Touriga Nacional – Nacional Hero

The Douro discovered a long time ago that Touriga Nacional can play a starring role in red wines as well as port. Now the south is getting in on the act, and the resulting wines are deep-coloured, elegant and concentrated, says BEVERLEY BLANNING MW

Touriga nacional is a shining light in the often impenetrable fog of Portuguese grape varieties. In a line-up of Portuguese wines, time and again the sheer quality of this noble grape lifts and distinguishes a blend. Vinified as a single varietal, it can astonish with its depth and complexity.

The grape is best known as part of the blend in port, but is increasingly being made into table wine, particularly in the Dão and Douro regions in the north of the country. Now, producers further south are excited to find that they, too, can achieve great things with Touriga. As winemaker Vasco Penha García, of JP Vinhos in Setúbal, says, ‘Touriga Nacional is invading the south of Portugal: thank God.’

The origins of Touriga Nacional are thought to lie in the Dão region immediately to the south of the Douro, where it was once the most planted variety. Now, however, it accounts for a tiny percentage of all the wine produced in Portugal. The main reason for its fall from favour is that it naturally produces very low yields of fruit. The variety is also highly susceptible to cool, damp weather during the period of flowering. The compensations for its inconveniences, however, are many – at least from the drinker’s point of view. Wines made from Touriga Nacional are deeply coloured with a distinctive, floral perfume. The small, thick-skinned berries produce richly concentrated wines, with plenty of alcohol and tannins. Yet despite its potential for power and weight, Touriga always manages to retain its underlying elegance and style.

Nuno Cancela de Abreu, manager of Quinta da Alorna in Ribatejo, is convinced that Touriga Nacional is well suited to the south, where the climate is dry and hot. ‘Touriga is a late-maturing variety; it needs interior heat,’ he says. ‘The regions best suited to its production are Douro and Dão, but also Ribatejo and Alentejo.’ At Quinta da Alorna, 30 hectares are planted with Touriga Nacional, which, at 12% of the total area under vine, represents a significant investment in the grape. The vines are a mere five years old and 2003 is the first vintage, but the results are already very impressive. The wine is deep coloured, with a characteristically intense, floral aroma. It is rich and ripe, with excellent concentration of flavour for a wine made from such young vines. Its structure is elegant, smooth, and already showing fruit complexity. The Quinta makes a range of decent wines from the local varietals such as Castelão and Trincadeira, but these are put in the shade by the youthful Touriga.

POTENTIAL WINNER

Vasco Penha García is also persuaded of the grape’s potential in the south. He believes that the JP Vinhos vineyards in the coastal Terras do Sado region are well suited to slow-maturing grapes: ‘We have really good natural conditions here; varieties from the north do wonderfully well.’ This is exciting news for a region where, traditionally, 90% of red plantings are of the uninspiring Castelão grape. The latest addition to the company’s extensive range is Só (meaning ‘only’) Touriga Nacional 2001. Again, it is made from young vines, with the grapes grown in the high, cooler vineyards of coastal Arrábida. The nose is beautifully scented, and leads into a silky yet firmly structured palate. It has lovely blackcurranty, earthy and spicy notes: a very classy wine.

At DFJ Vinhos, UK-based José Leitão boasts that, ‘for every 10 Portuguese wines in a British supermarket, seven are ours.’ The company, based in Estremadura, makes a staggering 56 different wines under the direction of unassuming winemaker José Neiva. I ask Neiva what he would choose to do if he could only make one wine. The answer: ‘Touriga Nacional’. The DFJ Touriga Nacional & Touriga Franca (a 50/50 blend) is a lovely mouthful, filled with character and chocolatey, rich fruit. It is structured, but overwhelmingly smooth and integrated: my favourite in a tasting of 15 reds. Almost as good was the 100% Touriga Nacional, Grand’Arte 2001 – a deep, brooding, blackcurrant-flavoured wine with a firm structure and good intensity of flavour.

GREAT PLAINS

Further south, the deserted, open plains of the Alentejo seem another country. The sun shines all year round. Huge fortifications perch on tiny towns where, in the heat of the day, the only sound is an occasional barking dog. Passing through the gates of the vast estate of Herdade do Esporão, you drive through kilometres of vines before arriving at the only building in sight: a modern winery with a picturesque restaurant overlooking a lake. The property extends over 2,000 hectares, of which around 500 are devoted to vines.

The red varieties grown at Esporão include Aragonés (Tempranillo), Trincadeira, (these two being local to the region) and Alicante Bouschet. The estate’s premium wines also include Touriga Nacional, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker David Baverstock explains, ‘Local varieties don’t give enough intensity and structure to make premium wine.’ With typical Australian confidence, he describes making Shiraz as ‘easy peasy’. And he rates Touriga Nacional as ‘a magical variety if you get everything right’.

I found his single-varietal Touriga Nacional 2001 was indeed pretty magical. It has a nose of violets and gentle spice from time in French oak, and is super-smooth in the mouth, with lovely character and elegance. Shiraz from the same vintage was another lovely wine, though quite different in style: deeply savoury and meaty, with fleshy concentration, warm alcohol (15%) and supple tannins.

At Cortes de Cima, fellow emigré winemakers Hans and Carrie Jørgensen have been successfully producing modern, fruity Alentejo wines since 1988. Their plantings are mostly of the local grape Aragonés, plus Syrah, Trincadeira and Touriga Nacional. Hans is particularly proud of his high vine trellising system which, he claims, gives the domain’s wines ‘better acidity than anywhere else in the region’. This is because the vines are protected from the worst of the night-time radiation at the height of summer. ‘There is a difference in night-time temperature of 10°C between ground level and three feet above, where our canopy is,’ he explains.

2003 was a particularly difficult year due to the very extreme heat. ‘Tempranillo was knocked out by the heat; the vines shut down for a month.’ I wondered how the Touriga Nacional had fared. A barrel sample of the wine was hugely flavoured and rich, with sweet, silky, fruit. Hans’s verdict: ‘It’s the best wine we’ve ever made.’ Varietal Touriga Nacional is a new departure for Cortes de Cima, but it looks set to become a star of the range. The 2002 (the first vintage) has a deep colour, aromas of flowers and spice, with a lovely soft palate. Flavours of chocolate, tobacco and faint meatiness linger on the finish. It is a delicious wine.

LEADING NAMES

João Portugal Ramos, the self-proclaimed ‘champion of Portuguese varieties’, also chose to set up in the Alentejo after a high-profile career as consultant oenologist throughout the country. His range of wines is of consistently high quality. In the Alentejo he focuses on Aragonés and Trincadeira ‘because they are ours’. He recalls the days when ‘nobody would even taste wines from the Alentejo – yet now they are by far the most sold wines in Portugal’. The charismatic Ramos is responsible for the success of brands such as Marquès de Borba (who is, incidentally, a distant relation) and Vila Santa. From an extensive tasting of his wines, however, the star was that which boasted ‘lots’ (an undisclosed percentage) of Touriga Nacional in the blend.

Ramos is very excited about the wine, which comes from his other winery in the Ribatejo. Its name is Conde de Vimioso, and it is a blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragonés, Trincadeira and Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘The Ribatejo region doesn’t really have a style,’ he says. ‘It’s the region where we should be the least worried about producing a “typical” style. I would advise a New World style here.’ The Conde de Vimioso Reserva 2001 (‘a fantastic vintage in Ribatejo and Alentejo’) is an extremely fruity, modern-style wine, with blackcurrant and eucalyptus flavours, great length and elegant, complex fruit.

For the moment, Touriga Nacional is still a minority interest for producers, outside of its traditional home in the north. But it is becoming more and more popular throughout the country. According to Vasco Magalhães, head of communications for Portuguese wine giant Sogrape and former master port blender, ‘Touriga Nacional can grow almost anywhere in Portugal, or outside Portugal. It’s like Cabernet Sauvignon. Touriga can give you more than any other Portuguese grape: colour, complex aromas, richness, structure and the ability to age. And the new clones which have been developed mean that it is now easy to grow; it has no disadvantages.’

So, all we need now are the wines from these new plantings. According to importer Raymond Reynolds, who specialises in Portuguese wines, Touriga Nacional is a ‘quality banker’, and already makes up a significant proportion of the blend in around 50% of the best table wines in Portugal. Portuguese authority Richard Mayson, in his book, The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal claims: ‘There can be little doubt that Touriga Nacional is well on the way to international stardom.’ Fame, it seems, is just around the corner.

Written by Beverley Blanning