Portugal Transformed

Vines have been grown in Portugal for at least 2500 years and wine has been made for much of that period.  But the quality (with a few exceptions – mainly the fortified ports) was ordinary at best.  And that remained true until well into the last century.  It took a political coup in 1974 and Portugal subsequently joining the European Union (EU) before things really began to change.

As one of the poorest nations in Europe, Portugal benefited greatly from EU funding.  Roads and electricity reached parts of the country for the first time and, in the wine industry, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks transformed the winemaking process.  In the vineyards, too, major reorganisation and replanting occurred setting everything in place for the Portuguese wines we see on the shelves today.

Regions such as the Douro, Dão and Bairrada are, perhaps, the obvious choices, particularly for red wines, but the Alentejo, a vast swathe in the south of the country, hides some real surprises – see my recommendation below.

Portugal’s equivalent of ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ is ‘Denominaçáo de Origem Controlada’ (DOC), but you will also see the term ‘Vinho Regional’ (VR) on labels, which equates to the French ‘Vin de Pays’ and is a category that contains many very drinkable wines from producers who prefer to work outside the DOC rules.

I opened one of these VRs recently – a delicious, fruity red, Vinha do Mouro (Corks, £14.99).  A blend of local variety Trincadeira, Aragonez (Spain’s Tempranillo) and Alicante Bouschet with a hint of Cabernet Sauvignon for added tannin and body.  The wine had lovely dusty red fruits on the nose with vibrant blackberries and sour cherries on the palate.   Despite the warmth of the Alentejo, this wine retains plenty of acidity and would pair extremely well with red meat in a tomato-based sauce.

One last word: most Portuguese reds benefit from an hour or so in a decanter if you’re to enjoy them at their best.

Wine for Wine Haters?

Wines made from the grape variety Pinot Grigio have got themselves a bit of a poor reputation in recent years.  I’ve even heard them described by someone in the wine trade as ‘the wines I’d recommend for someone who didn’t really like wine’!  Ouch!

In a way I can see why.  Pinot Grigio, like another member of the Pinot family, Pinot Noir, is fairly sensitive to how it is handled, particularly in the vineyard.  If you train and prune the vines to give you a heavy crop and so make large volumes of wine, they will oblige.  But, if you do this, the grapes you pick will have little flavour or character and the wine you produce from them will be simple, neutral and inoffensive.  Hence the comment reported above.

Sadly, this is true of much – if not most – of the Pinot Grigio you find in UK supermarkets and my advice to wine lovers would be to avoid the cheaper bottles (say £7 or less – yes, that’s relatively cheap, these days).   

But it would be a mistake to ignore Pinot Grigio altogether.  Growers who limit their yields produce less wine but the quality can be far better, even though, as a result, the price will be rather higher.  So, where should you look for good Pinot Grigio?  If you enjoy Italian wine, then consider the north-east of the country – I’d say examples from the Alto Adige region are probably a more reliable choice than those from the Veneto.

Alternatively, the same grape is found in northern France, in Alsace, only here the variety is known as Pinot Gris, rather than Pinot Grigio.  One to try from there is Paul Ginglinger’s Les Prelats (Wine Society, £13.50).  But, a word of caution: this is not one of those simple, neutral Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigios.  It’s rich, deliciously mouth-coating and full of lovely ripe pear and apple flavours.  A perfect match to something cooked in a rich, creamy sauce or a risotto, perhaps.

Wherever you look, the rule for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris is pay a little extra; you may be very pleasantly surprised.

Vines Love Gravel

Many of Bordeaux’s most sought-after wines are from vineyards planted on gravel-rich soils: the 1st Growth Châteaux Lafite, Latour and Margaux to name just 3.  But it’s not just in Bordeaux that gravel is highly regarded for vines.  A bottle I opened recently from New Zealand boasted of its origins in the Gimblett Gravels.  So, what is the link between this type of soil and high quality wine?

Gravel is a good base for a vineyard for a number of reasons.  It’s usually low in fertility which means that the vines have to struggle to extract the moisture and nutrients they need for growth.  This struggle puts the vine into survival mode, so it produces more grapes which contain the pips which are the vine’s way to propagate itself.

Also, gravel is porous so, in wetter areas, rainfall can drain through meaning that the vines’ roots aren’t sitting in water where they may rot.  But vines still need some water so they extend their roots to find it and, at the same time, pick up extra nutrients which are often linked to more flavoursome grapes.

Finally, in cooler areas, gravel acts like tiny storage heaters, soaking up the heat of the sun during the day then releasing it as the sun goes down in the evening allowing the ripening process to extend over a couple more hours.

This is particularly important in both Bordeaux and New Zealand’s Gimblett Gravels – both are relatively cool areas where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown.  Cabernet is quite a late-ripening variety and needs all the warmth it can get, so the little extra from the gravelly soil may just make the difference allowing the harvesting of fully ripe berries giving a wine that’s rich and appealing.

This was clearly the case with Saint Clair’s Pioneer Block Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £17.99); full of lovely damson and black plum flavours and hints of smoky oak – a delicious wine, although some may want to leave the 2019 vintage for a year or 2 as the bottle I opened was still a little firm and tannic.

I have to finish on a sad note with the news of the death this week of Steven Spurrier after a career in the wine industry spanning more than 50 years. He was best known as a wine writer and educator, but he was also the person who, almost single-handedly, brought Californian wines to attention of the wider world. For anyone who doesn’t know the amazing story, google ‘The Judgement of Paris’.

Wine with Altitude

Every wine book will tell you that, if you want to grow grapes successfully to produce wine, your vineyards should lie between latitudes 30° and 50° north of the equator or the same south of the equator.  And, looking at the major wine making regions of the world, that is broadly true.  At lower latitudes than 30°, it’s likely to be too dry for vines to survive while, further from the equator than 50°, you’re rarely going to get enough warmth or sun to ripen your grapes properly. 

Taking this a stage further, the style of wine you can expect will vary enormously depending how close to the 30° or 50° line you are: big, chunky, ripe alcoholic wines come, in general, from the lower, warmer latitudes while something crisper, fresher and more aromatic is typical of wines grown closer to 50°.

But a bottle I opened recently didn’t fit these last 2 rules at all.  Tabali’s Barranco Viognier (Wine Society, £14.95) comes from Chile’s Limarí Valley, which sits almost exactly on the warm 30°S line, yet this wine was delightfully fresh and clean with attractive flavours of ripe pear, red apple and a little fragrant peachiness. And, although 13.5% alcohol, this was in no way heavy or chunky, just nicely mouth-coating.

So how have Tabali achieved characteristics typical of much cooler climates at such a latitude?  The answer is altitude; the Río Hurtado vineyard, from where the grapes for this wine come, lies at 1600 metres above sea level (almost 5000 feet) in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.  At that height, despite benefitting from 300 days of sunshine a year, the temperatures are far cooler than they would be closer to sea level and, as a result, the grapes ripen more slowly and retain that vital streak of acidity that make this wine so refreshing and drinkable.  One maybe to enjoy on its own but, even better, to accompany either fish or poultry in a creamy sauce or, perhaps, a pasta carbonara.