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.

Two Good Reads

Looking for a gift for a wine lover this year? Then 2 recently published books – one on the Wines of England and Wales, the other on the Wines of Portugal – may be the answer.
Both books start with the historical background to their wines, followed by a look at the key grape varieties grown and main regions of production and include a selection of producers to note. Both also highlight the major changes experienced in recent decades, not just to the styles of wines produced but also to the 2 wine industries themselves.
But despite these similarities, I suspect that the books will appeal to rather different audiences.
Oz Clarke’s “English Wine – From Still to Sparkling” (Pavilion Books, £16.99) relates his personal experiences visiting his favourite vineyards and winemakers throughout the country. An underlying theme of the book is the rise and rise in sparkling wine production in England and Wales this century and the reasons behind it. In short, England’s cool climate is ideally suited to making fizz and many of our vineyards are situated on the same seam of chalk that underlies the Champagne vineyards. So, with similar temperatures to Champagne and the same soil, it’s a no-brainer to plant the same grape varieties – mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and make the same kind of wine. And we’ve been very successful at it!
Clarke’s book is a much-needed update on the rapidly changing English and Welsh wine scene and is a most enjoyable and approachable read.
Richard Mayson’s “The Wines of Portugal” (Infinite Ideas, £30) is far more in-depth – I might say almost encyclopaedic. The writer has been immersed in Portuguese wine (not literally, I hope!) for his entire adult life and it is clear that he is writing about a country he loves – and has loved since his first visit as a 10 year old child.
Portugal’s wine transformation began when they joined the European Union in 1986 prompting them to introduce a proper quality hierarchy, mirrored on France’s Appellation Contrôlée system, across the whole industry. As a result, wines from the Douro, Dão, Bairrada, Vinho Verde and others, historically variable in quality, were all spurred on to improve and are now worth their place on every wine rack. Even the previously unexciting Alentejo in the south of the country is now regularly producing attractive, excellent value for money bottles.
For lovers of Portuguese wine or for anyone who wants to get to know the many delicious wines of that country better, this book is a must-buy.
Whichever you choose, I wish you happy reading (accompanied by an appropriate glass, of course!)

Dreams of Porto

My wife and I had planned to return to one of our favourite cities for a holiday this year. Oporto (or Porto as it is known to the locals and its friends) is a real treasure tumbling down the hillside, as you can see from the picture above taken across the spectacular River Douro. Hilary has even been studying Portuguese – a notoriously difficult language – so that we would be fully prepared. But the continuing impact of coronavirus has caused us to have a re-think; perhaps next year will be better.
But we can still dream and plan and, to help us, we opened a bottle of Casa de Mouraz red (Corks, £15.99) with our dinner recently.

The Mouraz estate is about a couple of hours drive south-east of Porto in the Dão DOC (DOC is the Portuguese equivalent of the French Appellation Controlée), where the wines are often made in a similar style to the Douro region. They also grow many of the same grape varieties, 9 of which, majoring on the high quality Touriga Nacional, go into the wine we enjoyed, and all are named on the eye-catching label.
The grapes for this wine come from a number of different vineyards across the DOC but, rather than planting each vineyard with a single variety as is the modern trend, here you find an assortment of grapes, known as a ‘Field Blend’ in each plot – a method that used to be much more common than it is today. Under this system, each vineyard is harvested as a whole and all the different grapes are fermented together and only at the final stage are the wines produced from each vineyard blended together to produce the product in the bottle.
The wine itself was quite full and mouth-filling with fresh red cherry fruit and a little dried fruit – raisin, sultana – on the finish. There was no sign of age, although our bottle was almost 6 years old from the 2014 harvest, just a delightful, soft and harmonious red that went very well with our lamb and sparked our interest for plans for the future.

Bringing Back Memories

The restrictions resulting from the current Coronavirus outbreak mean that everyone’s holiday and travel plans are on hold for the foreseeable future. But, a trip to our local fishmonger recently brought back happy memories of past visits to Portugal. For there, in his window, was some bacalhau (dried, salted cod). Often described as the national dish of Portugal with, apparently, 365 different ways of cooking it – one for every day of the year – it’s something we have always enjoyed on our visits there.

But we have never cooked it at home – until now. Mixed with ham, eggs, sweet potato and peppers – an authentic Portuguese recipe taken from a book brought back from one of our trips – it made a delicious meal and, of course, had to be paired with a wine from the country.

20200321_112227

Quinta de Gomariz’s Loureiro from the Vinho Verde region is an old favourite of ours (Grape and Grind or Clifton Cellars, £13.50) imported directly from Portugal by sailing boat – yes really! A delightfully clean and fresh white with lovely floral aromas and intense flavours of grapefruit. There’s an attractive savoury richness too that is surprising given that the wine is only 11.5% alcohol and excellent length. And, of course, an ideal partner with this style of food.

If these restrictions last for long, we may find ourselves bringing back memories of some of our other favourite holiday destinations without leaving home – so long as we can continue to find the local food and wine!

Tasting Skills Tested

20200131_210228What better way to mark the final evening of the UK’s membership of the European Union than a wine tasting evening organised by the Bristol-Oporto Twinning Association? The Association fosters links and arranges exchange visits between Bristol and Oporto, the Portuguese city from whom Bristol has bought goods, particularly port, for centuries.  And, for this meeting, we also welcomed representatives from two of Bristol’s other Twinning groups, Bordeaux and Hannover.

The event was hosted by Alan, the owner of Clifton Cellars, one of Bristol’s best independent wine merchants, who brought along a selection of wines with bottles and labels concealed and challenged the group to identify the grape or region, country of origin and price of each. ‘Blind’ tastings border on the impossible, even for wine professionals like me, so I approached the evening with some trepidation – fully justified, as it turned out, even with Alan’s helpful hints!

As we discovered when all was revealed, our test began with the smooth, creamy Talmard Macon Chardonnay with its lovely ripe fruit on the palate. By contrast, the 2nd white, a Rioja, Viña Real, showed a decidedly spicy, oaky character. These were followed by a trio of reds which, as Alan suggested, were even more tricky to identify. The first, Ca’ Vittoria Appassimento from Italy, was made from partially dried grapes in the style of an Amarone, but without that wine’s usual heaviness (or sky-high price!) Next, a Portuguese red – inevitable, I suppose, given that this was an Oporto Twinning Association meeting. Vina do Mouro had the fresh, blackcurrant aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon enhancing the flavours of a blend of Portugal’s native grapes.

All too soon we had reached the final wine – a nicely balanced and satisfying Merlot-dominated red Bordeaux, Château Trébiac from the Graves region. And then it was time to add up the scores which showed that 2 members of the group had achieved more than 70% correct. As Alan himself said, the winners’ bottle prizes could not have been more well deserved.

A delicious cheese and paté buffet ended the evening – a chance to chat with friends and to try some of the wines again – obvious, of course, when you can see the labels!

All wines are available from Clifton Cellars and are priced between £12 and £15.

A Portuguese Rosé

Congratulations if you looked at the title and still decided to read the blog!  Particularly if, like me, you were old enough to drink wine in the 1970s.  Because, in those far off days, the words ‘Portuguese’ and ‘Rosé’ meant just one thing: the most popular wine of the era, Mateus Rosé, sold in that familiar, dumpy shaped bottle that, when empty, made a perfect base for a table lamp.  At its peak, in 1978, it accounted for over 40% of Portugal’s wine exports and sold a cool 42 million bottles in just one year.  That’s a lot of table lamps!

Mateus Rosé is still around (and this year celebrates 75 years since it was first produced) but, as readers of this blog will, no doubt, know, it isn’t the only Portuguese rosé on the market.

With summer in mind, I picked up a bottle of Ciconia Rosé from Corks of Cotham recently (£8.99). 

Portuguese roseA blend of 3 grape varieties: touriga nacional, one of the main components in port and many high quality Portuguese reds, syrah (shiraz) and aragonez, one of the Portuguese names for Spain’s best red grape, Tempranillo.  These three together made a wine about as different from my memories of Mateus as it is possible to be: slightly off-dry and really refreshing with attractive strawberry fruit and a clean juicy finish.  Great for drinking on its own or, perhaps, even better, with fish in a tomato based sauce (Cod Portuguaise) or a bouillabaisse.

I’m happy to drink rosé at any time of year, although I think it works best with lighter, summery foods.  But the wine must be dry – or off-dry at most; for me, the sweeter rosés such as Mateus and some of the commercial White Zinfandels that are widely available are just too sweet for a main course yet not sweet enough for a pudding. 

But they sell, so someone loves them – just leave me with the Ciconia, the other Portuguese rosé.