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With a host of excellent native grape varieties, Portugal produces some red wines well worth seeking out. Charles Metcalfe points you in the right direction
Only those in the know drink Portuguese reds. And that’s fine, as the best are in short supply. Reds from the Douro are the ones you’re most likely to find on UK shop shelves and restaurant lists. But there are hot reds from other Portuguese wine regions well worth investigating.
Portuguese reds have a big natural advantage: a bunch of great local grapes. Yes, they have Merlot and the like, but what sets Portugal’s reds apart are their own vines, with names such as Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Alfrocheiro and Baga. Foremost among these is Touriga Nacional, originally from northern Portugal but now hailed as a star red grape as far south as the Algarve. Touriga Nacional has a herby aroma, excellent colour and rich, raspberry fruit. It’s now so successful that its name is beginning to feature on labels.
A lot of the star red grapes are hidden away behind appellation names, but sometimes the back label reveals them. Trincadeira is planted mainly in the south, and produces brilliantly fruity reds. Alfrocheiro is a northern grape that makes smooth, strawberry-scented wines. Baga is also from the north and, although it’s difficult to ripen every year, it produces wines of amazing concentration. Touriga Franca is another northern star, late ripening, but making smooth reds in the best years. Most Castelão is grown just south of Lisbon, where it produces elegant, cedary reds. The grape known as Tempranillo in Spain, and as Aragonez or Tinta Roriz in Portugal, is grown throughout the country. It is reliably fruity, providing the major part of many Portuguese red blends.
Blending grapes is a Portuguese speciality. In the Douro and Dão regions, the oldest vineyards mix up the grape varieties in the vineyard, and these blends produce wines with wonderfully complex flavours. Other parts of Portugal have concentrated on single grapes because they know they perform well in the local conditions.
Although we think of Portugal as a sunny holiday destination, it’s not baking hot everywhere. True, the vast southern province of Alentejo, running up the eastern border with Spain from the northern boundary of the Algarve to north of Lisbon, has some very hot spots in summer. Around the city of Beja in the southern Alentejo, temperatures can easily top 40°C for days on end. Ditto the Upper Douro, again close to the border with Spain. But two variables can lower summer temperatures: altitude and sea breezes.
Much of inland Portugal is mountainous, or at least hilly. The highest peaks are all granite, many close to the Spanish border. From Trás-os-Montes in the north-east, down through the Beira Interior, to the north-eastern corner of the Alentejo, many of the vineyards producing grapes for the finest wines are planted at altitudes between 500m and 750m above sea level. This means cooling winds and reviving cool nights. In the hot, ancient sand soils of the Setúbal Peninsula just south of Lisbon, and immediately to the east in the Terras do Sado, sea breezes are what keep the vines cool enough to withstand the baking heat. And in the Algarve, north of the holiday beaches and developments, vines thrive in the moderate, maritime climate.
So which wines should you look out for? Douro reds, certainly. The Douro is ahead of the rest of Portugal for reds, the legacy of centuries of producing and selling port. Almost all the best producers of Douro red also make port, but they usually select their best grapes for the unfortified wines. Barca Velha is the most famous Douro red, from the big company Sogrape, which also makes the very good Quinta da Leda reds (and Callabriga, which has versions from Dão and the Alentejo as well). Chryseia, Xisto, Quinta do Noval and Pilheiros are all very sophisticated wines, resulting from collaborations between French and Portuguese winemakers. There’s also an almost endless list of really good wines from Portuguese owners. CARM, Quinta do Portal, Quinta Nova, Quinta da Gaivosa, Quinta do Crasto, Muxagat, Quinta de la Rosa, Poeira, Momentos, Pintas, Quinta do Vallado and Niepoort are the foremost.
Travelling south, the next two regions are Bairrada and Dão. Bairrada is the stronghold of the notoriously hard-to-ripen Baga grape, but has recently opened its legislative doors to other grapes. So a red Bairrada may be made from Baga, but could also be Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir or Syrah, or Touriga Nacional, Castelão or Alfrocheiro. Top performers here are Luís Pato, Quinta das Bágeiras, Caves São João and Campolargo (the latter using Baga and all the recently permitted grapes as well). Dão’s vineyards range from hilly to mountainous, many surrounded by forests. Most Dão soils are granite-based and make refreshing reds with crisp acidity. Top choices are Quinta dos Roques, Quinta de Cabriz and Quinta dos Carvalhais.
Just north of Lisbon are the Estremadura and Ribatejo, home to vast co-ops and a handful of smaller, high-quality producers. Quinta de Chocapalha and Quinta do Monte d’Oiro are best for Estremadura reds, and Falcoaria from the Ribatejo. South of Lisbon, Palácio de Bacalhôa, Periquita Clássico and Quinta da Mimosa are top reds from the Terras do Sado.
The hot Alentejo has no trouble ripening grapes, though the granite mountains of the north-east around Portalegre give brighter, livelier reds than the rest of the Alentejo. Top names are Malhadinha Nova, Mouchão, Quinta do Mouro, João Portugal Ramos, José de Sousa, Herdade da Mingorra and Dona Maria. While the Algarve stars are Quinta do Barranco Longo, Quinta do Morgado da Torre and Vida Nova.
Any of these will surprise you with their quality. Just don’t tell everyone…
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Autumn 2008