Country Focus: Portugal
Every edition we ask John Mansfield of the Society of Vintners about what is happening in the world of wine. This issue, his focus is Portugal – home of Port and some surprising wines perfect for the festive season.
The Portuguese have been clever. While virtually every other wine producing country has opted to develop mainstream grapes, Portugal has stuck with their indigenous grape varieties, of which there are over 250. For that reason, Portugal now has a range of unique and characterful wines that are starting to get serious attention here in the UK.
Portugal has also responded to the current worldwide demand for easier drinking, more fruit forward and approachable wines. In previous decades, grapes like the Baga, or regions like the Dao, produced tough, tannic, often thick-skinned wines with little appeal. Compounding this, the dominance of port wine had prevented the fine terroir of the Douro from being used for anything but port.
All that has changed, with groups of forward thinking growers developing a range of good quality, interesting wines that appeal to the export market.
Key wine areas
Vinho Verde – A coastal region in Portugal’s northwest
Wines: Red and rosé, however it’s Vinho Verde white that dominates.
Best served young – when it’s displaying maximum crisp acidity and often a slight spritz, Vinho Verde white has a lively fruity flavour, which combined with lowish alcohol levels (10-11%) makes for a really refreshing wine. Brilliant with salads, seafood and vegetable dishes.
Douro – Inland from Porto, the steep terraced vineyards along the Douro River have been producing world-class wines for centuries, most famously, port
Wines: Robust, full-bodied, tannic reds from the same grapes as port. Many of these are aged in oak to create even more complex flavours. Pair with grilled and roasted red meats.
Dão – South of the Douro
Wines: Home of many of Portugal’s better-known reds. Generally full bodied with flavours of black cherry and cocoa, Dão reds are improving all the time, thanks to innovation amongst the region’s producers. Great with Italian foods, poultry and red meats.
Look out for tasty white wines for this area too – especially recommended are wines made from just the Encruzado grape, which is gorgeous by itself, or with fish and shellfish.
Lisboa – by the Atlantic Ocean around Lisbon
Wines: Excellent wines labeled Vinho Regional Lisboa. Fresh and aromatic rosados have soft fruit notes balanced with fresh acidity which make them a fabulous pairing with seafood, grills or Asian food. The whites, typically made with the Arinto and Fernão Pires grapes, are generally crisp and aromatic, making them ideal as an aperitif or with fish, seafood and salads. Lisboa reds – which are often blends of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, and Castelão giving them intense black and red fruit aromas, with chocolate and oak notes – are brilliant with strong hard cheeses.
Peninsula de Setúbal – South East of Lisbon
Wines: There are two DOC’s within the peninsula: Palmela – where the castelão grape thrives and is used to produce balanced red table wines with ripe tannins and cherry flavours and Setúbal – whose sweet fortified wine of the same name is greatly admired.
Alentejo – Seven diverse sub-regions in south eastern Portugal, extending to the Spanish border
Wines: Full-bodied reds that are often blends of Touriga Nacional, Aragonez, Alfrocheiro and Trincadeira grapes that are frequently aged in wood. Pair with roasts, red meat and Italian dishes.
Although port has been made for centuries in the Douro valley, its main development was as a result of the animosity and fighting between the British and the French. The British used to drink Clairet – a dark pink wine which was a speciality of Bordeaux (hence the English word Claret), but with the increased fighting between the two countries, the British turned to port, adding brandy to help the wine survive the voyage back to the UK, hence the higher alcohol and sweetness of modern port.
Often paired with rich cheese and heavy or luxurious desserts, there are various qualities of port:
Ruby – the most basic and least expensive port. Aged for just a few years before being bottled
Vintage – More expensive and only made in exceptional growing years. Not aged for long at the winery – these ports are for laying down for years in your cellar!
Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) – aged for 4-6 years at the winery and ready to drink
Tawny – spend more time ageing in wood before bottling than ruby ports
Colheita – a Tawny with a specific year. Aged at the winery for at least seven years. Can be drunk now or laid down