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Under-Known Portugal

Posted on  | October 22, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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Beyond the tongue-twisting grapes are a range of ready-to-please regional wines.


Exploration of Portuguese wine, too often, begins and ends in the north of this westernmost corner of the Iberian Peninsula—fizzy, fun, low-alcohol Vinho Verde available in inexpensive abundance; Port, the collectible crown jewel; and, increasingly, some very fine reds, mostly blends of the country’s flagship Touriga Nacional and the more tannic Touriga Franca or other indigeneous varietals cultivated up the steep terraces of the legendary Douro.

In fact, though, a few thousand years ago the Romans swept through and left winemaking traditions that still flourish throughout this productive land, with its long wrap-around coastline and growing conditions that range from maritime to mountains, daily rainfall to steady arid heat.

The country has 31 DOCs (or 29 counting shared footprints, such as Porto and Douro, only once). There are 14 regional wine areas (IGPs) which are less strictly regulated than DOCs, especially for grapes used in blends. And over 250 indigenous grapes thrive here—some with amusing names such as Esgana Cão (dog strangler), Amor-não-me-deixes (love me, don’t leave me), Carrega Burros (donkey loader). Especially prolific varieties have taken on two names, like the lively expressive white grape Arinto (Pedernã) and Trincadeira (Tinta Amarela), a widely planted peppery red.

Unfortunately for exporters, the bulk of Portuguese wines show up at the big dance that is America sporting name tags that are difficult to pronounce. 

Among the very few single varieties identified with a particular region, Baga from Bairrada stands out, including Quinta da Donã from Aliança, an elegant oak-aged, flavor-concentrated example. Some producers in regions all over choose to vinify single international varietals—from Chardonnay to Syrah.

But, increasingly, the industry trend has moved toward combining custom with modern techniques. Venerable houses are converting to organic (or biodynamic) vineyard practices. Small growers, once cooperative members, create their own labels. Viticultural pursuits overlap with other agriculture, such as olive oil, cork production, and with wine tourism. And, above all, wine producers are putting the focus back on what worked best for centuries—making wines from local grapes, singly and in blends where they shine. (Blends themselves come in great assortment—from the simplicity of 50-50 to venerable field blends of several dozen up to over 200, give or take, different grapes.)

Lost in Translation?

How does all this translate in the U.S. marketplace? Pedro Lopes Viera, North America Sales Manager for Esporão, the large Alentejo producer, says, “Grapes people don’t know is absolutely a stumbling block. I have a phonetic sheet for grapes, regions, brands that travels with me. I share it with distributors, retailers and sometimes at wine dinners. We do try to make people understand that we make blends.”

Twenty years after introducing Esporão wines in the US—including the popular and popularly priced Monte Velho label (Antão Vaz, Roupeiro and Perrum are in the white blend; Aragonês, Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional and Syrah in the red)—he has entered the market in 40 states, including Texas, the fastest-growing. “These are wines people have never had in their life,” he notes. 

But once past the tongue-tripping Aragonez, Alicante Bouchet, Trincadeira, Cabernet Sauvignon of the Esporão Reserva DOC or Aragonez, Alicante Bouchet, Touriga Nacional, Cabernet and Syrah of the Vila Santa Reserva, from Joao Portugal Ramos, another Alentejo producer, the wines appeal for value in both price and food-partnering. Colin Rudy, Portfolio Manager for Virtuoso Selections in Austin, TX, sees value-oriented Millennials particularly driving “explosive Portuguese growth” among large retailers; he tries to make the introduction to consumers by region and then by style.


Doreen Winkler, Wine Director at Lupulo and Michelin-starred Aldea, New York City restaurants owned by Portuguese-American chef George Mendes, uses a similar approach. “Diners are looking at regions when making choices,” she says. Her lists give full disclosure: Quinta de Serradinha, Baga, Castelão, Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheira, Lisboa, Portugal is a mouthful and so is the wine, at $10/glass, with the acid to tone down fiery piri-piri sauce on wood-fire grilled chicken. She has trained servers to delve deep. “In the beginning they would ask me [to relate the wines to more familiar grapes],” she says. “I wanted them to embrace the blend. Now we do workshops with food, how to break down [each component]—the flavors and especially the textures. And I try to help everybody with pronounciations.”

Wines of Place (& Style)

It’ s variation in regional terroir, of course, that largely determines characteristics, including texture, acid and flavors. Tejo, which produces 8% of Portugal’s wine, is defined by its river namesake. Heating-loving grapes—the aromatic Fernão Pires, Arinto, Verdelho, Alvarinho among whites and Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Castelão, Aragonês among reds—do well in the poor but complex sandy-clay soils and lengthy growing season that nurtures high-acidity and tannins. Quinta de Alorna, an estate dating back to 1723, makes a proprietary reserve white blend, Marquesa de Alorna, laced with oak and stainless steel fermentation, flavor notes from tropical fruit to parsnips and a long finish. Quinta do Alqueve and Caves Velhas produce more traditional full-bodied white blends of Fernão Pires and Arinto; both, especially the former with 70% Fernão Pires, have the boldness, acid backbone and versatility to be summertime grilled red meat matches. And among red blends, Quinta do Casal Branco, where a Roman legacy, foot-treading grapes in lagares is still practiced, combines Castelão, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alicante Bouchet and Touriga Nacional into a DOC. Only about 20 of the 80 producers in the Tejo region have entered the US market. So far.

The river Tejo (Tagus) widens as it flows toward Lisbon on the coast, brushing past a few of the nine DOCs within the region of Lisboa. Formerly called Estremadura, Lisboa includes vineyards only 15 miles or so from the city, and then fans out, mostly toward the north, along the coast and into the hills. It encompasses large estates, such as Casa Santos Lima which has nearly 300 hectares and a one-million bottle output, including Lab, a blend of Portuguese red grapes and Syrah, with its catchy labrador retriever silhouette label and affordable price point.

And then smaller producers, such as Quinta da Murta, Quinta do Monte d’Oiro and Quinta de Chocapalha. Quinta da Murta, in the Bucelas DOC, produces lots of whites, roses and sparklers from indigenous varietals. José Bento dos Santo at Quinta do Monte d’Oiro has created notable reds—mixing and matching local and international varietals, mindful of food-pairing potential—now appearing on top lists, including Four Seasons Hotels.

Arinto, aromatic, creamy textured and acidic, may be the longest lived Bucelas signature grape, with exports going back centuries. Today’s winemakers style it personally. Monte d’Oiro’s Lybra combines it with Viognier, stripping away much of that grape’s usual tutti-fruitti character, leaving bright citrus, good acid and a wine that defies stereotyping. Sandra Tavares da Silva, winemaker at her family’s Quinta de Chocapalha, vinifies Arinto on its own. Left on the lees for six months, the zippy full-tropical flavored wine could be answer to, say, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (and at about half the price). Techniques, style choices and philosophy here, as elsewhere, take Portugal’s industry forward, bringing its multi-textured heritage into the 21st century.


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