Portugal is on a roll – well overdue. Loved by the Press and, despite the rate of exchange, offering great value, it is also a low wine-miles alternative to imports from further afield. Quality can be exceptional and a new generation of aspirant winemakers is set to put Portugal on the world map.
Portugal’s ambition to be seen as a top quality wine producer would have been unimaginable just twenty or so years ago but goodness they are making their mark.
Somewhat in the shadow of Port and Madeira, the table wine portfolio of Portugal has made the very best of its obscurity. Cushioned from the barrage of fashion trends, they have been able to address quality issues without the eyes of the world bearing down. There is a sense of a real pioneering spirit and it is energising to be part of the adventure.
Portugal and its wines – geography and history
Portugal offers a tremendous diversity of style and regional differentiation. It has a myriad of indigenous varieties with which to create a unique palette of aromas, textures and structures. These indigenous varieties – and there are so many of them – are just one element in potential complexity. Though a relatively small country, there are a great many climatic influences – Atlantic, Mediterranean and Continental. Soils too are extremely varied. In the north, Minho and Douro are characterised by granite, schist and slate whilst, in the south, chalk, sand, clay and alluvial soils prevail. Altitude and aspect also play a role, the latter affecting the luminosity of a site – an often-overlooked aspect of terroir.
Portugal emerged from forty-two years of dictatorship, under Salazar, in a viticultural time capsule. It was not really until the mid-eighties and nineties that there began a quiet but marked change in attitude towards winemaking. Old fashioned, dried out and oxidised styles began ceding the way for to inexpensive, but really well-made, wines. These represent tremendous value, as the market is out of step with the quality improvements, keeping pricing low.
The more forward-looking growers recognised that their future lay in moving up the quality scale and that is where the most exciting developments are to be seen. An additional bonus for the relatively late adoption of some modern ideas is that Portugal has learned from others. They know not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to better that which they have, rather than erasing it in favour of some homogenous hybrid, devoid of identity. The velvet revolution continues.
Investment in better viticultural techniques, restricted yields and ruthless selection became the foundations of new Portugal. This, allied to consummate professionalism, has singled out the Douro boys (and girls) as they have become known. They are a spearhead but there are many other regions following suit; Estremadura, the Alentejo, Bairrada and Dão, to name but a few. Corney & Barrow currently buys from the Douro and Estremadura.
Portugal's wine regions
The upper Douro is at once one of the most stunning wine-producing regions in the world and one of the most incongruous and inaccessible. It is hard to imagine what convinced anyone to try and grow anything on these desolate sheer slopes of schist and slate. The vine is one plant which can thrive in such conditions but why would man even consider it? In order just to think about planting, terraces would have had to be built to retain what little soil there is – and that is precisely what happened. The Douro’s wine history has Port at its core and most of the smallholders would sell their grapes to the large port houses. However, there have been more and more growers going it along, selling under their own quinta name, such as Quinta Vale Dona Maria. The main catalyst for such changes was the availability of European Union funding which allowed for investment in cellars. Popularity of Douro table wine has now grown. The wines have ceased to be the also rans, made from grapes not good enough for the port and are, in many cases, the main goal, with vineyards planted specifically for table wine purposes. Red wine dominates yet there are some very attractive head-turning whites such as Guru, from Sandra Tavares da Silva and her husband Jorge Serodio Borges, and Van Zellar white – serious, opulent and characterful with fabulous minerality.
The Estremadura , to the north of Lisbon is a large wine-growing region, encompassing the designated regions of Bucelas, known for zesty, aromatic early-drinking whites from the Arinto grape; Colares – massively tannic reds from ungrafted vines; and Carcavelos – amber-coloured and semi-fortified. The region generally is still rather wedded to the co-operative system, though a number of small properties such as our own Chocapalha, on the clay-limestone slopes of Alenquer, are making an impact.
We agree that our pro-Portugese stance would have little grounding if based on the experience in popular holiday destinations but, hidden away, there are so many insiders’ wines. Portugal is on our doorstep and, although it still takes a fair amount of cherry picking, there are really exciting wines available at equally exciting prices and they do not have to traverse the globe to get here. Portugal, in short, may have been a late developer but is a serious player and here to stay.