When I looked through my archives I was surprised to find that the WING group had not had a dedicated tasting on the precise subject of Portuguese Wines for over 8 years! Of course, Portuguese wines have featured every now and then and we have focused on Port specifically (most recently in April 2015 – see posts of 2nd and 5th April 2015, below:). However it’s quite a while without a general look at the 10th= biggest wine producing country…
Portugal is a bit of an enigma, which isn’t surprising as most of the country was more-or-less feudal under the Salazar dictatorship that was only overthrown in 1974! Many very old indigenous styles and grapes persist – for good or ill – but the sudden growth, “European-isation”, and influx of investment has opened Portugal to development similar to that in a new world country. So it is with wine: Port is complemented by famous and sometimes great wines from Douro, Bairrada, Dao, Setebul… and they are being supplemented by new world wine-making in Lisboa, Ribatejo and Alentejo. Sometimes this is sensitive development of indigenous grapes, sometimes a new world formula and sometimes a bit of both.
In addition Portugal seems to suffer more severely from a trend that to some extent besets all wine imported in the UK – we tend to get the cheap rubbish and the very top wines, but most of the interesting, good value, upper-middle-budget stuff… they keep at home… wise people. I have tried to use the upcoming Portugal tasting, in part, to look at this price/quality level.
Portugal nearly doubled production towards the end of the last century, overtaking Greece, Hungary and Romania. It produces about 2½% – 3% of the world’s wine, vying with Germany and Russia for 10th, 11th and 12th places in the wine-production league [different years see these countries in different orders, but they are all a way behind Chile in 9th and all produce double the output of Romania in 13th]. Port accounts for about 15% of the vines, and table wine is about 70% red.
Although the real jewel in Portugal’s crown is Port, given that we have tasted these wines relatively recently we’ll concentrate on other wines in this tasting.
Historically I picture the Portugal Wine Regions a bit like the map here – The 8 regions mentioned above together with the great Island of Madeira, plus another offshore area – Açores (Azores); plus Trasosmontes; Tavora Varosa; Beira Interior and Algarve:
Rough mental image of Portuguese Wine?
Vinho Verde is a wine area as well as the name of its most notorious product: the sharp, light, slightly spritzy white. Sometimes, and lately often called Minho, the area also grows the Alvarinho grape, famous as Alboriño just over the border in Galicia, with some success.
The Douro (Port) area, where big reds from the Port grape varieties are used. These especially feature Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Cão and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) for table wines. As you might imagine from the Port connection, these are often tannic wines with the characteristic rich earthy note found in so much Portuguese wine. Often one can detect port-ish nuances too. Whites from higher altitudes are making an appearance too.
Dao: 40-80 kms to the South, with a similar, but slightly lighter style. Touriga Nacional is the best grape and Dao wines must include at least 20%. The pliant, sweet fruit and herby qualities of the Jaen grape (called Mencia in Galicia), and Pinot-ish character of Alfrocheiro soften the wines.
To the east of all this is the little seen Beira region.
Bairrada lying to the west, Atlantic, side of Dao. The area uses the Baga grape, which reminds me – at least – of Sangiovese. Unusually for Portugal, this grape is often vinified on its own, or with some Touriga Nacional. Pure examples show the sour cherry and fruitcake spectrum one is used to in Chianti, but again with that typical earthy twist.
Lisboa, (Riba)tejo and Setebul are near the City of Lisbon – lying to the North, East and South respectively. Sub divided into smaller regions these areas produce more light gluggable styles and more white wine than the other areas (where red is usually over 70%).
Alentejo: a large area centred about 100km South East of Lisbon, extending East to the Spanish border. This is a hot, modern wine area often basing red wines on Aragonez (another synonym for Tempranillo), Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira. This area behaves a bit like a new World area – with a hot climate and modern methods. Although Cabernet, Chardonnay and especially Syrah are creeping in, the old grapes – mercifully – are still in the majority.
More recently some of the areas have been slightly renamed and re-organised – here’s a more up-to-date and detailed map – showing sub-regions, wine types and/or main grapes for each region!
Portuguese wine is dominated by indigenous grape varieties – someone actually counted 248 in production a few years ago. There is also quite a lot of regional specificity – grapes predominantly found only in one or two regions. There is no big national grape variety: Castelão is the most widely planted variety with 7½ % of vineyard area. Unless you count Tempranillo (known as Tinta Roriz in the North and Aragones in the South), which is equal* second most widely planted at 7%, the most common International variety is Cabernet Sauvignon (with about 1% of vines). There are so many grapes used and so much blending that perhaps place, Regionality, is more important than grapes.
*Fernão Pires a high-yielding aromatic white, has roughly equal vineyard area, but probably more wine
The proportions of production by each region in 2015 are shown in the graph below. DOC wine is the highest category (like AC in France). In this graph Port is included in the Douro figures…
This graph tells us a lot – firstly the four areas at the top of the chart do not contribute significantly to total production or (especially) in DOC production (<3%) . Even if you include the generally prolific regions of Lisboa and Tejo plus Beira the DOC figure only goes up to about 7%. However the high figures of IGP production in Lisboa and Alentejo show an interesting change in production – the growth of newer styles and untypical grapes that haven’t yet set quality standards – especially in Alentejo.
For this tasting we will skip Port as I’ve said, and I’ve tried to track down bottles at that rare – in the UK – upper-middle price/quality level. So we’ll sample: Madeira; a classy wine from Minho; a (rare in UK) high quality Bairrada; a Duoro and take a look at quality and modernity in Alentejo wines…
Notes will appear in 4 or 5 days.