Thursday, 5 March 2009

Portugal, Europe's wild west

Think of Portuguese wines and what comes to mind? Mateus Rosé, the sweet pink wine in the funny shaped bottle that you can re-use as a lamp base? Or Port perhaps, the sweet, fortified wine that makes a brief appearance in the cocktail cabinet at Christmas?

Those drinks are still part of the picture, but things are changing fast in Europe’s most westerly wine region. Portugal is now making some of the most exciting wines around - if you’re prepared to open your mind to some unusual grape varieties and their tongue-twisting names.

Sticking out as it does into the Atlantic Ocean to the far west of Spain, Portugal’s climate is greatly influenced by the sea. The coastal regions, especially in the north, are cooler and wetter than you might imagine by simply looking at a map. Portugal’s northern coastal regions experience around three times as much rain as soggy old Manchester. However, as you move south and inland, the terrain and the climate change dramatically – by the time you have reached the Alentejo, bordering Spain in the south east, rainfall is down to only around half of what Manchester might experience in a year.

The vast, rolling plains of the south are Portugal’s own New World. Wine-making is less steeped in tradition and there have been many more winemakers arriving from outside the country, bringing new methods and international grape varieties with them. The hot and dry climate is home to cork oak forests (you’ll never find a synthetic cork on a bottle of Portuguese wine), olive groves and vast wine estates.

Some recommended Portuguese wines to try:

Vinho Verde
Everyone knows this means “green wine”, though the name refers to the region, in the cool, wet north, rather than the wine. You can find red Vinho Verde, though it’s an acquired taste with its searing acidity and rasping tannins. I’d recommend the white version for a more gentle introduction to the style.

At its most basic, white Vinho Verde is a light-bodied, crisp, fresh mouthful that keeps you coming back for more – a great accompaniment to things like grilled sardines, where the acidity of the wine cuts through the fattiness of the fish, but has no overpowering flavour of its own.

Quinta de Azevedo 2007, £5.99 from Waitrose and Majestic, is very much in the mould of the clean and simple style, made from Portugal’s native Loureiro and Arinto grapes.

Giro Sol 2007, £10.95 from Fortnum & Mason ( This is a revelation: made entirely from the native Loureiro grape this wine really sings, with aromas of stone fruit and crushed oyster shells and a combination of dryness but delicious, ripe fruit on the palate. The wine is the result of a joint venture between Dirk Niepoort, one of the Douro Valley’s most dynamic wine-makers, and Soalheiro, makers of the finest Vinho Verdes. I suspect this wine would cost considerably more if it had anything other than the name Vinho Verde on the label.

Reguengo de Melgaço Alvarinho 2006, £12.95 from South Downs Cellars of Hurstpierpoint (, is far removed in style from the basic model of Vinho Verde. Made from the Alvarinho grape – also known as Albariño outside Portugal - this is dry and mineral, but with a real sense of richness and depth on the palate. Great with seafood.

The Douro Valley
For centuries the Douro Valley in northern Portugal was synonymous with a single drink: port. This fortified, sweet red wine was arguably invented by, certainly most appreciated by, the British. According to the regulations governing port production, the amount of port that each producer can make is restricted – any grapes leftover after this maximum had been reached was traditionally made into a rough and ready red table wine. Nothing grand, it was destined for local, short term drinking and no great effort was put into its production.

However, as the market for port began to shrink in the latter part of last century, and stainless steel made temperature controlled fermentations possible, Douro’s growers realised they could have the makings of more decent table wines at their disposal. Now, Douro’s non-fortified red wines, made from the same mix of grapes as their half-brother (or sister?) port, are making waves in the wine world and attracting acclaim – and corresponding high prices.

The grape varieties may not be familiar – Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cao and Tinta Barocca to name just a few of the major ones – but the unique, aromatic and full-bodied wines that result are a welcome change from the ocean of same old same old Shirazes, Cabernets and Merlots.

Altano 2005, £5.49 from Waitrose provides a good grounding in the style, made by the Symington family who are synonymous with some of the most famous port houses. This is spicy, full-flavoured, savoury and very food friendly.

Waitrose’s own “In Partnership” Douro Reserva 2006, at £9.99, may not be cheap, but does give you great value for money. Made in conjunction with renowned Douro producer Quinta de la Rosa, it is a seriously classy glassful of polished, spicy and structured fruit – one to try at a dinner party for a claret fiend perhaps.

Other regions
Quinta de Bons Ventos Red 2007, £5.99 from Oddbins. From the Estremadura (literally meaning “extremely hard”) just north of Lisbon, this is an interesting mouthful reminiscent of bramble jelly, with no shortage of fruit, but good freshness too.

JM Fonseca Periquita 2005, £4.99 at Waitrose. This cheery little wine comes from the Terras do Sado region to the south of Lisbon. Periquita is not the name of the grape (nothing as straightforward as a single variety here) – it’s a mix of Castelão, Trincadeira and Aragonez (aka Tempranillo). If you can get past the hideous wild west saloon bar-style label, the wine inside is delightfully fruity, with some structure – a good all-rounder.

Your chance to taste for yourself – special 2 for 1 ticket offer for readers of this blog!

Lord’s Cricket Ground
6pm – 8pm
Nursery Pavilion, St Johns Wood, London, NW8 8QN

Rich, flavoursome reds and vibrant whites, unique grape varieties, and a host of interesting winemakers with hundreds of individual wines to choose from – if this sounds like heaven to you then come to Lords Cricket Ground on the 10th March for the Annual Tasting of Portuguese Wines (6pm – 8pm).

Tickets £15 (£7.50 OAP.students) available from: (search ‘wine’)
Phone See Tickets on 0871 220 0260

Readers can buy tickets on a special 2 for the price of 1 offer, by quoting the word PORTUGAL when you book by phone on the number above – this offer is not available online.

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