22 August 2014

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Portuguese Style


With a huge number of indigenous grapes to choose from and a varied climate, it’s no surprise that there’s a Portuguese wine to match every
style of cuisine, says
Tom Cannavan

Of all the wine-producing countries in Western Europe there can be little doubt that Portugal has one of the most diverse and fastest-changing scenes. Perhaps it’s to do with this small country’s history – from 16th-century world power to a 20th century full of political unrest – but the character of Portugal’s winemakers seems to embrace both innovation and tradition. Fiercely protective of their heritage of 400 indigenous grapes, they are at the same time capable of re-inventing traditional wine styles.

The country’s unusual geography also gives Portugal the building blocks for diversity. Perched on the edge of Europe with almost 600 miles of Atlantic coastline, the climate is officially Mediterranean with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. But there are big differences between north and south. Wine is made everywhere, from the cool and often rainy Minho in the north, to the sun-soaked holiday paradise of the Algarve in the south.

Ask most people to name a wine from Portugal and chances are they’ll think of port, the famous fortified wine, Mateus, its perennially popular rosé, or Vinho Verde, the light, fresh white. Between these extremes, Portugal runs the gamut of wine styles and there are some evolving trends.

portugal13 - iStock_000011907093Medium.jpgFresh whites
The verdant landscape of the northerly Minho explains the region’s wines. Famous for its white Vinho Verdes in particular, quality here was historically variable, but there has been an extraordinary transformation and a new emphasis on quality. Much of that has seen specific grape varieties matched to particular soils. Look out for Alvarinho (the same as Spain’s Albariño) and Loureiro, two grapes being celebrated more and more as single varietals and being made in serious styles of wines that show real verve and zing.

But the chase for fresh, modern whites is on further south too. In the hot Douro Valley, producers are rediscovering the potential for white grapes and are planting at high altitudes, often on the coolest north-facing slopes. They are having real success with less well known grapes such as Viosinho, Gouveio and Rabigato.

Even further south, in Lisboa, Beiras, Setúbal and the Alentejo, some surprisingly fresh and mineral whites are being made both from indigenous grapes such as Arinto and Fernão Pires, and also from Chardonnay, Viognier and other French varieties. Many of these appear under the Vinho Regional designation, which is similar to France’s Vin de Pays.
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Light reds
The red table wines of Portugal have historically been of the beefier, more robust persuasion. But once again the picture is changing as winemakers search out cooler microclimates on higher ground, or closer to the sea or the mountains. Today, the abundantly fruity reds still have plenty of depth, but also a more refined quality of fruit and tannins.

In the Douro Valley, where there has been a table wine revolution in the past couple of decades, careful selection of vineyards and the best, most aromatic varieties such as Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca is producing red table wines with ethereal aromatics and great precision on the palate.

The Alentejo region has a flat landscape, baking hot summers and relatively large vineyards (elsewhere much of the viticulture is still in the hands of small farmers), but its winemakers have tamed these conditions with high-tech wineries, careful planting on slate and other less generous soils, and blending grapes expertly to retain freshness in the final product.

Other red wine strongholds such as the Dão and Bairrada regions in the centre have also changed the recipe subtly, with the Baga grape in Bairrada making some elegant and age-worthy wines with lots of character, while in the Dão, Touriga Nacional remains king with its floral lift and copious black fruit. Producers here are also seeking out higher vineyards and exploiting the region’s granitic soils to give the reds some crunch.
Pockets of red wine innovation are sprinkled across Portugal and are well worth investigating, from the Castelão wines of Setúbal, to the improving reds and rosés of Trás-os-Montes, ‘the land beyond the moutains’.

portugal11 - Portugal-28.jpgSweeter and stronger
Port and its island cousin Madeira remain two of Portugal’s most iconic wines. The wines are strong and normally sweet, having been fortified with spirit. Classic examples abound, from inexpensive ruby ports and blended Madeiras, to near-immortal vintage wines and wonderfully mellow old tawnies.

But port is innovating too, with fresher, lighter styles – even rosés – and modern packaging. Check out the fabulous aromatic fortified Moscatels of Setúbal or some of the quirkier sweet wines made with grapes with noble rot, by drying grapes on mats (à la Recioto), and even icewine!

You will find Portuguese wines in most supermarkets, wine merchants and good restaurants. If you want to find a bottle there’s a very handy wine finder application at www.viniportugal.pt where you can also sign up for news, views and information. You can follow Wines of Portugal on Twitter @vpwine and find them on facebook at We love Portuguese wines

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