’, which includes Dirk Niepoort, the Roquette brothers from Quinta do Crasto, Cristiano van Zeller from Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, and father and son Vito and Francisco Olazabal from Quinta do Vale Meão.

Another enterprising group is Lavradores de Feitoria, made up from 15 quintas in all three sub-regions of the Douro. The group is led by young consultant winemaker João Brito e Cunha, who acts as arbiter in selecting the wines. These are then bottled separately, from the best performing quintas, or blended from properties within the group. Each year, a good, well-balanced, affordable red is made and sold under the Tres Bagos label.

Brito e Cunha also acts as consultant winemaker for Churchill Estates, the new Douro wine project from port shipper Churchill Graham. Between 1999 and 2001, three experimental wines were made using different grapes from various locations. These wines, each very different in style, sold successfully in Portugal under the Churchill label. The grapes are now sourced from Churchill’s own vineyard Quinta da Gricha and the 2002 Douro red is a soft, suave, ripe-flavoured wine offset by a touch of new oak.

It is difficult not to be impressed by the wines from Quinta da Brunheda, a remote property above the Tua valley which makes port for Taylor’s. Its reds are solid, ripe and meaty, especially the 2001 Vinha Velha with its dense, concentrated damson-like fruit from 70-year-old vines.

Another promising newcomer is Quinta de Touriga-Chã in the Douro Superior, owned by Jorge Rosas of Ramos Pinto. A predominance of Touriga Nacional gives the first release (the 2001) a wonderful aromatic quality and purity of flavour. Its depth and intensity are matched by great finesse.

DAO

The Dão region is rapidly recovering from years of neglect and is on the cusp of producing some of Portugal’s most original red wines. Single estates like Quinta dos Roques, Quinta das Maias, Sogrape’s Quinta dos Carvalhais, Quinta do Corujão, Quinta de Saes and Quinta da Pellada are setting the pace. Pellada’s Pape 2000 is proof that the Dão region really can make outstanding red wine with its floral aromas (violets) followed up by wonderfully ripe, spicy fruit helped by judicious use of new oak.

Whites wines shouldn’t be overlooked either. Luís Lourenço of Quinta dos Roques and Quinta dos Maias has rediscovered an old grape. The white Barcelo was quite widely planted until the 1950s when it fell from favour. The Maias 2003 Barcelo combines soft, sub-tropical fruit, offset by unusually crisp acidity.

BAIRRADA

Situated close to the Atlantic, Bairrada is frequently troubled by rain during vintage. But in a fine year it can produce some of Portugal’s most enduring red wines. 2003 (which was too hot in Southern Portugal) was perfect for Bairrada and evenly ripened grapes were picked under clear skies.

Until 2003 is released, however, 2001 is looking very impressive (better even, perhaps, than 2000). Luís Pato’s 2001 Vinha Barrio has wonderful aromas of dark chocolate and spice, and shows off the big, firm, juicy fruit of fully ripe Baga grapes.

ESTREMADURA/RIBATEJO Estremadura and the Ribatejo are the most productive wine regions in Portugal. Ribatejo-based DFJ Vinhos produces a huge range of value-for-money reds spanning both regions, including a stunningly ripe, sappy red from the Alicante grape that won a Silver medal in the Decanter World Wine Awards (see page 85). The Alenquer sub-region of Estremadura is proving to be one of most exciting parts of Portugal with outstanding wines from Quinta de Pancas and pure Rhône-style Syrah from Quinta do Monte d’Oiro. DFJ is about to release a premium wine from Alenquer as well as from the Ribatejo and the Douro.

SETUBAL PENINSULA/ TERRAS DO SADO

There are new wines aplenty from two of Portugal’s largest winemakers, José Maria da Fonseca and JP Vinhos, which are cheek-by-jowl on the Setúbal Peninsula. Try Vinya and Serras de Azeitão, two inexpensive reds from da Fonseca and JP respectively.

The region is home to one of Portugal’s most interesting coops, Pegões, which is making an increasingly good range of reds from the Castelão grape.

One of the best independent producers in the area, Pegos Claros, has recently been acquired by Companhia das Quintas, which was established in 1999, and owns an estate in every major wine region in Portugal (except Vinhos Verdes). Castelão is at its best on the warm, sandy soils east of Palmela. Pegos Claros can safely be called the region’s standard bearer.

ALENTEJO

If anything, the Alentejo has become rather too much of a good thing in recent years. Vineyards have been over-planted and while there are plenty of well-made wines to be found, there are too many with little or nothing to distinguish them.

The region’s largest vineyard, Herdade da Esporão, continues to produce some impressively individual reds, most recently from Touriga Nacional, Alicante and Syrah.

The Farizoa comes from a 60ha (hectare) vineyard near Borba belonging to Companhia das Quintas. The Reserva 2002 has characteristically ripe Alentejano fruit with a flavour of wild herbs and spices.

Monte da Ravasqueira is a well laid out vineyard with a brand new winery near Arraiolos, belonging to the de Mello family. 2003 is its second vintage and the wine combines all the main grape varieties on the property (Trincadeira, Aragonez, Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet) to produce a smooth, ripe-flavoured red with plenty of dark cherry fruit.

ALGARVE

The successful launch of Sir Cliff Richard’s Vida Nova in 2002 has helped reinvigorate the Algarve region. The latest addition is a red called Morgado da Torre from a property adjoining the Penina golf course near Alvor. The producer plans to open a spa offering vinoterapia (‘wine therapy’) – just the thing for a tired palate perhaps?

Richard Mayson is author of The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal (£18.99, Mitchell Beazley). This won the 2003 André Simon Award for the best drinks book.

Written by Richard Mayson