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With its wealth of native grapes and long-standing traditional values, Portugal can be a difficult country to understand when it comes to wine. Now, as a new generation of winemakers start to modernise the industry, Charles Metcalfe guides you through the regions
How can you get your head around the wines of a country that has more than 250 native grapes? Not all of them are world-beaters, but a significant number make great wines, taste like no other grapes on earth and work well in Portuguese soils. In addition, in this deeply conservative, traditional country, a new generation of winemakers is really shaking things up. They have recognised qualifications and have travelled the world’s wine countries, working vintages and bringing back knowledge of the best of modern winemaking.
Portugal has two official status levels for wine (well, two that are worth bothering about): Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) and Vinho Regional (VR). DOC rules are determined by geographic area, the historic grapes of the region and the way in which wines were traditionally made there. VR rules are more flexible, allowing winemakers to experiment with non-traditional grape varieties and use grapes from larger geographic areas.
The soils are the bedrock of Portuguese wines, and the north is dominated by granite. Even in the damp, green countryside of the north west, the home of Vinho Verde, boulders break through the lush vineyards and fields as if to remind you that granite is never far from the surface. DOC Vinho Verde is mostly light and low in alcohol. Both whites and reds are produced, although the high-acid red is mostly drunk very locally. Vinho Verde is much improved, with the more flavourful, aromatic Loureiro grape now predominating.
Close to the border with Spain, Alvarinho makes some of Portugal’s most distinguished whites, crisp but creamy, with subtle aromas of apricots and citrus. VR Minho is the local vinho regional, used by a few producers who incorporate non-local grapes into their blends.
Due south of the granite mountains of Trás-os-Montes in Portugal’s north-eastern corner is the country’s best-known wine region, the Douro Valley, responsible for the DOCs of both port and Douro (unfortified) wine. Closest to the Douro River and its tributaries, the granite gives way to schist.
The grape cocktail in red DOC Douro is one of the most distinguished in Portugal: Tinta Roriz (known elsewhere as Aragonez, and as Tempranillo in Spain); Touriga Nacional, herbily aromatic, with ripe raspberry and blackcurrant flavours; and Touriga Franca, velvety-smooth when ripe, with a floral fragrance. Some Douro reds are made from grapes grown on very old vines, with a hotchpotch of maybe 20 different grapes grown in the same vineyard. Others are from vines planted in the past 25 years, one grape variety per vineyard. There are white DOC Douro wines as well, the best made from old mixed vines grown at high altitudes, sometimes fermented in oak barrels. The grapes are specific to the Douro, with Viosinho, Rabigato, Malvasia Fina, Côdega and Folgasão most frequently used.
South of the Douro comes VR Beiras, a thick section of Portugal from the Atlantic to Spain. As you travel east from the coast, sand gives way to limestone and clay in DOC Bairrada. Here, six years out of 10, the traditional red Baga is still king, producing wines of intensity and firm tannins. In other years, producers get better results with more recently imported varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga Nacional, Syrah and others. There are also crisp Bairrada whites made from Bical, Arinto and Cerceal, and a host of sparkling wines, some very good, and well-matched to the local speciality of roast suckling pig.
Deeper inland, in central Beiras, DOC Dão starts with hills and ends in the Serra da Estrela mountains – granite all the way. This granite gives both red and white Dão wines a bright acidity and minerality. Encruzado is the best white grape, particularly good when barrel-fermented. Reds are dominated by Tinta Roriz, Jaen, Touriga Nacional and Alfrocheiro. The best grapes come from high-altitude vineyards, and make fresh, elegant, long-lived reds. Close to the Spanish border is DOC Beira Interior, in seriously high (granite) country. Reds and whites are both light and bright, and this remote region has great potential.
VR Estremadura is the strip that runs down the western coast from just south west of Coimbra to Lisbon. (There are plans to rename it ‘VR Lisboa’.) Wine styles here are influenced by cool coastal weather, and the winds that drive the huge windmills on many of the ridges. It’s a region of crisp whites (including some of Portugal’s best bubblies), made from the slightly aromatic Fernão Pires, the steely Arinto (star of the local DOC Bucelas) and many others. The reds are light and elegant, most of the best from DOC Alenquer. Many producers prefer to use the VR Estremadura rules and be more flexible with their grape blends.
The wide valley of the Tagus River, which flows into the Atlantic at Lisbon, has fertile, alluvial soils, but the better Ribatejo DOC and Ribatejano VR wines are grown in the poorer soils away from the river. Both reds and whites are soft and easy, and use a variety of grapes, both Portuguese and French.
South and south east of Lisbon is the VR Terras do Sado, where the sweet fortified Moscatel wines of DOC Setúbal are produced on the limestone hills of the Serra da Arrábida. The most-planted grape in the area, however, is black – the late-ripening Castelão. The Castelão wines grown in the ancient sands of DOC Palmela have a particular cedary elegance.
Further south, in the plains of the Alentejo, it’s back to stony clay soils. DOC Alentejo reds are smooth and generous, mostly made from Aragonez and Trincadeira, with successful recent plantings
of Touriga Nacional. Whites
tend to be soft and alcoholic, though the local Antão Vaz can stay pleasantly refreshing. VR Alentejano is much used
on labels here as well.
One last range of granite mountains divides the Alentejo from the equable climate of the Algarve, happy drinking ground for millions of British tourists every year. Ten kilometres north of the coast there are new vineyards among the citrus and avocado groves, and they’re making good new wines. There are four DOCs, but they’re hardly used. Unsurprisingly, the most popular wine name on labels is VR Algarve.
Editorial feature from Sqaure Meal Restaurants & Bars Guide 2009